[Paleopsych] Gary North: Time Wasting: Good vs. Bad

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Gary North: Time Wasting: Good vs. Bad
Issue 458, June 24, 2005

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                 TIME-WASTING: GOOD VS. BAD

      What I am now experiencing in one isolated aspect of
my life's work, you may already have experienced or should
experience.  I hope you can learn from my mistakes.  I also
hope you can find a way to overcome your comparable
mistakes inexpensively.  As you read this, you may think,
"That sounds a lot like my experience with. . . ."  You may
even encounter a "shock of recognition" -- a phrase that usually
refers to a moment of self-awareness in which a person recognizes the
reality of what
he has become or was.

      I had one of those shocks this week.  It was the
result of my first evening spent enduring a long, miserable task
that I had better accomplish: the cleaning out of my files
of clippings.

      I began to clip magazines and newspapers in the mid-
1960s.  This escalated a decade later, and became (I now
see) maniacal from about 1980 to 1996.  Today, I have a
dozen 4-drawer legal files filled with clippings.  The
categories are in the hundreds.

      My mania ended with the advent of the Web.  I stopped
subscribing to magazines and newspapers.  (I still
subscribe to financial newsletters.)  Yet I did not save to
disk most of the files that I have read on-line.  I do save
a few documents this way, now that there is a free disk-
search-and-retrieve program that I like: Copernic's.


But saving Web-based pages is not a mania for me.  That's
because I can find more material than I have time to read
on almost any topic simply by using Google.

      I am in the process of moving.  I want to get rid of
half my filing cabinets.  This means getting rid of at
least half my files.  Whether I will attain this goal is
problematical.  It took me two hours to go through the
equivalent of one file drawer.  That means 47 to go.  It
may be wiser to just put up with the files.  Or maybe I
should just toss out all of the files.  That's what my
father-in-law did two decades ago, after 40 years of
clipping stuff.  At the time, I thought he had made a big
mistake.  I no longer do.


      Every life is filled with wasted time.  Every job is
also filled with wasted time.  We spend much of our lives
collecting, learning, cataloguing, and generally burying
ourselves in information that later turns out to be trivia.

      It took me two hours just to skim through two boxes of
clippings.  I tossed out a pile of papers about 11 inches
high.  Most of these were yellowed newspaper clippings.  I
took one look and tossed most of them.  Yet to file each
one, I had to clip it, paste the columns on a sheet of
paper, label the paper, and file it.  That took time.  I
hate to think about how much time it took.

      In the bad old days, I had only one category per
document.  Yet most documents should have been identified
by several key words.  A clipping on OPEC could have been
filed under "Energy: Oil," "foreign policy," or "cartels."
A clipping on Henry Kissinger could have been filed under
"Kissinger," "foreign policy, "conspiracy," "war," or
"myopic weasel."  I had to make a choice.  Then I had to
remember that choice.

      On the whole, I have been able to retrieve old
articles reliably, if I could recall the article.  But,
after 1996, I found that I rarely went to my old files.
So, I have forgotten many categories and most clippings:
thousands and thousands of clippings.

      I did not know that the Web would arrive.  I did not
know that the way we access new knowledge and details of
fading memories would change more than it changed since the
invention of the printing press.

      I knew by 1982 that scanning software would someday
allow me to file my clippings on a hard disk.  I knew that
data-retrieval software would eventually enable me to
retrieve whatever I had filed.  I did not think it would
take over a decade to produce workable but inefficient
products that would do this.  PageKeeper was one of them.
It did not catch on.  Nothing really works well yet.  If it
did, Microsoft would either buy it or imitate it.

      So, I kept clipping.  I kept buying filing cabinets.

      Now I will toss out most of what I filed.  As I read
file after file, I thought, "Why did I bother to clip
this?"  There were exceptions.  I am keeping about half,
but most of these are longer articles clipped from
magazines.  The newspaper clippings are mostly too narrow
or too obscure or long since superseded.

      As I write this, I recall my advice to a friend who
also suffered with clipping mania.  He told me in the mid-
1980s that he was facing a major problem: a mild heart attack.
His physician told him to slow down. Yet he was still compulsively
clipping.  I told him to let every newspaper pile up for a week.
Then start reading them.  I predicted that most of what he would have

clipped a week before would have become outdated.  He did what I
said.  He reported back within a month that he was clipping
far fewer articles.  But I did not take my own advice for a
decade.  The Web forced my hand, not a heart attack.


      Nevertheless, my files have convinced me that all that
time was not wasted.  The discipline of reading, clipping,
and cataloguing articles did provide me with an overall
sense of what was going on.  Now that I see them, I
remember some of it.  I can see in one quick survey what
developed.  A few of the clippings are still worth keeping.

