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Smart People Read. Dumb People Tell You They Did After Watching the Movie.

Smart people read to gain knowledge, understanding, and empathy. Reading gives you a competitive advantage and a deeper appreciation of the human experience. Don't be fooled by people who don't read and think they can get the same benefits by using AI to write for them. Reading is the key to success.

Smart People Read: A Reflection on the Power of Writing and Lifelong Learning.

By Michael Levin

Saturday, May 13, 2023

It’s not about the sizzle, it’s about the steak. Let me open with a bit of talk about Desktop OSes, the equivalent of the book cover (and most definitely not the book itself). Desktops don’t matter. You can put anything between the pages of a book. You can open a full-screen Linux command-line terminal on any Desktop OS and make it like there’s not even a Host OS there. What’s more, with Windows, Macs and pretty much every Linux Desktop agreeing on how virtual desktops work right down to the keyboard shortcuts, if you open sever apps full screen, you can just flip through them and get more and more expert at the apps… the pages of the book, and less about the cover.

The Desktop OSes don’t effect your long-term muscle memory, which is the part that’s important to me. I’m in the process of switching to Mac again just to make sure I’m not settling into Windows too much. A lot about my recent Linux VM work will make even more sense to you as I make the Mac version to let the ghost float between machines. Physical hardware is a fleeting shell of a thing that’s going away.

And people who talk ad nauseum about Linux Desktops are just as bad as people who talk about Windows Desktops. You know what they’re going to mention next? Their RTX 3090 and Steam. Yup, it’s about games. There’s just a community out there who doesn’t like Mac or Windows desktops, and they’re the ones who think Linux is about the desktop. Linux is not about the desktop. Desktops aren’t even about desktops. They’re about Games. Games are a nice phase and a nice escape, but it’s like reading comic books all your life. You’re missing out on Shakespeare, you’re missing out on Gladwell, you’re missing out on Asimov.

Ironically, those very same RTX 3090s are also quite useful for Machine Learning. I’m glad they want their polygons per second. It makes us more able to do things at home we would normally have to do in the Cloud. And when all the game players jump onto the AI bandwagon, and oh do they jump on that bandwagon, it’s all about prompting the cloud services and not using that kick-ass GPU sitting right in that souped-up machine in front of them, LOL! If only they read those papers!

But the thing people pursuing life skills have to come to grips with his that the desktop operating system is just a shim to other things. Don’t fall in love with your hardware, it will only let you down time and time again, with going obsolete, with breaking, by losing one provided by work when you switch jobs. There’s just so much that goes wrong with hardware, it and the desktop OS on it should just be thought of as window dressing.

Windows is the perfect name because it’s just window dressing, something to punch rectangular holes through to give control to the source of your long-term powers, preferably full-screen so you can have good focus.

But then I’m proposing the cloud for everything? No! Still run everything exactly like you did locally before, just from different hardware. Apple made this pretty seamless with iCloud backup, but even that’s proprietary. I’m talking about understanding things deeply enough, with something like the equivalent of long for reading computer literacy which gives you the where-with-all to do the floating ghost in the machine, or the Noah’s Ark, or the nomadic infotech lifestyle, whatever you want to call it.

This is not a reality most people come willing to. Those of us who actually use their technical skills, you know “hard skills” like carpentry or coding to make money for a living building things, expressing themselves, encoding automated behavior, or otherwise do things that matter, eventually run into these issues.

Hardware fails. The devastating-ness of it hits home. In a way the whole Amiga computer platform going away was a version of this. It wasn’t even particular hardware. It was a whole broad category of hardware. A platform.

When I explain this type of thing to people, it’s often like I’m speaking a foreign language. It took me a long time to realize it, but it’s mostly because they only ever use it to play games. Once in a blue moon they’ll fire up a word processor and write something, but not as a way of life. They just don’t use tools the same way as professionals. They stunningly might put similar amounts of time into using the exact same equipment, just in different ways. They’ve mastered a game and will tell you about hand/eye coordination or problem solving.

But they’re not using it to make money, nor even feed their soul in some creative way. They’re consumers consuming. After some amount of time being a reader and creator, there’s just a sort of split that happens. It’s not just readers. Many professions have this split, particularly Engineers. Their brains just work differently after awhile. It’s not as dramatic and pronounced with general long-form readers as it is with Engineers, but it’s along the same line. They are in a different class than the general population of consumers.

Sure it’s a spectrum, but particularly these days with the emotionally manipulative social medias, consumers are mostly just consuming other peoples’ content. On those rare occasions they do produce content, they prefer platforms that limit you to 280 characters. I was tempted to say they’re reading other peoples’ writing instead of writing their own, but that’s hardly even true. Doomscrolling is for neurotransmitter hits. And they’re not getting compounding returns on their time. They’re not getting the snowball effect of learning, they’re not getting the larger moat around them of Berkshire Hathaway investments. They’re just getting all riled up.

Smart people read.

