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What I’m Learning: Day 13/365

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Weil on dealing with temptations of inner life:

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Weil on reacting to evil with integrity:

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

Weil on making the most of time and conquering procrastination:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

Weil on the three disciplines (attention, imagination, and reflection) necessary for becoming a complete being:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In a very provocative and data-intense interview, Bryan Caplan makes the case for what he calls “the white elephant in the room” which is we have too much education (in the sense of schooling) and society’s efforts to pour more money (in the form of subsidization) into education is like pouring gasoline in the fire.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Avner de-Shalit on the Spirit of Cities (Social Science Bites)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the essence of a city:

By a city we mean both a physical thing and a level of relationships between people; so just like a community, it could be something that you see, that has borders, but it could also be level of relationships, a kind of altruistic relationship between people, so we think the city represents a kind of level of relationship between people plus the physical things: so the neighborhood, the streets, the monuments.

On what it means for a city to have a spirit:

…it is an ethos. It is the dominant or prevalent set of ideas, goals, that people have about the meaning of their life in their cities. So if you believe that your city, the inhabitants, the political institutions of the city, should have a goal or a mission that should be promoted then that’s the ethos or the spirit of the city…Oxford has a spirit of learning. Jerusalem has a spirit of religion. New York has a spirit of ambition. Amsterdam has a spirit of tolerance and accepting people. Paris has a spirit of romance, something like anti-bourgeois romantic thinking. And so on. Not every city has a spirit. Some cities choose not to have a spirit: they want to be cosmopolitan just like every other place, and some cities fail to have a spirit: you have to have some conditions in order to develop a spirit.

On why it’s important to study cities in terms of them having or not having a spirit:

One reason is because it’s interesting – so that’s the scientific reason: I think it’s true and I want to show that it’s true. The other one is normative: if it’s true this could be some challenges to a state and to nationality. I come from a place where many people are nationalistic and I don’t like it, and the state is very strong and I don’t like it. I think states are struggling to be meaningful these days but they cannot be because they have to submit themselves to the rules of the market, so to speak, or even to regulations of the IMF, the World Bank: what really matters is the market, globalism. So states are becoming less and less meaningful. I think that people do want to experience this sense of particularity. They do want to feel that there’s something unique about their social and political life. So maybe the city can be an alternative in that sense.

On the methodologies employed when trying to ascertain the spirit of a city:

It’s a combination of two things right, one is the interviews and here you have again the combination of prearranged structured interviews, but mostly we just bump into people in the street and nag them and ask them if they want a glass of wine or café and talk to them like half an hour and then we thank them (and promise to send them a book, which we never do – sorry, we should have done this). And we believe that this way of strolling in the city, les flaneurs, (I forget who did this): the stroller was compared to a botanist of the street. You just go and you smell things and look at things and you get the impression. I guess that in the first day you have a lot of mistakes, but then two, three, four days that you’ve been working like eight hours a day and talking to people you get so many interviews that you gradually have this idea of what the city is all about. And then to this we add these interpretations of architecture and planning. But not only interpretation of monuments but also interpretation of behavior and customs, like for example, take early morning espresso in a café. Okay, in New York, you enter, ‘can I help you sir?’ and you pay and then you get it. In Paris, no, you have to talk first, you have to have a discussion, then you pay. Why is it? What is the idea of having an early espresso and having a chat with the person who serves you the espresso or with the person who is sitting or standing actually next to you? How does it aim to build a community and build relationships in the city? So we do all these interpretations of monuments, behaviors, customs, plus all these interviews. What’s the point? The point is hopefully to generalize about cities and their role in life.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 12 | Roger W. Garrison

Activity XI: One episode from the future of education podcast

Thursday Interview: “Free to Learn” with Peter Gray

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

At the beginning of the interview, Steve Hargadon asks Peter Gray about his opinions concerning the outcomes of traditional education and Gray opens with a statement about how focusing on outcomes has been the problem, not the answer:

The whole problem is looking at the outcome. The problem is, you can’t really measure an education. We have become so outcome oriented. Once you have an idea of an outcome that you’re going to be able to educate people and measure their education, then you’ve got school as you know it today. If you have the idea that people educate themselves, they do it for their own purposes, they do it in accordance with their own ways, then you’re not measuring it. You’re not talking about outcome anymore…Unless you’re talking about outcome in a very different way…not as what our children are learning, but in terms of are children growing up o live happy lives? Are they becoming generally moral people? Are they happy people? Are they good citizens in our larger society? That kind of outcome that can’t be measured year to year or moment to moment, but only in the long term is the kind of outcome I would say is the only meaningful outcome in educational research.

