Trends come and go, and often we don’t realize that we are in the midst of them until they are nearly over. In Barnes and Noble the other day, I saw a new book about the Beanie Baby craze of the late 90’s. Now that was a disaster if you happened to buy into the idea that the $5 stuffed animals were a durable store of value. I myself participated in a similar bubble written about recently by the Economist: the baseball-card wave of the 80’s. I apparently still haven’t given up on those actually being worth something someday, because I haven’t unloaded them yet.

Also in Barnes and Noble, browsing through the cookbooks, I found many books touting the benefits of diets that consist of “real food”—or “food”, as I like to call it. I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions of the “real food” movement, insofar as the health benefits of eating properly are concerned.  (Another piece by the Economist, however, has disputed the benefits of organic, local, and fair trade—interesting, but beside the point here.)  But the exhortation to eat a healthy diet is nothing new…it’s just been newly raised nearly to the level of religion among the newest wave of food-focused advocacy.  Well, if it works then everyone will be better off for being more health-conscious, though we will all have to admit that it was an evangelical zeal, rather than any particular scientific enlightenment, that brought about the desired result.

Well, I am here to say that we need to spark an evangelical movement of our own…one focused on feeding our minds real food, and not the junk of our Internet age.  Billions of people with access to the web send out a constant stream of Tweets, posts, snaps, and selfies that is easy to consume, easy to identify with, always present, and absolutely devoid of any nutritive value to our minds. And the Internet is a business, optimized to gather eyeballs and monetize clicks. That is why, at the bottom of serious news articles in big-name publications, you’ll find “Sponsored Content” with such mind-healthy offerings as “10 Shocking Celebrity Photos You Never Saw Coming!” or “You’ll Never Believe What This Mom Found In Her Underwear Drawer!”

The Internet is awash with such flotsam, and it is the intellectual equivalent of Pixie Stix and cotton candy. It is everywhere: your Facebook feed, your Twitter feed, the website where you look up your recipes…don’t get me started about!  Browsing the web is like being followed around by a crazed robotic vending machine screaming at you to eat its chips and cookies for free, all day and all night.  And they really will be the best, most interesting cookies you’ve ever had: you won’t even believe how amazing the cookies are today!  And before long you say “What the heck…” and give in, just this once—really, just this once…

Free as in money is all well and good, but your stalker vending machine is smearing on you layers of puffy, fatty tissue with each new cookie you take from it.  And the same thing is happening to your mind, that glorious duality of matter and spirit responsible for making you you, each time you spend 5 minutes reading the junk. And you know what it is: BuzzFeed; ViralNova;  any Facebook-driven quiz asking “Which Ninja Turtle are you?”, “What is your perfect city?”, or “How long would you survive as a molerat?”  You click the link; you invest the time to read the article or take the quiz; and in return, you get another metaphorical layer of greasy white fat injected into where your gray matter should be.  Because that stuff doesn’t actually educate you, even if it screams that it’s full of stuff you need to know.

Think about the quizzes: anyone can write a quiz that ignores your inputs and gives you random results.  If the random result you get is stupid and irrelevant, you leave (but not before spending time on the site and looking at—and heaven forbid, clicking—on the ads).  If it’s even halfway relevant, you perhaps share your result on Facebook…and lots more people may decide to take the quiz.  In the meantime, the people running the website are laughing hysterically as they watch the number of visitors to their site grow ever larger, and the advertising money they’re earning pile in, all for the simple investment of writing a silly little quiz and making up some bogus answers to go along with it.  They got paid, you got nothing.

The same is true of the articles written with the sole purpose of getting you to the website.  BuzzFeed and ViralNova are great at this.  Consider this enchanting recent headline: “10 Signs He’s Cheating on You (#7 is so obvious it hurts!)”.  What does this headline say to you?  It says—by offering a numbered list—that there is a scientific or mathematical method of laying bare his cheating heart.  It also says that at least one of these signs is so obvious.  And what are you thinking?  “Well geez, I don’t know of any obvious signs that my husband is cheating on me.  I must be stupid!  I’d better read up on this so that I don’t end up being some dumb broad just being taken for a ride…And to think, just 30 seconds ago I was so convinced that our marriage was brilliant…”  And that, dear readers, is how brains go down the toilet thanks to our friends on the Internet.  My favorite so far has to be the article 7 Online Personality Quizzes That Are Actually Worth Taking.  Take that pill and see just how far down the rabbit hole goes…

It’s all a business, and the product is you.  Internet writers compete with one another through such sensationalism to generate “page views” of their articles.  The websites “monetize” your “eyeballs” by showing you ads.  So the more people they can get through their website, the better…you don’t even have to read the article.  They just need you to click on the Headline That Says Something Happened That You’ll Never Believe!