      Decades ago, Linus Pauling told his assistant Art
Robinson that there is value in reading widely and trying
to remember seemingly unrelated facts.  Pauling said that
the mind will sometimes come up with links to memories that
will prove useful.

      Pauling was correct.  We don't know how our minds make
these connections.  They just pop up.  We recall a related
incident, the way I just recalled my friend with the heart

      We say, "garbage in, garbage out."  But we don't know
today what will turn out to be garbage later.  We know that
most of it will be, but we cannot accurately predict what.
So, we fill our minds with useless stuff.  Then we forget
most of it.

      That's what files are for.  In the old days, when I
decided to write on some topic, I would skim through a file
to see what I had clipped.  But if the file was really fat,
or if there were several fat files on the same topic, I
would rarely do this.  It was too much work.  I would rely
on my memory to pop up some recollection.  Then I would go
to a file and go through it in search of the document.

      If we only knew what the future will bring...   we could
avoid so much garbage.


      Technology keeps advancing.  As it does, it makes
  earlier technologies that were once on the cutting
edge of progress turn obsolete.  It also makes hash of our plans and

      My entire career has been tied to books.  But the
format of books is changing: from paper-based to digit-
based.  There will come a day when I will have a
lightweight, book-sized reader with a screen as easy to read
as a 12 dots per inch piece of paper.  It will enable me to
highlight a passage, file it electronically, attach key
words to it, and subsequently identify what book and page
it came from.  Its non-availability today is a matter of
price, not technology.  When such a product is offered for
sale below $500, and when a common format makes digital
books legally available for reading, my research will
change: no more yellow highlighters, no more photocopies,
no more filing cabinets, and no more dependence on my
fading memory.

      I suspect that the product's main limiting factor
today is not hardware or software but rather copyright law.
There is also the problem of converting entire libraries to
a digital format that will be readable by multiple hardware
products.  Google has begun the work of conversion, and
just in time: acid-based paper books printed before 1880
are disintegrating.

      It is only a matter of time before Harvard and
Stanford will have no library advantage over Podunk State
for anything published before 1923: public domain.  If the
newly independent Republic of Freedonia decides to ignore
international copyright law, Harvard and Stanford will have
no library advantage over you and me for $200 a year.

      Today, I can walk into a university library and go on-
line.  Only rarely do libraries require student passwords.
I can access any scholarly journal that the library
subscribes to.  I can find an article and e-mail it to
myself.  I can then file it on my own computer.

      Students can access Lexus/Nexus, which is a database
of newspaper and magazine articles.  If I can't gain access
(and I probably can), I can pay a student $6 an hour
to research any topic.  Or I just find a cooperating
student who lets me use his/her password.  If I want to
write a book in three weeks, the way I wrote "The War on
Mel Gibson," I can do it, cheap.

      I own a library.  It is housed in a 3,000 square foot
facility.  It has 100 bookcases, seven shelves per case.  I
am now about to give away 80% of it.  The Web has changed
the way I work.  I have not decided on which institution
should get it.

      Along the far wall is a boxed collection of
microcards.  On these cards are readable imprints of
everything published in the United States from 1639 to
1811: books, pamphlets, sermons, newspapers.  It is called
"Early American Imprints."

      I used this set in my university's library, 1969-71 to
write my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Concept of Property in
Puritan New England, 1630-1720."  In those days, only a few
graduate research libraries had this set.

      In the late 1980s, microfiche replaced microcards as
the preferred technology.  Microfiche can be used to
produce printed pages.  Microcards cannot.  The company
that produced the cards was about to use them as landfill.
A man found out and went to the managers.  He offered to
buy them.  He agreed to sell them to individuals and
organizations that would not buy the new microfiche
version.  The outfit agreed.  My non-profit research
organization bought the main set for $5,000, and I paid even
more for the newspapers.

      This was a mistake.  I never got back to the Puritans.
Now, microfiche technology is obsolete.  The first set of
materials is available to libraries on-line.  The material
is searchable.  How, I don't know.  The images are poor and
the type face is ancient.  "The letter "s" looks like an
"f,"  except at the end of a word, when it looks like an
"s."  The newspapers are not yet digitized.

      I offered to give away the collection to a college
library.  The librarian politely refused.  He is even
dumping hard copies of scholarly journals, as are most
librarians.  Microcards are dinosaurs.

      So, I will probably go on eBay and offer the
collection to home schoolers or Christian day schools.
What cost $18,000 in 1988 will get a couple of thousand,
maybe.  But in 1965, the same collection cost probably
$50,000, worth six times as much today.

      Technology giveth and technology taketh away.


      Entrepreneurship is the art of forecasting the price
of things, and then buying items today that will be worth
more later, and selling items today that will be worth

      We pay in time for things that will appreciate or
depreciate.  Money is replaceable.  Time isn't.  When we
waste time, it usually costs us more in the long run than
when we waste money.

      The allocation of time is the most difficult of our
responsibilities.  I regret having bought those microcards.
I did not put them to good use.  But I regret far more the
investment of time in assembling all those clippings.  I
see them piling up, and I wonder, "What was I thinking?"

      Yet there are a few items that I am glad I saved.  I
think they will prove useful someday in my writing.  But
who knows?

      Maybe I should toss out all of the files.  It would
save about 150 hours of work.  But to do that would be to
acknowledge that my future will be very different from my
past.  Nobody likes to make that kind of complete break
with the past.

      In the movie, "About Schmidt," there is a scene where
Jack Nicholson returns to his former place of employment,
an insurance company.  He spent his career in the
accounting department.  As he passes by the building, he
sees his files in the basement, ready for the dumpster.  In
these boxes rest the visible results of his life's work.
They were important to him at the time, but they are about
to be tossed away.

      What about Schmidt?  Was he the equivalent of those

      The script writer did a good job with that scene.  He
did not have to have Nicholson verbally ponder his own
worth.  It was crucial to the movie that he not do this.
The character was not about to admit to himself or others
that his life in retrospect seems to have been, if not
wasted, then not significant.  But for most people, the
illusion of their cultural significance doesn't last long.
There is nothing like attending a funeral to remind us of
this.  But tossing out files comes close.


      Because I had something close to mindless to do, I
watched the TV show on the 100 most famous lines in movies.
There was no doubt in my mind which line would be number
one, any more than I had a doubt regarding its predecessor
on the most famous song.  The song had to be "Over the
Rainbow," and it was.  The line had to be "Frankly, my
dear. . . ."  The only reason for watching that sort of
show is to find out the also-rans.

      Far and away, the most important line in the history
of the movies was written by William Goldman.  Several of
Goldman's lines made the top 100, but not his most
important one.  That line was put into the mouth of Deep
Throat in "All the President's Men."  It has become
legendary: "Follow the Money."  It does not appear in the
book.  So, Goldman's greatest line gets no respect.  Hardly
anyone knows that he wrote it.

      Movie actors may imagine that they will exert
influence.  A few of them may, if they get the right parts.
But they do not speak their own lines, and hardly anyone
recalls the names of the script writers of any specific
line, unless it's a re-make of a play by Shakespeare.

      Writers imagine that they will be remembered, but here
is the grim reality.  First, hardly anyone reads old
novels, except when they are assigned in an English class.
Second, nobody reads old non-fiction books, except when
they are assigned in a history class.  The Great Books make
Great Shelves, but hardly anyone ever takes one of them
down from the shelf to read it in order to gain greater

      I sat down and listed books over a century old that
have influenced my thinking directly, as distinguished from
the influence of some contemporary who said the book is
important.  The list is incredibly short.  De Tocqueville's
"Democracy in America" is one, but I only finished both
volumes a couple of years ago.  I had read in it in grad
school.  His "Old Regime and the French Revolution"
influenced me: one main idea.  Burke's "Reflections on the
Revolution in France" (1790) is on my list.  Bastiat's "The
Law" (1850) influenced me, but it is really a long essay.


      The information in old books gets superseded very
fast.  If a successor does not pick it up and run with it,
or if he has no successor, a book will die.  Virtually all
old books have died.  They are read, not for wisdom but to
find out what some author said and what influence he had,
way back when.

      So, authors may enjoy the illusion of having produced
a stand-alone masterpiece, but it's still an illusion.
Great artists have a shot at this.  Nobody else does.  But
there are few great artists around today, as far as we can


      We are all in the same boat.  Our lives are filled
with what appears to be waste.  Yet the waste seems
necessary for whatever productivity we add.  We cannot
eliminate waste.  At best, we can minimize it.

      Goal-setting and time-management are techniques that
help us reduce waste.  But no matter what we do, most of
what we do seems to subtract from the legacy we leave

      If this is true, then we might as well accept waste.
Somehow, it is an inescapable part of our lives.  Waste
contributes to our production.  So, it's not really all
waste.  It's just whatever is unaccounted for in our
overall production process.

      I budget waste into my life.  I recognize that some of
my time will be spent on what appears to be unproductive
details.  We can increase our output by acknowledging the
reality of waste and dealing with it.  It's like
cholesterol.  There is good waste and bad waste.

      So, I have budgeted in an hour a day for tossing out
clippings.  But I have decide that it's not for saving file
cabinet space.  It's for coming across an occasional gem,
and hoping that my fading memory will retain it.

      You know the story: the hope for a pony in the pile of

      I suggest that you pick a project like this and
complete it.  If nothing else, it's a good reminder of how
few ponies there are in life.  We should learn to
appreciate them.

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