The point of reading

Replied to The Imperfectionist: How to forget what you read by Oliver Burkeman (

This is an understandable response to the information environment in which we find ourselves, I think. After all, there’s just so much useful and interesting stuff out there, and so little time, that it feels incumbent on us to take ownership, so to speak, of the little we do manage to consume – either by literally memorising it, or storing it in some well-organised external system. Otherwise, wasn’t reading it in the first place a waste of our precious time?

This utilitarian perspective is easy to internalize in productivityland. But it shares the same core as the mindset that books aren’t worth reading, that truths ought to be distillable down into a short listicle, that fiction is a waste.

I suspect part of the urge to read more, learn more, is related to self-doubt. When we lack confidence in our opinions, when we lean on quoting others instead of using our own words, it’s rooted in fear that we are not enough. We seek more information to affirm our beliefs; the quest for certainty is a classic expression of anxiety. As a recovering perfectionist, I have suffered from difficulty making decisions and lack of confidence in my choices that I hoped learning more and practicing more would resolve. (Obviously it’s a balance — learning nothing and basing opinions solely on vibes isn’t a great approach either.)

It’s easy to operate on the assumption that the main point of picking up a book – a non-fiction or work-related book, at any rate – is to add to your storehouse of data, hoarding information and insights like a squirrel hoarding nuts, ready for some future moment when you’ll finally take advantage of it all.


But that’s a recipe for living permanently in the future, never quite reaping the value of life in the present moment. Better, I’d say, to think of reading not as preparation for living later on, but as one way of engaging with the world, one way of living, right here in the present.

[T]he point of reading, much of the time, isn’t to vacuum up data, but to shape your sensibility.


Sometimes we should trust the vibes. Our individualist perspective means that each person is expected to become their own expert in every topic so they can have “informed opinions.” Instead, what if we let ourselves lean on community as well as expertise to guide us? Accept that we cannot master all subjects, and don’t need to hold a strong opinion on everything. I want my nonfiction to have opinions, not pretend at neutrality. And I think that’s linked to what Burkeman’s talking about: we’re choosing whose opinions to listen to when we read an article or a book.

Science Society Technology

When “ambiguity is a feature, not a bug”

Replied to Pluralistic: Netflix wants to chop down your family tree (02 Feb 2023) by Cory DoctorowCory Doctorow (

Suddenly, it was “computer says no” everywhere you turned, unless everything matched perfectly. There was a global rush for legal name-changes after 9/11 – not because people changed their names, but because people needed to perform the bureaucratic ritual necessary to have the name they’d used all along be recognized in these new, brittle, ambiguity-incinerating machines.

Digital precision

We encounter this problem often in the digital world in things like content-limited text fields and binary choices on a form (or limited options that drive us always to “other”).

The digital world demands exactitude in a way analog doesn’t. I recall my dad, a TV station electrician, explaining the difference between analog and digital signal to me as a kid; I couldn’t understand why the squared shape of digital signal — either you get it or you don’t — would win out over more flexible analog signal, which has some allowance to receive lower quality signal rather than none.

Too, this inherent precision of digital information influences the way we think about data. We interpret numbers to be more meaningful than they are:

Excel-calculated results down to four decimals falsely imply confidence unsupported by the input data.

Recipes call for a specific baking time, when everyone’s oven is a little bit different, and environmental conditions affect baking time by impacting the moisture content of the ingredients.

Ad metrics and pageview data and likes that don’t translate truly to reach or brand recognition or conversions. (Like Internet celebs with millions of followers getting book deals that don’t translate to sales.)

Ambiguity of knowledge

Information that should be more directional than exact is treated as gospel. “The numbers don’t lie.” (Well, actually…)

Anyone who’s collected scientific data is aware of the messiness of reality that must be translated into the concrete as “data.” Theoretically, methodology codifies the decision-making matrix researchers follow; but given the scientific reproducibility crisis, it’s clearly a tough job. Give five writers the same prompt and you’ll get five different stories; can you be certain five researchers will record the same value from the same observed reality? It is a tricky thing, as a communicator, to acknowledge the limitations of what is knowable and to what degree, without implying artificial uncertainties to be exploited through mis- and dis-information. (I know those are the terms we use nowadays, but sometimes I’d just like the plain language “lies.”)

Who determines reality?

As Doctorow points out, digital condenses complex reality into defined fields — and the people defining the fields are those in power / the elite. Powerful, controlling cultures demand that their perspectives be codified.

The “Shitty Technology Adoption Curve” describes the process by which abusive technologies work their way up the privilege gradient. Every bad technological idea is first rolled out on poor people, refugees, prisoners, kids, mental patients and other people who can’t push back.

Their bodies are used to sand the rough edges and sharp corners off the technology, to normalize it so that it can climb up through the social ranks, imposed on people with more and more power and influence.

When [Netflix] used adversarial interoperability to build a multi-billion-dollar global company using the movie studios’ products in ways the studios hated, that was progress. When you define “family” in ways that makes Netflix less money, that’s felony contempt of business model.

