At peace with the news

At peace with the news – dove and olive branch

My father had a reputation as a very smart guy who, at the same time, was notoriously bad at taking care of his own health. He never exercised, he worked himself ragged, drank a fair bit, and smoked right up to the day the doctors put him on oxygen. Nevertheless, he also did a lot of things right, and – like any father’s son I suppose – I owe a great deal of who I am, to who he was.

As a kid I was lucky enough to be smart enough to appreciate Dad’s virtues as virtues, while understanding his vices were just vices. Any kid who’s paying attention has an opportunity to learn twofold from their parents, once by mimicking their strengths, and once again by seeing what doesn’t work, what not to do.

And so I grew into a man with my father’s appreciation of beauty, his love for nature and science, his decency and honesty, his eye for a good design and his love for anything that simply works. And an ability to tie a fast bowline. Conversely, I never smoked, I kept work and play in balance, I ate healthy, and I got outside for a run every day. These are all things I owe to my dad.

What’s this got to do with news? My dad cared deeply about the state of the world and was continually curious. Because of these things, he enjoyed news – heavy news, and lots of it. Eventually it got to be too much for him though. The last ten years of his life could have been much happier if only he had gotten a grip on his over-consumption of news, so it didn’t hurt him. As it was, though, news about killed him. It was harder on him in its own way than smoking.

It’s not like Dad was some unique isolated case, either. When anyone consumes too much unhealthy news, the damage creeps up slowly, just like with cigarettes, whiskey, or fatty food. A young person might smoke and run up mountains, drink heavy while keeping a good job, or eat bad and still look hot in a bikini. Or similarly, they might mainline mainstream news, and it only seems to energize them, the more the better. But check back, decade after decade – after decade – and you’ll be witness to the gradual breaking down, the wear, the sagging. A body can only take so much.

As an older guy myself now, I never want that endpoint scenario to befall me. It’s one more thing I can learn from Dad – I’ve seen firsthand, in someone I loved, how news can eventually crush a person.

What is it that’s potentially so dangerous about news? Well, it’s both toxic, and addictive. Addictive, because all content creators and packagers of news, without exception, win versus their competitors based on how quick the headline grabs you, and how tight the story grips you. They go to school, they learn techniques for this. Toxic, because no matter how smart you are, and how inner-directed you might be, a steady overconsumption of news will give you a weird perspective on the world that just isn’t true, that you could never have come up with on your own. When my dad died, anybody could see how the smoking finally got the better of him. But as his son I saw something else. News got the better of him, too. By the time he died, it killed his spirit. It killed the sense of beauty and wonder and goodness in the world that he once had had, as surely as the smoking killed his body.

But that’s not especially cheery. Let’s completely change the subject! ¡Cambio de tema!

Reading; cartoon drawing of a book

Reading fascinates me. I spend an inordinate amount of time just thinking about reading. I don’t mean actually reading – I mean thinking about reading. I think specifically about the kind of general-interest reading that a person does just for the fun of learning something new. This isn’t the reading one has to do for their work or to complete a project. And it isn’t the reading one does purely for relaxation, like fiction or a glossy magazine. It’s that middle category, between work and play. Of course these three categories of reading blend over at the edges. But I’m focused here on reading that’s not in service of an immediate goal, and it isn’t for winding down before bed or at the beach. We all do it – books or articles we read just because it’s fun learning, we like “being well-read,” we enjoy discovering new things.

This is actually worth thinking about. There is plenty of room for theory here, and better ways of doing things. The simple act of reading just to learn something new is part of the larger field of KM, Knowledge Management. There ARE best practices; there are better and worse ways to go about it.

I myself don’t actually read that much (I prefer instead to theorize about reading). I average maybe 15-20 minutes a day. I get through maybe 2-3 books a year. But because of the limited time I spend, whenever I am reading, I want it to be good. I want the author to be somebody I like or respect or both. I’m sensitive to these things. And when I do find something of real quality, I feel a little thrill. I suspect we are all that way. It’s that same simple thrill anybody gets, discovering something new and good. Right now, because I’ve committed to reading 90% in Spanish, the need to find interestingness – quality – is higher for me than it’s ever been. It has to be really good if it’s to push through the natural friction of reading in my weaker language.

What constitutes a great read? (I’m still referring only to the kind of reading that isn’t for work, and it isn’t for play, it’s just interesting. I’ve always called this "learning for its own sake" – no specific reason, but we know it’s a good thing.) As a general rule, what works for me is going to do the opposite for you, and vice versa. People’s tastes in reading are as individual as their tastes in music, in friends, or places to live, or what to do with a day off. But some things are universal. The author will be a good writer. They will love their subject, and they will know more about it than you ever will. And most importantly, it’s got to be one of your favorite subjects.

