Sitting Around the Fire

Meditation teacher James Baraz played this video of Ram Dass‘s words at a recent dharma talk, and it’s beautifully done: Sit Around the Fire. When you’re in the right mood, watch it on full screen for 8 minutes. Truth.

On Intentionally Vague, Mystique-Infused Explanations of Talent

“Exactly what he does, and how, is difficult to describe,” Anderson Cooper says about music producer Rick Rubin on 60 Minutes.

Cut to interview between Cooper and Rubin.

“Do you play instruments?” Cooper asks.

“Barely,” Rubin replies.

“Do you know how to work a sound board?”

“No,” Rubin replies, “I have no technical ability. And I know nothing about music.”

“Well, you must know something,” Cooper says.”

“I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m decisive about what I like and what I don’t like,” Rubin says.

“So what are you being paid for?”

“The confidence I have in my taste and my ability to express what I feel,” Rubin says.

It’s a fascinating exchange. And with the gentle music in the background, a scene that cuts to an image of Rubin meditating, and the long beard — you definitely get “genius” vibes.

We’re drawn toward hard-to-pin-down explanations of the attributes of successful people: the “taste” in a musical producer, a VC’s “good nose for founders,” an athlete’s “it factor.”

There’s a real and accurate phenomenon here. For example, it’s not totally quantifiable or describable the difference between elite supermodels and regular models — it has something to do with bodily harmony and symmetry of features. There’s an “it” factor, and sometimes it’s the only way to explain what sets apart a super elite person from a merely good person.

On the other hand, I believe there’s a tendency for experts in a field to sometimes try to describe what they do in intentionally vague, imprecise, omnipotent terms. I mean, who doesn’t want to seem God-like?

Ditto the writers who profile experts: they play up mystique versus straightforwardly describe a set of practical decisions, tactics, moments of luck that the subject of their profile embarked upon. There’s something gripping (by which I mean, click-baity) about the doings of an extraterrestrial genius. It also makes the reader feel less bad about themselves. “He was born that way.”

The Rubin framing takes it even further by undercutting the typical explanations before putting forth the mystical one: One of the most successful musical producers of our time doesn’t know anything about music, has no technical ability, he just…”knows what he likes.”

There may also be practical reasons for experts to talk about their journeys this way. For example, it’s a decent way of deterring competition — to suggest the reasons for your success are unreplicable. In the investing business, when venture investors ascribe their talent at picking companies to “I look for amazing founders and I have good taste” — they aren’t leaving any bread crumbs along the road for their competitors!

So, if afforded the choice between offering a description of their process that feels concrete, learnable, repeatable, at times banal…versus a description that teems with mystique — there’s a pull towards the latter.

And in my opinion, it’s not always true. Perhaps not even often true among the world class performers in our midst, whose development of expertise and deployment of their craft is more understandable than it may appear.

Book Notes: Lost & Found by Kathryn Shulz

Andrew Sullivan commented on Kathryn Shulz’s book, in his podcast interview with her, “I know a master at work when I see one, and I saw a master at work when reading this memoir.”

I hold Sullivan’s judgment in the highest esteem, so that single sentence led to an insta-purchase of Shulz’s memoir, Lost & Found. It was fantastic. You may know Shulz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, from her now famous piece on how an earthquake will level the Pacific Northwest at some point in the not too distant future.

Her two topics of choice in this memoir are dealing with the death of a parent (lost) and falling in love with her wife (found). Enormous grief and the giddiness of newfound love are not exactly untrodden territories as far as memoirs go. To cover either with fresh perspective is extraordinarily difficult. She manages to do so. Her prose styling is something else — she writes about awe a bit in the book, and the quality of her sentences will induce its own kind of awe, for those interested in that kind of thing.

I preferred her reflections on losing her beloved father. The romance seemed, at times, almost too perfect, and described with almost too much certainty. But perhaps that’s because most of us tend to not enjoy as much personal reflections that make us feel inferior!

Highlights from the book are below. I’m in italics. Bolding is my own.


On her dad: “Thanks to his polyglot background, he had a relativist’s relationship to the rules of grammar and usage; he did not defy them, exactly, but he loved to bend a phrase right up to the breaking point before letting it spring back into place, reverberating wildly.”

Like awe and grief, to which it is closely related, loss has the power to instantly resize us against our surroundings; we are never smaller and the world never larger than when something important goes missing.

