Tag: Baltasar Gracián

Criticism, like lightning, strikes the highest peaks

🙏 Blogging as a forgiving medium — “The ability to “move it around for a long time” is what I’m looking for in a writing medium — I want words and images to be movable, I want to switch them out, copy and cut and paste them, let them mutate. “

I love the few minutes after I press publish on a post, which feels like a race against time between me and the first readers of it. Who will spot the typos and grammatical errors first?


📝 Open working blog and weeknotes templates — “We wrote a guide on how to write weeknotes for Catalyst projects. It is based on Sam Villis’ guide and the templates here are based on Sam’s guide too.”

This is useful, especially if you’re not blogging yet (or haven’t for a while!)


How to be more productive without forcing yourself — “Basically, if you’re addicted to any of the high-dopamine, low-effort activity, please quit it. At least temporarily so you can reestablish a healthy relationship to work. The more experienced we’re about the topic, the more obvious this is. There is no other way than to temporarily quit the addiction.”

I like the practical advice in this article. Too many people do stuff that’s too low-value, thus squandering their talent and ability to take on more important stuff.


🤔 Objective or Biased — “This type of analysis software is not widely used in recruiting in Germany and Europe right now. However, large companies are definitely interested in the technology, as we learn during off-the-record conversations. What seems to be attractive: A shorter application process which can save a lot of resources and money.”

This is kind of laughable and serious at the same time. I’ve felt the pain of hiring but, as this research shows, automating the hard parts doesn’t lead to awesome results.


📱 Contact-tracing apps were the biggest tech failure of the COVID-19 pandemic — “The system itself, on a technical level, is the root of the problem. In an effort to provide something that could be used universally, while also protecting users’ privacy, Google and Apple came up with a system that was doomed to be useless.”

My concern here is that the fault for the failure will be placed at the door of privacy activists.


Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Images by Vera Shimunia, Russian textile artist via #WOMENSART

Most don’t talk or act according to who they are, but as they are obliged to

NASA image of stars

The World’s Oldest Story? Astronomers Say Global Myths About ‘Seven Sisters’ Stars May Reach Back 100,000 Years — “Why are the Australian Aboriginal stories so similar to the Greek ones? Anthropologists used to think Europeans might have brought the Greek story to Australia, where it was adapted by Aboriginal people for their own purposes. But the Aboriginal stories seem to be much, much older than European contact. And there was little contact between most Australian Aboriginal cultures and the rest of the world for at least 50,000 years. So why do they share the same stories?”

🚶‍♂️ The joy of steps: 20 ways to give purpose to your daily walk — “We need to gallivant around outside in daylight so that our circadian rhythms can regulate sleep and alertness. (Yes, even when the sky is resolutely leaden, it is still technically daylight.) Walking warms you up, too; when you get back indoors, it will feel positively tropical.”

🔐 How Law Enforcement Gets Around Your Smartphone’s Encryption — “Cryptographers at Johns Hopkins University used publicly available documentation from Apple and Google as well as their own analysis to assess the robustness of Android and iOS encryption. They also studied more than a decade’s worth of reports about which of these mobile security features law enforcement and criminals have previously bypassed, or can currently, using special hacking tools.”

🚫 Misinformation dropped dramatically the week after Twitter banned Trump and some allies — “The findings, from Jan. 9 through Friday, highlight how falsehoods flow across social media sites — reinforcing and amplifying each other — and offer an early indication of how concerted actions against misinformation can make a difference.”

😲 The Ethics of Emotion in AI Systems (Research Summary) — “There will always be a gap between the emotions modelled and the experience of EAI systems. Addressing this gap also implies recognizing the implicit norms and values integrated into these systems in ways that cannot always be foreseen by the original designers. With EAI, it is not just a matter of deciding between the right emotional models and proxy variables, but what the responses collected signify in terms of human beings’ inner feelings, judgments, and future actions.”


Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.

