Book Review: Henry Kissinger by Walter Isaacson

A young Walter Isaacson in 1992 published a wonderful biography of Henry Kissinger, which I read this week. It’s a sweeping history of Kissinger’s life and his consequential years in public service. Despite its level of detail, Isaacson writes lucidly with the skills of a journalist, so there’s good forward momentum over the course of the 800+ pages even for a hobbyist like me. You walk away with a deep view into both the man and the era he shaped. Highly recommended. (The Richard Holbrooke biography is another compelling look at a statesman who shaped our current foreign policy.)

I came to this biography after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam, where Kissinger’s legacy looms large. His decisions with regards to both countries play a central role in the biography. My other personal interest here is Chile, where I lived more than a decade ago — another country where Kissinger exercised arguably problematic moral judgment.

The biography is balanced, according to people more expert than me who reviewed the book when it came out 20 years ago. And, all in all, it’s devastating to Kissinger. It’s obvious why Kissinger refused to speak with Isaacson for several years after the biography came out.

The theme that would recur throughout Kissinger’s career: the tension that often exists, at least in his view, between morality and realism. This is Isaacson’s bottom line:

But Kissinger’s power-oriented realism and focus on national interests faltered because it was too dismissive of the role of morality. The secret bombing and then invasion of Cambodia, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the destabilization of Chile—these and other brutal actions betrayed a callous attitude toward what Americans like to believe is the historic foundation of their foreign policy: a respect for human rights, international law, democracy, and other idealistic values. The setbacks Kissinger encountered as a statesman, and the antagonism he engendered as a person, stemmed from the perceived amorality of his geopolitical calculations.
…Kissinger’s legacy turned out to be one of brilliance more than solidity, of masterful structures built of bricks that were made without straw.

On the man himself and his mind and personality, a few excerpts from Isaacson:

“Kissinger came across as a chameleon—emphasizing different shadings to different listeners and attempting to ingratiate himself to one person by disparaging another. It was more than a negotiating tactic; it was a character flaw. His style with the Arabs and Israelis was not all that different from his style within the White House or at Washington dinner parties. In order to create a sense of intimacy, to hornswoggle as well as to charm, he shared denigrating confidences about other people. Intellectually he realized that people compared notes. But instinctively he never understood that swapping tales about encounters with Kissinger—and perhaps exaggerating the loose comments he made—was a prime amusement from Araby to Georgetown. In fact, rather than being a master manipulator, Kissinger seemed quite a maladroit one. If he had been better at it, fewer people would have accused him of it.”

“He had a fantastically strong ego,” said Professor Wylie. “Exceptionally pompous,” according to Schelling. “More arrogant and vain than any man I’ve ever met,” was Hoffmann’s first impression. Yet each developed complex, mixed feelings about him. He was, after all, a respected friend with a mind of undisputed brilliance. His personality, however annoying, was at least always worthy of fascination.

Rockefeller knew how to make people feel important, how to create an aura of fellowship, how to listen, and how to be frank and straightforward about his wishes in a way that put people at ease. Kissinger mastered none of these attributes, but respected them all.

Gelb would thenceforth consider Kissinger to be “the typical product of an authoritarian background—devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.”
With an acidic tone, Nixon spoke of Kissinger’s fascination with the celebrity set and his emotional instability when hit by good and then bad news.

I thought Kissinger’s own answer to the question “Are you shy?” was interesting, in his own words:

“Fairly so. But as compensation I think I’m pretty well balanced. You see, there are those who depict me as a mysterious, tormented character, and those who depict me as an almost cheerful fellow who’s always smiling, always laughing. Both those images are incorrect. I’m neither one nor the other. I’m . . . I won’t tell you what I am. I’ll never tell anyone.”

His relationship with critics was interesting: “He was drawn to his detractors like a moth to a flame. He craved their approval and felt compelled to convert or charm them.”

Overall, the theme is an unbelievable level of paranoia and secrecy coupled with high IQ brilliance and a historic grasp of grand strategy and negotiation.

On his legacy….

The secret bombings of Cambodia, kept from congress and the American people, were clearly bad, and it’s stunning that Kissinger hasn’t profoundly apologized for his role in this:

  • “In the history of civilization, few countries have ever endured a greater hell than the holocaust that engulfed Cambodia in the 1970s. The blame falls foremost on the genocidal Khmer Rouge communists, who took power in 1975. But the creation of the killing fields had many causes, and there was more than enough blood to stain many hands. The American share of the blame, and Kissinger’s, arises not from insidious intent, but from a moral callousness that placed America’s perceived needs in Vietnam above what would be best for a vulnerable neighboring nation.”
  • “Even in this most genocidal of all centuries, the Khmer Rouge stand on a par with the Nazis as being the most murderous of all. When they took over Cambodia in 1975, its population (after five hundred thousand or so deaths in the war that began at the time of the 1970 invasions) stood at about 8 million. By the time they were ousted in 1979, more than 3 million had died, many of them brutally, in a land turned into killing fields.” (Angelina Jolie’s film is a good one on this topic.)