So how much do they get paid?  It all depends upon the demographic of the readership, the placement of the ad, the topic…but in general, a few dollars per thousand page views.  So when you read an article on one of these sites, they get a few fractions of a penny—per ad.  But what if you share the article on Facebook and five of your friends read it…and then share it…and the number of readers grows exponentially?  So does the revenue.  So if a piece of the web goes “viral” by reaching, say, 10 million viewers, and has a couple ads embedded in it…the owners of the website will have collected something like $100,000 in ad revenue.  See why getting people to the article is so important…and lucrative?  The sites are like fishermen collecting up fish in dragnets—the more the better—and for good reason this kind of content is called “clickbait”.  The title just has to be enticing enough to get YOU to click on it, and whatever is there has to be just good enough that a small fraction of the readers will share it on their social networks.  And bingo, dollar bonanza!

But these people are all peddling shoddy products to convert your time into their profit.  You should eat anything…Twinkies, pink slime, MSG-flavored Oreos deep fried in artificial food colorings…before you put BuzzFeed in your brain.

What should you do instead?  Well, how do you avoid eating junk food?  You start by getting rid of all the junk food you have in your house.  You can do this for Internet junk too.  Install the AdBlock extension for your browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera), make sure that the settings ensure that ALL ads are blocked, and enjoy browsing the Internet free of most of the ads screaming at you to EAT MORE COOKIES!  If you don’t you can at least avoid like the plague any links provided by services like Outbrain or Taboola, which are both very large companies dedicated to putting Internet junk food in front of your eyes.  It’s not always obvious, but you should be able to tell these links by a little bit of fine print:



Run away!  It’s not worth it.  You do not need to know who the YouTube star is or what her house looks like; the Internet also isn’t going to reveal that Paul Allen found the Lost City of Atlantis.

After getting rid of all the junk food around you, the next thing to do is start EATING REAL FOOD!  For our brains, that means things written or produced to inform, inspire, expand and educate.  I2E2.  What do you ACTUALLY care about?  (No, you do not actually care about an unnamed 24-year-old YouTube star.)  Read about it on Wikipedia.  Read long-form literature that actually requires concentration, attention, and dedication, and you’ll not only learn something but improve your own character while you’re at it.  (Wondering where to start?  Join me in the Laureates Project!)  Have an academic interest?  Take a course on EdX or Coursera or watch some videos at Khan Academy.

Free your mind from the crushing grip of the Internet junk machine that just wants to squeeze pennies out of your brain.  We will only reach real Jailbreak when we have learned to filter and reject noise both harmless and harmful, and have provided ourselves the peace and clarity needed to focus on our truly significant passions.

Jailbreak Philosophy

It rained the other day, hard and heavy and quick. My wife and I were in the grocery store, stocking up for the week. I had seen a dust storm on the horizon as we went in; by the time we came out, the rainstorm that followed the dust had already come and gone. But boy had it done its job.

The ten-minute drive to the store translated into over an hour to get home. A big wreck on the freeway shut it down just before our exit; so we got turned around and shunted onto side streets when we were almost home. What followed was a slow crawl around the neighborhood, and in several places the water left by the rain—remember it was no more than an hour’s storm—was running through the streets close to knee-high. This city gets maybe three days of rain per year, so it is not built to handle a deluge.

One reason the traffic snaked slowly was because of everyone’s anxiety at crossing the deep parts of these impromptu waterways. Large trucks and SUVs plowed through with no problem, but smaller sedan-like cars—like mine—were much more cautious, and each one evaluated whether it was going to be able to make it through such deep water. At first I wondered myself whether I could make it through.

Then I realized: I have no idea at all at what depth water becomes a problem for a car. Is too much water splashed up the undercarriage a problem? Maybe it’s when the water is deep enough to run into the exhaust pipe? Maybe if the cooling fans at the front ingest too much water and spray it over the engine compartment? I’m sure that at some point any of those would be problematic. But which would go first? No clue. And also, I concluded: it didn’t matter.

Analysis paralysis, as it’s called, keeps lots of people from doing lots of things. People put off projects forever, because they are gathering information and don’t know when they have enough. Retail investors, who should be doing their retirement investing by buying-and-holding whole-stock-market funds, stay in cash because they don’t understand how options, puts, and carried calls work. Who, as a college student, didn’t put off writing a paper because they just needed to do “a little more research”?

