The End of Average

The last of the books I picked up on a whim while in Singapore is Todd Rose’s The End of Average. It’s a short, popular psychology read with a pretty simple premise: no one is average. Rose’s book isn’t trumpeting some utopian ideal where everyone is above average. Instead it’s a look at the generally shaky science and history behind our reliance on averages.

The common mistake we make when relying upon averages is to compare individuals rather than groups. He opens the book relating the story of Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels, who discovered that designing a plane cockpit around the measurements of an average pilot meant it fit no pilot. Rather than a reliance on averages Rose argues for three principles.

Jaggedness

Talent, among other things, is jagged. What Rose means is that we cannot apply one-dimensional thinking when looking to understand something that isn’t evenly distributed. Much of our intelligence consists of multiple dimensions that are only very weakly related to one another.

He gives the example of Isiah Thomas, who as General Manager of the New York Knicks set out to build a high-scoring roster of players. The problem is that he prioritized scoring averages for every player. And simply having talented scorers doesn’t mean that talent translates to rebounding, defense, and the numerous other skills required to excel as a basketball team.

Context

In explaining the importance of context Rose relates the work of Yuichi Shoda. What Shoda’s research showed was that the way we behave always depends on both the individual and the situation. For example, while we may identify as an introvert or an extrovert what Shoda’s research illustrates is that we’re really both. It’s our circumstances and our traits that determine our behavior. If you’re trying to understand someone, relying on descriptions of their “average” behavior will lead you astray.

Pathways

The pathways principle that Rose describes makes two affirmations. First, that for a given goal there are numerous valid pathways for achieving the outcome. Second, that the optimal pathway depends on our own individuality. The “right” pathway, in other words, isn’t the one followed by the nominally average individual. It’s the one that’s right for us.

The most compelling area Rose relates this principle to is education. He covers the work of Benjamin Bloom, who showed that when people are allowed flexibility in the pace of their learning the vast majority will perform well. In other words, the pace of our learning does not equal our ability. No one is a universally fast or slow learner. Schools, of course, aren’t exactly set up to allow for that realization.

Museums: A Visual Anthropology

I’ve always enjoyed museums. Places like the British Museum are spaces I can spend an entire day or longer. A few years ago I bought two textbook-like works about the history and structure of museums. Since then Mary Bouquet’s Museums: A Visual Anthropology has sat on my shelf. But I got around to reading it on vacation last month.

While it is a textbook, it’s also readable. Bouquet sets out to answer how museums gained their current prominence. And to look at what dilemmas they face and what lies ahead in their future.

It was interesting to learn that many academic disciplines were based in museums during the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century that these shifted to being based in a university.

She also does an excellent job detailing the role of a national museum; a place like the Louvre or Rijksmuseum. These emerged in the late 18th century. That’s right around the time when many modern nation states were solidifying themselves. At the time these states were an unfamiliar and abstract form of organization for people. National museums helped make the state real and concrete.

Early national museums were often in large, imposing buildings. That architecture, “helped to create a visible, tangible presence and cultural identity for the nation state.” The museum itself was a way of demonstrating the new state’s competence. Its ability to bring back objects from abroad (which is a whole problem in itself) was a way of demonstrating early competence and organization.

Stowe Boyd: The Ecology of Work

Stowe Boyd is someone who’s writing I’ve followed for a while. He publishes a fairly active blog as well as a daily newsletter. Both are excellent if you’re interested in reading about the future of work. He was also a recent guest on the Business Innovation Factory podcast.

The episode is a good one. Stowe talks about both the status quo, where roughly 35% of people are truly engaged at their job, and the future, where individuals can hopefully find meaning and purpose in their work.

There were also two metaphors that stuck with me. In talking about open-office designs Stowe says that, “Headphones are the new walls.” They’re much less effective, of course. And when talking about the role of AI he says, “We need to make sure AI isn’t like a bowling ball with no holes in it.” For him the future is teams engaging with AI to accomplish tasks and work more effectively.

Leonardo da Vinci

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci was a gift from a while back. I’d read and enjoyed a few of his earlier books and read the Leonardo biography while in Kauai last month. It’s a worthwhile read, even if you’re already familiar with Leonardo’s life.