Painting a scene of her father’s last moments, so vivid: “One night, while that essence still persisted, we gathered around my father and filled his silence with all the things we did not want to leave unsaid. I had always regarded my family as close, so it was startling to realize how much closer we could get, how near we drew around his waning flame. The room we were in was a cube of white, lit up like the aisle of a grocery store, yet in my memory, that night is as dark and vibrant as a Rembrandt painting. We talked only of love; there was nothing else to say. We told him how grateful we were, how happy he had made us, how fully and honorably he had lived out his days. My father, mute but seemingly alert, looked from one face to the next as we spoke, his brown eyes shining with tears.”

Then clarified:

“All of this makes dying sound meaningful and sweet—and it is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground. Still, the cave is a cave. We had, by then, spent two vertiginous, elongated, atemporal weeks in the hospital.”

More on the experience of being at the hospital with her dad:

Then we woke up and resumed the routine of the parking garage and the ICU check-in desk and the twenty-four-hour Au Bon Pain, only to discover that, beyond those things, there was no routine at all, nothing whatsoever to help us prepare or plan. It was like trying to dress every morning for the weather in a nation we had never heard of. …

Some days, there was a woman stationed in the main lobby playing the harp, a gesture I found too cloying to be beautiful, even though the fountain just outside, which rippled in a similar way and was there for a similar reason, soothed and mesmerized me. …

To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during this time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad—a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow. …

But what I remember most from those first hours after my father died is watching my mother cradle the top of his bald head in her hand. A wife holding her dead husband, without trepidation, without denial, without any possibility of being cared for in return, just for the chance to be tender toward him one last time: it was the purest act of love I’d ever seen. She looked bereft, beautiful, unimaginably calm.

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom during that difficult fall could I distinguish my distress over these other losses from my sadness about my father.

Grief of any kind will age you, partly from exhaustion but chiefly from the confrontation with mortality: to feel old (as distinct from actually being old, which can be a perfectly contented state) is to feel that both your days and your remaining quantity of joy are diminishing. But grief over a parent will also age you because it pitches you forward an entire life stage. Losing my father felt like advancing one notch in the march of generations—like taking, all at once, one very large step toward oblivion. I seemed overnight to have become middle-aged, which was strange, because my sadness also sometimes made me feel very young, still needing my father and not yet fit to be left without him.

I think several months must have passed when the grief that had sloshed around turbulently inside me ebbed into a stagnant pool. It made life seem extremely dull and it made me seem extremely dull and, above all, it became, itself, unbelievably wearying.

Instead, I found sadness to be, in every sense, a vulnerable thing, a small neutral nation on a bellicose continent whose borders were constantly overrun by more aggressive emotions. I also found it to be strangely furtive, strangely insubordinate; it went into hiding easily and could not be roused against its will.

I could miss my father, I could love my father, but I could not make myself sad about him when and where I chose, any more than I could tickle myself or compel myself to fall in love. It rose up in me of its own accord, for reasons I could only sometimes deduce even after the fact, or it was provoked by one or another cause entirely external to me. These were seldom the predictable triggers of holidays or my parents’ anniversary or the necessity of attending a funeral, all of which I could brace myself to experience. By contrast, the things that undid me were almost always unexpected and generally oblique—as on the day a little over a year after my father died when, in an instant, the words on my laptop blurred over in front of me and a bite of bagel turned to chalk in my mouth because, sitting in a café in Manhattan, I overheard a man say to his lunch companion, “I wish my daughter would call me more often.”

Amazement, gratitude, wonder, awe: the feelings inspired in us by serendipitous finds are the same ones inspired in us by the cosmos as a whole, and for the same reason—because life gave us something splendid that we did not expect, did not ask for, and did not in any particular way deserve.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

On falling in love… She was serious-minded and extraordinarily intelligent, so much so that my heightened attention was akin to that of a climber in steep terrain: the peaks high and varied, the views vast and lovely and surprising. She somehow conveyed the impression of being both forthright and reserved, so that when she first laughed, with swift and genuine delight, I instantly wanted to make her do so again.

A crescent moon chaperoned us from its usual discreet distance, vanishing and reappearing among chimneys and treetops. Occasionally that laugh of hers rose into the air, like starlings startled from their roost. By the time we got back home and settled into my couch, I was intensely aware of how much I wanted to touch her, and also how much I wanted to keep sitting there listening to her.

it is one of those rare moments, out of only a handful each of us gets in a lifetime, that remains imperishable in all its particulars. We had, by then, strayed outside again.

Afterward, I led her back indoors. For a long time after that, everything that wasn’t her—the house around us, the rest of the world, the passage of time, the past and the future—retreated into unimportance.

One of the hallmarks of human cognition is the ability to draw sweeping conclusions from limited data, often with incredible speed. Thus do we respond to a sharp sound combined with a sudden shift in the light by leaping away from a falling tree branch; thus do we understand from our sister’s two-syllable greeting on the phone that she is calling with bad news; thus do we walk into a room full of strangers and know from the looks on a dozen unfamiliar faces that something is extraordinarily wrong. Why, then, should we not meet someone new and infer just as swiftly—from a glance, a conversation, a lunch—that we are safe, that there is good news, that something is extraordinarily right?