Echoing much of what he says in his book, Free to Learn, Gray bemoans compulsory schooling for the variety of ways in which it inhibits learning, encroaches on the freedom of children, and stunts the development of autonomy, critical thinking, and creativity?

In discussing the importance of trusting children, Gray says the following:

There has never been any time or place in human history in which people have underestimated children’s abilities to the degree that we do today in our culture…Society’s in the past have understood that children are capable of much much more than we believe.

On why he chooses to compare schools to prisons even though he knows the word sounds controversial:

By reasonable definition, they are clearly are prisons. I think we need to stop using euphamisms. Compulsory education means forced education. And so we should call it forced education…the law says you have to be there…in most states in the United States…the school system in the state does its best [in most cases] to make it seem as if its required. If they’re not in school, they can go to juvenile detention, they can basically be put in that kind of prison for not going to school. The parents can be arrested if they don’t send their children to school or make appropriate arrangements…and those arrangements can be difficult to make in different places. So basically, the law is saying they have to be there. So the kids feel they have no choice and while there the child is deprived of basic human rights: there’s no freedom to associate with whom you please. You have to be in that classroom associating with the people in that classroom. There’s no freedom of speech. You speak in the way that you’re told to speak. You’re told what is the right and wrong answer to things. There are proper things to say and not-proper things to say. There’s no freedom of vote. There’s no choice in what you are allowed to do. There’s no freedom to choose your own path to happiness. All the human rightsthat  we think of as basic American human rights are taken away. Every move is monitored…even if you move from class to class, you’re being observed and watched if not directly by hall monitors, then by security cameras. So it really is a prison like setting. So if you’re compelled to be there and while you’re there, you’re compelled to do just what you’re told to do, that is one definition of a prison. So I think it’s not just that school is like a prison, it is a prison and we should call it that. So then the question becomes “Do children need to be put in this kind of prison for their own sake?” And the burden of proof should be on the premise that they need to be…have we proven that children are a danger to others or themselves if they’re not put in this institution? Have we proven that they can’t educate themselves…if they have control over their own education? Absolutely not! We’ve never proven that. And in fact, we can very easily prove the opposite.

Activity XII: Read one Paris Review Interview

Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203 Interviewed by Sam Weller

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Bradbury on what Science Fiction is and why he loves it:

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.

On having opinions about other writing styles:

I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

On the early struggles faced by Science-Fiction writers:

To some extent. It took a long time for people simply to allow us out in the open and stop making fun of us. When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening, or Buck Rogers. Of course sixty years ago hardly any books were being published in the field. Back in 1946, as I remember, there were only two science-fiction anthologies published. We couldn’t afford to buy them anyway, since we were all too poor. That’s how bereft we were, that’s how sparse the field was, that’s how unimportant it all was. And when the first books finally began to be published, lots of them in the early fifties, they weren’t reviewed by good literary magazines. We were all closet science-fiction writers.

On the use of Science-Fiction as an indirect and creative means of discussing important, but contentious, ideas:

Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.

I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.

On his practice of tuning out other writers and focusing on his own work:

I prefer not to read the younger writers in the field. Quite often you can be depressed by discovering they’ve happened onto an idea you yourself are working on. What you want is simply to get on with your own work.

On the power of exercising initiative and taking risks:

One day in Tucson, Arizona, when I was twelve, I told all my friends I was going to go down to the nearest radio station to become an actor. My friends snorted and said, Do you know anyone down there? I said no. They said, Do you have any pull with anyone? I said no. I’ll just hang around and they’ll discover how talented I am. So I went to the radio station, hung around for two weeks emptying ashtrays and running out for newspapers and just being underfoot. And two weeks later I wound up on radio every Saturday night reading the comics to the kiddies: Bringing Up Father, Tailspin Tommy, and Buck Rogers.

