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The Woodworker Who Quit Email

November 21st, 2017 · 9 comments

The Disconnected Craftsman

Christopher Schwarz is a master furniture maker. In addition to working on commissioned pieces in his Kentucky storefront, he’s the editor of a press that publishes books on hand tool woodworking. In his spare time, he researchers traditional woodworking techniques.

In short, Schwarz is a classic craftsman. If you want to ask him about his trade, however, you’ll have a hard time getting in touch. In 2015, he stopped using (public) email. And he has no intention of going back.

As Schwarz elaborated in a recent essay, this decision upset some customers, some of whom tried to find ways around his no email policy by tracking down his personal address, or using the customer service address for his publishing company.

Here’s Schwarz’s blunt response to these efforts:

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The da Vinci Pause

November 18th, 2017 · 10 comments

Leonardo’s Life Hack

Last month, Walter Isaacson released his big new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I haven’t read it yet (though it’s inevitable I will). In the meantime, I listened to Brett McKay’s sharp podcast interview with Isaacson.

As the conversation winds down, McKay poses an intriguing question:

“[Leonardo] da Vinci lived 500 years ago, Twitter didn’t exit, Instagram didn’t exist, all these digital things that are distracting us, that make it hard to really observe, didn’t exist. So based on your research and writing on da Vinci: what can we learn from him about staying focused and observing intensely on things even in this crazy digital world that we live in?”

Isaacson, who spent years immersed in over 7000 pages of da Vinci’s brilliant, but also scattered and frenetic notebooks, dismissed the premise: “Yeah, he had distractions too.”

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Sean Parker on Facebook’s Brain Hacking

November 10th, 2017 · 29 comments

A Conscientious Objection 

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, was interviewed onstage yesterday at an event held by Axios at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The topic was cancer innovation, but the conversation turned at some point to Parker’s time at Facebook during its early years.

Perhaps emboldened by social media’s recent PR problems, Parker, who told Axios co-founder Mike Allen backstage that he had become a “conscientious objector on social media,” was unusually candid.

Here are some of his remarks (as reported this morning by Allen):

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Arnold Bennett’s Fight Against Steampunk Social Media

November 3rd, 2017 · 23 comments

How to Live

In 1910, Arnold Bennett published a short volume titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He was alarmed with the way the newly emergent British middle class seemed to waste their time outside of work. The average salaryman of this era doesn’t live, he noted, but instead “muddles through,” wasting time — that “inexplicable raw material of everything,” the supply of which “though gloriously regular is cruelly restricted.”

Bennett being Bennett decided he could tell these muddlers how to live better. So he wrote this guide.

I come back to this book from time to time. If you look past the standard Bennett snobbery and occasional dash of Victorian ornateness — “inexplicable raw material of everything”…really?  —  it’s both surprisingly pragmatic and relevant to all sorts of contemporary issues.

In my latest skim, for example, the following passage caught my attention. It’s Bennett’s summary of the standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker:

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Segment’s Systematic Quest for Depth

October 27th, 2017 · 10 comments

Segment’s Focus Problem

Segment is a typical Silicon Valley success story. It’s a data analytics software company started by three MIT dropouts in 2011. Last year it raised $64 million in its Series C funding round.

Things at Segment, in other words, were going well — with one exception: their employees were having a hard time focusing. Concerned, the company ran an internal team survey and discovered that the “chatter and noise” in their industry-standard open office was the biggest cause of distraction (not surprisingly, “group slack channels” was the second biggest cause) .

So Segment decided to do something about it.

In a move that you could only expect from an advanced data analytics company, they programmed an iOS app to measure office noise levels and ran it on the iPads mounted outside the office’s conference rooms. They then crunched the resulting data and found that some parts of the office were more noisy than others, with the loudest areas around a factor of two louder than the quietest (see above image, in which red corresponds to loud and green to quiet).

Armed with this data, they rearranged the seating in their open office. As they described on their company blog:

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Andrew Wiles on the State of Being Stuck

October 20th, 2017 · 20 comments

A Persistent Answer

Ben Orlin is a math teacher who publishes the clever essay blog, Math with Bad Drawings. Last year, Orlin had the opportunity, during a press conference at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, to ask a question of Andrew Wiles, the Princeton Professor (now at Oxford) who in 1994 finally solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

As Orlin reports on his blog, he asked the following:

“You’ve been able to speak to an unusually wide audience for a research mathematician. What are some of the themes you’ve tried to emphasize when talking to a broader public?”

Wiles’s answer, according to Orlin, can be summarized in six words: “Accepting the state of being stuck.”

As Wiles elaborated, research mathematics unfolds as follows:

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Jony Ive’s iConcern

October 7th, 2017 · 19 comments

Ive’s iConcern

At last week’s New Yorker TechFest conference, superstar Apple designer Jony Ive took the stage.

At some point during the presentation, Ive was offered a softball question about the ways the iPhone has changed the world. Ive’s response was surprising: “Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.”

Asked what he meant by “misuse,” Ive responded: “perhaps, constant use.”

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Are You Using Social Media or Being Used By It?

October 2nd, 2017 · 33 comments

A Social Experiment

If you, like many people, use social media and generally agree that it’s an important technology, try the following experiment.

Take out a piece of paper and list your most important uses for these services — the activities that social media is well-suited to provide and that unambiguously enrich your life. This list, for example, might include items like:

  • The ability to see new photos of your nephews, nieces, or grandchildren.
  • The Facebook Group used to run a local organization you belong to.
  • The  hashtag that keeps you up to date with the latest news from an activist movement that you support.

The social media industrial complex* likes to point to lists like these to justify its importance. “It would be crazy to dismiss our technology,” they cry, “look at all these useful things people do with it!”

But here’s the second part of the experiment: estimate honestly how much time it would take per week to satisfy these important uses. In my experience, for most people, the answer is around 15 – 30 minutes.

And yet, the average American adult social media user spends two hours per day on these services, with almost half this time dedicated to Facebook products alone.

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