Reading to learn

I’ve read a lot of different books and articles that highlight the importance of reading all the time to increase your knowledge and the most successful people are the ones that are constantly learning.

I’m going to agree that learning is important. But I think I have a slightly different take on what learning really is and how to do it. Actually, it’s not really novel, just something that I feel like a lot of these articles forget to emphasize.

The key concept that I believe is that we need to learn by doing. Just reading something and not putting it into use does not give you actual learning and I don’t think it is really that useful. Or else, considering the hours that the world spends reading Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. we would be a very enlightened society. I don’t think we are quite there.

One consequence of doing it is that we can’t learn by just discussing the quantity of books that you read a day/week/month. More books can actually be the opposite as I’m going to claim (and I’ll weaken this claim a little below) that you are probably wasting a good amount of your time skimming through important information that you will just end up forgetting and never taking advantage of.

There are a couple of exceptions to this statement that come to mind:

  1. Reading for empathy sake: there is a good amount of research that supports the reading fiction is good for improving your empathy, your ability to put yourself in she shoes of somebody else (because that’s what you are doing reading those books). For that use, actually reading is all you need to do.
  2. Reading for building connections: there are some cases where you don’t really have a way to put something to practice directly, but you may do it by using that reading to then nudge your brain to connect concepts that you didn’t connect before. So you may be able to work on the concepts of book A and by reading book B and continuing to work through book A’s ideas, you will find yourself actually being able to connect A to ideas in yet another book C, because B provided you that mental bridge.

I think the most important thing to think about is really to spend time doing things.

Even if what you read is fiction only, spend time with it. Think about how the author develops the story or the relationships, and consider how that could help you develop relationships around you. Maybe take some time and rewrite a chapter of the book in a way that you think it could have gone. I’ve also seen people spending time actually trying to draw or build things that happen on the book, or cook the food on the book, taking you even deeper into the empathy that you get from it.

Yes, that will most certainly take time out of the time you’d be reading. My thesis here is that this is a good thing. Quality beats quantity.

Another side from it is that it will keep making the world better in aggregate. If most of us are just sinks for knowledge, or just filters of knowledge, then knowledge is not being built as quickly as it could be if we were all producing our own dimension to it, adding a little bit of insight and connection to the world.

Background music playlist-making frustrations

From time to time I decide that I want to listen to music while working. It’s not that often because my calendar is usually filled with meetings, so the best I often can do is to listen to music at the beginning of the day.

But today I had a big block without meetings so I decided to go for it and build new playlists of things to listen to. And that, for me means classical music. So I went to Spotify and did some research on what to listen to. When I don’t have an actual idea in mind, I often open their “new releases” playlist and then select a couple of albums from there to listen to.

Maybe let me step back and explain something that annoys me deeply about some (many) classical music playlists, especially the ones that are created by algorithms: they usually don’t include whole pieces, but just a movement of a piece, and then another movement of a different piece. That’s now how I listen to classical music, and I think that’s not how anybody should listen to classical music.

So back to my method: I’ll then go to each song that seem interesting and open the album to get the whole piece (and sometimes the whole album). So far so good, right? Well, not really. Thank you Spotify! Here are some examples:

I select an entry from the playlist…
I get a single?
Another example…

I had a lot of examples I could place here. I don’t know who it to blame for this, but some process is setting up tracks from actual albums as singles, so even if I wanted to listen to the whole piece I can’t!

I was frustrated about things like this (and auto-generated playlists) before and did try some classical music-focused services in the past and I’m not sure I was excited enough about those to stick with them. They were more expensive and considering that I don’t listen that often to them and they don’t offer as many integrations as Spotify (and Amazon Music), I ended up giving up on it.

So, well, today I’m ending my day still frustrated.

A new website

So I have a new website… You may be wondering why I did that considering that I rarely update this website? Well, basically I decided I didn’t want to get rid of this website and, at the same time, I didn’t want to pay Squarespace prices to maintain it. So I moved to the slightly cheaper WordPress and let’s see how it works.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Squarespace. It was easy to use, had way more intuitive navigation and formatting, and it did make my website look better without a lot of effort. So I do feel a little bad that I left, but I couldn’t convince myself to pay almost $200 a year to keep a website that I’m not using.

So, do I have plans for this website? I’ll get back to you on that. I do want to write more and share my ideas more often, but right now I’m not convinced I have the time to do it. Maybe 2020…

So much life out there

We are living in a world of change. We plan our lives around change. We challenge and fight sameness. Interestingly, this is something quite new in human civilization. Surely the world always changed, but some time ago, we thought it was good if we found a “career” and just followed it. People would be working in the same company for decades and not really consider themselves sad.

We could ask ourselves many questions: what has changed? How has it changed? Is it actually a good thing for the human society in general? But I prefer the simpler question: why has it changed?

Humans are one of the most adaptive races out there. Our very big and expensive brain allows us to plan and execute very complex tasks that protect us from very adverse and sudden conditions. We are not the fastest or strongest. We don’t have the longest lifespan. But we are one of the best survivors.

I think that this change is more of a realignment to our basal sense of adaptation. We were built for it, and not really to be inside a house, with a family and an 8-10 job (all normal jobs are 8-10, right?). So suddenly technology advances allowed us to recover this missing drive for adaptation. It is amazing how powerful it can be to our whole body. Think of the experience of starting a new job, or moving to a new house, to buying a new car…

On the other hand, sometimes the stress of “unplanned” (but potentially forecastable) changes is a little too unhealthy. And that’s when changes erode our self, that’s when it’s always just better to go back to your cocoon and hide there for some time.

Being political, but tired

Sometimes you just have to accept some things and try to swallow as much anger as possible. There is nothing to do when somebody is just frustrated at you, because of incompetence of the people around them. At times like this you have two options:

1) Just blame it on them and start a war

2) Swallow the blame and try to work things out

Number 1 generates a war that could have repercussions that is difficult to forecast. Especially when you don’t quite know the strength of your enemies. However, number 2 keeps everything on your side of the court. You can’t sleep, you just let people slap you around and convince themselves that you can be their scapegoat for all their ailments. Soon enough you will continue receiving angry emails with lots of capital letters and you life will just collapse in unfinished business.

Anyway, that’s my disappointment of the day. I’m tired, I have to start thinking about moving (yes, I’m moving to Seattle – no, I don’t quite live in Seattle right now, more like Bellevue), I have some very busy and important last couple of days at work, and things don’t look like they will get any better anytime soon. Sometimes I wished I could just have a weekend.

At times like this, my usual solution is to just alienate myself from the world and listen to some Steve Reich. It’s like listening to noise, but mathematically beautiful musical noise.

By the way, talking about music, I’ve finished a book that I had on my list of “to read” for some time: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Dan Levitin

Interesting book, if you survive past the first chapter. Dan needs a better editor that will fix all the wrong and missing information on his introduction to music theory. He should have discussed well-tempered instruments. He should not have mentioned that multiplying the frequency of the pitch by 2, 3, 4, etc. causes us to think it’s the same pitch (although an octave up). Instead he should have said that it’s the factor of 2 that matter (2, 4, 8, etc).

After this painful chapter, the book gets quite intriguing. Nothing really shocking if you have read another very interesting book about brains: On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee.

These books make me hope that we are getting somewhere closer to understanding the brain. At least I can say I’m a little closer.