Our Phones – Ourselves

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Are you reading this on your phone? It’s likely that you are and that your smart phone is such a constant companion that it is on your person 24/7.

Was this the plan when Steve Jobs first introduced this magical device? Not at all suggests Cal Newport. Here is how he began his insightful piece:

Smartphones are our constant companions. For many of us, their glowing screens are a ubiquitous presence, drawing us in with endless diversions, like the warm ping of social approval delivered in the forms of likes and retweets, and the algorithmically amplified outrage of the latest “breaking” news or controversy. They’re in our hands, as soon as we wake, and command our attention until the final moments before we fall asleep.

Steve Jobs would not approve.

In 2007, Mr. Jobs took the stage at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco and introduced the world to the iPhone. If you watch the full speech, you’ll be surprised by how he imagined our relationship with this iconic invention, because this vision is so different from the way most of us use these devices now.

In the remarks, after discussing the phone’s interface and hardware, he spends an extended amount of time demonstrating how the device leverages the touch screen before detailing the many ways Apple engineers improved the age-old process of making phone calls. “It’s the best iPod we’ve ever made,” Mr. Jobs exclaims at one point. “The killer app is making calls,” he later adds. Both lines spark thunderous applause. He doesn’t dedicate any significant time to discussing the phone’s internet connectivity features until more than 30 minutes into the address.

The presentation confirms that Mr. Jobs envisioned a simpler and more constrained iPhone experience than the one we actually have over a decade later. For example, he doesn’t focus much on apps. When the iPhone was first introduced there was no App Store, and this was by design. As Andy Grignon, an original member of the iPhone team, told me when I was researching this topic, Mr. Jobs didn’t trust third-party developers to offer the same level of aesthetically pleasing and stable experiences that Apple programmers could produce. He was convinced that the phone’s carefully designed native features were enough. It was “an iPod that made phone calls,” Mr. Grignon said to me.

Mr. Jobs seemed to understand the iPhone as something that would help us with a small number of activities — listening to music, placing calls, generating directions. He didn’t seek to radically change the rhythm of users’ daily lives. He simply wanted to take experiences we already found important and make them better.

The minimalist vision for the iPhone he offered in 2007 is unrecognizable today — and that’s a shame.

Under what I call the “constant companion model,” we now see our smartphones as always-on portals to information. Instead of improving activities that we found important before this technology existed, this model changes what we pay attention to in the first place — often in ways designed to benefit the stock price of attention-economy conglomerates, not our satisfaction and well-being.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Three Cheers for Generalists

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I follow sports intently, and have read a great deal about the radically different paths followed by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

But when I read a recent article by David Epstein entitled, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy,” a great deal crystalized for me. Here’s how he began:

One Thursday in January, I hit “send” on the last round of edits for a new book about how society undervalues generalists — people who cultivate broad interests, zigzag in their careers and delay picking an area of expertise. Later that night, my wife started having intermittent contractions. By Sunday, I was wheeling my son’s bassinet down a hospital hallway toward a volunteer harpist, fantasizing about a music career launched in the maternity ward.

A friend had been teasing me for months about whether, as a parent, I would be able to listen to my own advice, or whether I would be a “do as I write, not as I do” dad, telling everyone else to slow down while I hustle to mold a baby genius. That’s right, I told him, sharing all of this research is part of my plan to sabotage the competition while secretly raising the Tiger Woods of blockchain (or perhaps the harp).

I do find the Tiger Woods story incredibly compelling; there is a reason it may be the most famous tale of development ever. Even if you don’t know the details, you’ve probably absorbed the gist.

Woods was 7 months old when his father gave him a putter, which he dragged around in his circular baby-walker. At 2, he showed off his drive on national television. By 21, he was the best golfer in the world. There were, to be sure, personal and professional bumps along the way, but in April he became the second-oldest player ever to win the Masters. Woods’s tale spawned an early-specialization industry.

And yet, I knew that his path was not the only way to the top.

Consider Roger Federer. Just a year before Woods won this most recent Masters, Federer, at 36, became the oldest tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world. But as a child, Federer was not solely focused on tennis. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding and squash. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis and soccer (and badminton over his neighbor’s fence). Federer later credited the variety of sports with developing his athleticism and coordination.

While Tiger’s story is much better known, when sports scientists study top athletes, they find that the Roger pattern is the standard. Athletes who go on to become elite usually have a “sampling period.” They try a variety of sports, gain a breadth of general skills, learn about their own abilities and proclivities, and delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels. The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete, it turns out, is not the same as the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete.

MAYBE LATE BLOOMERS DO BEST!

Want more? You can read the full article here

Sports and Life

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Much has been written about how sports are a metaphor for life. While not everyone will agree with that statement, it is, from my perspective, largely true.