By constitution, education, or both, I am profoundly skeptical of religious authority, and although I am deeply interested in the many fathomless mysteries of the universe, I do not believe that an omnipotent creator numbers among them.

As an adult, I am mostly amused by and in many ways grateful for my socially oblivious childhood, so I was surprised to feel a flush of real embarrassment when I imagined C. looking at those photos. I understood, intellectually, that all of us have things in our past that make us cringe, and that real intimacy requires sharing them sooner or later. But she and I were still very much on the side of sooner, and I briefly wondered, there on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, if I could somehow slip away for a moment shortly after we arrived and mortification-proof my childhood home.

But it is not a false consolation or a convenient exaggeration to say that I am most often moved to gratitude and tenderness and awe by those parts of her that are least like me—because it is in them that I see her most clearly, and because it is thanks to them that my own world has grown so much larger.

Brilliant way of describing someone’s flaws: Over time, I would discover other things about C. that reminded me of my father, not all of them on the brilliant-and-charming end of the character spectrum. These include an intermittent but impressive obstinacy; the capacity to intimidate other people, usually although not always by accident; and, in contrast to their overall equilibrium, a short fuse, lit by a kind of flaring pride, in the face of perceived slights.

For those who have experienced love chiefly as withdrawal or cruelty, who have had it wielded against them by parents or partners or others and were made to suffer in its name, it can be difficult to believe in a version that is tender and generous, let alone find it and sustain it. A regrettable truth about our species is that our capacity to love is matched only by our ability to harm and hinder that capacity, and one measure of how fortunate you are with respect to fate, family, and society is how much you have been left free to find happiness with another person.

But the world as described by “and” is just an endless disorganized list. My mother and my father, C. and me, grief and love, life and death, yaks and harmonicas, playwrights and hay bales and polynomial equations, hurricanes and sweatshops and smallpox and Pop-Tarts, DNA and “Oh, Danny Boy” and Addis Ababa and the rings of Saturn and Zoroastrianism and clinical depression and Flanders Fields and Billie Holiday and the eight hundred and forty indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea—already we are confronting a chaotic abundance, and we have enumerated less than a paragraph’s worth of the countless and-able things of the universe.

The scene before her wedding ceremony: The sky that afternoon had the high, mild look of early summer, untroubled by clouds, three shades lighter than the cobalt water of the bay. The sun was shining forth like an irrepressible good mood, filling the cup of every tulip and daffodil, gilding the wheat-like tips of the marsh grass, making shifting little lakes of shade beneath the trees. The lightest of breezes ruffled the air; my wedding vows, set down upon a table, would not have blown away. The bay was lapping placidly against the rocks just beyond the little bower where soon we would be married. It was, in short, the kind of day that everyone dreams of for their wedding.

Committing ourselves to finishing the job in time for the wedding we were simultaneously scrambling to plan was, we realized in a moment of sanity, insane.

But the most enduring problem of love, which is also the most enduring problem of life, is how to live with the fact that we will lose it.

It is true what people so often tell you in the face of hardship or heartache: life goes on. I have always liked that expression, hackneyed though it may be, for its refusal of easy consolation, for everything that it declines to say. It does not promise an end to pain, like “time heals all wounds” and “this too shall pass.” It does not have the clean-slate undertones of “tomorrow is another day.” It says only that things—good things, bad things, thing-things; it does not specify—will not stop happening.

Every other possible existence, in Idaho or Honduras or Lahore, as a carpenter or baseball player or musical genius, as a sibling if we are an only child or an only child if we are the youngest of seven—all of these variations on the human experience are unavailable to us. We have, unavoidably, only our one lifetime, and no matter how energetic or interested or fortunate or long-lived we may be, we can only do so much with it. And so much, against the backdrop of the universe, can seem so very little.

Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. Our crossing is a brief one, best spent bearing witness to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, tending what we know needs our care, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.

What I’ve Been Reading (September, 2022)

Books, books, books. The highlights include Sally Rooney’s newest novel, Lulu Miller’s memoir/history, and Isaacson’s da Vinci biography.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

A tremendous memoir slash history book about the crazy first president of Stanford University, David P. Jordan, the taxonomy of fish, dealing with chaos, and one woman’s quest for love. This is a hard book to summarize. It’s beautifully written through and through.