Netflix is careful to stick to the terminology “household,” but I suspect to many, household implies family. I know a married couple who live in different parts of the state for work; would you not consider them a household in how they run their finances and make their decisions? It is easier to justify a physical utility like Comcast requiring a connection at each physical location versus a digital service like Netflix that is not location dependent. This is true too for ebooks, which have fucked libraries royally by pretending a physical book could be loaned only twelve (?) times (lolololol I worked at a library back when we stamped checkouts and lemme tell you, those stamp slips had space for like forty checkouts, and often the book was still going strong when the slip was full), and individuals by pretending it’s only possible to loan a book to a friend once in a lifetime. Digital product corporations want the limitations of the analog with the benefits of the digital. The elites setting the rules want to have one account they can use at their multiple homes, but not for the poors whose families are spread across multiple dwellings to be permitted to share.


Updating the tree of life


Reminds me of the phenomenon that we don’t know what we don’t know, and don’t realize when we’re operating from outdated information we learned in school. (Is Pluto or is Pluto not a planet now, I can’t keep track 😂) Related to the shifting baseline of long scale observable changes.

I’m still not fully convinced viruses don’t belong on the tree of life — they feel like parasitic life. There are life forms that steal all their energy from other organisms and that rely on other species to reproduce. They contain genetic information, they have a reproductive method. Why can’t life be extra-cellular?

The Internet

Trusted Information Sources

Replied to Nearly half of Gen Z prefers TikTok and Instagram over Google Search by Samantha Delouya (Insider)

A Google executive said the company’s data shows TikTok and Instagram are a threat to Google Search with Gen Z, and Google is working to keep up.

Google highlighted changes it plans to make to its search engine to appeal to a younger audience, including the ability for a user to pan their camera over an area and “instantly glean insights about multiple objects in a wider scene.”

This… completely misses the point about why people would turn to social media for search IMO. Google Search sucks – it’s been conquered by SEO sp*m sites so it’s untrustworthy and unuseful for anything but essentially directory lookups. Social media and the parasocial relationships we have there are a more trusted source of information – it’s coming from an actual human who is providing a testimonial/ advice about what has or hasn’t worked for them. We’ve talked about customized searches of your network in the IndieWeb and there are some search tools that prioritize results from blogs as a proxy for real people.

Probably some influence here too with eroding trust in institutions being replaced with gathering and discussing information via your personal network.


Word prevalence indicates word difficulty

Bookmarked Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas (

Word prevalence refers to the number of people who know the word. The measure was obtained on the basis of an online crowdsourcing study involving over 220,000 people.

Word prevalence is also likely to be of interest to natural language processing researchers writing algorithms to gauge the difficulty of texts. At present, word frequency is used as a proxy of word difficulty (e.g., Benjamin, 2012; De Clercq & Hoste, 2016; Hancke, Vajjala, & Meurers, 2012). Word prevalence is likely to be a better measure, given that it does not completely reduce to differences in word frequency.

Dropped into this article from the table of words men are more likely to know than women and vice versa. They are mostly specialty vocabulary – for women, textiles, for men, military and mechanical. I hadn’t thought much before of the gender skew of vocabulary, and what it implies to know certain specialty words over others, and am not sure how to feel about knowing a lot more of the “women ones” despite being a science major and reading lots of military sci-fi and not being super into clothes 😉 I’d be more interested to see gender differences for slightly less specialized words.



Bookmarked Warning: Your reality is out of date – The Boston Globe (

Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly

Reminds me of the ecological phenomenon of shifting baselines (e.g. we killed the salmon slowly enough we don’t notice a huge change in our own lifetimes but the change in three lifetimes is massive).

These are tricky because you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know your facts need updating.

Same thing happens in my work: people remember the first way they learned to recycle. People will never let go of recycling by number even though we haven’t done that in over a decade – it’s intuitive and memorable – which makes it all the more important to work upstream and simply get rid of the numbers on plastic packaging, to cue a change in the facts.

Getting Shit Done

Books Unread

Quoted Building an antilibrary: the power of unread books (Ness Labs)

Unread books are as powerful as the ones we read. An antilibrary is a private collection of unread books capturing the vastness of the unknown.

“I feel increasingly comfortable buying books I may not be able to read for a while. All of these unread books remind me of endless opportunities for learning, and make me humble.”

Anne-Laure LeCunff

I struggle with having books unread, which I feel weighing on my like a to-do list sometimes, and I itch with the urge to read it so I can cross it off my mental list. But, I also like to surround myself with interesting options and visual inspiration, so I can grab something when the desire strikes. I like LeCunff’s attitude here.

“A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Umberto Eco’s relationship with books

I’ve been trying to get more comfortable, also, with keeping around books that I have read so I can read them again. I don’t need to check them off my list and get rid of them right away 😉 I tend to purge my personal library hard every few years, donating piles of books to the library (including lots of indie and small press comics that are not replaceable so hopefully the library added them to their collection instead of selling them :/ ). I treat the public library as an extension of my personal library, with books cycling in and out constantly (aside from COVID times – the seven months since I last went to the library is probably the longest I haven’t been in more than five years) so I have tried to share back with the library as I can. But I also am working on building up my personal library these days, especially my art book collection.