kena

Reading is good, reading right is better

In hack, lecture on August 6, 2012 at 12:00

Distraction is pleasurable, but there are many ways to waste time reading stuff online. There’s the useless stuff, and there’s the stuff that makes you stupid. In contrast, choose wisely and balance useful stuff with stuff that makes you smarter and more creative.

For example: web comics are nice. But not anything. The following can definitely help becoming a better person:

  • Subnormality, Calvin and Hobbes, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal combine a blazing hope in humanity with humour and concrete illustrations on how to think and behave creatively;
  • Abstruse goose, Jesus and Mo expose the contrast between faith and rationality from the good side of the fence;
  • Find a couple of favourite fiction comics that speak to who you are and make you happy, but that update less than a few times per week so as not to distract you.

In contrast here are some popular, well-designed but unproductive comics that will waste your neuron-time:

  • Cyanide and happiness, Happy tree friends, Dilbert will twist your mind by numbing your mirror neurons and reducing your empathy;
  • Ctrl-alt-del, Penny arcade are way too self-centered and specific to the American geek sub-culture, and will probably not help you in any way unless you live in California and work with computers;
  • XKCD, C-Section comics, The Oatmeal are also self-centered, but foremost elitist, libertarian and poorly pedagogic: they cater to pompous nerds and sneers at the younger generation, and thus probably what you don’t want when interested in building a future-oriented society.

Similarly, reading non-fiction can be educative. However:

  • No need to subscribe to regular newspapers or general news sites: unless your job requires you are always well-informed, you can rely on your social network to relay the important news and avoid cluttering your mind with the rest.
  • Avoid meme and “popular lists” sites like the plague; they will seep all your you-time and useful-time and leave nothing in payment.
  • Avoid so-called “self-help” sites that do not thoroughly document where the pieces of wisdom they advertise come from, and how the knowledge they purport was checked. The last thing you want is cargo cult lifestyle.

Instead:

  • If you really need your fix of daily world events, check the current events portal on Wikipedia which at least will also provide a comprehensive context.
  • If you seek mental support, focus on those sites with positive advice, not those that spend more time telling you what not to do. Also, favor those sites that encourage you to become more intelligent and educated, not those that only suggest to be healthy and kind to your peers. Check out for example Study hacks, Zen habits, Peer-reviewed by my neurons, Barking up the wrong tree.
  • Find out if your friends have a blog or a twitter feed. If they have, subscribe and read them regularly. It will make you feel more connected and get to know your friends better.

And of course, reserve some time for books! Either on paper or e-readers, a longer piece of text provides an entirely different experience. Be sure to alternate fiction (the kind that makes you happier and a better person) and non-fiction (the kind that make you brighter) regularly.

If you have any more suggestions, I’d be glad to read them!

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  1. Since I heartily agree with your opinions on Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and the Oatmeal (and don’t know most of the rest well enough to have an opinion), I feel the need to pass along my all-time favorite web-comic, the Perry Bible Fellowship (http://pbfcomics.com/) which happily seems to have recently returned from a long-term indefinite hiatus. Pick some random samples older than the most recent few like, oh I don’t know, http://pbfcomics.com/135/, http://pbfcomics.com/151/, http://pbfcomics.com/69/ (with the warning that it’s no Calvin & Hobbes).

    Not quite in the same league for me, but still quite good is Hark, a Vagrant (http://harkavagrant.com/). It arguably often falls into the “geek subculture” trap, though it’s mostly a different type of geek than I am which is good because it makes me feel suitably under-read (which may eventually inspire corrective action).

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