It’s no surprise then, that in the midst of the NBA finals, an article on the cover of Sunday’s New York Times Business Section talked about John McLean.

McLean is featured in this prominent article as premier wealth manager of the N.B.A. elite. A bevy of NBA superstars have hired him to manage their money – and their lives.

What I found most compelling in this article in the illustration featured here. I don’t know about you, but I find it a helpful reminder for everyday life.

Want more? You can read it here

Founding Fathers

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Few Americans – or others for that matter – would argue that the American Revolution was one of the most iconic events of the last millennium. But we tend to have mixed feelings about the men (all men) at the center of the revolution.

That’s why I found Rick Atkinson’s recent piece, “Whey We Still Care About America’s Founders,” so compelling. Here is how he begins:

There’s a lot to dislike about the founding fathers and the war they and others fought for American independence.

The stirring assertion that “all men are created equal” did not, of course, apply to 500,000 black slaves — one in five of all souls occupying the 13 colonies when those words were written in 1776. Nor was it valid for Native Americans, women or indigents.

And yet, the creation story of America’s founding remains valid, vivid and exhilarating. At a time when national unity is elusive, when our partisan rancor seems ever more toxic, when the simple concept of truth is disputed, that story informs who we are, where we came from, what our forebears believed and — perhaps the profoundest question any people can ask themselves — what they were willing to die for.

What can we learn from that ancient quarrel? First, that this nation was born bickering; disputation is in the national genome. Second, that there are foundational truths that not only are indeed true, but also, as the Declaration of Independence insists, “self-evident.” Third, that leaders worthy of our enduring admiration rise to the occasion with acumen, grit, wisdom and grace. And fourth, that whatever trials befall us today, we have overcome greater perils.

There is a great deal more in his piece, which you can read at the link below, but if you are interested in the American Revolution, here are two books I highly recommend:

  • “1776” by David McCullough
  • “Six Frigates” by Ian Toll

Want more? You can read it here

Too Busy?

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Full disclosure…I am busy. Really busy! Or am I? I always pine for some relaxation, but feeling the need to do one more thing usually overwhelms me.

That’s why I was drawn to a recent review of a book “How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Here’s how it begins:

In 2015, Jenny Odell started an organization she called The Bureau of Suspended Objects. Odell was then an artist-in-residence at a waste operating station in San Francisco. As the sole employee of her bureau, she photographed things that had been thrown out and learned about their histories. (A bird-watcher, Odell is friendly with a pair of crows that sit outside her apartment window; given her talent for scavenging, you wonder whether they’ve shared tips.)

Odell’s first book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” echoes the approach she took with her bureau, creating a collage (or maybe it’s a compost heap) of ideas about detaching from life online, built out of scraps collected from artists, writers, critics and philosophers. In the book’s first chapter, she remarks that she finds things that already exist “infinitely more interesting than anything I could possibly make.” Then, summoning the ideas of others, she goes on to construct a complex, smart and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto.

Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling.

Odell suggests that she has done this, semi-successfully, by striking a stance of public refusal and by retraining her attention to focus on her surroundings. She argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by resituating ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world.

Want more? You can read the full article here

AI and Humans

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We have posted a great deal about artificial intelligence and its impact on us. That’s why I was drawn to a recent article, “Without Humans, A.I Can Wreak Havoc.” Here’s how it begins:

The year 1989 is often remembered for events that challenged the Cold War world order, from the protests in Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is less well remembered for what is considered the birth of the World Wide Web. In March of 1989, the British researcher Tim Berners-Lee shared the protocols, including HTML, URL and HTTP that enabled the internet to become a place of communication and collaboration across the globe.

As the World Wide Web marks its 30th birthday on Tuesday, public discourse is dominated by alarm about Big Tech, data privacy and viral disinformation. Tech executives have been called to testify before Congress, a popular campaign dissuaded Amazon from opening a second headquarters in New York and the United Kingdom is going after social media companies that it calls “digital gangsters.” Implicit in this tech-lash is nostalgia for a more innocent online era.

But longing for a return to the internet’s yesteryears isn’t constructive. In the early days, access to the web was expensive and exclusive, and it was not reflective or inclusive of society as a whole. What is worth revisiting is less how it felt or operated, but what the early web stood for. Those first principles of creativity, connection and collaboration are worth reconsidering today as we reflect on the past and the future promise of our digitized society.

The early days of the internet were febrile with dreams about how it might transform our world, connecting the planet and democratizing access to knowledge and power. It has certainly effected great change, if not always what its founders anticipated. If a new democratic global commons didn’t quite emerge, a new demos certainly did: An internet of people who created it, shared it and reciprocated in its use.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here.

