Notes

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This is a microblog for frequent, shorter thoughts, interesting links and shaping ideas before they become full posts. The best way to follow is via my RSS feed.

Slow news

As I turned my phone back on after a week of intensive meditation practice this Sunday, I quickly checked in with my wife. She sent a video of our cat, so I guessed that meant everything was ok. But I didn’t check anything further and blissfully had all notifications off.

As a few of us drove together from rural Wales to Bristol, we surmised that England must be playing in the final because of all the English flags out. When I finally got settled in Bristol, I turned to one of my group chats with some friends and asked “Other than England making it to the finals, anything else happen last week?”

A friend repeated her message a bit further up: “Imagine Derek checking his phone for the first time after the week 🫠”

I feel no desire to hop on Reddit, Twitter, or check any of the news sites. I did eventually get my daily email from The Economist, and despite it being days after The Big Thing That Happened, the confirmed information is basically the same. Finding out about it a few days later made no difference, and in fact, I’d argue that skipping the apparent web of conspiracy theories meant I know more about The Big Thing That Happened than those who had been following it closely.

This all goes to say, you’re far betting off checking a high-quality news source every once in awhile than reading what’s the latest hashtags.

Intensive practice

I don’t like the word retreat when talking about a period of intensive practice. It feels too closed off, whereas the point of intestive practice is to return to the world, albeit with a different perspective.

And with that I’m off to the Welsh countryside for the next week for intensive meditation practice and a break from the internet.

Culture and smartphones

The most intriguing critique of Johnathon Haidt’s grand thesis that smartphones are creating something akin to a social collapse, is that we’re not seeing the same phenomenon outside of the English-speaking world. Derek Thompson has a long, complex explication thereof in America’s Top Export May Be Anxiety:

Put it all together—diagnostic inflation in medicine; prevalence inflation in media; negativity inflation in news—and one gets the distinct sense that Americans might be making themselves sick with pessimism, anxiety, and gloom. But that’s not all. Just as the U.S. has long been the global economy’s chief cultural exporter—from Coca-Cola to Mickey Mouse—it’s conceivable that we are disseminating throughout the English-speaking world a highly neurotic and individualistic approach to mental health, which is raising the salience of anxiety and depression for young people spending hours every day marinating in English-speaking media.

Thompson concludes:

I don’t want to let smartphones and social media off the hook here, nor do I think that my anxiety-inflation theory is a strong objection to Jonathan Haidt’s thesis in The Anxious Generation. Haidt himself has written about the content young people consume on social media, including the rise of a “reverse-CBT” ideology, which encourages catastrophic interpretations of normal thoughts and feelings.

The article that’s linked in that quote is really worth a read as well, which in turn links to several more fascinating reads. The short of it, a truly disempowering ideology, the reverse of cognitive behavioral therapy, has emerged as the defining ethos of English-speaking spocial media. We’re all fragile victims, we have no agency, and we’re all suffering some sort of trauma. Bullocks, of course. Haidt, quoting Greg Lukianoff sums up it:

They came to believe that they were fragile and would be harmed by books, speakers, and words, which they learned were forms of violence (Great Untruth #1).

They came to believe that their emotions—especially their anxieties—were reliable guides to reality (Great Untruth #2).

They came to see society as comprised of victims and oppressors—good people and bad people (Great Untruth #3).

There’s a bit about how Tumblr was the petri dish for this sort of thinking before it spread to the mainstream, largely in opposition to places like 4chan.

This all seems distinctly plausible, and it’s remarkable how much our social norms, particularly the philosophical assumptions underlining them, have changed in the span of a few decades. While these changes have likely sprung from good intentions, it’s hard to conclude that they have resulted in a net positive for society.

The problem with the e-Ink tablets

I’ve had my eye on e-Ink table for awhile. I’d something a bit less locked down than a Kindle, that I’d mostly use for reading and notes. Being able to pop online to look things up is nice. Access to my RSS feeds, read later, and email are nice touches that a Kindle simply doesn’t offer.

The problem is that all of the possible candidates are made in China by Chinese brands.

From Chuck’s review of his Hisense A7:

After my initial excitement subsided, I quickly realized that that the device is filled to the brim with bloatware and spyware. I can honestly say that the out-of-the-box experience is worse than a stock carrier-issued Samsung device. It regularly pings Chinese servers like qq.com (a massive Chinese tech company) and taobao.com (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon.com). Despite ripping out as much of the pre-installed garbage and some sketchy system applications via adb shell pm uninstall -k --user 0 [application name], these pings persisted. After several hours of tinkering, I eventually determined that they’re actually occurring at a system/root level (thanks to the network monitor application PCAPdroid). Rooting could be part of the solution here, but although progress has been made, it looks like a difficult process.

No thanks.

Yes, you can argue that Western devices have their own layers of spyware. But there’s a categorical difference to owning a device that’s part of the Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran axis.

Joy and asceticism

I’m back from just over a week in Italy, which times well with all the reading I’ve been doing about ultra-processed food. Naturally, I ate pizza, pasta, and pastries to my heart’s content without putting on any weight and always feeling nothing but delight.

An ultra-processed frozen pizza back home not only has more calories, it doesn’t leave me full. An hour later, I’m scrounging around the pantry for something else. Not the case with a pizza margarita in Naples.

In the Anglo world, weight loss is something of an ascetic feat. And you should to be miserable while doing it. In Italy and France, people aren’t the least bit deprived, and in fact I’d argue they derive far more joy from food than an American eating a frozen pizza or trying to lose weight.

In my meditation tradition, the founder teacher often referred to the broader practice of Buddhism as the path of joy and happiness. One doesn’t adopt austerities or turn away from worldly things through force of will or some sort of love for misery. Instead you develop a much deeper joy and happiness through practicing the path and then the coarser pleasures of the world simply hold no appeal. It’s not asceticism though. It’s a path of greater happiness.

In the same vein, I couldn’t imagine wanting a Big Mac or a bunch of packaged junk food in Italy. It’s just as easy and cheap to get deeply satisfying food.

Quoting from the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta of the Pali Canon:

Even though a noble disciple has clearly seen, as it is, with proper wisdom, how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering (appassādā kāmā bahudukkhā) and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, he is (still) not un-enticed by sensual pleasure. As long as he does not attain (mental) joy and (bodily) pleasure other than sensual pleasures (aññatreva kāmehi), other than unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, he may still be enticed by sensual pleasures (anāvaṭṭī kāmesu). (M I 91)

And then from Keren Arbel’s ‌The Liberative Role of Jhānic Joy (Pīti) and Pleasure (Sukha) in the Early Buddhist Path to Awakening:

Recalling the question with which we concluded the last section — do jhānic pīti and sukha [joy and happiness] have a certain purpose on the path to liberation additional to the contribution of clear seeing? — we find that the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta (and the Māgandiya Sutta) provide an answer: jhānic pīti and sukha, the result of clear seeing, also have a significant liberative role in the path of purification (as sammā samādhi). By experiencing jhānic pīti and sukha, the practitioner can let go of ‘coarse’ attachments, such as the desire for sensual and divine pleasures. (24 / 202)

You’ve reached the end, kind of

Notes are meant to be fleeting, so I only display the last 5 of them.