My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Miller’s words:

Picture the person you love the most. Picture them sitting on the couch, eating cereal, ranting about something totally charming, like how it bothers them when people sign their emails with a single initial instead of taking those four extra keystrokes to just finish the job— Chaos will get them. Chaos will crack them from the outside—with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet—or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build.

Hundreds of jars shattered against the floor. His fish specimens were mutilated by broken glass and fallen shelves. But worst of all were the names. Those carefully placed tin tags had been launched at random all over the ground. In some terrible act of Genesis in reverse, his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a heaping mass of the unknown. But as he stood there in the wreckage, his life’s work eviscerated at his feet, this mustachioed scientist did something strange. He didn’t give up or despair. He did not heed what seemed to be the clear message of the quake: that in a world ruled by Chaos, any attempts at order are doomed to fail eventually. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and scrambled around until he found, of all the weapons in the world, a sewing needle.

Chaos, he informed me, was our only ruler. This massive swirl of dumb forces was what made us, accidentally, and would destroy us, imminently. It cared nothing for us, not our dreams, our intentions, our most virtuous of actions. “Never forget,” he said, pointing to the pine-needly soil beneath the deck, “as special as you might feel, you are no different than an ant. A bit bigger, maybe, but no more significant”—he paused, consulting the map of hierarchies that existed in his head—“except, do I see you aerating the soil? Do I see you feeding on timber to accelerate the process of decomposition?” I shrugged. “I do not. So you are arguably less significant to the planet than an ant.”

In ninth grade I walked by a group of boys who shouted, “Seven!” It was so clear they were rating girls, ranking us as we walked by. Seven, I thought. Not bad! Until I found out it was the number of beers they would need to drink to have sex with me. Seven. Complete annihilation, then, to be worthy of touch.

Late one night on a beach five hundred miles away from him, possessed by moonlight and red wine and the smell of a bonfire, I reached out for the bouncing blond girl I had been trying not to eye all night. She was wet from swimming; she was prickled in goose bumps, hundreds of goose bumps, that I wanted to press flat with my tongue. She smiled as I placed my hand on her waist, as I touched my lips to her neck. The stars wrapped around us. Her steam became mine.

You can even find it in his essays on temperance. Why, in the end, was he so opposed to drugs? Because they allow you to feel more powerful than you are! Or, as he puts it, they “forc[e] the nervous system to lie.” Alcohol, for example, lets drinkers “feel warm when they are really cold, to feel good without warrant, to feel emancipated from those restraints and reserves which constitute the essence of character building.” In other words, a rosy view of yourself was anathema to self-development. A way to keep yourself stagnant, stunted, morally inchoate. A fast track to sad-sackery. So if this truly was his worldview, if he was so wary of overconfidence, how on earth did he manufacture his persistence? How did he get himself up and out the door on the worst of days, when everything seemed lost, crumbled, hopeless?

“Every age gets the lunatics it deserves,” British historian Roy Porter once wrote. So what will become of us? This nation programming its kids to ignore reality when convenient. To whisper anything they need to keep themselves going. Is there any downside to living life behind rose-colored lenses?

But eugenics seemed as roaring a part of American culture as flappers and the Model T. This was not a fringe movement; it crossed party lines; the first five presidents of the twentieth century hailed its promise; eugenics courses were taught at prestigious universities all across the country, from Harvard to Stanford to Yale to UC Berkeley to Princeton and back again.

And, mind bogglingly, approximately a third of all Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the US government between 1933 and 1968.

To some people a dandelion might look like a weed, but to others that same plant can be so much more. To an herbalist, it’s a medicine—a way of detoxifying the liver, clearing the skin, and strengthening the eyes. To a painter, it’s a pigment; to a hippie, a crown; a child, a wish. To a butterfly, it’s sustenance; to a bee, a mating bed; to an ant, one point in a vast olfactory atlas.

According to Yoon, the cladists would say that once you accept this—that many of the fishy-looking creatures swimming in the water are more closely related to mammals than to each other—you begin to see a strange truth unfolding before your eyes. That “fish” as a sound evolutionary category is totally bunk. It would be like saying, as Yoon puts it, “all the animals with red spots on them” are in the same category, “or all the mammals that are loud.” Fine, it’s a category you can make. But it’s scientifically meaningless. It tells you nothing about evolutionary relationships.

The famous primatologist Frans de Waal, of Emory University, says this is something humans do all the time—downplay similarities between us and other animals, as a way of maintaining our spot at the top of our imaginary ladder. Scientists, de Waal points out, can be some of the worst offenders—employing technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call “kissing” in chimps “mouth-to-mouth contact”; they call “friends” between primates “favorite affiliation partners”; they interpret evidence showing that crows and chimps can make tools as being somehow qualitatively different from the kind of toolmaking said to define humanity. If an animal can beat us at a cognitive task—like how certain bird species can remember the precise locations of thousands of seeds—they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. This and so many more tricks of language are what de Waal has termed “linguistic castration.” The way we use our tongues to disempower animals, the way we invent words to maintain our spot at the top.

