Worthy Reads (05/18)

Listening, leadership, self, philosophy & science

Teapot by dangerlam for Dr Jason Fox
Every month or so I share a bunch of ‘worthy reads’ from the interwebs in my museletter. I thought that mayhaps I start sharing them here too.
And so here we are.
Some worthy reads. Enjoy!

How to Be a Good Listener

‘Being a good listener is one of the most important and enchanting life-skills anyone can have.’ I love this article, and feel I still have much yet to learn. ‘There aren’t enough good listeners. So people tend to assert rather than analyse. They restate in many different ways the fact that they are worried, excited, sad or hopeful, and their interlocutor listens but doesn’t assist them to discover more.’ I particularly relish the following: ‘The good listener (paradoxically) is a skilled interrupter. But they don’t (as most people do) interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original more sincere, yet elusive concerns.’

Speed Reading is Bullsh¡t

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street is someone I only recently discovered, but he is swiftly becoming one of my favourite synthesisers. ‘Reading is important. That goes without saying. However, we’re also busy. And when we’re busy we take short cuts. While we want to read better — that is to read for deep understanding, we settle on reading ‘quicker’ and confuse the two. This entirely misses the point of reading.’ Parrish further states that reading fast is worse than not reading at all. ‘Reading fast gives you two things that should never mix: surface knowledge and overconfidence.’

On Metamodern Leadership

I have a physical copy of Metamodern Leadership—but I haven’t read it yet. It’s one of those books with long and unbroken blocks of text with minimal layout design. I can’t wait to read it—but it feels like a book that demands commitment. It—like most everything—can’t be sped-read. Luckily, Brent Cooper has put together a comprehensive review and critique—here’s an excerpt. ‘The book opens with a critique of the proliferation of the leadership industry. It is an aging baby-boomer business model of leadership, awash in “thought leaders” who refine and exercise its core values, for better or worse. This approach has come to dominate all aspects of organization and management, to maximize “success” and efficiency in terms of profits (over people). According to Surwillo, the problem with conventional leadership is taking the past successes and basing future standards on them. This merely perpetuates the status-quo, which goes against the grain of the millennial worldview… You might say we are at ‘peak leadership,’ where charisma is the most heightened aspect at the expense of integrity.’

A New Alternative to Braille?

To learn Braille as an adult apparently takes 6–9 months on intense study. This new language for the blind can be mastered in a matter of hours. (Mind you: this version could be learnt in minutes).

Bezos: A CEO Who Can Write

Say what you will about the Amazon behemoth that will soon enslave us all—I quite admire much of what I hear and read about Bezos’s leadership style. ‘Jeff Bezos is the too-rare CEO who writes to his shareholders every year…’ Jean-Louis Gassée writes. ‘Wait…what is that “too-rare” epithet supposed to mean? Don’t company CEOs duly and regularly pay their respects to company owners in the cover letters affixed to their annual reports? Ah, yes, they want us to think they do. But our gut knows better. Blame attorneys, PR consiglieri, or a weak-spined CEO for yielding to society’s offensive demand that we not offend anyone ever. Whatever the reason, when we listen to typical corpospeak there is no music, no soul, no human reaching out to us.’  Oh, and here’s another excerpt for you—this time straight from Bezos: ‘We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall”.’ Imagine that! Or better: implement something like this that works for you in your context.

Why I Loathe All the Writing Advice I’ve Ever Been Given

This is for anyone who has been told that there are writing ‘rules’ one must follow if they are to be successful. Rules that make good writing bland, boring and forgettable.

How Measuring Performance By Numbers Backfires

I sometimes worry that a curious and forward thinking person reading my museletters is akin to a gluten intolerant person reading books about ‘why gluten is bad for you’. But what the heck—I’ll keep tipping the scales in favour of qualitative sense-making until we can break free of this metric fixation. ‘The key components of metric fixation,writes Professor Jerry Z Muller‘are the belief that it is possible—and desirable—to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.’ (Metrics aren’t bad—it’s our crippling fixation on them that is less than helpful. Especially in complex contexts).

