Book Insights

Eliminating cliches through careful observation

Cliches typically result from a lack of attention or from a certain amount of indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write. But while they save you effort, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully attend to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

I recently read Sightlines, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each piece. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

Or, from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing someone as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say? What does it mean?

Reading good writing can help remind you to observe the world more carefully. So can being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

– Hila

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Good Intro to How the World Is Changing

Technological developments are changing the world in profound ways. We’re more connected and more dependant on computing devices and internet-based services. We’re generating enormous amounts of data. And many tasks are becoming automated, requiring minimal human intervention.

How are these changes affecting our lives? And what can we expect in the future?

A good introduction to these questions and their possible answers is The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab. It’s a short book that discusses the impact of new technologies and makes predictions about how life will likely change in the coming years.

The issues the book addresses include:

  • The instant spread of information (including slander and misinformation) on a large scale.
  • Social unrest, with people experiencing displacement and feeling superfluous.
  • Workplace disruption, with certain jobs disappearing (and other kinds becoming available?), and certain skills increasingly emphasized (like quick learning, creativity, emotional intelligence, big picture analyses).
  • Growing inequalities in wealth, knowledge, and skill sets.
  • The best uses of data, struggles for control over data, and issues of privacy.

The book doesn’t focus only on the possible depressing outcomes; it discusses benefits as well, including various improvements in quality of life.

I like that the author doesn’t treat each prediction as an inevitability. The changes we’re experiencing will be shaped by decisions from governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, special interest groups, and individuals. Attitudes about work, life, ethics, and humanity will influence what we value and prioritize.

To know how to make better decisions, we need to stay informed about the issues and understand both the challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, these changes can take a psychological toll that we have to prepare for.

If you want to just skim through The Fourth Industrial Revolution, start with the appendix. It lists various technological shifts (e.g. 3D printing in manufacturing) and the positive and negative impacts of each.

– Hila

Loss of scientific thinking: What are some signs?

The combination of the appearance of professional respect for scientific rigor coupled with professional contempt for scientifically rigorous behavior is toxic, a poison that infects more activities in North America than the few I have pointed out here.

In Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, Jane Jacobs discusses five major signs of cultural failure. It’s the last book the long-time journalist ever wrote, and it reads like a final warning.

The abandonment of scientific thinking is one type of cultural decay. Individuals and institutions have long had a tendency to avoid scientific inquiry, accept surface appearances without question, and use scientific data and terminology inappropriately. What’s worrisome is when there aren’t strong forces counteracting the decay.

When reading this section of Dark Age Ahead, I started thinking about examples I’ve come across in articles and other media that demonstrate an appreciation for a scientific veneer but not for scientific thought. Like the following:


Lost in a Data-Driven World

I recently came across “Hyper-Reality,” a short film by Keiichi Matsuda. (Watch the video at Vimeo.)

It shows a woman navigating a world of augmented reality. Her visual field is crowded with corporate logos, social media icons, status updates, and menus. Virtual arrows urge her to take certain paths, and messages pop up asking her to rate things and contact people. She has an identity that she builds with points (e.g. “4 city points” for using public transportation). To answer questions like “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” she summons a Google search bar.

Data-driven world with augmented reality

Screenshot from Keiichi Matsuda’s “Hyper-Reality.”

Something goes wrong for her during the film, and at the end it’s comforting to think that security measures won’t ever be that weak. (Right?) In any case, the film isn’t intended as an exact prediction of what our world will turn into. But it isn’t far-fetched. The data-driven world it depicts is recognizable. And people can feel lost in it.

Concerns in a data-driven world

I recently read Data-Ism by Steve Lohr, a solid introductory book on big data for a general audience. Lohr highlights some potential major benefits of big data, which range from more effective healthcare interventions to reductions in energy costs. He also discusses the concerns about privacy, security, and lack of transparency in data collection and use.

  • Who has my data?
  • Who is collecting it, and how and when?
  • What’s the purpose of data collection?
  • What are people doing with my data?
  • How does the data get analyzed, and how are individuals and organizations acting on the conclusions?
  • Has my data been used against me? (Perhaps in grossly unfair ways?)

Matsuda’s film conveys the helplessness of feeling like a fly that twitches in the web of data. The film’s central character seems surrounded by choices – what to click on, who to contact, what to purchase – but they’re superficial. In her world, personal identity has become only a set of data points. She has no defenses to protect the integrity of her self or understand the purpose of her life.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz: Three Important Topics

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz recounts some of the author’s insights from years of working as a psychologist. One theme the book explores is people’s tendency to coast, unthinking, through life. The consequences include damaged relationships, professional failure and various acts of self-sabotage.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

Here I’ll highlight three of the book’s topics. Each of them is connected to the theme of living without much awareness or personal regard.