The problem is that the person who should be the most restrained is the least

Turtle poking its head out of water covered with duckweed

🦆 Bionic Duckweed: making the future the enemy of the present — “In its broader sense, bionic duckweed can be thought of a sort of unobtainium that renders investment in present-day technologies pointless, unimaginative, and worst of all On The Wrong Side Of History. “Don’t invest in what can be done today, because once bionic duckweed is invented it’ll all be obsolete.” It is a sort of promissory note in reverse, forcing us into inaction today in the hope of wonders tomorrow.”

🤔 The best tech of CES 2020: Where are they now? — “What looked like it was just a one-off at the largest tech tradeshow in the world, but actually turned out to be a real product? What got a lot of buzz and then dropped off our radars, only to resurface months later? And, of course, what was simply too good to be true?”

💬 If it will matter after today, stop talking about it in a chat room — “Rule of thumb: If a discussion will matter after today, don’t have it in a chat room. Check out Discourse, Twist, Carrot, Threads, Basecamp, Flarum, or heck even GitHub issues. These tools exist for a reason. They solve a real problem.”

🔥 Sauron Has the Power of the One Ring for Another Week, What’s the Worst that Could Happen? — “Upon further reflection, we are not entirely sure the orcs and trolls who participated in this demonstration were indeed sent by Sauron. Yes, the Mouth of Sauron encouraged the pro-Evil horde into a “trial by combat.” Yes, the crowd was painted with Sauron’s Red Eye and chanted his name. But anyone can mix paint and yell. We have it on good rumor that there were hobbits mixed into the gathering and inciting violence. Granted, we started these rumors, but oftentimes rumors are true.”

Working Off-Grid Efficiently — “For the first 3 years we tested the limits of our space, and at first, it was difficult to create new things, as we had to make time to learn how to solve the underlying problems. Our boat was not just an office, it was also our house and transport. As for us, we were artists, but also had to be plumbers, deckhands, electricians, captains, janitors and accountants.”


Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.

You should aim to be independent of any one vote, of any one fashion, of any one century

Happy New Year!

Vintage photograph of an old man building a model ship with a young boy

⚒️ That which is unique, breaks — “The more finished goods become commodities, the fewer opportunities an individual has to generate new creation. The ability to mass-produce removes the opportunity for the great many to learn to produce at all. From such a thought, a future full of consumption-only hobbies might come as no surprise.”

🚔 New Orleans City Council bans facial recognition, predictive policing and other surveillance tech — “The ordinance as passed puts outright bans on four pieces of technology — facial recognition, characteristic recognition and tracking software, predictive policing and cell-site simulators. A ban on license plate readers in the original ordinance was ultimately scrapped.”

🎭 The ‘Batman Effect’: How having an alter ego empowers you — “Self-distancing seems to enable people to reap these positive effects by leading them to focus on the bigger picture – it’s possible to see events as part of a broader plan rather than getting bogged down in immediate feelings. And this has led some researchers to wonder whether it could also improve elements of self-control like determination, by making sure that we keep focused on our goals even in the face of distraction.”

🦇 New lessons for stealth technology — “Optical metamaterials that refract and scatter light in adaptive ways are already familiar in the living world, for example in the photonic crystals found on strongly coloured, microstructured insect cuticles or butterfly wings. Now it appears that acoustic stealth technology too was discovered first by natural selection. Neil et al. report evidence that the intricate array of scales on some moth wings acts as an acoustic metamaterial to reduce echoes from ultrasound6. This, they say, is probably an adaptive property that reduces the visibility of moths to the sonar searches of their predators, bats.

🥱 Misinformation fatigue sets in — “It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.”


Quotation-as-title from Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.

An ounce of good sense is worth a pound of subtlety

Icelandic women's football team

🎨 The Opposite Of ‘Crappy Design’

🙄 In Convenience We Trust

😳 How Work Became an Inescapable Hellhole

🤯 The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite

👍 Non-Boring Zoom Breakout Groups


Quotation-as-title from Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.

There are many non-essential activities, moths of precious time, and it’s worse to take an interest in irrelevant things than do nothing at all

I confess to not yet having read Elizabeth Emens’ book The Art of Life Admin but it’s definitely on my list to read this year. A recent BBC Worklife article cites the book and the concept of ‘attention residue’. This is defined as multiple tasks and obligations which split our attention and reduce our overall performance.