The Christmas bombing in Vietnam – another moral atrocity: “The December 1972 decision to bomb targets in the urban areas of North Vietnam was an action that should and does haunt the United States, and Kissinger, to this day.”

The Middle East is a different story. Kissinger’s success at cultivating the Egyptians and the Israelis, among others, was remarkable, and Isaacson tells those stories in great detail, too.

Some other descriptions of other characters I enjoyed:

  • “He is the compleat cosmopolitan, urbane without swagger, self-centered without smugness.”
  • “He was equally at home in philosophic sweeps, historical analysis, tactical probing, light repartee”
  • “Discreet yet forthright, unflappable and able to keep human foibles in perspective, with a balanced and wise mind rather than a brilliant conceptual one, the air force general was decidedly different from his boss, which made both of them comfortable.”

Other random highlights from Kindle:

Kissinger’s ego, combined with the seriousness with which he took himself, enhanced his reputation for arrogance. He always seemed busy with something gravely important, impatient with such trivialities as making small talk in the halls or advising his students.

When challenges arose, Kissinger became intellectually engaged, almost obsessively so; Nixon became detached, almost eerily so. Kissinger’s mind mastered details; Nixon remained aloof from even some of the major components of issues he faced. Kissinger’s analytic lucidity took him straight to the core of any problem; Nixon’s more intuitive approach led him to roll a problem around for hours on end as he brooded on various conflicting options.

During his five and a half years in office, Nixon’s admiration for Kissinger would gradually become more infected by jealousy and suspicions of disloyalty. With no personal affection to serve as a foundation for their relationship, what had been a love-hate alliance eventually tilted toward the latter. As the president’s dependency on Kissinger grew, his resentment and bitterness increased.

William Safire was summoned back to write the speech. He was in New Orleans watching Dallas beat Miami in the 1972 Super Bowl when suddenly, as if he were an obstetrician, the public address system paged him to call his office. “This has to be absolutely top secret, but get back here fast,” said Lawrence Higby when Safire called. If it was so secret, Safire asked in response, why had he been paged before eighty thousand fans? Worse than that, Higby conceded, the page had been picked up on television, so 60 million others had heard it. Safire later noted: “We agreed that nobody would suspect I was being called back for a secret assignment because not even the Presidential staff of a banana republic would bumble like that.”

The line between diplomacy and duplicity, like that between charm and hypocrisy, is a fine one.

Relaxed Concentration Unlocks a Secret to Winning: Not Trying Too Hard

A few years ago I attended a silent “concentration” meditation retreat where we spent many consecutive days examining our breath in microscopic detail. The teachers gave very specific instructions we were to follow from the crack of dawn through to dinner.

About halfway through the 10 day retreat, I met with a teacher 1:1 to discuss my practice. It was going okay but not great — I hadn’t yet arrived at a place of deep samadhi. After hearing a bit about my experience, the teacher gently asked me if I felt “close” to the breath. I reflected for a moment on what he meant by the word “close” and then I nodded and said yes, I felt close to it — hovering, almost. He encouraged me to “back off a bit from the breath, don’t be so close. Be more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.”

He then led me through an exercise. Take one hand and hold it out in front of you palm face up, he said. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it was muddied and overly tight.

Now, he said, gently rest one hand fully on top of the other. In that position, I felt all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations in my fingers. This is what you need to do in your practice, he said: gently rest your attention on the breath sensations, and you’ll know more. The action verb is: Rest.

In summary, he told me, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary: “A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.”

If you spend time in Buddhist meditation settings you’ll hear variants of this advice frequently offered to “achiever” personalities who mistakenly think the more fierce their effort, the more plentiful their likely results. “Don’t try so hard to make something happen” “Soften your gaze” “Ease up” All different ways of getting at the simple but hard-to-follow guidance: Just relax. 

Relaxation, as Tim Gallwey says, happens only when allowed, not as a result of “trying” or “making.”

“The art of relaxed concentration unlocks a secret to winning: not trying too hard”

In sports, you sometimes hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to remember to have fun. There’s such a thing as applying too much effort: You get trapped in your head, you begin to overthink what you should say and do, you lose concentration when trying to swing the bat or shoot the ball.

Of course, it’s possible to bring too little focus and too little effort to meditation or sports or any activity and require the opposite advice.

But generally, for driven people in business who are performing in a high stakes setting, “backing off” seems to be the more commonly needed medicine: To soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue pass away. Less “I need to do a great job” and more “I want to have fun with this, I trust myself, I love myself.”

It’s counterintuitive to think that if we try less hard, if we quiet the mental self-instructions and stop trying to remember every last line and best practice…that somehow we could realize a better outcome in a business setting. But sometimes our intense focus on the outcome and conscious attempt to be perfect at every little piece along the way is the very thing that inhibits our ability to succeed.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Along these lines, I recently read Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, which reinforced the advice I received at the meditation retreat. It’s an awesome book especially if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

Gallwey’s argument is that relaxed concentration is the master skill — the “inner game”. It supersedes all other skills of tennis. While playing in a match, amateurs focus on the outer game of particular physical mechanics. Experts focus on the inner game and sink into a deep zone of relaxation.