Isaacson opens by encouraging us to be wary of applying the word “genius” to Leonardo. Instead he portrays a man who was routinely human: someone who worked hard, made mistakes, and had an insatiable curiosity. His skill and imagination were practiced crafts.

The acuteness of [Leonardo’s] observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort.

The book is a 500-page detailing of Leonardo’s life. And rather than even attempt to summarize, I want to instead pull out a couple things I learned.

The first is that Leonardo had the good fortune, at least retroactively speaking, of being born out of wedlock. 15th-century Italy being what it was this meant he escaped, and was even barred from, any obligation as a first-born son to follow his father’s trade. His father was a successful notary. Thankfully Leonardo was not. And while Leonardo’s notebooks indicate he picked up the note-taking mindset, he was free to pursue other work.

Another aspect that Isaacson covers throughout is Leonardo’s approach to problem-solving. Given what he was able to create, Leonardo was a relatively uneducated man. He had a limited formal education, struggled to learn Latin and math, and for much of his life preferred his own experience over handed-down knowledge. And yet he was able to create and engineer works of remarkable complexity. Isaacson ties this success to Leonardo’s ability for visual thinking. He relied far more on geometry and analogy than he did formulas and math.

Leonardo da Vinci's town plan of Imola.
Leonardo’s map of Imola.

Isaacson also describes how, in the winter of 1502, a serendipitous series of events led to Leonardo, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia all residing in the town of Imola. As he writes:

Imagine the scene. For three months during the winter of 1502-3, as if in a historical fantasy movie, three of the most-fascinating figures of the Renaissance—a brutal and power-crazed son of a pope, a sly and amoral writer-diplomat, and a dazzling painter yearning to be an engineer—were holed up in a tiny fortified walled town that was approximately five blocks wide and eight blocks long.

As best I can tell there’s one notable book about that connection. It’s on my reading list and something I hope to dig into more.

Practical Liberal Arts

‘Work’ is not something that is ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ waiting for you, while you’re ‘in here’ for the next four years ‘doing college.’
Clayton Spencer – President, Bates College

One thing I found while attending Whitman was that courses stayed toward the theoretical. Practical skills and experiences weren’t usually the focus. Bates, a small liberal arts college in Maine, has a different approach. During their five-week short term they offer a variety of courses focused on the practical.

Quartz details what this effort looks like, along with what other colleges are attempting. What stands out to me about Bates’ approach is how they’re addressing practical courses, internship opportunities, and purposeful work all at once. It’s great to see that sort of holistic approach.

A Pompeiian Horse

Even after 100+ years of excavation there are still original finds happening at Pompeii. Earlier this year archaeologists uncovered fully intact horse remains, a first for the site. Beyond the find itself the manner in which archaeologists found the horse is clever. They basically took advantage of tunnels looters had dug to accomplish two things:

Using a laser scan mapping of 200 feet of tunnels, archaeologists excavated areas encroached upon by looters to aid in the investigation while simultaneously preserving remains harmed or endangered by the looting activity.

Grand Hotel Abyss

I first read Frankfurt School theorists in college as part of a course called Education in the Matrix. Beyond being a fantastic title, the course was also one of my favorites. It looked at the way popular culture becomes part of education, and the need that creates for a critical perspective and strong media literacy. Reading The Fear of Freedom reminded me of that course and motivated me to add Grand Hotel Abyss to my list.

The book’s title comes from a critique of the Frankfurt School. György Lukács claimed these theorists lived in a hotel, “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” My view of their work is a little more favorable.

What Grand Hotel Abyss covers is a history of the main theorists involved in the Frankfurt School. These are largely German Jewish men who grew up in the early 1900s and were frequently from privileged family backgrounds. Under the Institute for Social Research they came together and created a vein of philosophy called critical theory.

All this work was funded through an endowment from Hermann Weil, a wealthy German businessman. Despite both privileged upbringings and a wealthy benefactor these theorists sought to critique and condemn capitalism and mass culture.

That set up an interesting tension, one of many ironies and contradictions within the school’s work.

The Frankfurt School was thus paid for by the economic system it was established to indict, and the businessman father who bankrolled it stood for values that his son sought to destroy.

