Information Diet

December 12, 2018
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How much information is a lot of information? My main information sources these days are twitter and a handful of newsletter subscriptions. They work pretty well in keeping me informed about topics I fancy. Mostly technology, programming, computer science, complex adaptive systems a little bit of econ and sometimes philosophy. Interesting links that I find on twitter I send to my inbox. Instapaper, pocket and such products never worked for me. When I am not keeping up with the reading list in my inbox it keeps on growing. An increasing number of unread emails makes me anxious. It is like having pending homework assignments. Reading is supposed be fun but cleaning up the inbox is no fun.

So here is a new information diet plan that I am trying out. I will expire the unread current edition of the newsletters when the next one reaches my inbox. Expiring weekly newsletter at end of the week and daily newsletters at the end of the day. Newsletters mostly contain "newsy" stuff which is better read fresh. Most news events lose relevance as time passes. Do you pile up the newspapers to read them all on weekends because of FOMO? This should keep unread-list in check. For the links that I find on Twitter. It is better to skim through it once before sending it for later. This way I avoid click baits. Skimming the writeup also gives some context before actual reading. Adding this context to the email is helpful for later. Sometimes while going through my to-read list I find few items that I am no longer interested in. I archive those. Other times I find few items may not be useful immediately I archive them too. A guiding principle I tend to follow, read on 'on demand basis', read something that you need right now rather than reading about things that you might need in future.

Books are another source of consumption. Even more demanding in terms of time and attention. Some days I have time other days I don't. That has to be okay. With many great books out there it is important to be able to pick up good books for yourself. Different books appeal to different people. Here is a great model, borrowed from Patrick Collison:

at every moment you should be reading the best book you know of in the world. I don’t mean ... the absolute best for everyone, but the best book for you. As soon as you discover something that seems more interesting or more important or whatever, you should absolutely discard your current book in favor of that, because any other algorithm necessarily results in you reading “worse stuff over time.

I think this is great advice.

What about the other sources like the Orange Website, Reddit et al? Overtime I am losing my appetite for Hacker News. I don't read it that often. There were times when Hacker News was the morning routine. Partly because I don't want to follow newsy stuff, instead I want to chase specific topics. Partly because of general toxicity in the threads and a lot of misinformation in the comments. Sometimes I still open up and follow one of the stories if I find something interesting.

A big question that remains unanswered. What is the goal of reading? Reading cannot be a goal in itself. People are reading all the time. Twitter, blogs, news websites, books and whatnot. What are they looking for? Just fear of missing out doesn't seem like a reasonable answer too. There has to be something more concrete to be gained from groking all the stuff. Some people say it is curiosity. To me 'curiosity' is an abstract term. I don't know what it means. It may mean different things to different people. Is curiosity a property of humans? Why are some people more curious and others less so? I don't know the answers to these questions. But there is one pithy aphorism that drives the point home for me.

The universe rewards us for understanding it and punishes us for not understanding it. When we understand the universe, our plans work and we feel good. Conversely, if we try to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping our arms the universe will kill us."

-- Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart

If this is true then everyone in the universe is trying to learn about it as much as they can. Reading is probably the second best way to learn. Only after direct experiences. With a huge amount of information readily available ability to filter through them to find illuminating resources is even more valuable.

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