Thought Provoking but Obscure Articles from 2017

So little time, so many good articles, so many great books, so much fake and misleading “news” … (sigh)

Here, in no particular order, are the pieces that helped make my reading year most enjoyable, informative, and often challenging.

Ground Zero

Speaking of reading, this article from the Quartzy daily newsletter (itself a valuable free reading source – subscribe!), The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life is worth the time. Historically, information was shared through oral tradition. Even with the development of writing, an oral tradition was important because so few could read but one was still at the mercy of the speaking reader as late as the 1700s. Silent reading, however, “… emboldened the reader because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under personal control.” And with that we discovered: I read; I do; I become …

From another short and affirming article, You Are What You Read (Quartz),

“Language is our primary tool of communication. It’s how we build and organize our knowledge, and it’s what allows us to interact with each other. Outside of direct experience, it’s also largely how we create our perception of reality. The information your senses absorb through your surroundings combine to create linguistic (and subconscious) models in your mind about how the world works and the best way to interact with it.”

From building and organizing our knowledge to creating our worldview (both expanded here), reading is essential. While not necessary for maintaining a limited ‘worldview’ or live-in bubble (we can get that from the “news” or social media), it is essential for stretching our ‘worldview’ to touch other “bubbles” that exist (more below).

Lest we forget, language is a living entity. It is constantly evolving; new words appear, new definitions and uses arise for existing words, and, alas and alack, words die. Twenty-six words we don’t want to lose (bbc.com) is more plea than eulogy. I hope you ‘popple’ while reading this before having to ‘scurryfunge’ with your ‘ambilavousness’ before your boss peaks over your shoulder, unless of course you are ‘frowsting.’

Singularly Unique

The 2017 Jealousy List” (BloombergBusinessweek, December 2017). This is the selection of favorite articles by other journalists that the Bloomberg staff wished they had written. A wide variety of stuff here, all well written, including the reasons why Bloomberg writers were jealous someone else had written them.

For the sheer fun of it, the following:

A Long-Sought Proof, Found and Almost Lost (Quanta). Ok, I know most readers might skip this one, but I thought the article itself (not just the math concept) worthwhile as a proof of another little recognized reality (the basis for this blog): that knowledge and understanding in one area can be transferred into other areas to great, surprising and unexpected benefit. I identify with the discoverer, as he too was old, retired, and just putzing around. Go ahead, it’s illustrated.

The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick (Guardian). Yes, there are some of them out there, or so they say. To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met the healthy, and it is us.” In reality, despite a rapidly growing health supplement market, our health depends upon our immune system with a bit of environment thrown in (the innate along with the acquired, once again). Happiness and lack of stress are very beneficial. Lots of pills, not so much. Lifestyle plays an important role in the functioning of our immune systems. Suggestions included.

In case you missed it, Albert Einstein’s “happiness” note was sold. What could be better than “happiness” guidelines from the world’s most renowned physicist? He wrote them on a hotel napkin in 1922, and the napkin was sold this year at auction for $1.56M. What is even more surprising is the simple lifestyle instruction he wrote, which you can read here. Money can’t buy happiness?? Hopefully the purchaser wasn’t that desperate.

For sheer perspective, the following:

Capitalists Need the Nation-State More Than It Needs Them (aeon). An informed look at how any rampant and polarizing Either/Or thinking obscures the positive effects of globalization by falling into the trap of ignoring important perspectives by actively avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion.

21 Ways Dumb Leaders Drain Everyone’s Energy (Leadershipfreak). Research reports that about 80% of people do not like or actually hate their work, and that the number one reason for people to quit their jobs is, not surprisingly, their boss. So, if you are one of the 80%, read this to see how many of these align with your experience. If you are a boss, read it again. In either case, this short video will help understand a simple way (at about 2:30) to overcome negative behaviors.

Today’s biggest threat to democracy isn’t fake news – it’s selective facts (Quartz). One of our human failings is that we most often don’t know what we don’t know and we won’t admit it (that’s Fundamental Principle 7c). This, coupled with the loads of missing important information (Fundamental Principle 6) that we need to make good decisions, can lead us to recognize but choose to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion and ultimately arrive at bad decisions.

That description just describes everyday life with naturally or passively missing information, which, if we’re aware and attentive, we can choose to make the effort to find.

What happens when someone actively ignores available information and uses selective but incomplete facts to promote a particular agenda or worldview? Sam Zell, former CEO of Tribune, was blunt but real when he told his journalists, “You need to help me by being a journalist that focuses on what readers want and therefore generates more revenue.” With actively selected facts, the target audience will take hold of it due to their Confirmation Bias, be completely oblivious of the selectivity, blow right by the Repugnant Conclusion, and become more strongly polarized. Rather than crowdsourcing news, perhaps we should call this crowdsucking the news.

But the unintended consequences demand we take the higher, more difficult path: to intentionally scrutinize information in spite of its massive quantity and ease of access. In other words, we must be more responsible to inform ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us. This is the digital equivalent of the historical shift from a passive oral tradition to an active reading one. Some simple tips for doing this are included.

