Paleowave

Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

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Georgetown University’s Cal Newport is back with another book, Digital Minimalism, which extends his outlook on doing more meaningful work in an increasingly distracting world. 

Digital Minimalism is one-part manifesto and one-part popular science. In essence, it is a discourse on the critical disadvantages of constant connectivity and the advantages of being intentional about using today’s technologies. By documenting several studies as well as anecdotal examples of how mobile applications and social media have become deeply interwoven into the fabric of society, Newport makes an excellent case for minimizing the usage of most things digital to (a) break free from screens and (b) regain control of intentionality in communication. Newport contends that finding tools for a problem at hand is a far superior strategy to first gathering tools for hypothetical future issues. This philosophy resonates throughout the book and in particular, hits home concerning today’s smartphone ecosystem, with countless (many unnecessary) mobile applications and innumerable (unconscious) sign-ups for the shiniest new social media platform. 

Newport, unsurprisingly, goes quite deep into providing concrete examples of methods and strategies for assimilating into the digital minimalist’s mindset. Newport showcases read-later apps and blocking apps, but most effectively, demonstrates how social media companies prey on addictive tendencies to develop their platforms (swipe down for refresh = slot machine; bright red notifications, etc.) The book details many suggestions and techniques to offset such tactics and lists the many disadvantages of continually glancing at Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately, Newport asks us to reclaim our time because “our time = their money.” In doing so, he delivers a stark warning about the impact of addictive digital media in today’s attention economy.

At the same time, Newport, who is a computer scientist by profession, also emphasizes that digital minimalism is not an anti-technology movement. The book outlines why careful curation and consideration of apps, as well as their intentional usage, can actually elevate efficiency and efficacy in the workplace (“dumb down your smartphone”). Much of this builds on concepts described in Newport’s earlier book, Deep Work. Concerning the minimization of screens altogether, Digital Minimalism goes a step beyond Deep Work’s ethos of emphasizing “value in boredom” and contains an additional dimension of focus: leisure. Newport pulls together examples of how ‘leisure’ activities, which is easily distanced from the activity of endless scrolling on an app, can contribute to wellbeing and how technology itself can foster such ‘crafty’ activities. 

It’s at this end of the book where I felt that Newport begins to meander and briefly loses sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps unwillingly, the tone morphs into one with a somewhat preachy demeanor and extols the virtues of activities that do not appeal to most readers (e.g., Crossfit) nor extend to their day-to-day realities (e.g., emphasis on handiwork), and importantly aren’t relevant to the message at hand. At times I also felt that the balance between scaremongering and hard facts became fuzzier than at a comfortable level. 

Regardless of these setbacks, Digital Minimalism is an important book on an important topic. Whereas Deep Work was a tour de force on honing intentionality in the workplace, Digital Minimalism is Newport’s effort to extend this perspective to overall wellbeing and personal nourishment. By highlighting some alarming ongoing trends in digital addiction as well as offering tangible solutions to minimize screen use, Digital Minimalism is a compelling read.

[Thanks to Chris Maupin for gifting me a copy of this book!]

Book Review: Indica by Pranay Lal

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Balancing the nuanced and involved intricacies of the scientific method versus proselytizing the fantastic “factoids” of popular science is a tough act. Having to straddle this line to focus on the geology and geobiological history of the Indian subcontinent, an ambitiously multidisciplinary topic, on which there are scant accessible texts (popular science or not), is an even tougher act to follow. Fortunately, Pranay Lal manages to achieve such a balance and convey his infectious enthusiasm about the subject matter rather effectively for the most part of Indica’s ~400 pages.

It was refreshing and enjoyable to learn about new geological and paleontological information of the Indian subcontinent - a topic dear to my heart. The detailed place-markers and the McPhee-esque narratives of sites where geological features are found scattered throughout India was highly interesting. The accompanying photographs and schematics are also very nicely done. You can quickly see that Lal put in hours and hours of (non-book-based) research into Indica — it shows. It felt as if Indica was an attempt to channel Sagan)’ or Bryson or Winchester but with a focus on the history of the Indian subcontinent — a fantastic idea, and frankly, it’s puzzling that it took someone so long to do so. However, it becomes apparent through Lal’s reporting that it is quite challenging to piece together and chronicle information on such a vastly “big-picture” topic, especially, when construction, urban expansion, and apathy are on their path to eroding many of India’s geological marvels.

Lal is a geneticist by training and his disposition towards anthropology, biology, and paleontology becomes discernible as his writing on these topics shines. For example, his narrative on the evolutionary history of the recently discovered Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahayadrensis), its evolutionary ties to another frog found in Seychelles, and its parallels to the tuatara or kiwi was a treat to read. Moreover, the lengthy descriptions of India’s Phanerozoic paleoenvironment and the medley of dinosaurs that walked on the subcontinent were entertaining. The closing chapters on hominid evolution and India’s potential contribution to this story were thought-provoking.

As a downside to Indica, there are many small inaccuracies conveyed with certainty that are really more uncertain than presented. My friend Suvrat Kher has an excellent blog post on many problematic sections that dealing with sedimentology, tectonics, and mantle dynamics. I can echo Suvrat’s concerns in the paleomonsoon and paleoclimate domain where, amongst other things, Lal makes it seem as if we have a more concrete picture of the vagaries of the monsoon, its initiation, and its intensification than we actually do. Many of these points amount to more than sheer nitpicking. Ultimately, these inaccuracies are a significant downside to Indica, and I wonder about errors revolving around geobiology and other realms removed from my own field. Nevertheless, these inaccuracies did not prevent me from puzzling about them for a few minutes and moving on, driven by Lal’s ardor (one day, on my second read, I might find the time to write down my concerns as well and as thoroughly as Suvrat did).

As a closing statement, Indica is for anyone and everyone interested in the geological natural history of the Indian subcontinent. It should be mandatory reading for anyone working on the topic, and more importantly, for students/workers who do read it, I recommend trying to spot the inaccuracies and perhaps making a list.