You can hope that the next thing you read is going to be just like this – super interesting, super high quality. But if hoping is all you’re doing, you’re going to be wading through a lot of boring, junky, even irritating, baloney. Over the years I’ve played with many systems for this, constantly tweaking. The Holy Grail would be almost no work, yet dish up great reading on a continuing basis without clutter or distraction. It’s delightful getting systems like this to work – you can see now why I like thinking about reading, more than the reading itself. Any good system for reading will make it easy, almost automatic, to save favorite sources that you commonly have good luck with, to discover new sources, to bring articles or books from these sources into your collection for reading later, to automatically delete or archive after an article or book is read. And it will include feedback, so that when you discover something great, you can go: "More like this!!” It’s basically mining. Rich ore would be those authors or publishers you’ve had great luck with in the past, along with loose recommendations and other clues you gather along the way. There would be some prospecting, hoping to get lucky and find that next goldmine. There would be something that takes the rich ore and sifts it for nuggets. It should all happen with little fanfare. It has to, in fact – nobody has time to fiddle around in heavy searching. You want great articles or books to just be there, continually replenished and ready when you are, so you can pick them up any time, absentmindedly. Then, after you’ve read them, you want them to go away. But be easy to relocate, if the need crops up. Most importantly, the system should invisibly shield you from sickening garbage – garbage, that is, by your own very personal definition of what garbage smells like to you. When you reach for something to read, you should never have to think. There should be only good stuff. And there should be no junky stuff.

Driving and steering any simple system like this, there has to be a gentle but continuous habit of paying attention to what we actually like. Why did we like it? Was it the writing? The subject matter? The author as a person? The length or format? By continually paying attention to interestingness, it’s possible, like exercising any muscle, to become much clearer about your own interests as opposed to the generalized interests of the wider public.

I’ve discovered something quite unexpected by paying attention in this way. Often when I read something and I think "Man, that was perfect, I wish I could find more like that," and then I ask the question "why did I like it so much?" it has to do with subject matter, of course. It related to me and my interests, now, today. But also, there’s an undeniable dash of…

… Freshness! It’s brand-new information, hot off the presses. And it’s serendipitous. There’s surprise, a feeling of discovering something completely unexpected. Now, that’s just me, what I’ve learned about myself. But unfortunately for me, it leads me right back around and lands me plunk dab in the middle of…

NEWS; boring icon of a newspaper

Ugg.

But let’s face it, any really robust system ought to be able to handle the problem of news, shouldn’t it? That’s actually the litmus test. If it never collects anything trashy or substandard (again, by one’s personal idea of that, whatever it might be) then, by definition, it will filter out the addictive and the toxic. That’s a tall order, though. When you get around news, you are flying awfully close to the flame. Or the whirlpool. Burned, or sucked in, choose your metaphor. There’s a lot of news that tastes just yummy, but it’s bad nutrition for one’s feeble brain, in fact too much could kill you. So the system you make has to be so unbreakable, so precise, yet so simple, that it quietly presents for your reading enjoyment nothing but high-quality news. Which is not an oxymoron, as much as it might sound like it.

When we think of news, we tend to think of headline news – political, controversial and dramatic. But news of course is happening in every field of human endeavor. Paleontologists have news; even historians have news. Small towns have news, and if you live in one, it’s really interesting. There’s space news, business news, ag news. News is actually easy to focus with precision, and within each focus, there will be ways to locate the quality.

So, how to accomplish this careful but automatic filtering based on personal criteria? The answer to the puzzle is (of course)… Technology! There are some sweet tools available to me which weren’t available to my dad. We have fine-grain control now, if we only give the matter some attention. Any good system only needs to be organized once, and then it will go on steadily serving us for years. Each person will go about this differently, but it’s a happy thing to invent a process that works great for you.

For the past two months I’ve been tweaking a system that I really like. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I’ve been fully at peace around news. Constrained now in a way that lets quality through and the rest out of view, news suddenly feels friendly. I’m enjoying the freshness of new material, the freedom to follow my own strong interests anywhere I want, and the fun of discovery, without going anywhere near the beast that got my dad – and plenty of other people I’ve known just like him.

Here’s my recipe now. I’m excited about it. It’s very simple, and it works. It will go on evolving of course. But several of the most important pieces didn’t even exist until recently, yet they won’t go away now. They’re here for anybody to use going forward.

The three components that make this work are hardware, software, and habits. Let’s start with habits, and describe this backwards to hardware. Each morning as part of starting my day, I display the timer on my phone and hit start. With the timer ticking down I now have five minutes to do news – that’s five minutes not only to check the headlines, but also in that same tight timeframe, to discover and collect a couple nuggets of real quality to me personally. I really can do this in five minutes. Sometimes I’ll go into a few minutes of overtime. But really, it’s enough time. It isn’t even stressful. It feels effective yet relaxed.