Past that, much of the theorists’ work focused on the role of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed the culture industry. Loosely-speaking they felt mass production led to cultural output that resembles factory-produced goods. Movies, magazines, and radio programs become industrially produced and oriented toward our pleasure and entertainment. Culture focused on objects which pacified the masses. Where capitalism dominated work, the culture industry dominated leisure and:

[changed people] from productive beings to consumers, from the Marxist dream of creatively vital humans to stupefied moviegoers all giggling at the same thing.

They worried our passive cultural consumption dulled our sensibilities toward more radical social and economic change. That may not sound all that novel today, but they were writing this in the mid-1940s.

Another key theorist, Walter Benjamin, challenged what today we might term a flow state of concentration. Focusing on the productive output of thought was a mistake in his eyes. Our thoughts are valuable for more than their economic potential. And Benjamin’s interest, particularly when it came to art, was in the disruptive, dissonant, and absent-minded nature of thought.

Capitalism and culture were the two predominant themes to this work. And the interplay between the two drew much of the theorists’ attention. To them we live in a world where we have the freedom to choose what is always the same. Mass production leads to mass, passive consumption of what is increasingly identical. Their writing is not always uplifting and can be gloomy. But they sought to understand and to challenge popular culture and our relation to it.

All-in-all the book’s an accessible overview of what’s my favorite strain of philosophy. It’s not overly academic and if you enjoy history surveys you’ll likely enjoy reading it.

Rural Kansas, commodity agriculture

Corie Brown, writing for The New Food Economy, details how commodity agriculture and its broken promises have impacted rural Kansas. The photography, data, and narrative throughout are fantastic.

Reading it you learn about towns like Downs, which has seen its population drop by over 30 percent since 1980. It’s that kind of absence that contributes to 57 percent of the state’s land having less than 10 people per square mile. There are some stories of hope, though. Fascinating read.

ebook Sales Data

It’s not uncommon to read articles over the past couple of years praising the return of printed book sales (and the decline of digital). Here’s just one example from last March in the Guardian.

There’s a problem with that argument, though. And last week Quartz detailed the problem: sales data doesn’t take into account digital-only books self-published through Amazon. And by all estimations that’s quite a few sales to be excluding.

Part of the problem here is that when it comes to digital, things begin and end with Amazon. And they’re quite conservative about releasing any detailed sales numbers.

The Fear of Freedom

A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.1
Erich Fromm

The other book I picked up while in Singapore was Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom. It’s a relatively short book that contemplates how we relate to freedom and security. Before jumping to my notes, a bit of context is helpful for understanding the book itself.

Like his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School,2 Fromm grew up a German Jew during the early 1900s. In the face of Hitler’s rise he relocated first to Switzerland and later the United States until the 1950s. This kept him safe and allowed him to continue his work. In 1942 Fromm published The Fear of Freedom which focuses on two forces: the development of capitalism plus the rise of Italian and German authoritarianism.

Much of the book is straightforward reading, though parts do skew toward the complex. It’s also remarkably relevant reading for the modern era. Economic and political developments of the last 20 years mean much of what Fromm considers has a modern application. From labor relations to social isolation to authoritarian governments there’s much that’s still top of mind in 2018.

Despite its short length the book is tough to succinctly summarize. There were, however, a couple high-level concepts I took away.


Balance

A thread throughout the book concerns how we balance freedom and security. Fromm holds that the more we gain the more we have only one choice in front of us. We can have spontaneity in our love and work, and thus face the insecurity, anxiety, and isolation that brings. Or we can embrace security, and thus impinge our freedom and individuality.

Work

Part of our struggle to balance individualism and security stems from the past feudal social order. This was thought to be a natural order of things. And we had a sense of certainty and security in our place. The dominant social order did not deprive individuals of their freedom as “the individual” did not yet exist.

With the Renaissance and rise of Capitalism we became consumed with an insatiable greed for power and wealth. Our work was increasingly done with no share in the enterprise. Work became a supreme value and there was a deep restlessness that developed alongside a preoccupation with time. Everything in life depended upon a given individual’s effort and we couldn’t even be certain about the basic supply and demand relationship in the market.

Calvanism sowed the seeds for a modern approach to work. Effort and work were not to change one’s fate, which was predetermined. Instead our frantic effort was instead a reassurance against an unbearable feeling of powerlessness. Fromm argues this may be our most important psychological change since the Middle Ages.

  1. The Fear of Freedom, pg. 171.
  2. More on them in a bit as I recently read Grand Hotel Abyss.