Nudging My Way Out Of The Intellectual Mosh Pit

As part of my ongoing effort to improve my cost/benefit ratio on social media, I’m nudging myself away from intellectual mosh pit platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and towards blog posts, articles, videos essays, etc. Really longform consumption (e.g. books) remains about the same, my limitations on that are mostly my insistence on fact-checking nonfiction and very narrow tastes in fiction, this post is about changing what I reach for when I’m bored in a line. Towards that goal I have made a few changes, which I list here roughly in ascending order of how much effort they were:

  • Put all of my screens in greyscale. If you only try one thing on this list, make it this one. It takes five seconds to test once you have instructions, and the relief for me was immediate and has lasted days so far. Every time I have to turn color on to look at graphs I resent it. 
  • Discovered the existence of Focus Mode for android, which allows you to use the internet but disables notifications.
    • All of the Focus Mode instructions require several clicks into a deep menu. You can access it more easily by enabling the relevant fast-access card, using the instructions for older Android phones above. 
  • Moved all my short-OODA-loop apps off my phone home in favor of long-OODA-loop apps.
    • The newly defavored apps include obvious candidates like Twitter, but also all messaging apps and Chrome itself.
    • The new stars include my article aggregator, as well as very long-form content like Kindle, Audible, and PodCatcher.
    • The home screen continues to hold non-content-consumption apps I want to access quickly, like Maps, Calendar, etc. 
  • Resumed use of a read-it-later tool, which lets me save cool articles I see on social media to be consumed when I’m in a better head space (I can’t switch between reading microblogs and regular blogs quickly – different headspace ).
  • Switched to an RSS reader that lets me read things out of order without marking earlier articles as Read.
  • Combined my RSS feeds, email newsletters, and saved articles in a single service (that lets me read in any order) so I can choose from all my essay-length options at once. This was a stupid amount of effort and yak shaving and it’s not pretty but I got it working. Most of this post will be about that.

How to Combine All Article-Length Content

The following instructions work with both Inoreader and Feedly. I eventually chose Inoreader but it was a close call and your mileage may vary.

  1. Import your existing RSS feeds to Inoreader.
    1. Feedly instructions.
  2. You have two options for saving arbitrary content to your new aggregator. 
    1. Inoreader has a built-in feature to do this with a Chrome plugin, but there’s no way to see saved articles and RSS articles in the same list. So if that’s important for you…
    2. Sign up for Pocket, the leading read-it-later app, and configure Pocket to put your saved articles on an RSS Feed, then add that RSS feed to Inoreader per normal.
      1. Install the save to Pocket extension in your browser to make it easy to add to the feed as you come across things you want to read at some point (note: not available for Android, so I have to manually copy the URL and open the Pocket app).
        1. All articles in the saved-to-Pocket feed will show in Inoreader as having the same author (“my content feed”) and they won’t have the body of the article, only the title and header image. I really care about having all of my articles in the exact same place, but if you don’t, just using save-to-Inoreader will save you several steps.
  3. You also have two options for newsletters.
    1. Set up forwarding using Inoreader’s built-in system.
      1. This is a Pro feature, so it’s $6/month. 
        1. Feedly version ($12/month)
      2. You will either need to set up a new email for every subscription (which Inoreader supports, although you’ll need to upgrade past 20 subscriptions) or they will all be listed as having the same author.
    2. Or use a newsletter-to-RSS conversion tool like kill-the-newsletter.com, and add the resulting RSS feed to Feedly. Unless substack lets you configure separate emails for each subscription this will still require you to set up forwarding.

Tada! With a mere 20 minutes of work and a small monthly fee you have a system that combines all of your article-length-content in one place. Inoreader and Feedly both support Youtube channels and podcasts as well, although I haven’t tested those out.

Rejected Options

Pocket

Pocket bafflingly doesn’t support RSS input. You can hack it with IFTTT or Zapier, but each RSS feed counts as its own applet so you reach the $10/month plan very quickly. This is slightly cheaper than the Feedly pro plan but more than Inoreader, plus paying Inoreader gets rid of ads.

Pocket allows you to forward individual emails to it, but because Gmail requires forwarding address confirmation you can’t automate forwarding to pocket from Gmail. You could fix this with a newsletter-to-RSS converter and then IFTTT/Zapier, but that’s a lot of work.