 

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

A modern biography of the legendary artist. I came to it with a low starting point of knowledge and learned a ton about da Vinci and his era. My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Isaacson’s words.

This ability to “make a flat surface display a body as if modeled and separated from this plane,” Leonardo said, was “the first intention of the painter.” Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.

Yes, he was a genius: wildly imaginative, passionately curious, and creative across multiple disciplines. But we should be wary of that word. Slapping the “genius” label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making it seem as if he were touched by lightning.

In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.

Oddest of all, there is this entry: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.” We can imagine Leonardo wanting to do that, for reasons both anatomical and aesthetic. But did he really need to remind himself to do it? The next item on the list is “Inflate the lungs of a pig and observe whether they increase in width and in length, or only in width.”

Italy was beginning a rare forty-year period during which it was not wracked by wars among its city-states. Literacy, numeracy, and income were rising dramatically as power shifted from titled landowners to urban merchants and bankers, who benefited from advances in law, accounting, credit, and insurance. The Ottoman Turks were about to capture Constantinople, unleashing on Italy a migration of fleeing scholars with bundles of manuscripts containing the ancient wisdom of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, and Aristotle. Born within about a year of Leonardo were Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, who would lead an era of exploration.

Freud to understand that sexual drives can be sublimated into ambition and other passions. Leonardo said so himself. “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality,” he wrote in one of his notebooks.

Leonardo da Vinci is sometimes incorrectly called “da Vinci,” as if that were his last name rather than a descriptor meaning “from Vinci.”

There was no place then, and few places ever, that offered a more stimulating environment for creativity than Florence in the 1400s.

This mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled. Silk makers worked with goldbeaters to create enchanted fashions. Architects and artists developed the science of perspective. Wood-carvers worked with architects to adorn the city’s 108 churches. Shops became studios. Merchants became financiers. Artisans became artists.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s patronage of the arts, autocratic rule, and ability to maintain a peaceful balance of power with rival city-states helped to make Florence a cradle of art and commerce during Leonardo’s early career there.

Florence’s festive culture was spiced by the ability to inspire those with creative minds to combine ideas from disparate disciplines. In narrow streets, cloth dyers worked next to goldbeaters next to lens crafters, and during their breaks they went to the piazza to engage in animated discussions. At the Pollaiuolo workshop, anatomy was being studied so that the young sculptors and painters could better understand the human form. Artists learned the science of perspective and how angles of light produce shadows and the perception of depth. The culture rewarded, above all, those who mastered and mixed different disciplines.

Being left-handed was not a major handicap, but it was considered a bit of an oddity, a trait that conjured up words like sinister and gauche rather than dexterous and adroit, and it was one more way in which Leonardo was regarded, and regarded himself, as distinctive.

For Leonardo, the drapery studies helped foster one of the key components of his artistic genius: the ability to deploy light and shade in ways that would better produce the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a two-dimensional surface.

and the art historian Ernst Gombrich called sfumato “Leonardo’s famous invention, the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.

From the eyes of his angel in the Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously.

In painting her, Leonardo created a psychological portrait, one that renders hidden emotions. That would become one of his most important artistic innovations. It set him on a trajectory that would culminate three decades later in the greatest psychological portrait in history, the Mona Lisa. The tiny hint of a smile that is visible on the right side of Ginevra’s

This allows viewers to look at the eyes of the woman, which, as Leonardo declared, are “the window of the soul.”

In collecting such a medley of ideas, Leonardo was following a practice that had become popular in Renaissance Italy of keeping a commonplace and sketch book, known as a zibaldone. But in their content, Leonardo’s were like nothing the world had ever, or has ever, seen. His notebooks have been rightly called “the most astonishing testament to the powers of human observation and imagination ever set down on paper.”

Those without such distinctive lines are more contemplative, he added, and those “whose facial features stand out in great relief are brutal, bad-tempered, and men of little reason.” He went on to associate heavy lines between the eyebrows with bad temper, strong lines on the forehead with regrets, and concluded, “It is possible to discuss many features this way.”

In his notebooks, he decried “men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind.”

What made Vitruvius’s work appealing to Leonardo and Francesco was that it gave concrete expression to an analogy that went back to Plato and the ancients, one that had become a defining metaphor of Renaissance humanism: the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth.

Inside the square and the circle we can see the essence of Leonardo da Vinci, and the essence of ourselves, standing naked at the intersection of the earthly and the cosmic.