My preferred device for doing this is Flaco, my Android tablet, but that isn’t important. What is important is the first piece of software, a good RSS reader. I use Pulse. The first channel at the top I call Today (“Hoy” actually) and it only has two feeds: Google Noticias Argentina, and Google News United States. Pulse only displays the seven most active news stories from each of the two feeds, so 14 headlines in all. In less than one minute, I’m familiar with all the top stories that day. And so, about 60 seconds into the timer, I’m ready to ask the all-important question: “Is this a day when I need to be paying attention?" Surprisingly, the answer is hardly ever yes. Day after day, month after month – maybe 360 days of the 365 – if you view the top stories in this way your overriding conclusion is going to be "Hmmm… business as usual!" Many days this whole thing is over in 30 seconds. Today the second-ranked story on Google US was “Man loses life savings playing carnival game, wins giant banana.” I seriously did not make this up. You might wonder, is Google broken? No, it’s not. When a story like that shoulders its way to second place, it’s a trustworthy indicator that the “lesser” stories (in this case, a collapsing sweatshop in Bangladesh) are okay to skip. Real need-to-know news will overpower the giant banana, every time.

So you’ve now spent 60 seconds of your precious time, arriving at the surprising conclusion that nothing unusual is happening today. That was time well spent. You are free now to follow your interests anywhere.

I’ve got four minutes left to explore among a nice collection of my own sources which have dependably produced great material in the past. These are organized into categories – in my case a channel for agriculture, one for science and gadgetry, one for international business and development economics, one for Argentina, another for Bolivia. One is Opinion – individual writers I quite like. And one, importantly, I call Maybe, “Tal vez.” (All of these are Spanish in my case.) I’m always adding additional feeds that I think I might like, as I run across them. I stick them under Maybe. Eventually some will emerge as new favorites. I’ll move them up under one of the major channels. Most, though, will eventually get deleted, or dropped into a “C” channel I keep for low-grade stuff.

Now let’s say I’m nosing around in this high-grade ore. And unsurprisingly, I spot a nugget. This is where a second kind of software comes in. There are several good ones available, but basically they are simple utilities which pull clean unformatted body text out of any webpage, along with one or two basic images if they’re essential to the story. They then organize these clean clippings as articles, which form into a simple magazine, which synchronizes to all your devices. The one I use is called Instapaper, but I also like Pocket. The important advantage of Instapaper over Pocket is that it plays happily with Kindle.

Kindle (is Pete talking about Kindle again?)

With either Instapaper or Pocket, the idea is cleaned-up articles you can read any time you want, on any device you might have handy – your phone, tablet, computer, whatever. This is worth something. It means you can be caught by surprise with a bunch of dead time, and quick, zero effort, catch up on the recent Blue Whale studies in Antarctica, or what Curiosity just dug up on Mars and what it might mean, or the spreading problem of Roundup resistance in Argentine weeds. Articles you will probably enjoy because you chose them (not these ones of course, your own).

That’s real nice sometimes, reading on your phone. But it turns out that Kindle is more than just an additional device, it’s a key piece here, it makes the system work. It’s the device where almost all reading gets done. I do sometimes read on my phone or tablet, but not often really. It’s hard for me to say why Kindle is so different, but it is. You have just the reading, nothing else. You can open it any time, read for a few minutes, or read for longer, and always it re-opens right where you left off. It’s dedicated; it’s not distracted by trying to do other things. Importantly for me, just highlighting with my finger brings up the dictionary definition of any word, or a good translation if it’s a phrase. I can read happily along in Spanish, but get a quick little boost past anything I don’t understand. All this is effortless. Dictionaries and translations can be accessed on my other devices too, of course. But Kindle is built from the ground up just for this purpose, and so it flat does everything better.

Spacer doodle

What about all the great reading out there, that isn’t news? And what about all the great news out there, that isn’t reading? Podcasts, video – what about those? And what about full-length books? And journals? What happens with the excellent content providers (National Geographic, the Economist) who don’t provide an RSS feed?

None of this turns out to be a problem. I’m not trapped in RSS, and I’m not trapped in bare text on a Kindle. The point is, this method delivers such consistently fresh, good material, so naturally and easily, that it keeps me very satisfied. It’s good informational nutrition; I never get hungry. It forms into a central habit that’s comforting. My simple Kindle has something reliably good on it, anytime I pick it up. All the other media, even the best of them, are hit or miss. Frustrating in fact. So the Kindle naturally becomes dominant over time.