Feedly

I originally settled on Feedly before making one final sweep and choosing Inoreader instead. The driving concern was that Feedly required me to be on tier 3 ($12) rather than Inoreader’s tier 2 ($6). Inoreader’s browser plugin was also better, letting you subscribe while on a blog’s homepage, where Feedly requires you to not only go to its own page to add feeds, but track down the actual feed URL rather than figuring it out from the blog’s homepage URL (which is surprisingly hard because RSS is out of favor and most readers can guess, so the RSS feed is rarely displayed prominently).

I do like the Feedly Android app a little more; Inoreader has not adjusted to Pixel’s lack of a back button and eats the replacement gesture, but I liked the webapp more so stuck with Inoreader. 

Feedly Pro+ (required to get newsletter forwarding) boasts an AI assistant I assume is terrible. Inoreader has easily accessible filters and prioritization rules that I haven’t tested. Between the two of these I predict I get more value out of Inoreader, but I could be wrong.

Lastly, Feedly promised me a trial and immediately charged me for an annual subscription, so they can die in a fire. 

Everyone Else

This is a spreadsheet where I went through every read-it-later service I could find, looking for RSS native support. None of them had it. It is possible there is another RSS reader with better bookmarking or newsletter support, but I am exhausted and Inoreader is working so I stopped looking.

An Observation of Vavilov Day

Content note: this post contains discussion of starvation.

I aspire to be a person who does good things, and who is capable of doing hard things in service of that. This is a plan to test that capacity.

I haven’t been in a battle, but if you gave me the choice between dying in battle and slowly starving to death, I would immediately choose battle. Battles are scary but they are short and then they are over.

If you gave me a chance to starve to death to generate some sufficiently good outcome, like saving millions of people from starvation, I think I would do it, and I would be glad to have the opportunity. It would hurt, but only for a few weeks, and in that time I could comfort myself with the warm glow of how good this was for other people.

If you gave me a chance to save millions of people by starving, and then put food in front of me, I don’t think I could do it. I would do okay for a few days, maybe a week, but I worry that eventually hunger would incapacitate the part of my brain that allows me to make moral trade-offs at my own expense, and I would wake up to find I’d eaten half the food. I want to think I’d manage it, but if the thought experiment gods didn’t let me skip the hard part with more proactive measures, I’m not confident I could. 

During the siege of Leningrad, scientists and other staff of the Institute of Plant Study faced the above choice, and to the best of our knowledge, all of them chose hunger. 12 of them died for it, the rest merely got close (English language sources list 9 deaths, which is the number of scientists who died in service of the seed bank but not the total number of people). They couldn’t kill themselves because they were needed to protect the food from rats and starving citizens. Those survival odds are better than the certain death of my hypothetical, but they didn’t have the same certainty of impact either, so I think it balances out.

That’s heroism enough, but a fraction of what’s present in this story. Those scientists worked at an institute founded by Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet botanist who has the misfortune to be right on issues inconvenient to Joseph Stalin. Vavilov’s (correct) insistence that his theories could feed Russians and those of Stalin’s favored scientist couldn’t got him arrested, tortured, and sent to a gulag, where he eventually starved to death. 

The seeds Vavilov and his staff protected now cover 80% of the cropland of Russia. Credit for scientific revolutions is hard to apportion, but as I reckon it Valilov is responsible for, at a minimum, tens of millions people living when they would have starved or never born, and the number could be closer to a billion.

Nikolai Vavilov is my hero.

Nikolai Vavilov | Biography & Facts | Britannica

In honor of Nikolai Vavilov, I’m doing a ~36 hour calorie fast from dinner on 1/25 (the day before Vavilov died in the gulag) to breakfast on 1/27 (the end of the siege of Leningrad). Those of you who know me know this is an extremely big deal for me, I do not handle being hungry well, and 36 hours is a long time. This might be one of the hardest things I could do while still being physically possible. Moreover, I’m not going to allow myself to just lie in bed for this: I’m committing to at least one physical activity that day (default is outdoor elliptical, unless it’s raining), and attempting to work a normal schedule. I expect this to be very hard. But I need to demonstrate to myself that I can do things that are at least this hard, before I’m called on to do so for something that matters. 

If this story strikes a chord with you to the point you also want to observe Valilov + associates’ sacrifice, I’d enjoy hearing how. I have enough interest locally (bay area California) that there’s likely to be a kick-off dinner + reading the night of the 25th. It would also be traditional for a fasting holiday to end in a feast, but 1/27 is a Thursday and other people have normal jobs so not yet clear how that’s going to shake out. 

Thanks to Clara Collier for introducing me to the story of Vavilov and his institute, Anna Tchetchetkine for finding Russian-languages sources for me, and Google translate for being so good I didn’t need Anna to translate any further.