Delayed gratification, honey, and mediocrity for the win - Startlingly Awesome #4
Today is Monday, but it’s a holiday, so it counts as a Sunday. I hope your Labor Day weekend was startlingly awesome.
Feedback on this newsletter is now beginning to outpace worthless small talk as the primary interaction I have with people outside of work, which is a terrific change of pace and makes me look forward even more to writing it.
A common refrain I’ve heard is that while you very much enjoy reading the newsletter, you haven’t yet found the time to click through and read or watch or listen to any of the links I’ve included.
As much as I am flattered, I have to insist that if you’re only reading my takes and not using them as jumping-off points for further exploration, you’re missing out. So for item #1 this week, I’m introducing you to my favorite tool for making that more realistic.
Interesting things pass you by all the time. Heck, every Sunday I give you at least four. But in order to actually enjoy something, you have to have three things: that thing, the time to consume it, and the desire to put the required mental effort it.
It’s hard to find time, it’s hard to muster energy, and it’s hard to find quality things, much less all three at one. But what if there were a way to put the things in a queue, waiting and ready for the next time you find yourself with some time and and curious mind?
One of the best things I ever did was to start using a service called Pocket (neé Read It Later, which is a much better name but apparently led to some trademark issues). What Pocket does is very simple:
When I come across something that sounds interesting but I don’t have the time or energy to commit to reading or watching right now, I add it to Pocket.
When I pick up my phone or my computer to kill some time or entertain myself, instead of aimlessly browsing, I open up Pocket and choose one of the things my past self has already decided I’ll like. And he’s usually right.
Having a place to put things that might be worth my time — and knowing for sure that eventually I’ll come around to finding out — is very freeing. And it has the added benefit of making it harder for me to rationalize procrastination by pretending that if I don’t read something now, I’ll never get back to it.
If you don’t already have a one-click system for saving things for later, this might be the single most startlingly awesome thing you’ll ever learn from me. Do this:
Go sign up for Pocket.
Install the Pocket mobile app on your iPhone or Android phone.
Install the Pocket extension for your browser.
Now you’re ready to start living your best life.
If you have something open in a browser tab, you just click the little pocket symbol at the top of your browser and bam! Whatever you were looking at is now on your list. Close that tab and bask in your incrementally less cluttered world.
If you come across a link to something that sounds interesting but you don’t have time for it right now (ahem), don’t even click on it or open it. If you’re on your phone, long-press the link and use your phone’s “Share” menu to send it to Pocket. If you’re on your computer, right-click the link and choose “add to Pocket”.
There are some advanced tricks. If you’re a Firefox user, Pocket is sort of baked in. You can use a bookmarklet instead of an extension if you’re into that sort of thing. You can have Alexa and Hey Google add things to Pocket. You can integrate it with note taking apps like Evernote. You can use IFTTT to make it so that when you bookmark something in Feedly or star something on Reddit or favorite a tweet, links are ferreted out and added to your Pocket list.
But none of that is necessary or even close to as useful and magical as the simple, basic use case: giving your future self the gift of something good to read.
My sister is a nurse practitioner who runs a wound care clinic (think hard-to-heal problems like diabetic ulcers and bed sores). She has a nearly infinite array of cutting edge creams and bandages and therapies at her disposal — the result of decades of scientific medical research costing untold billions of dollars.
And yet one of the best infection preventatives for flesh wounds she knows of is something I had for breakfast this morning — honey. Plain old bee food. Honey is remarkably antimicrobial, tends to stick around (ha!) and create an airtight seal on top of wounds, has no side effects to speak of, and doesn’t create antibiotic resistant super-bacteria (bonus!).
Now that the science has been done, she and other doctors can prescribe honey (medical grade honey is tested to ensure it’s clean and pathogen free, but is otherwise identical to any raw honey you can buy in the store) and feel good about it.
But it wasn’t that long ago that she would have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that (for example) honey is the anchor of a legitimate and very effective post-surgical would care regimen.