When Leonardo drew his Vitruvian Man, he had a lot of interrelated ideas dancing in his imagination. These included the mathematical challenge of squaring the circle, the analogy between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of earth, the human proportions to be found through anatomical studies, the geometry of squares and circles in church architecture, the transformation of geometric shapes, and a concept combining math and art that was known as “the golden ratio” or “divine proportion.”

Unlike Michelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas. His closest friendships were intellectual ones.

As Leonardo and others led Europe into a new scientific age, he ridiculed astrologers, alchemists, and others who believed in nonmechanistic explanations of cause and effect, and he relegated the idea of religious miracles to the purview of priests.

We can picture him in his studio, as he made his models move, turn, squat, sit, and lie down. “When the arm is bent, the fleshy part shrinks to two-thirds of its length,” he recorded. “When a man kneels down he will diminish by the fourth part of his height. . . . When a heel is raised, the tendon and ankle get closer to each other by a finger’s breadth. . . . When a man sits down, the distance from his seat to the top part of his head will be half of his height plus the thickness and length of the testicles.”

Having become, by now, a lover of received knowledge as well as a disciple of experience, Leonardo studied Aristotle’s work on shadows and combined it with a variety of ingenious experiments involving different sizes of lamps and objects. He came up with multiple categories of shadows and plotted chapters on each: primary shadows that are caused by direct light hitting an object, derived shadows that result from ambient light diffused through the atmosphere, shadows that are subtly tinged with light reflected from nearby objects, compound shadows cast by multiple sources of light, shadows made by the subdued light at dawn or sunset, shadows made by light that has been filtered through linen or paper, and many other variations. With each category, he included striking observations, such as this: “There is always a space where the light falls and then is reflected back towards its cause; it meets the original shadow and mingles with it and modifies it somewhat.”

A preliminary sketch of a stampede of horses done for the Battle of Anghiari shows those in the foreground drawn with great clarity and sharp focus, while those in the background are softer and less distinct. The effect, as often with Leonardo, is to convey a perception of movement in a still piece of art.

The Best American Essays 2020 by Robert Atwan and André Aciman

My Kindle highlights are pasted below from different essays with different authors — apologies I’m not pulling precise attributions.

Nothing was sacred, and I couldn’t tell you what a relief that was, living in the ever-earnest state of California, which had more sacred cows than all of the Indian subcontinent.

The marginality of human figures in cave paintings suggests that, at least from a human point of view, the central drama of the Paleolithic went on between the various megafauna—carnivores and large herbivores. So depleted is our own world of megafauna that it is hard to imagine how thick on the ground large mammals once were.

She made solitude look liberating, while others made it look like a grind; I knew the truth everyone knows, which is that it’s both.

In The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli challenges our concept of time. Time passes more quickly the closer one is to a gravitational mass (like a planet or a star or a black hole). This fact is popular in science fiction. A space traveler might return to Earth to find that her friends and family have aged more than she has. Even at different altitudes on Earth, time is different. Rovelli writes that if identical twins separate early in life and live one in the mountains and one below sea level, then they will find in old age that the one below sea level has aged more, being closer to the center of the planet.

In the chapter of Against Interpretation called “Camus’ Notebooks”—originally published in The New York Review of Books—Sontag divides great writers into “husbands” and “lovers,” a sly, sexy updating of older dichotomies (e.g., between Apollonian and Dionysian, Classical and Romantic, paleface and redskin). Albert Camus, at the time beginning his posthumous descent from Nobel laureate and existentialist martyr into the high school curriculum (which is where I found him), is named the “ideal husband of contemporary letters.” It isn’t really a compliment:   Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar—if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations.

Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Kishore Mahbubani

A provocative case about China’s inevitable ascendency from one of the region’s more compelling thinkers. This a few years old so doesn’t account for recent Covid hiccups, etc. in China. My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Mahbubani’s words.

To understand the real challenge from China, Americans must grasp a paradox: China’s rise is unstoppable, but China’s rise doesn’t threaten America. Both these hard truths are unmentionable in American political discourse.

As a Harvard Kennedy School study has confirmed recently, support for the CCP among the Chinese people has grown from 86 percent in 2003 to 93 percent in 2016. China today is a happy civilization. This is why when 130 million Chinese tourists traveled out of China in 2019, all of them returned home freely and happily.

Finally, when Haines says that China is a threat to American “values across a range of issues,” it would only be true if China were either threatening to export its ideology to America or threatening to undermine the electoral process there.

Should America’s primary goal be to improve the livelihood of its 330 million citizens or to preserve its primacy in the international system? If there are contradictions between the goals of preserving primacy and improving well-being, which should take priority?