“If you have attention residue, you are basically operating with part of your cognitive resources being busy, and that can have a wide range of impacts – you might not be as efficient in your work, you might not be as good a listener, you may get overwhelmed more easily, you might make errors, or struggle with decisions and your ability to process information.”

Sophie Leroy (associate professor of management at the University of Washington)

Attention residue makes us procrastinate at work, and affects our sleep. And sleep, as I explained in my (unfinished) audiobook #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2) is one of the three pillars of productivity.

The other two, if you’re wondering, are exercise and nutrition. (While I know very talented people who don’t exercise nor look after their bodies, I don’t know any very productive people who aren’t careful about keeping active and what they put into their bodies.)

Back to attention residue, and as the author of the BBC article points out, getting rid of life admin and the associated attention residue means you can enjoy life a little more, guilt-free:

In my case, the GYLIO experiment proved that self-care is less about carving out time to relax amid chaos, and more about removing to-dos from our crowded lives. With some life admin cleared away, I had a bubble bath and enjoyed the smug delight of a life – momentarily – in order.

Madeleine Dore

For me, sleep is extremely important As I learned when our children were very small, I really can’t function properly if I have less than seven hours’ sleep for two nights in a row.

As a result, I tend to go to bed early, usually before my wife, and definitely having ensured that I’ve avoided screens after 21:00. I’m definitely in bed by 22:00 and then read until about 22:30.

That means, as has been happening recently, if I am disturbed around 05:30, I can get up and carve out some quiet time to myself before the family awakens. Usually, though, I sleep until around 06:30 which means that, according to my smartband, I’m well-rested.


While we’re on the subject of sleep and sleepiness, if you drink coffee first thing in the morning, you might want to rethink that approach:

Source: CNBC

I stopped drinking coffee about a year and a half ago, and instead drink around three cups of tea over the course of the day. Otherwise, I’ve found, it’s very easy to use caffeine as an accelerator pedal and alcohol as a brakepedal.


Without productive routines it’s easy to become overwhelmed. In an article I shared in last Friday’s link roundup about communicating better at work, Michael Natkin, suggests that feeling overwhelmed is a common situation:

We’ve all been there. You’ve got so much on your plate that you don’t know where to start. Things that look like they will take fifteen minutes balloon into five-day poop-storms. Every item you cross off your list seems to spawn three more. The check engine light just went on in your car. And now your boss is chasing you down for an unexpected fire drill. 

Michael Natkin

The temptation, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, is to try and hide, to let no-one know that you’re not coping. But that’s a really dangerous approach, and the exact opposite of what you should do.

Instead, Natkin suggests an approach of ‘over-communicating’ which, he says, engages empathy and invites trust:

  1. Make a (prioritised) list
  2. Write an email to your line manager (and anyone else you should inform) giving realistic estimates of when your projects will be complete.
  3. Agree on a plan, and keep everyone updated

You should ask for feedback on your proposed course of action, he says, rather than giving it as a fait accompli.

I think this is a great strategy. What we all need to realise is that, usually, we were chosen for the position we’re in, and therefore we should use that to fuel our confidence and self-esteem. Communicating a plan is always better than hiding.


Finally, a word about admin. Some people absolutely love spreadsheets, get a little thrill when they reconcile transactions, and don’t mind filling in forms. If, like me, that sounds like the exact opposite of the things I enjoy doing, then you need some admin support.

You can pay for it, you can ask your employer to provide it, or you can call in favours. Either way, without it, you’re going to eventually drown in life admin at home and work admin at the office.

My only bit of advice would be to really set your stall out for this. Don’t whine or complain about your workload; instead, explain the situation and the impact of admin on your productivity. Put it in financial terms, if necessary.


What are your tips around “attention residue” and what to do when feeling overwhelmed?


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Image by Max Kleinen. Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián

Life doesn’t depend on any one opinion, any one custom, or any one century

Baltasar Gracián was a 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who put together a book of aphorisms usually translated The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence or simply The Art of Worldly Wisdom. It’s one of a few books that have had a very large effect on my life. Today’s quotation-as-title comes from him.