On what he’s learned from other writers:

Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth.

Oh how he developed his sense of lyricism and the importance of studying other writers:

From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well. I used to study Eudora Welty. She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! You must study these things to be a good writer. Welty would have a woman simply come into a room and look around. In one sweep she gave you the feel of the room, the sense of the woman’s character, and the action itself. All in twenty words. And you say, How’d she do that? What adjective? What verb? What noun? How did she select them and put them together? I was an intense student. Sometimes I’d get an old copy of Wolfe and cut out paragraphs and paste them in my story, because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated! And then I’d retype whole sections of other people’s novels just to see how it felt coming out. Learn their rhythm.

On his refusal to force himself to appreciate respected writers whose work failed to invoke interest:

If people put me to sleep, they put me to sleep. God, I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep. The same for Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have many ideas. I’m completely idea oriented, and I appreciate certain kinds of French writing and English storytelling more. I just can’t imagine being in a world and not being fascinated with what ideas are doing to us.

On his love for libraries and self-education:

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

On the inability of colleges to teach someone to be a writer:

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

On the importance of following your own instincts:

Oh, God. It’s everything. I was offered the chance to write War and Peace for the screen a few decades ago. The American version with King Vidor directing. I turned it down. Everyone said, How could you do that? That’s ridiculous, it’s a great book! I said, Well, it isn’t for me. I can’t read it. I can’t get through it, I tried. That doesn’t mean the book’s bad. I just am not prepared for it. It portrays a very special culture. The names throw me. My wife loved it. She read it once every three years for twenty years. They offered the usual amount for a screenplay like that, a hundred thousand dollars, but you cannot do things for money in this world. I don’t care how much they offer you, and I don’t care how poor you are. There’s only one excuse ever to take money under those circumstances: If someone in your family is horribly ill and the doctor bills are piled up so high that you’re all going to be destroyed. Then I’d say, Go on and take the job. Go do War and Peace and do a lousy job. And be sorry later.

On how passion, not discipline, drives his writing:

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

On his ability to write anywhere:

I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

On his practice of listing nouns and how it helped him become a good writer:

in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer.

On the importance of writing for yourself:

You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things.

On using the combination of what you hate and what you love to spark creative ideas:

I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

On why he prefers to write short stories:


Why do you think you prefer short stories to novels? Is it an issue of patience? They call it attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder these days.


I think there’s some truth to that. Turn a liability into an asset. My attention is not there. So, I write what I can write: short stories.

On his love for writing and his determination to approach the creative process with a sense of play:

It’s the exquisite joy and madness of my life, and I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. If I had to work at it I would give it up. I don’t like working.

On optimism versus optimal behavior:

I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes. I learned a lesson years ago. I had some wonderful Swedish meatballs at my mother’s table with my dad and my brother and when I finished I pushed back from the table and said, God! That was beautiful. And my brother said, No, it was good. See the difference?

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.

On his romantic and spiritual love for books:

There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it.

On the key to a lasting marriage:

If you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t have a marriage. In that film Love Story, there’s a line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Love means saying you’re sorry every day for some little thing or other. You make a mistake. I forgot the lightbulbs. I didn’t bring this from the store and I’m sorry. You know? So being able to accept responsibility, but above all having a sense of humor, so that anything that happens can have its amusing side.

On the importance of writing for an audience of one:

Every time you write for anyone, regardless of who they are, no matter how right the cause you may believe in, you lie. Steinbeck is one of the few writers out of the thirties who’s still read, because he didn’t write for causes at all. He wrote human stories that happened to represent causes indirectly. The Grapes of Wrath and his other books are not political treatises. Fahrenheit 451 is in a way a political treatise, but it isn’t, because all it is saying, emotionally, is: Everyone leave everyone else alone!

On literature as a force for social change:

By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.

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