A more pragmatic morality

The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions –and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return?

from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

“we overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought”

From The Attention Merchants:

Any communication, Lippmann came to see, is potentially propagandistic, in the sense of propagating a view. For it presents one set of facts, or one perspective, fostering or weakening some “stereotype” held by the mind. It is fair to say, then, that any and all information that one consumes—pays attention to—will have some influence, even if just forcing a reaction. That idea, in turn, has a very radical implication, for it suggests that sometimes we overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives, whether it is our evaluation of a product or a political proposition. And if that is true, in the battle for our attention, there is a particular importance in who gets there first or most often. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected—rural dwellers or the urban poor—who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate.

I’m hoping to bundle this book up into my next book review for The New Stack.

When bored, work on something else

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more. Isaac Asimov

This reminds of a Nassim Taleb idea on book reading: always be reading many, many books. If you get bored with one, just move to the other, and keep rotating.

Millions of words

When I was about nineteen, a professor in college sat me down once with a sad look on his face and said to me, almost like he was giving a cancer diagnosis, “You’re going to be a writer.” If you’re old enough to read this, you probably already know if this is your fate, too.The only rule is you have to write millions of words continuously until your death. If you have no problem with that, you’ll probably be fine. Conversely if you can imagine not doing that, you probably shouldn’t try to be a writer.

Source: Behind the Books with Matt Taibbi

From “The Call of Cthulhu”

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

“The Call of Cthulhu,” H.P. Lovecraft

From “The Haunter of the Dark”

Against these, some two miles away, rose the spectral hump of Federal Hill, bristling with huddled roofs and steeples whose remote outlines wavered mysteriously, taking fantastic forms as the smoke of the city swirled up and enmeshed them. Blake had a curious sense that he was looking upon some unknown, ethereal world which might or might not vanish in dream if ever he tried to seek it out and enter it in person.

“The Haunter of the Dark,” H.P. Lovecraft.