Work Harder? No!

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Volumes have been written about the dangers of overwork, but a recent article captured just how bad it is for us…and how we get less done. Here’s how it begins:

Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, is a big fan of extreme overwork. He recently praised China’s “996” practice, so called because it refers to those who put in 12-hour days — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — six days a week. This “is not a problem,” he said in a recent blog post, instead calling it a “blessing.”

The response from others in China was swift. “If all enterprises enforce a 996 schedule, no one will have children,” one person argued on the same platform. “Did you ever think about the elderly at home who need care, the children who need company?” It even prompted a response from Chinese state media, which reminded everyone, “The mandatory enforcement of 996 overtime culture not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but also is unfair and impractical.”

Managers who think like Mr. Ma can be found the world over. Here at home, Elon Musk, a co-founder of Tesla, has argued that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Uber reportedly used to use the internal mantra “Work smarter, harder and longer.” (It’s now just “smarter” and “harder.”) The company has also rebranded second jobs as clever “side hustles.” WeWork decorates its co-working spaces with phrases like, “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you are done.” Other tech and business gurus try to sell us on “toil glamour.

The truth is that they’re all wrong. Workers certainly suffer when forced to put in extreme hours. But business fares just as poorly. No one benefits from people pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned that putting in extra hours is associated with poorer health, including weight gain and higher alcohol and tobacco use, and increased injury, illness and even mortality. Health researchers have found that overwork is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

There’s a ceiling on how much more someone can get done by simply spending more time at work. After about 48 hours a week, a worker’s output drops sharply, according to a Stanford economist. Other research has appeared to support this finding. While there may be an initial burst of activity from overworking, people who work more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who go home at a normal hour and get some rest.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Phone Time

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Much ink has been spilled talking about how our smart phones can dominate our lives. But can they shorten them? Catherine Price thinks so. Here’s how she began a recent piece:

If you’re like many people, you may have decided that you want to spend less time staring at your phone.

It’s a good idea: an increasing body of evidence suggests that the time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.

But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives.

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

These effects can be lifesaving if you are actually in physical danger — like, say, you’re being charged by a bull. But our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss.

Want more? You can read it here

Steve Jobs Last Essay

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Steve Jobs died a billionaire at age 56. This is his final essay:

I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world.  In some others’ eyes, my life is the epitome of success.  However, aside from work, I have little joy.  In the end, my wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.  At this moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death.

You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you.  Material things lost can be found or replaced.  But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost – Life.  Whichever stage in life you are in right now, with time, you will face the day when the curtain comes down.

Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well and cherish others.  As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we realize that a $300 or a $30 watch both tell the same time.  You will realize that your true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world.  Whether you fly first class or economy, if the plane goes down – you go down with it.

Therefore, I hope you realize, when you have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who you chat with, laugh with, talk with, have sing songs with, talk about north-south-east-west or heaven and earth, that is true happiness!  Don’t educate your children to be rich.  Educate them to be happy. So when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price.  Eat your food as your medicine, otherwise you have to eat medicine as your food.

The one who loves you will never leave you for another because, even if there are 100 reasons to give up, he or she will find a reason to hold on. There is a big difference between a human being and being human.  Only a few really understand it.  You are loved when you are born. You will be loved when you die.  In between, you have to manage!

Luxury Good?

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Most of us have access to high-technology, especially on our computers, tablets, phones and other devices. But have we stopped to think about how it is impacting our lives?

Here is how Hubert Dryfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly put it in their book, “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.”
To navigate by GPS is to ensure a series of meaningless pauses at the end of which you do precisely what you are told. There is something deeply dehumanizing about this. Indeed, in an important sense this experience turns you into an automated device GPS can use to arrive at its destination.

A recent article in the New York Times went further, suggesting not only that “apps” are dominating our lives, but that they are sorting us economically – those with the means don’t depend on apps as much as those who are not as financially well-off. Here is how the piece begins:

Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry.

All day long, Sox and Mr. Langlois, who is 68 and lives in a low-income senior housing complex in Lowell, Mass., chat. Mr. Langlois worked in machine operations, but now he is retired. With his wife out of the house most of the time, he has grown lonely.

Sox talks to him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, after which she is named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him pictures from his wedding. And because she has a video feed of him in his recliner, she chastises him when she catches him drinking soda instead of water.

Mr. Langlois knows that Sox is artifice, that she comes from a start-up called Care.Coach. He knows she is operated by workers around the world who are watching, listening and typing out her responses, which sound slow and robotic. But her consistent voice in his life has returned him to his faith.

“I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was,” Mr. Langlois said. “She’s brought my life back to life.”

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.
As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.

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