Yet, as I hope to show, there is no fundamental conflict of interest between the United States and China in keeping the international waterways safe for freedom of navigation. In fact, China has a greater interest in freedom of navigation than America does.

Boeing forecasts that China will need 7,690 new airplanes, valued at $1.2 trillion, by 2038.”* Quite naturally, Boeing has made huge profits from China and also created many jobs for American workers.

GM sold 3.64 million vehicles in China in 2018,* and China accounted for 42 percent of GM’s sales in 2017CNN reported on February 7, 2017: “China is now GM’s largest market. Sales growth there lifted it to volume it never achieved when it was the world’s biggest automaker….In short, China has helped one of America’s most iconic companies, GM, to thrive.

Over the past two thousand years, they have fought many wars with many neighbors, especially when they were ruled by foreign dynasties, and they have gradually expanded their territory to occupy vast spaces. Just as one can argue about the legitimacy of the American occupation of Texas and California, one can also argue about the legitimacy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan.

Hence, it is irrational for America to step up its military spending as it already has enough weapons to destroy all of China several times over. Indeed, it is rational for America to reduce its military expenditure and redirect the new resources to other critical areas, like research and development in science and technology… Instead, weapons systems are purchased as a result of a complex lobbying system by defense contractors who have wisely allocated defense manufacturing plants to all the key congressional districts in America.

John Rawls, the political philosopher, wrote in A Theory of Justice that the most just society is one that one would choose to be born into if one didn’t know whether one would be born among the most or least advantaged in society. A rational choice would be to pick the society where the least advantaged are better off.

(LDP) of Japan, even though it lost power briefly from 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2012, has effectively run Japan for over five decades. Similarly, the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore has been in office from 1959 to today, for over sixty years. Clearly, the cultures of East Asian societies are more comfortable with political continuity and political stability. Change is not welcomed for its own sake.

Some wise soul has remarked that the best thing that could happen for humanity would be for astronomers to detect a distant comet on a collision path with the earth, with no certainty which continent it would land on. Only such a common threat would make the 7.5 billion people on the planet (including the 1.4 billion in China and 330 million in America) aware that their common interests as earth citizens are far greater than their national interests.

But which country treats innocent Muslim civilians better? America or China? If the reports are true, the Chinese government has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim civilians in reeducation camps. If the reports are true, the American government has tortured or killed thousands of innocent Muslim civilians since September 9, 2011. Unfortunately, in both cases, the facts seem to be true. The Chinese government has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians. Enough media reports have confirmed this. Similarly, the American government has tortured thousands of Muslims. Since 9/11, America has been dropping thousands of bombs on Islamic countries, killing many innocent civilians as a result. John Mearsheimer summarizes these facts in The Great Delusion. Most Americans are aware that torture was carried out systematically in Guantanamo Bay. Fewer Americans are aware that “the Bush administration devised the infamous policy of extraordinary rendition, in which high-value prisoners were sent to countries that cared little about human rights, like Egypt and Syria, to be tortured and interrogated. It appears the CIA also tortured prisoners at its ‘black sites’ in Europe as well as at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. This policy clearly violated American and international law, both of which forbid torture.”

For starters, the United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America, seizing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California from Mexico in 1846. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations.

The 1899–1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the United States and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, “If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals.”

 

Beautiful World, Where Are You: A Novel by Sally Rooney

Another lovely Rooney novel. My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Rooney’s words.

After closing one file and before opening another, she routinely checked her social media feeds. Her expression, her posture, did not vary depending on the information she encountered there: a news report about a horrific natural disaster, a photograph of someone’s beloved domestic pet, a female journalist speaking out about death threats, a recondite joke requiring familiarity with several other internet jokes in order to be even vaguely comprehensible, a passionate condemnation of white supremacy, a promoted tweet advertising a health supplement for expectant mothers. Nothing changed in her outward relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine what she felt about what she saw.

So you’re having sex with your perfect wife, and she’s the most beautiful woman on earth, and you love her more than anything, but just for a second or two when you’re inside her, and she’s trembling and shivering and saying your name, you’re thinking about me, about things we did together when we were younger, like in Paris when I let you finish in my mouth,

How are we ever supposed to determine what kind of sex we enjoy, and why? Or what sex means to us, and how much of it we want to have, and in what contexts? What can we learn about ourselves through these aspects of our sexual personalities? And where’s the terminology for all this?

Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality itself as we experience it in our real lives.