Why we should Bulldoze the Business School

Why I’m sure the buildings could be refurbished and repurposed, this article makes some very good points (against the same popular ideology I often find myself pitched against). ‘Most solutions to the problem of the B-school shy away from radical restructuring, and instead tend to suggest a return to supposedly more traditional business practices, or a form of moral rearmament decorated with terms such as “responsibility” and “ethics”. All of these suggestions leave the basic problem untouched, that the business school only teaches one form of organising—market managerialism. That’s why I think that we should call in the bulldozers and demand an entirely new way of thinking about management, business and markets. If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem, or that the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, or that creating new desires is the purpose of marketing. In every case, the business school acts as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science.’

Here’s How to Deal with a 4Chan (‘Alt-Right’) Troll

If you happen to bother dabbling in social media, and if you are of a progressive bent, then you might find this article to be helpful. Metamodern poet Seth Abramson unpacks an empathetic, practical and emphatic way to handle any trolling from the ‘alt-right’. (Don’t know what ‘alt-right’ means? That’s okay—for a long time I didn’t either, and what I once thought I now know to be incredibly simplistic, inaccurate and incomplete. Thusly, here’s a good overview.)

The Self Illusion

This interview with psychologist Bruce Hood explores the most convincing and persistent illusion most of us seem to endure: the illusion that we each have ‘a self’. It seems as though I have quite a fascination with notions of ‘self’ and ‘self-actualisation’ (whatever the heck that means). I think this is mainly due to my sense that many folks are struggling to identify ‘who they really are’ in this digital world (where we put forth avatars of ourselves, and exist as different entities in different contexts). In essence, this article speaks of co-creation and dividualism. ‘If you think about it, many of the ways we describe each other, such as helpful, kind, generous, mean, rude or selfish can only make sense in the context of others. So those around us largely define who we are.’ The more we can move beyond flagrant individualism, the ‘better’ we all become.

How to Build a Self-Conscious Machine

A glorious long-form article that is just as much an inspection of the human condition as it is a reflection on why building a self-conscious machine is not a good idea. ‘Humans make decisions and then lie to themselves about what they are doing. They eat cake while full, succumb to gambling and chemical addictions, stay in abusive relationships, neglect to exercise, and pick up countless other poor habits that are reasoned away with stories as creative as they are untrue’.

Why AI Needs Dungeons & Dragons

A fun little thought experiment—a provocation to ‘highlight the flaws in certain models of intelligence. First, it reveals how intelligence has to work across a variety of environments. D&D participants can inhabit many characters in many games, and the individual player can ‘switch’ between roles (the fighter, the thief, the healer). Meanwhile, AI researchers know that it’s super difficult to get a well-trained algorithm to apply its insights in even slightly different domains—something that we humans manage surprisingly well.’

How the Magic Colour Wheel Explains Humanity

The subtitle to this article is ‘Move over, Myers-Briggs’. As a wizard and occasional dabbler in magic (by which I mean: nebulous high-order complexity)—I can’t help but feel this article sheds an alternative and somewhat useful light on the complex domains of personality and persona. Of course, this field exists at an order of complexity beyond most of our ken—but the nebulosity and equality of the magic colour wheel serves as a decent heuristic. You could do worse (yes: I’m looking at you, dope advocates).

Why Businesses Are Hiring Philosophers

Oh how I would like to believe this is true. This article is a tad flakey, but I think this line is apt: ‘There’s an assumption there that profits and philosophy are incompatible... The tension is not between philosophy and profit, but between deep wisdom and short-term profit maximisation, instead of long-term sustainable value creation.’

Out of The Armchair

Experimental philosophy offers a rather exciting new way to approach philosophy (and, I would daresay, it will be ever more the norm of what see). ‘Regardless of one’s stance on experimental philosophy, it’s clear that the new method has fuelled an important conversation. Not only has it led to much questioning of reliance on intuitions in philosophy (and what ‘intuition’ means), but it has also brought out explicit discussion about what philosophers aim to achieve. Thus, [experimental philosophy] fans the flames of ‘metaphilosophy’, in which philosophers scrutinise the underpinnings of their own work. Whether or not one sits in an armchair while doing philosophy, it seems like a good idea not to get too comfortable.’ The meta the better, I say.

