A Wealth of Words by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., City Journal WInter 2013

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

A Wealth of Words by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., City Journal WInter 2013

You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You | Ben Casnocha

Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything––but not quite everything. Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

Cf. William Deresiewicz.

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.

You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You | Ben Casnocha

I find two things especially noteworthy about these things that Everyone Knows: first, they tend to be really nasty-minded; and second, they tend to be equally tidy-minded — that is, they make the world a neat, simple place in which there are ever so many people one needn’t take seriously, or treat with anything other than immediately reflexive contempt, because one knows in advance of any particular encounter exactly what they’re like.


Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Started reading this last year, finished it a few weeks ago. My favorite sentence from the book which maybe summarizes it best: “The internet is an opportunity machine.”

My other favorite passage, which I’ve already posted, but I’ll repost here anyways:

The stupidest creative act is still a creative act… On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.

Oh, by the way: it’s fun to pay attention to subtitles, especially when a book comes in a hardback/paperback edition — the paperback edition usually shows the evolution (or devolution) of the publisher’s marketing of the book. The hardcover subtitle of Cognitive Surplus is “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” vs. the paperback subtitle, “How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.” When Lewis Hyde’s The Gift came out, the subtitle was “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”—later, much later, it was “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.”

That favorite passage reminds me of Peter Thiel talking about horizontal business vs. vertical business. Going from 1 to N, copying things that work, incrementally spreading and improving, is hard, yes. But going from 0 to 1 is really, really hard in a very different way.

Forms, styles, structures–whatever word you prefer–should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion of one form; we say, “This form here, this is what reality is like,” and it pleases us to say that (…) because it means we don’t have to read anymore, or think, or feel.

Zadie Smith, in an essay on George Eliot and the Victorians and the evolution of the novel and such.

Wes Anderson’s Arrested Development. Interesting criticism here. This led to an aha! moment for me:

Nothing more perfectly evokes the feeling of both a child’s literal interpretation of the world and youthful big ambition on a frustratingly small scale like a school play, and Anderson smartly adopts this style.

[…] We don’t lose ourselves in the emotion of the production, and for the same reason we’re not meant to lose ourselves in the story of an Anderson film. Like in a children’s play, we are meant to be aware at all times of creative effort, for this is where its true value lies. Anderson’s ability to blend substance and form and communicate this feeling is his greatest skill. His films look like a stage plays: Sets look like sets, the frame becomes the proscenium arch (with a symmetry in the set that exaggerates and enhances the frame’s boundaries), and the action is kept in the center of the frame, usually directed out toward the audience in mainly medium or wide shots.

And I like this:

Anything that helps to enlarge an understanding is important, as large thinking is contagious and will contaminate all other areas of your life, so that eventually nothing will be allowed to remain simple and small.

What we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to. As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.

From The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. (via carpentrix)

Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson [pdf]

Lots of great examples here. E.g., ideas are food (raw facts; a half-baked theory; let an idea percolate; devouring a book) and theories are buildings (ideas need a foundation and support; construct a theoretical framework; buttress an argument), etc. (via). Makes me think of George Saunders:

When we get better at expressiveness, we get better at understanding, better at sympathy, better at bullshit-detection, better at experiencing pleasure, better at true engagement (with others, with the world, with ourselves).

Update: I think this is one reason I love learning about the history of a word. Like when I learned the word raga is related to the Sanskrit word for dye (the musical form colors your mood!), or when I was reading The Gift of Fear recently and learned that intuition has roots in a word meaning protection, defense, guardianship (you trust it because it has your interests at heart). Learning where a word comes from, like metaphors, has a way of changing your perspective or giving you another lens to see language through. And yeah, I just used two metaphors to explain how etymology is like a metaphor. Boom!

Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson [pdf]

When we’re shown an image we tend to let our guard down. People learn how to read critically and think critically, but I don’t believe we learn how to see critically.

Writers, it seems to me, should write, not make speeches. But speeches, like quasi-journalistic writing assignments, can come attached to plane tickets, to hotel rooms in cities one might never have thought of visiting otherwise. In writing speeches, curiously, one sometimes finds out what one thinks, at that moment, about something. The world at large, say. Or futurity. Or the impossibility of absolutely grasping either. Generally they make me even more uncomfortable to write than articles, but later, back in the place of writing fiction, I often discover that I have been trying to tell myself something.

William Gibson on creative transference.

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask.