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An update on my 50 books in 2021 goal

Two months into 2021 and I’m ahead on the 50 book challenge. Here’s a list of what I’ve read so far along with brief notes.

  1. Cultural Amnesia – Clive James. Review here.
  2. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer. Mini-review here.
  3. The Hamlet – William Faulkner. Not my favorite Faulkner, but still Faulkner.
  4. The Dog Stars – Peter Heller. I’m a sucker for good post-apocalyptic stories. This was a fun one.
  5. Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry. My first book by Berry. Beautiful story. Much better than what I anticipated.
  6. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck. Funny!
  7. The Sunset Limited – Cormac McCarthy. Bittersweet in that this is the last of McCarthy’s novels that I haven’t read. Guess it’s time to start over from the beginning again. I also watched the Tommy Lee Jones & Samuel Jackson movie. Very existential. It reminded me a lot of the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky.
  8. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens. This was a recommendation from a friend. I don’t read a lot of recently-released-fiction, but I’m glad I read this one. It’s got a heavy focus on birds and ecology, it’s set in the South, and it’s a fun whodunit type of book.
  9. Conscious– Annaka Harris. Panpsychism is a fascinating concept.
  10. The Red and the Black – Stendhal. I read this because it was influential for René Girard. I’m still processing it. As I read it I didn’t find it extremely engaging but I’ve found that it’s stuck with me.
  11. Extraterrestrial – Avi Loeb. Read this. A real scientist making a very compelling case for extraterrestrial life.
  12. The Evolution of Desire – Cynthia L. Haven. A book about the life and works of René Girard. Very well written and a great introduction to Girard.
  13. Never Enough – Judith Grisel. An engaging and pragmatic look at drug addiction.
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The Naked and the Dead Mini-Review

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is less about strategy or tactics than it is about soldiers. It’s about the dynamics between commanders and their subordinates. The way men of different backgrounds deal with being placed together and forced to cooperate. The constant affronts to personal morality that war brings, and the way war pushes endurance and courage to their absolute limits. It’s also about power dynamics, love and lust, and of course death.

It takes a Tolstoyian effort to sandwich that many themes between the covers of one, huge albeit, book and Mailer manages to… well, not really approach Tolstoy but he manages to weigh in as a Tolstoy-light. In the best possible way. The Naked and the Dead is easier reading than War and Peace . It has far fewer characters, settings, and scope, but it still manages to explore a lot of the same ground in a meaningful and compelling way. It’s impressive, especially for a work written when Mailer was essentially just a kid.

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Cultural Amnesia Review

In some sense, I’m glad Clive James wrote Cultural Amnesia in the early 2000’s. At that time, he was able to end it on an optimistic note. Despite living in a post 9/11 world, he was able to conclude the book with the feeling that if the end of history wasn’t already beginning, that it was imminent. 

It’s not.

In 2021 Cultural Amnesia feels more like a coda to the greatest hits of Western Civilization as we enter the neo-1984 era where nothing beautiful is safe from the sanctimonious purges of postmodern puritans hellbent on bleaching our meta-narratives. Where that leads us remains to be seen. I’m not optimistic.

Present context aside, this is a beautifully written book. It’s an indulgent tour of the stars of modern history who come together to form a constellation in which the imaginative reader can begin to see the shape of human achievement, both for good and for ill.

I listened to the audio version which is narrated very nicely by the author. It is, unbeknownst to me when I started it, heavily abridged. Fortunately, each chapter in the book is a self-contained vignette of a person that James found interesting and the book doesn’t need to be read in any order. I’m looking forward to finishing the chapters missing from the audiobook as I thumb through the paper version throughout the rest of of the year.

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50 Books in 2021

After ODing a bit on news, Twitter, and podcasts in 2020, I’m headed back to the stacks this year. I’m going to read 50 books. So far I’ve got 7 other people to join me, why don’t you?

If you have young kids or other life circumstances that make ~1 book a week unpractical, pick a number that will stretch you but not be impossible.

Also, rather than just sharing my reviews on Goodreads, I’m going to post some of them here. Time to start getting some of those sweet sweet page views again.

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Bird Photography

In 2018 I somehow managed to get interested in bird photography. Since it’s become a fairly serious hobby. I thought I’d share some of my photography here:

Allusions

I also share my photos on Instagram.

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How to Stay Sane & Smart in 2020

If you’re like me, you’ve found that the current state of the world is bringing up complex issues that are challenging your beliefs and pushing you to evolve your identity. The wildly varying ideas around how to deal with Covid-19, issues of social justice, especially racism and police violence, and the upcoming American presidential election have created a battleground of the mind. Everywhere you look people are angry and screaming for change. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lives and livelihoods are on the line.

These difficult topics are everywhere in social and traditional media, but are also present in charged, real-world conversations with family, friends and, more than I can ever remember, at work as well. While most people are well-intentioned, there are undoubtedly bad agendas being pushed by both well meaning people as well as by bad actors taking advantage of a historical moment. You don’t have to look far to see how dangerously divided we’re becoming.

If you’re unwilling to accept the herd mentality (as you should be) and to go along with the madness of the crowds, you’ll need a framework to help you avoid being converted to bad ideologies by their strong emotional appeals and instead, form your own opinions based on a deeper understanding of the world.

It’s no small task.

Proponents at every point in the spectrum of ideas are astute and come with polished presentations that appeal deeply to our desire for social acceptance. Their arguments are made on a primal, emotional level that can easily override calmer, rational thinking.

Deeply Understand

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Charlie Munger

On the surface, Munger’s advice may seem obvious but, if you spend a few minutes listening to the news, podcasts, or reading opinion pieces online, you’ll see that it’s almost never followed.

It’s very easy to convince yourself that you already understand both sides or that you’re making a real effort to do so when, in fact, you’re just strengthening your own position by looking for obvious or surface-level weaknesses in views that challenge your own. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that you’re dealing with a complex topic where there are rational and intelligent people on both sides.

“There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”

Tyler Cowen’s First Law

You’re wasting your time re-enforcing your own pre-held ideas if you haven’t found the smartest person on the other side and spent significant time reading their work, listening to their lectures on YouTube, or otherwise deeply engaging with their ideas.

You’ll know you’re truly understanding when two things happen:

First, you will feel that there’s a possibility that you might become convinced by an idea you didn’t hold before. By definition, it will be an uncomfortable feeling. If you inspect it closer, you’ll find that it’s rooted in the threat of a mini-ego-dissolution. This is because you’ve made yourself vulnerable to persuasion. Being persuaded away from a strongly held belief threatens your status quo, which is the thing your ego is there to protect. This is the sign of true open-mindedness. It’s not an easy path, and it doesn’t come without risk, but if you really want to understand, it is the way.

Second, you will know you’ve understood when you no longer feel defensive when discussing an idea with someone who doesn’t share your views. Defensiveness arises when we sense a threat to our identity. If you’ve followed Munger’s advice above, you shouldn’t feel that threat anymore. You’ll have already done the hard work.

The loss of defensiveness is not to be confused with complacency. Strong opinions can, and should, cause us to feel passion that leads us to making change in our lives as well as giving us a desire to convince others to do the same. But right action doesn’t arise from defensiveness, it arises from wisdom.

A Note on Dangerous Ideas

There are, of course, certain ideas that are simply not worth understanding deeply, even given the points I just made above. Extremely charismatic people can, and often do, convince well intentioned truth-seekers of dangerous or harmful ideas. Use your judgement. The world is complex and we can’t hope to understand it without taking some risk, but discernment is still called for.

Don’t Understand

All that having been said, in order to stay sane, as my favorite Stoic Marcus Aurelius said:

“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.

Meditations 6.52

Following the advice in the first part of this article is exhausting and time-consuming. So, unless it’s something that is within your circle of influence, that affects your every day life, or something you’re genuinely interested in, it’s probably not worth taking the time and effort to form an opinion about it.

It’s okay not to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t know yet, let me get back to you.” In fact, usually it’s better.

Finally,

The world is changing fast. Bad ideas masquerading as good ones abound. In many cases, complacency is no longer an option. Even though sometimes it feels like you’re being left behind by the rapid changes around you, it’s worth taking the time to form good, strong opinions and, unless you’ve really felt that sense of threat to your ego when coming to an opinion, you probably still have work to do. When it’s necessary, do the work When it’s not, follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice–don’t get caught in the waves that would otherwise harmlessly pass you by.

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Do stuff you won’t regret

A common theme that hospice workers write about is the regrets that dying people have in the final days of their lives. The point of these articles is to encourage people with time left to go out and do things while they still can to avoid having similar regrets.

What I want to focus on this year is similar to preparing to avoid deathbed regrets, but not quite the same. I want to figure out why I don’t do things that I know that I’d enjoy or, at least not regret, but that I still don’t do. Then, I if there’s no good reason not to do it, I want to do it.

For example, I’d almost certainly love scuba diving. I’d definitely benefit from doing yoga. If I got an online or real life French teacher, I’d improve much faster. If I started taking my kids to the rock climbing gym it’d almost certainly lead to lots of good times with them. There are several trips that I could plan that I haven’t.

Some people seem to get an idea for something, realize that they’d like it, then they do the logical thing and do it. Others, like me, sometimes stop short before actually taking the next step despite there being no good reason not to.

When I think about why I don’t do things I wouldn’t regret, it seems to come down to one or more of the following reasons:

  • Time. It’s the most limited resource.
  • Money. It’s is famously difficult to get and once you’ve spent it all, you have to spend time trying to get more of it.
  • Health. Some things are risky to do.
  • Energy. It’s also a limited resource and it’s a tough one to manage and predict.
  • Mood & optimism. If I can’t imagine my future state of enjoyment vividly enough to convince myself it will be real, I likely won’t be motivated enough to do the thing.
  • Comfort. It’s easy to get used to being comfortable and hard to get up the momentum to sacrifice comfort for some other good.
  • Embarrassment or humiliation. We’re social creatures and if there’s even a slight chance of looking bad in front of others, it can be a huge deterrent.
  • Fear of letting someone down. Sometimes I worry that someone I love will be hurt or disappointed by my choice. This fear can be something as simple as concern about leaving my family alone for a few days for a trip to worrying that someone with a different political/religious/moral view will be hurt if they find out I’m involved with something they disagree with. Obviously if I really would be hurting a loved one, I should take this thought seriously, but often it seems that the fear is irrational.
  • Fear of failure. Sometimes I fear failure just because it’s failure, other times it’s the fear that yet another failure will in some way break my spirit and I won’t want to try new things again.
  • Uncertainty. There is sometimes an aspect of the thing that I don’t know enough about and, rather than gathering more information or figuring out what I’m missing, I let the uncertainty be a mental blocker.

So, my plan for 2020 is to be more intentional about the things that I do and don’t do. If I have an idea of something I’d like to do, I’ll go down the list, try to figure out what it is that’s stopping me from doing the thing, and if there’s no rational reason not to do it, I’ll take action.

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philosophy

Recommended: Jay Garfield’s The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life is the first lecture series I’ve listened to from The Great Courses and it’s fantastic. The name is maybe a little too lofty, I’d have called it “How to Live,” but don’t let that dissuade you. The lecturer, Jay Garfield, is a professor at Smith College and Harvard Divinity School and has written extensively on Eastern religions. His presentation style is efficient, engaging, and approachable. His course roams the world touching on many of the major philosophical and religious traditions in a way that gives a brief overview of each but also, more importantly, examples of where they differ in their philosophies on how to live.

In my own study, I’ve found it’s easy to find and focus on the similarities between philosophical traditions because they are what I’m drawn to naturally. I’d be hard pressed to say “this is what a taoist would do in this situation while a stoic would instead do this.” Garfield excels at giving a sort of WWJD for each of the traditions he covers. It’s in the contrasts between them that I feel the real character of each philosophy comes out.

For example, where Aristotle would say you can learn to cultivate anger, Seneca would say anger is never good and we should learn to avoid it completely. Where Confucianists would say we should focus on ritual and virtue, taoists would say that ritual marks the waning of belief and the onset of confusion.

Garfield also strikes a great balance between academic and practical. He doesn’t skimp on reading directly from source texts and doesn’t shy away from the complexities of distilling hundreds or thousands of years of wisdom into 30 minute chunks. But where condensing is necessary, he leans to the side of actionable information. It’s a symmetry that’s hard to find elsewhere.

If you’re looking for something good to listen to on your commute, and want more depth that most podcasts can offer while still getting the same casual feel, check it out. It’s well worth it.

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Myth and Matter Links

The 10 Best Links from Myth & Matter No. 13

This 1970’s quote by Joseph Weizenbaum made me uncomfortable: Programming “appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success.” Found in The Seventh Sense.

Jewish Stars and New York Values – my new favorite blog Slate Star Codex has an article on “dog whistling” and why it’s kind of dumb.

If you like programming OR you like Chuck Norris Facts, these Jeff Dean Facts are really funny. Jeff Dean is a hyper-productive coder at Google.

Lenin was a Mushroom – File this one in your “Weird Wikipedia articles folder.”

Have you ever noticed how almost anything can be a cure for depression? Think of anything that isn’t directly harmful to your health and search for it as a cure for depression. I bet you there’s an article about it. Knitting. Carrots. Cats. Gems. Pottery. You name it.

I have a small hobby of collecting articles about Norway. For such a modest country, it seems to be very well represented in the news. This time – Why the Norwegians Love Electric Cars.

Urbit is the new hotness in the digital currency world. It’s been under development for 12 years and is finally coming out of hiding.

Here’s to hoping. The NYT says that 1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exercise.

Articles that talk about why dead philosophers are “so hot right now” always crack me up. This time, David Hume.

Speaking of dead philosophers, Vivekananda is in the news for his influence on Tolstoy, Salinger and Tesla.

Warrant Canaries are an interesting experiment in detecting government surveillance. Here’s how it’s going a year on.

The Archer’s Paradox in slow motion. The fascinating physics of archery.

A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece.

Want more?

If you’re not already subscribed to Myth & Matter, do it! It’s an infrequent newsletter with great content.

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psychology

I Believe in Altruism

Altruism, selfless sacrifice for the benefit of others, is something that I keep coming back to because plays such an important role in what it means to be human. It’s easy and tempting to make the argument that everything humans do is motivated by selfishness. For example:

You push a child off the train tracks, saving her life while seriously risking your own. Was your motivation selfish? If the child wasn’t related to you then, evolutionarily speaking, your action was clearly altruistic. You reduced your chances of reproduction while increasing hers. Case closed.

Where things get more sticky is when you consider the psychological aspects of the situation. Your motive could be to avoid embarrassment or, assuming you survive, to make yourself look better to the people on the train platform. Even if you didn’t survive, you could have the motivation of assuring your legacy. If it wasn’t that, if there was no one to witness your act and the child was too young to remember it, maybe it was that you have an internal moral code that you pride yourself on following and you want to uphold it in order to have personal internal peace the next day and for the rest of your life.

If it’s so easy to explain away such a selfless seeming action, Is it possible for someone to act in such a way that isn’t primarily motivated by personal gain? Does it matter?

It matters to me because it says something about the goodness of our species. Either we live in an Ayn Rand-like world where, at our best, we constantly optimize for our own happiness, indifferent to anything outside of that selfish goal. Or if psychological altruism is possible, we could live in a much more interconnected world where true humanity means we are concerned about others, even if it means we might sometimes suffer for our consideration.

I believe in altruism. I think it’s silly to say that because doing good anonymously for other people at a cost to yourself makes you feel good, that feeling good is the strongest motive for doing good. If there’s a hierarchy of motives, feeling good about doing good fits in somewhere, but I don’t think it is always the top motive.

To return to the example of the child on the train tracks—does it not seem ridiculous to say that someone who anonymously saves the child could only do so begrudgingly, simply because they’d feel guilty later if they didn’t? I think so. I don’t think people are always so cold and calculating to the point that when we make a snap decision we always do it with selfish motives. I think that we can make concern for others our highest priority and act altruistically.