Forget Bold & Decisive—Hesitate!

Dithering and dilly-dallying does not have the best of reputations (much to my lament). ‘By contrast, quick, decisive responses are associated with competency: they command respect. Acting on gut feelings without agonising over alternative courses of action has been given scientific credibility by popular books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005), in which the author tries to convince us of ‘a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately’. But what if the allure of decisiveness were leading us astray? What if flip-flopping were adaptive and useful in certain scenarios, shepherding us away from decisions that the devotees of Blink might end up regretting? Might a little indecision actually be a useful thing?’ These questions (and the provocations espoused in this article) are a clarion call of clarity for the otherwise preoccupied and busy. 

Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

Thirteen years ago, this paper found that ‘...it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.’ People are slowly waking up to the replication crisis. ‘Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature,’ writes Monya Baker in Nature. ‘In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted.’ Please do not misunderstand my provocation here. Empirical science—observation, evidence and reason—is brilliant. I love it. But our obsession with evidence (and metrics) has eclipsed our appreciation for reason, and our desire to experiment and yield our own observations. It fools us into believing we understand things (when often we don’t). We fetishise ‘evidence’ without understanding the underlying reasoning, the methods used to acquire it, and the limitations of it. This is unfortunate, and holds us back.


Reading the above might have you believe that I am anti-science. This is 100% not the case—science is wondrous, vital, essential. It is where I came from: science—particularly the environmental sciences of ecology and systems thinking—formed much of the foundations of my thinking. The thing I am not so fond of is scientism—‘the view that empirical science entails the most complete, authoritative, and valid approach to answering questions about the world,’ as Dr Ian Bogost writes. ‘When you’re selling ideas, you have to sell the ideas that will sell. But in a secular age in which the abstraction of “science” risks replacing all other abstractions, a watered-down, bland, homogeneous version of science is all that will remain if the rhetoric of science is allowed to prosper. We need not choose between God and man, science and philosophy, interpretation and evidence. But ironically, in its quest to prove itself as the supreme form of secular knowledge, science has inadvertently elevated itself into a theology. Science is not a practice so much as it is an ideology. We don’t need to destroy science in order to bring it down to earth. But we do need to bring it down to earth again, and the first step in doing so is to abandon the rhetoric of science that has become its most popular devotional practice.’ Here’s to the destruction of science in its current form—so that it might be reconstructed in a new light, for this new (emerging) age.

The Music of Emergence

‘Emergence is the story of natural laws and processes, their inherent beauty, and their action to yield the universe, us and the world we live in,’ writes Max Cooper, the musician and artist of Emergence (an album and concept I am totally digging right now—particularly ‘Distant Light’). The interplay of art and science (with visuals and music) is deft and stirring. Loving this.

‘This is America’

Not for the faint of heart, Childish Gambino’s newest track and clip is phenomenal. This is art as a vehicle for truth. It’s ironic and yet hellishly sincere. ‘The clip is excellent’, writes Triple J. ‘It draws the ambiguity out of the lyrics and creates a universe for the song to live within. It’s also quite shocking – if you haven’t seen it, prepare for cute fun and then prepare for awful gun violence. The symbolism runs deep, as Gambino enlists and executes an entire choir in a nod to the Charleston church shooting, before he dances with children front of frame. It’s rare for music videos to rise above accoutrement status, and Gambino and director Hiro Murai deserve nothing but praise for making something stark and wonderful.’

Science life tips from SMBC

You can do pretty much anything if you yell the right phrase // How scientific reporting works // Creationists were put on earth by science-satan to test your devotion to empiricism // The best life advice 

I share a bunch of worthy reads like these in every museletter. You won’t miss out if you subscribe.

MiscellanyJason Fox