The fact is, a little goes a long way for me – I really don’t want to read that much, in spite of this fancy-looking setup. I really don’t think it’s good to read too much. And after a certain point, I don’t enjoy it anyway. I watch videos even less, and TV not at all. (By the way though, if you do prefer video or podcasts to text, or just want to mix it up, all these same principles can be applied.) I quit print magazines, even the good ones. Meanwhile though, what reading I do do inevitably spins me off into other media – sometimes books, sometimes videos, or full sites I may want to visit directly. I seem to prefer articles over books, just because it fits my personality to jump around and explore on a daily basis. It’s common for me to stumble on a great article that I never would have seen via RSS, serendipitously in the course of researching for a project. Anything online in HTML lends itself to catching on Instapaper. Most books even, read great on a Kindle. It’s easy to range freely, and bring in good material from all over the place. It’s all good. But having a strongly functional system at the center of things keeps a peaceful quiet core for it all.

If you decide to try something like this, there are a few more things you’ll need, but you’ll figure them out naturally. Like how to quickly archive the best of the best, and ways to delete stuff you know you won’t want later, basic housekeeping. No need to go into that here. The heart of the matter is to combine consistent high-quality feeds (some of which I’ve used for years) with a well-organized feed reader that synchronizes reliably across devices, combined with a utility like Instapaper to send what you find into your own little magazine, automated so it shows up on any device, but especially Kindle. Add the little five-minute morning discipline, and what do you get? You will always be aware of the top stories of the day, at least by headline. But your actual reading will be based only on what matters to you, because you chose it. Bear in mind that during that five minute session each morning, you aren’t doing any reading at all. Headlines, and maybe a sentence or two – only enough for a thumbs-up/thumbs-down. That’s why it works. The careful choosing is one contained activity, and the actual reading is completely separate. Choosing and reading don’t get garbled together as they do when you wander around online, or explore inside one content provider like the New York Times. By separating the choosing from the reading, and limiting it to five minutes (during which you keep your brain fully engaged)… (and a person can do that for five minutes) all the tension goes away. There’s never any multitasking, or getting sucked in, or getting stuck too long online. And it goes without saying, nobody is doing the choosing for you, as they would with TV news or even a favorite magazine. It’s not addictive, anywhere along the way. And later on, when you do feel like reading something, it’s always the same – a simple Kindle, no junk, only quality.

The end – flourish … Well I guess not quite…

The setup I describe above is optimized for news. But there are actually two kinds of “freshness” in good reading. First, there’s something that just happened – this would be conventional news. But also there can be something you just discovered – a fresh new interest you are excited about. In this second case, RSS feeds from your favorite content providers won’t work. You really need to go out and find the articles yourself. They won’t get pushed to you automatically by this system.

This kind of reading – non-news, but nonetheless fresh to you – is easy to include in the same Instapaper-and-Kindle personalized magazine format. I use several approaches for picking up non-news articles. These can be quite good when I do find them, and they go into Instapaper in exactly the same way, landing on my Kindle mixed with the rest. Sometimes these articles will come from a direct search. I get curious about something, try a search phrase, good stuff pops up, and I drop it into Instapaper. Or, a conventional news story might be especially interesting, and I want to “steer” my reading in that direction for a while – “More like this.” In this case, I study the article itself for its keywords, put together some trial search phrases, and see which one produces the best hits. While fooling around like this, I’ll naturally stumble on more good reading – not news, general understanding material like a Wikipedia article or an overview posted by an organization. If the search phrase was particularly productive, and it’s a subject I’d like to follow longer-term, I’ll drop it into Google News as a custom section heading. If you haven’t personalized Google News yet, I really recommend it. I myself don’t care to follow movies, sports, or medical, so my Google News page doesn’t include those sections. It does, however, have sections for climate change and drug legalization. This crosses back over into news, of course. But the idea is to have fun with search, here and there as you think of it, quickly picking up some supplemental reading in your favorite subjects on the fly. Sometimes I like just following my curiosity for a few minutes, and see what turns up. At least I know if I find something, I don’t actually have to read it right then. I have a quick way to save it with the rest of my general reading, for later.

Believe it or not, all of this fits well with the five-minute routine each morning. Sometimes I skip Pulse and RSS, and dabble instead with a real search on something specific, or go to my personalized Google News page. I still only give myself five minutes, by the timer. It feels much the same. In the time I have, I can generally click one or two prime chunks of reading through to Instapaper, and they flow from there right onto Kindle.

Squiggle. One more little thing… PPS!

Did you know you can permanently remove all ads from a Kindle just by shelling out $20? Easy and worth it – go to Amazon, Manage my Kindle, Manage my devices, and give them your money. The ads will never come back, and you immediately get peaceful screensavers instead.

And now, I’ve completely trashed my commitment to keep my posts short and sweet!

Oh well. – P

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