I remember the teacher who first laid that out for me when I was having difficulty in his class. He looked at the Sci-Fi book I was carrying and told me not to worry. If I was reading that for pleasure, difficulty with any particular lessons or the speed at which I worked really didn’t matter. Sometimes you have a teacher that says just the right thing at just the right time to guide and steer your self-image, fortifying you against those who are secretly jealous that you read and are going to knock you for it.

I remember during one of the weirder phases of my life someone looked at my bookshelf and flat-out said: you didn’t read all those books. I was somewhat taken aback and quickly did inventory. No, I read many, many times more than that. But they were Sci-Fi paperbacks and Fantasy that I do not keep. I wanted to give them the flippant response, “No, I read 10 times more than that”, but I could feel the daggers in their eyes.

The funny thing is I only put those books worth displaying or reading again as a practical resource on the bookshelf, and yes even those I mostly read every book. I mean like not cover to cover, but yes. Maybe up to 30% of every book I own, and that’s just because according to the 80/20-rule, I got most of what I needed out of them. Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a good example. Or Guns, Germs, and Steel. There’s so much follow-up statistics and proof, they’re more valuable on your self for later reference then consuming more of your time now.

What’s more, reading for a lifetime is like one of those Warren Buffet “moats” of competitive advantage, what he looks for in an Berkshire Hathaway investment so that competitors can’t just catch up real quick. He’s usually not big on technology companies because even though they can occasionally take off big like OpenAI, mostly they’re more like Netscape who are just going to be crushed by competitor who takes everything special about them, reverse engineers it with patent-lawyer engineers and tosses their “me too” product into the market with more money behind it. But if you’re a lifetime reader, and the process is really somehow improving you internally, nobody’s ever going to “catch up” with you. You are fundamentally different types of human beings after awhile.

And people teach what they know and what their habits are to their kids, ether deliberate or by example. you know what, people raise their kids like the way they are. If you’re not a reader, your kid’s not going to be a reader, and like it or not that’s often going to be a disadvantage in life. I’m saying that’s a most-of-the-time rule. It doesn’t matter your socio-economic background. If you’re self-motivated and have a pretty good idea of what you want to accomplish, those deep insights and walking a mile, or a vicarious lifetime in someone else’s shoes comes from long-form reading. I mean if maybe you’re John Updike you can get some pretty powerful stuff across in short stories or novellas, but for the most part the good stuff is going to start at 200 or 300 pages. That’s like just taking a deep breath for a good writer who transports you into their mind and their world.

And you come out of it a different person yourself. You actually gain more empathy for other people because you can better imagine what it’s like to be them. If you’ve been privileged all your life, pop-cultures way of getting across the diversity of the human experience is outright emotional manipulation, and usually to shake you down for money or sway your political views and how you vote. It’s not for the sheer artistic and humanistic value of it, as is much writing. Yes, there’s the financial incentive, but who really gets rich off it? It’s mostly about the act of creation and the art. Yes, there’s exceptions, but I’m talking about the rule. Audio/video media has more sheisters per production than long-form written media.

The world’s getting a pretty big wake-up call now with ChatGPT. AI has been around in remarkable ways for awhile now, the eyeballs of self-driving cars, the ears of Alexa, the auto-suggest of Google and Netflix. But it wasn’t until Generative Pre-Trained Transformers that people started to realize that AI could write. And it’s not just writing, it’s writing in a way that’s quite indistinguishable from a human… for the untrained reader! Write in the style of Doctor Seuss reading Shakespeare? No problem. Statistically, it can be done. But it’s not that person’s human experience. It’s not their life.

Did I start out talking about Desktops? Oh yeah, well there you go. When the world changes, it’s not about the jacking into the Facebook Metaverse, yo. It’s not even about the deepfakes. It’s about text. It’s about writing. Writing was the wake-up call. It’s the first thing which cause a sort of existential panic in the public zeitgeist. Why? It’s generally understood that people who can write are smart. Even if they’re not that smart, the have the confidence, the gumption and the where-with-all to tappity-tap and encode their thoughts. People who don’t are quite jealous of those who do, and are the ones who ever so gleefully embrace this new cheat. They can prompt an AI to write for them and think they’re as smart as someone who can genuinely write well.

Recently, I had an experience where someone I knew had a wake-up call about the meaninglessness of particular hardware, but an appreciation for the creative works that was on it. Creative works in the digital world are information and should never be at risk. It’s the information that matters, not the hardware.

People infatuated with Desktop OSes are infatuated with the covers of the book and not what’s between the pages. This is why Windows, Macs, Linux Desktops… meh. They’re all the same to me. And yeah, I’ve spent years on various Linux desktops from both the Gnome and KDE camps. As virtual screens, or virtual desktops as Windows got them to be called, took off I was like “okay, now the world will see the light”. Open multiple apps full-screen and flip (usually) left and right between them. You don’t even know a desktop OS is there. Yet every YouTube auto-suggest I get is about this infernal this-or-that desktop which I couldn’t care less about and try not to let play for fear the YouTube algorithm will think that’s all I want to hear about and barrage me with more.

Sigh. Now where’d I put copy of Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters? I think I’ll finally read it. Thanks, Tanya! Chapter 1… Why Nerds are Unpopular… hahaha! I’m going to love this book!