Since I mentioned the Repugnant Conclusion, the essay by David Graham’s about embracing political conversations (and a few other types as well) at the family Thanksgiving table (or any other time) seems apropos since it spills the messy contents of family dirty laundry right in the middle of the living room floor (thus attempting to avoid spoiling the food on the table; well, perhaps not). His advice: just do it. He leaves out, though, how to do it, but refers to a multitude of articles written with that in mind. One reader’s comment highlights the connections with the Repugnant Conclusion, Missing Information, and Selective Facts (with my brothers-in-laws it was always “You have your facts. I have mine!”),

“I’m tired of seeing people take some of the happiest days of the year, and some of the best opportunities for engaging with others, and use them as an excuse to b**** and moan. It’s likely that if you can’t handle conversations in which people don’t automatically agree with you, you yourself are at fault to some degree. You are probably not trying hard enough to engage civilly, to listen, or to understand others. And if someone is truly being belligerent or disrespectful, then end the conversation with a contrived excuse, steer it away from hot topics, or show some decorum and politely say that you see no point in continuing … Find something to be grateful for, engage others around you, and don’t get bent out of shape if not everyone caters to your every opinion and preference.” (The Atlantic Daily, November 22, 2017)

Speaking of Bubbles

We live in bubbles. Call them your Dunbar Group, your Social Neighborhood, or your worldview, but it’s a bubble. It’s limited by your Accessibility Heuristic (what information you choose to access – remember, lots is missing – naturally or intentionally), your Confirmational Bias, overload, and most likely a strong dislike of the Repugnant Conclusion. The illustration that accompanied the Politico essay The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think visually captures the concept well, not only for media, but for organizations and individuals.

(Source: Poltico)

This is an informative essay that reveals facts and reasons behind the truth of the media bubble, but in unexpected ways. This bubble’s not intentional (surprise; it’s economics) but it goes unrecognized by those in them (no surprise), and consequently it is not compensated for (also no surprise). Observations like “… the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers” (Fundamental Principle 7c again), and “… ideological clustering in top newsrooms led to groupthink,” indicate a sincere attempt at self-evaluation which leads to the following,

“The ‘media bubble’ trope might feel overused by critics of journalism who want to sneer at reporters who live in Brooklyn or California and don’t get the ‘real America’ of southern Ohio or rural Kansas. But these numbers suggest it’s no exaggeration: Not only is the bubble real, but it’s more extreme than you might realize. And it’s driven by deep industry trends,” and

“… the ‘heart, mind, and habits’ (of the NY Times) cannot be divorced from the ethos (read: bubble) of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced.”

Both quotes provide strong support for the reality of Regression to the Cultural Mean.

Not being able to “get the ‘real America’ ” leads right into another revealing essay on just how strong this groupthink has become: On Safari in Trump’s America by Molly Ball (@mollyesque) from The Atlantic. Picture the country’s coastal elites from an influential “center-left think tank” doing research (the “safari”) in the fly-over states (i.e., not the coasts) just to listen to people, and then producing a report that leaves out much of what they heard (but which is caught by this accompanying journalist). Because they couldn’t process it, it did nothing to unsettle their preconceptions. That’s a bubble.

Now, picture the bubbles around everyone you interact with in a day. Then, picture them in your organization.

How can/will you engage with them for growth, learning, influence, teamwork, or just leaving while taking away an “I’m glad I interacted with that person today” feeling? It takes willingness to process.

Then picture the people around your Thanksgiving table …

Mostly Important Books:

This has been a lean year for books for me, probably because the election caused a lot more activity in articles and essays and the increased need to follow sage advice and check them out more thoroughly. Here are some books that struck me as important as well as genuinely good reading,

David and Goliath, M. Gladwell

I mentioned this in January’s best articles/books post (a bit late due to travel). It, along with any of Malcom Gladwell’s other exquisitely research and written books, deserve your attention.

Unpopular Essays, B. Russell

“12 Adventures in Argument” by the 1950 Nobel Prize winner in Literature. (Note: Russell was an outstanding mathematician and philosopher, but, alas, there were no prizes for these.) Enlightening but considered revolutionary because he pushes stuff that “we know” into arenas where we should know them and apply them, but don’t.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, T. Piketty

Amply reviewed after its 2014 publication, Piketty makes strong arguments based on historical and current data about the increasing discrepancies in capital (wealth) distribution. Very apropos given our current stock market, economy, and ‘anticipated’ tax revision. Although an academic, this is actually a moderate and easy if lengthy read. A couple of holes, I think, but that’s for sometime later.

For additional reading sources, there is also 100 Notable Books for 2017 from the NY Times. However, an even more relevant source is The Best Books of 2017 from Bloomberg. The latter is not a list but a compendium of favorites from notable influencers. One recurring book is The Gene, which I referenced in January 2016’s list and used extensively for Agents of Influence. Depending upon your bubble, there’s bound to be something rewarding.

Read. Enjoy. It is good for you.

It’s good for your bubble, good for everyone you influence, good for your organization, and good for overall society as well. As long as we put good lessons into practice.

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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