Jamie's Notes

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Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport’s second book, Digital Minimalism, is somewhat timely given the increasing concern about the role of technology in our lives. In it, he asks us to look critically at the technology we allow into our lives as individuals and consider whether it adds genuine value, or whether we use it as a crux to pass time which would be better spent doing something else.

Top of his hit list is social media, which he argues most people simply do not need & those that do need it probably need it a lot less than they think they do ( he says 20 – 30 minutes a week, tops). In 2015 I closed my accounts on the big social media platforms and am embarrassed to admit how difficult I found it. On reflection it hasn’t made any meaningful difference to my life. True, there are people that I have lost contact with, but I still talk to the people that matter and the level of that contact is more substantial than a ‘like’ or a quick comment.

He goes on to set out the merits of of solitude – being alone with your thoughts without external interference. We’ve become so accustomed to filling every spare minute with something: checking social media feeds, reading emails, listening to podcasts and audiobooks – we very rarely allow or brains the time to just think. This something that we don’t fully understand the long term effect of.

He also makes a case for analogue activities. Humans are happier, he says, when they are creating something. We should prioritise demanding activities over passive consumption and cultivate high quality leisure activities – things that are meaningful and have defined outcomes.

It’s a good book and there isn’t a lot of waffle in it. It isn’t anti-technology, it just reminds us that we are the masters of our own time and need to take responsibility for how we use it. It was persuasive enough for me to reset my iPhone and ruthlessly cull and lock down my apps.

Definitely worth a read.

Testing cheap ‘true’ wireless headphones

I picked up these SoundPEATS headphones for £26 from Amazon and they are far, far better than they have any right to be for that price:

I already have a pair of KZ6 in-ear monitors, which in their wired configuration are probably the best in-ear headphones I’ve ever owned. They come wired as standard, but you can swap out the wires for a bluetooth module if you don’t mind sacrificing convenience for sound quality (which I don’t). Alas, while sounding great, they suffer from the same problem as most other bluetooth earbuds: the battery module. This usually sits a little way down from one of the earbuds and makes them slightly heavier on one side and swings as you walk. It’s a minor design issue – but I want to be able to forget that I have the earbuds in.

Truly wireless earbuds seemed to be what I was looking for. I did some research on what was available and found some that sounded good on paper, but almost all came at considerable outlay. Apple’s AirPods would be the obvious choice but they’re really expensive and look a little odd. These SoundPEATS headphones are listed at £32 on Amazon, with over two hundred reviews and a four and a half star rating (and a 20% discount when I ordered). I’m normally suspicious of unknown brands with loads of good ratings but at this price they seemed worth a punt.

There isn’t much in the box – just the headphones, the charging box, a tiny USB cable, some different sized tips and a small manual. I had a little trouble getting the earbuds to connect to each other at first but since I figured it out now they connect automatically (you have to take the right one out of the charger first). The sound quality won’t blow you away but it’s far from awful – and these are over a hundred quid cheaper than AirPods. They are advertised as sweat and splash proof, but not waterproof. Battery life is supposed to be around 3 hours and the case will charge them three to four times before it needs charging. I can’t exaggerate how handy it is to be able to charge your headphones while they are in your pocket and have them fully charged when you need them. The connectivity is excellent too. I haven’t had any stuttering with my phone in my bag or my back pocket. They even work well with the Apple Watch.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d highly recommend these if you want to see if truly wireless earbuds are for you.

Review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World is Cal Newport’s fifth published book. Cal is thirty three years old, a father of two young children, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of multiple academic journals. It’s fair to say that Cal Newport is a very productive person. He attributes this to a single key skill: the ability to sustain long periods of ininterrupted high focus. He calls this ‘Deep Work’.

Cal argues that modern life has created a population who are suckers for distraction. Our concentration is under constant attack from the lure or the twenty four hour news cycle and the never-ending stream of notifications from social portals such as Facebook and Twitter. This fragmentation of our attention and concentration, he argues, leads to a failure to reach our potential at work and home because we are unable to achieve ‘depth’ in our approach to difficult problems. I find Cal a little over zealous in his approach but there is no denying that there is much to learn from this book, especially for people like me who struggle to maintain productivity for extended periods of time in an environment which is prone to interruptions from various sources.

Those that read Cal’s Study Hacks blog won’t find massive amount of new information in this book, but for those that don’t it is a good primer of his philosophy towards meaningful work in a distracted world. The book is aimed at knowledge workers. I’m not sure who this group of people are, but there are plenty of strategies that I can, should and will apply to my own work. Worth a read. I award it four stars.

Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World is available from Amazon for £7.99 on Kindle.

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I have a love hate relationship with Mr Stevenson and I’ve started more than one of his books and given up. At nearly a thousand pages, this is an ambitious and daunting volume.

The novel explores the fate of the human race after a mysterious ‘Agent’ shatters the moon into several pieces and renders the earth uninhabitable. The book can be fairly neatly broken into three sections: we meet the main characters watch as the world plans for survival in space, then we follow their experiences post-destruction as they adapt to life without their home planet, and finally jump forward five thousand years into the future as the descendants of our protagonists are planning a return to the earth. It is clear that Mr Stevenson has done his homework. There are reams of technical monologues in the book and whilst you might enjoy them if you have a keen interest in the deeper concepts of orbital mechanics, DNA splicing or robot swarm theory, I had to skim the denser description whilst hoping that I wouldn’t miss something crucial to the plot (I didn’t).

On the whole this was an interesting take on a very feasible future for the human race and anyone that enjoys post-apocalyptic fiction and hardcore sci-fi should at least give it a look. Just don’t get too hung up on all the technical stuff.