The vast majority of the time, the trick to actually accomplishing something is not to do the best research possible; it’s to put the right filters in place. Ignoring what doesn’t matter can be just as challenging as doing what does matter. And, in a way, it’s far more important. If you just get started, you can always stop and learn a little more if you find you need more information; and you’re likely to then spend your time learning just what was really important to accomplish the task at hand.

Clearing the mind is absolutely essential. Practice putting up filters, keeping out anything that’s not completely relevant to the situation at hand, and see that you are more effective—at resting, working, exercising, anything.

Back in my car, the only thing that really mattered was that traffic was still moving. Why did that matter? It meant that everyone with a car like mine—and even some with cars smaller than mine—must have been making it through. And if they were, I would too. I was fortunate enough to see some similar cars plowing through the water before my turn, and that was it. I didn’t need to know the maximum depth of water that my car could get through. I just needed to know it could get through this depth. Done. Rather than spend any time worrying about whether we’d make it home, we just pushed through the waves and drove on home.

Apply the right filters; take in relevant and useful information. All the rest just holds you back.

Small Observations

Look around you.  What do you see?

The meaning of the shapes around you does not come from them to you, an arrow shot from a quiver full of significance.  The painting on the wall of my living room means very little to me.  It was left behind by my landlord; I don’t know how he got it; it’s a print of a scene by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, about whom I know nothing. Maybe less than nothing.  Other than filling up an otherwise blank space, it serves no function.  It does not speak to me.

No, meaning is a boomerang that starts with you, extends to your surroundings, and curves back to meet you where you are.  There’s an old textbook supine on an end table under the painting.  It looks like it belongs in a big beautiful library where everyone admires but no one reads.  I referenced that book a million times in graduate school.  I spent hours absorbing knowledge from it, traveled with it, lived with it.  It reminds me of a significant time in my life.  I give it meaning, which it reflects back to me.

This is not just so much solipsistic drivel, but an admission that the objective nature of our surroundings contributes minimally to our subjective experience.  One man perhaps, surrounded by a great crowd of critics, will fall into a depressive self-criticism and lose his will.  Another in the same conditions will be a bull prodded by a thousand rapiers to enraged action.  Yet another will hear and disregard, carrying on in peace.  Some may never hear at all, being congenitally out of tune with criticism.

As children, we learn how to relate to our surroundings, guided by parents or friends or blind circumstance.  We grow and learn and adapt and experiment.  The stakes grow greater as we get older, and become responsible for our own lives and maybe for the lives of others.  And at some point, the stakes grow too great—the possible consequences of our thoughts and actions too significant—and we stop.  Stop growing, learning, adapting.  Except when forced by circumstances, we choose to stay put in the mental depot, sit on a bench and watch the trains go by, maybe comfortable, maybe envious of those still traveling, but making silent and private justifications for why we can’t hit the rails one more time.  We believe that things in life work, well enough, and we can only make them worse by making changes.

And so we wake in the morning when we must, dress as those around us will expect, eat what we are accustomed to eating, go to work and perform the motions we are expected and rewarded to perform, spend time with family or friends doing and talking about customary things…and at the end of it all, allow what few hours are left to pass in mostly thoughtless entertainment.

That’s never been me.  I’m a naturally inquisitive and curious person.  Recently, though, I have felt the cords of convention pulling at me and stirring within me the feeling that I’m losing the spark of initiative that has always made life interesting.  I’m 32, I’m an engineer, I work at a large engineering company.  I read much less than I used to.  The world around me is not as interesting as it once was.  My sense of humor has become less creative and more sarcastic with time.  My average TV consumption has increased many times over since my college days.  I didn’t plan or work toward any of that. It’s just something that happened. But did I want it to happen? Not so much.

Now, I don’t know anything about much of what I just said.  I’m a physicist, not a psychologist, philosopher, or poet.  But I do know that my mind and life can be more expansive than they are.  In my relatively new adulthood, there need not be an end to the joys of discovery.  Perhaps I have less time in which to find things out—when I’m not finding things out in my job, that is—but what do I do in the time that I do have?

The mind can ossify with time, or it can become more flexible and supple.

Our selves and our lives can be jails whose jail-yards we wander during life sentences; or they can be gardens blooming with ideas and fascinations.  I, and too many people that I know, have a jail-yard mentality, and we have to break out.  Break out, and get back to the garden.  I am plotting my jailbreak. Maybe you need to plot yours?

Jailbreak Philosophy