At some magical point in the recent past, honey sold its house in the unincorporated village of Oldwivestaleton and bought a new penthouse condo in downtown Respected Science, and its new neighbors all started pretending it had been there the whole time.
This phenomenon — where something that once tended to be ridiculed as laughable becomes mainstream, data-backed, good science — is fascinating to me.
Some other examples that come to mind:
Meditation used to be a joke; now it’s prescribed by medical doctors as a way to reduce cortisol.
The richest people in the world really do get together in a once-secret, allegedly debaucherous place called Bohemian Grove that for years was a central plank in many conspiracy theories.
When Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis recommended that doctors could prevent deadly infections by washing their hands, he was ridiculed and ostracized by the medical community. He died after being beaten in the mental asylum he was later committed to [~5 minute read].
Plate tectonics (the theory of how the continents and other parts of the surface of the earth move around on the underlying magma) was thought ridiculous for decades before the evidence started to pile up. Its outspoken detractors included a little-known genius called Albert Einstein. Similar stories for heliocentrism (the Earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around), evolution, electricity, radiation, and a bunch of other old world mysteries.
The guy who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria [~6 minute read] was fighting against a scientific community that was so sure he was wrong that he had to resort to experimenting on himself. He swallowed a bunch of bacteria, got a stomach ulcer, and then cured himself.
The reason this process is so interesting is that it makes debunking current pseudoscience and conspiracy theories really complicated (in a way that a lot of debunkers tend not to understand).
If all of these amazing scientific discoveries were made by people who were making claims the scientific establishment thought ridiculous at the time, this tends to indicate that some small portion of the things the current scientific establishment holds dear is also incorrect.
The anti-vaxxer would tell you that blind spot is the dangers of vaccines. The climate change denier thinks most scientists aren’t seeing that set of evidence for what it really is. The flat-earther has his own ideas. And so on.
It’s easy to point at a person who believes the earth is flat and say, “How could this person believe this when so many smart people have explained very well why he shouldn’t?” And indeed, many smart people have. It seems clear that on this issue, the science really is overwhelming, and the earth is quite round(ish). But how do we confidently distinguish between overwhelming scientific evidence and an overwhelming chorus of incorrect scientists?
I think that this is harder than we let on, and every time we make fun of someone for getting that judgement call a little bit wrong, we do both science and that misguided person a disservice.
All of which was really a long-winded way to introduce this fascinating piece from one of my favorite bloggers — Jacob Falkovich at Put a Number on It! [~6 minute read].
In it he talks about experimenting with a process called Focusing. Developed by a psychologist called Eugene Gendlin, Focusing involves “communicating with ‘felt senses’ in your body to achieve insight into previously hidden parts of your mind”.
This sounds like utter hippie bullshit, and the author admits as such. Yet it has some significant scientific research backing it up, and an avalanche of mounting evidence that it really works.
This led to the above screed on honey and pseudoscience because it seems like exactly the same kind of thing — something that sounds weird and hackneyed and silly now but will seem obviously effective and scientific to our grandchildren, given the hindsight of future research.
I’ve ordered the book. I’ll let you know.
What if mediocrity is the most likely path to success, and what we should have been striving for this whole time? [~25 minute read]
If so, I’m really ahead of the game.
Some estimates say that 20-50% of the art market is fake — forgeries.
My favorite quote on the subject is this quip from a 1940 issue of Newsweek: “…of the 2,500 authentic works painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,800 are in American collections alone. ”
This terrific narrative from the Atavist [~55 minute read] delves into the minds and motivations of the forgers, including one who was recently caught. It’s like a real life Catch Me If You Can.
If an alien civilization arrived in orbit around Earth, what would they think?
As this cheeky 1966 Oscar-nominated short film [~10 minute watch] argues, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine an alien anthropologist mistaking automobiles for the dominant life form.
Funny, but at that 1960s sort of slow pace.
Have a great four-day week. And let me know if you give Pocket a try.