Apr 032016

My new favourite place to go very morning is Aeon, a marvellous multimedia site devoted to intellectual culture: “big ideas, serious enquiry, a humane worldview and good writing.”

From the About page:

Aeon has four channels…. Most weekdays, it publishes Essays – longform explorations of deep issues written by serious and creative thinkers.

From Monday to Friday, it also publishes Opinions – short provocations, maintaining Aeon’s high argumentative standards but in a more nimble and immediate form.

Aeon’s Video channel streams a mixture of curated short documentaries and original Aeon content, including a series of interviews with experts at the forefront of thought.aeon

Finally, Aeon’s Conversations channel invites the reader in to put their own arguments and points of view. With Conversations, old-style web comments give way to a new form of collective inquiry.

This morning I read a lively, lucid opinion piece by Cory Powell arguing that Galileo’s reputation might be more hyperbole than truth – the author chooses “is” for “might be,” no surprise. (Hint: Kepler was the real giant of science who explained heliocentrism and the laws of planetary motion.)  A 4-minute animation directed by Sharron Mirsky showed me how to enjoy a blackout. Reading an essay by Frank Furede called “The Ages of Distraction,” I learned that moralists and philosophers have complaining about how distracted humans are for hundreds of years:

Attention was promoted as a moral accomplishment that was essential to the cultivation of a sound character. The philosopher Thomas Reid, the foremost exponent of 18th-century Scottish ‘common sense’, argued in his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788) that ‘there are moral rules respecting the attention’ which are ‘no less evident than mathematical axioms’. The moral rules of attention required cultivation and training and it was the job of educators to ensure that the young were protected from acquiring the ‘habits of inattention’. Inattention was increasingly perceived as an obstacle to the socialisation of young people.

Countering the habit of inattention among children and young people became the central concern of pedagogy in the 18th century. Educators have always been preoccupied with gaining children’s attention but in the 18th century this concern acquired an unprecedented importance. Attention was seen as important for the nourishment of the reasoning mind as well as for spiritual and moral development. Advice books directed at parents, such as Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798), insisted that the cultivation of concentration and attention required effort and skill.

After reading this wonderful essay, I quickly zipped over to The Drudge Report, alas, to see what crazy things were happening all over the world – well, mostly all over the United States. Shame on me!

Returning to Aeon I got caught up with a high-toned and truly friendly discussion that addressed the question, “Can a mystical tradition within a religion be said to express its true spirit.”

As an author, editor, and publisher, I could not be more impressed and gratified by this initiative. Salut to co-founders Brigid and Paul Hains.

Jan 172016

The acknowledgments page to B. M. Pietsch’s book Dispensational Modernism is very funny:

I blame all of you. Writing this book has been an exercise in sustained suffering. The casual reader may, perhaps, exempt herself from excessive guilt, but for those of you who have played the larger role in prolonging my agonies with your encouragement and support, well … you know who you are, and you owe me.

These three sentences do reflect the loneliness, exhaustion, and self-doubt often involved in completing a book – or, worse, a doctoral dissertation. Gratitude in these cases is a learned response for some authors.


Back in the day, as senior editor at Prometheus Books Inc., I would have conversations with authors who had omitted spouses, editors, agents and mentors in their acknowledgments page. One author refused to acknowledge *anyone* – though, following a stern recommendation, he permitted me to write a happy paragraph.

h/t Clarissa

Photo by Robert Basil

Jun 272014

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography, “Enemies who do you one favor will want to do more.” He illustrated the maxim with a story:

A political adversary had been lambasting Franklin in public speeches. Franklin knew that this person was very proud of his large library, so he sent him a note requesting that he borrow a particularly rare book. The adversary sent the book over right away. Their next in-person meeting was very civil, and the two became friends, remaining so until the one-time adversary’s death.

Katie Liljenquist and Adam Galinsky confirm Franklin’s insight (although they don’t mention it) in a Harvard Business Review blog-post titled ‘Win Over an Opponent by Asking for Advice’:

We seek advice on a daily basis, on everything from who grills the best burger in town to how to handle a sticky situation with a coworker. However, many people don’t fully appreciate how powerful requesting guidance can be. Soliciting advice will arm you with information you didn’t have before, but there are other benefits you may not have considered:

 … Arthur Helps sagely observed, We all admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice.” Being asked for advice is inherently flattering because it’s an implicit endorsement of our opinions, values, and expertise. Furthermore, it works equally well up and down the hierarchy — subordinates are delighted and empowered by requests for their insights, and superiors appreciate the deference to their authority and experience. James Pennebaker’s research shows that if you want your peers to like you, ask them questions and let them experience the “joy of talking.” This is especially important because research shows that increasing your likability will do more for your career than slightly increasing competence.

Mar 312013

Nick Bilton’s suggestion that e-mail thank-yous are a time waster has sparked debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to thank people in digital communications. Some have gone so far to suggest that this new social ethic of efficiency is creating a generation of sociopaths.

I was just thinking about this the other day in the context of Twitter. I follow a couple people who thank their followers for every retweet and mention. While these tweets are technically typed in manually, there’s an automatic quality about them that makes them about as meaningful and personal as an auto-DM. And I hope we all know by now how gauche those are.

A few days ago I received an auto-thanks and Follow Friday mention from a popular education blogger, mentioning about ten other Twitter handles. Then I received about eight retweets and thanks from people on that list replying-all to the original tweet. It might have been more had I not started blocking people out of frustration.

My advice in two words: stop that. The automatic “thank you” for a door held open IRL is welcome because it is fleeting. But many of us have e-mail and phone alerts turned on for retweets and mentions. If you had to delete an e-mail or tap an icon on your phone every time someone thanked you for holding a door open, the gesture would begin to lose its charm.

If you want to thank a follower, try doing what I often do: go back through their feed a few tweets and see if there is something there you can retweet, favorite, or comment on.

If you feel you must thank, thank sparingly and genuinely. Take the time to verbalize the reason you are grateful.