The historian in me wonders about why we seem to live in such crazy times. My simple answer is ‘the internet’, but I want to dig into a bit using an essay from Scott Alexander:

[T]oday we have an almost unprecedented situation.

We have a lot of people… boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.

This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuously promote and defend their outgroups, the outer the better.

What is going on here?

Scott Alexander

It’s long, and towards the end, Alexander realises that he’s perhaps guilty of the very thing he’s pointing out. Nevertheless, his definition of an ‘outgroup’ is useful:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

Scott Alexander

Over the last three years in the UK, we’ve done a spectacular job of adding a hatred of the opposing side in the Brexit debate to our national underlying sense of xenophobia . What’s necessary next is to bring everyone together and, whether we end up leaving the EU or not, forging a new narrative.

As Bryan Caplan points out, such efforts at cohesion need to be approached obliquely. He uses the example of American politics, but it applies equally elsewhere, including the UK:

Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B. While you plainly belong to Group A, you’re convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB. You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team.

What’s the best way to bring this cohesion about? Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion. But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive. When members of Group B hear you, they’re going to take “cohesion” as a euphemism for “abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A.” None too enticing. And when members of Group A notice Group B’s recalcitrance, they’re probably going to think, “We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces. Typical.” Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.

Bryan Caplan

So, what can we do? Caplan suggests that members of one side should go out of their way to be overwhelmingly positive and friendly to the other side:

The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team. Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship. End of story.

Bryan Caplan

It reminds me of the Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” which must have melted the brains of those listening to Jesus who were used to the Old Testament approach:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV)

Over the last 20 years, as the internet has played an ever-increasing role in our daily lives, we’ve seen a real ramping-up of the feminist movement, gay marriage becoming the norm in civilised western democracies, and movements like #BlackLivesMatter reminding us of just how racist our societies are.

In addition, despite the term being coined as long ago as 1989, we’ve seen a rise in awareness around intersectionality. It’s not exactly a radical notion to say that us being more connected leads to more awareness of ‘outgroups’. What is interesting is the way that we choose to deal with that.

Let’s have a quick look at the demographics from the Brexit vote three years ago:

Brexit demographics from The Guardian
Brexit demographics from The Guardian

Remain voters were, on the whole, younger, better educated, and more well-off than Leave voters. They were also slightly more likely to be born outside the UK. I haven’t done the research, but I just have a feeling that the generational differences here are to do with relative exposure to outgroups.

What’s more interesting than the result of the referendum itself, of course, is the reaction since then, with both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ digging in to their entrenched positions. Now we’ve created new outgroups, we can join together in welcoming in the old outgroups. Hence LGBT+ pride rainbows in shops and everywhere else.

As I explained five years ago, one of the problems is that we’re not collectively aware enough of the role money plays in our democratic processes and information landscapes:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.

Doug Belshaw

Sadly, in the west we invested in Computing to the detriment of critical digital literacies at exactly the wrong moment. That investment should have come on top of a real push to help everyone in society realise the importance of questioning and reflecting on their information environment.

Much as some people might like to, we can’t put the internet back in a box. It’s connected us all, for better and for worse, in ways that only a few would have foreseen. It’s changing the way we interact with one another, the way we buy things, and the way we think about education, work, and human flourishing.

All these connections might mean that style of representative democracy we’re currently used to might need tweaking. As Jamie Bartlett points out in The People vs Tech, “these are spiritual as well as technical questions”.


Also check out:

  • There is nothing more depressing than “positive news” (The Outline) — “The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.”
  • Space for More Spaces (CogDogBlog) — “I still hold on to the idea that those old archaic, pre-social media constructs, a personal blog, is the main place, the home, to operate from.”
  • Clay Shirky on Mega-Universities and Scale (Phil on EdTech) — “What the mega-university story gets right is that online education is transforming higher education. What it gets wrong is the belief that transformation must end with consolidation around a few large-scale institutions”
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