Well, I can’t judge you, she said. When I think about the worst things I’ve ever done, I feel the same way you’re describing. Panicky and sick and that kind of thing. I bullied a girl I was in school with, really cruelly. For no reason, other than I suppose to torture her. Because other people were doing it. But then they would say they were doing it because I was. When I remember it now, I mostly just feel scared. I don’t know why I would want to cause another person pain like that. I really want to believe I would never do that kind of thing again, for any reason. But I did do it, once, and I have to live with it for the rest of my life.

I mean, I don’t just have the same fantasy every time. But one thing all the fantasies have in common is—You are going to laugh, because it’s so vain. I would never usually say this to someone, but you asked. I like to imagine that you really want me—a lot, not just a normal amount.

At the moment, the cycle of insincere public apologies is probably making everyone suspicious of forgiveness. But what should people who have done terrible things in the past actually do? Spontaneously advertise their own sins in order to pre-empt public exposure? Just try never to accomplish anything that might bring them increased scrutiny of any kind? Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe the number of people who have done seriously bad things is not insignificant. I mean honestly, I think if every man who had ever behaved somewhat poorly in a sexual context dropped dead tomorrow, there would be like eleven men left alive. And it’s not only men! It’s women too, and children, everyone.

I have a terrible crush on him and get very excited and idiotic when he shows me affection. So of course in the midst of everything, the state of the world being what it is, humanity on the cusp of extinction, here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for? Love always, Alice.

 

Fun tour of internet grammar. My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all McCulloch’s words.

Take emoji, those small images that enliven our digital messages. There are thousands of them, ranging from animals to foods to nature to common household and workplace objects. And yet the most commonly used sets of emoji are the faces and hands, like the smile, the face with tears of joy, the thumbs up, and the crossed fingers. We use emoji less to describe the world around us, and more to be fully ourselves in an online world.

Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from uptalk (the distinctive rising intonation at the end of sentences?) to the use of “like” to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘Innovation’”).

By joining the social internet after their parents were already there, they faced an especially dire version of “context collapse.” This is danah boyd’s term for when people from all your overlapping friend groups see all your shared posts from different aspects of your life. For adults who occasionally see a coworker’s personal photos or political updates, context collapse is a fairly minor issue, a problem of specific individuals being indiscreet.

The top twenty most lengthened words are a cornucopia of emotions: nice, ugh, lmao, lmfao, ah, love, crazy, yeah, sheesh, damn, shit, really, oh, yay, wow, good, ow, mad, hey, and please.

By the mid-2010s, spoken “hashtag” to indicate metacommentary had spread to people who weren’t even online yet, with parents reporting that they were hearing it from their seven- or eight-year-old kids. One linguist parent was delighted by her kid saying “hashtag mom joke,” but another parent was jokingly unimpressed by her own kid’s use of “hashtag”: My daughter just finished a sentence with ‘hashtag awkward!’ 8 years. It’s been a good run. But the orphanage will suit her much better.

At first glance, this kind of repurposing might seem like a purely internet invention, and it is, insofar as people weren’t peppering their speech with code snippets or hashtags before we had any such thing. But English has a long history of verbalizing punctuation: think of “that’s the facts, period” or “these quote-unquote experts.”

A predictive keyboard automatically adds capitals at the beginning of messages and after a period, and it only predicts words in its dictionary. Suddenly, instead of lowercasing taking less effort, it often took more. I did an informal poll on Twitter in 2016, asking, “When you write on your phone, do you ever undo the autocapitalization for the sake of aesthetic?” and the results were very clear: of the five hundred–plus people who replied, over half said that they do so all the time, with another third saying “sometimes”

such as signaling that a question is rhetorical or ironic by asking it without a question mark.

tiny dot in the grid that would make up a picture of the letter A, your phone just sends one short number code like 0041 and your friend’s phone knows that 0041 makes an A and displays it. If you could send a simple number like 2764 to display a heart , things would go much faster than sending a whole image file. So designers at SoftBank created short number codes for ninety small pictures, including icons for weather, transit, time, and sports apps, as well as hearts, hands, and a few faces that looked a lot like the existing kaomoji. This was the origin of the emoji that we started talking about earlier.

The international support and cross-device compatibility solved a problem for Japanese texters, but it also helped emoji become popular outside of Japan. And become popular they did. Just five years after emoji entered the international stage, in early 2015, the most popular emoji, tears of joy , surpassed the usage level of the most popular emoticon, :).

Startup of You: The Podcast

So many people are turned off by the idea of “networking,” because they think of it as fake, slimy glad-handing.

But that’s not how it should be!

I’m thrilled that my Startup of You co-author Reid Hoffman and I are launching a career strategy podcast today that discusses how to create authentic human connection, pivot your career, take risks, and ultimately achieve your goals.

You can listen to the first 3 episodes right here. We’ll be dropping new episodes once a week for the next 7 weeks this summer.