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

So, it’s not about all the micro stroke feedback you get from your coaches. When you’re fully dialed in, you stop thinking about where your grip should go and how to move your feet, your mind is still, and you just play:

Perhaps a better way to describe the player who is “unconscious” is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts. The concentrated mind has no room for thinking how well the body is doing, much less of the how-to’s of the doing. When a player is in this state, there is little to interfere with the full expression of his potential to perform, learn and enjoy.

Self judgment can emerge with too much active thought as you try to perform your best:

 But judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

He offers a fun example of how to psych out your opponent — ask them to explain what they’re doing and why they’re having success:

To test this theory is a simple matter, if you don’t mind a little underhanded gamesmanship. The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him as you switch courts, “Say, George, what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today?” If he takes the bait—and 95 percent will—and begins to think about how he’s swinging, telling you how he’s really meeting the ball out in front, keeping his wrist firm and following through better, his streak invariably will end. He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.

Here’s his advice to tennis players:

So before hitting the next set of balls, I asked Joan, “This time I want you to focus your mind on the seams of the ball. Don’t think about making contact. In fact, don’t try to hit the ball at all. Just let your racket contact the ball where it wants to, and we’ll see what happens.” Joan looked more relaxed, and proceeded to hit nine out of ten balls dead center!

For example, let’s assume it is your serve that you decide to focus your attention on. The first step is to forget all the ideas you may have in your mind about what is wrong with it as it is. Erase all your previous ideas and begin serving without exercising any conscious control over your stroke. Observe your serve freshly, as it is now. Let it fall into its own groove for better or worse. Begin to be interested in it and experience it as fully as you can. Notice how you stand and distribute your weight before beginning your motion. Check your grip and the initial position of your racket. Remember, make no corrections; simply observe without interfering.

In close:

When a player comes to recognize, for instance, that learning to focus may be more valuable to him than a backhand, he shifts from being primarily a player of the outer game to being a player of the Inner Game. Then, instead of learning focus to improve his tennis, he practices tennis to improve his focus. This represents a crucial shift in values from the outer to the inner.

(Thanks to Josh Hannah and Brad Feld for recommending the book.)

What I’ve Been Reading (June, 2023)

Some recent reading. My intro in italics; direct highlights from the book follow.

Index of Self-Destructive Acts

by Christopher Beha

A wonderfully rich novel encompassing “I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but Bill James developed a stat. It adds up balks, hit batsmen, wild pitches, errors—all the things a pitcher does that are entirely in his control, that don’t require the batter to do anything at all. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.”

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

Her banking friends knew that interesting people—a few novelists and poets, perhaps a painter or playwright, along with the usual collection of journalists and media personalities—would be there. The interesting people were drawn in turn by proximity to wealth. (For painters and poets, nothing was more interesting than real money.)


As always during such moments, cameras roved about the stands, training themselves on excitable fans and projecting their faces onto the jumbotron. The spectator briefly became the event. What followed was something Frank had watched with puzzlement ever since these enormous electronic scoreboards had started to appear in every arena and stadium. For most of the fans caught on camera, the thirty, forty, fifty thousand others looking up at the screen were the biggest audience they’d ever have. This incited a strange dilemma: if you looked into the lens and properly played the part of screaming celebrant, the camera would linger on the performance, but you would never see it; alternatively, if you looked up at the screen to witness your public moment, you saw only a face looking distractedly up at the screen until the camera hurried on to someone who would better inhabit the role.


His enthusiasm was so guileless that it could only be laughed at or urged along, and she decided on the latter.


The sophisticated view basically amounts to insisting that God exists while admitting that his existence doesn’t change anything. You want to believe in that God, fine with me. For all I know, maybe there is this pulsing invisible world beneath or above or within the physical world, but if it doesn’t actually do anything in this world, it might as well not exist. If it does do something, we ought to be able to see it, to measure it.”


But when it came to the profile, everything he’d learned about working felt useless. The rules were entirely different for the magazine. It was an odd paradox: the work had to be better to appear in print, though it had a fraction of the website’s readership and the web was all anyone ever talked about. Perhaps the very fact that print stories couldn’t be measured by their Teeser score forced people to hold them to a higher standard while also taking for granted that they didn’t actually matter. Print, he’d heard Blakeman tell someone, was where quality went to die. If he’d known this in advance, he wouldn’t have insisted on including these longer assignments in his contract, but he hadn’t known, and now he needed to produce. 


Control over our passions—continence, the ancients called it—is what makes a productive civilization possible. How much of Western thought, going back to Plato, has been dedicated to overcoming our animal urges, helping reason to maintain the upper hand? By all means control them, Margo responded. Just know that they’re there. Or have you got no passions to master?


She wasn’t complaining. That passion was not among Sam’s great qualities was sometimes a private disappointment to her—though it also had its advantages. She didn’t have to force herself into the mood at all hours to make sure she was keeping him satisfied. She didn’t fear the day when he would stop finding her sufficiently alluring and leave her for someone younger or prettier. She knew girls who took cheating men as just a part of life, but Lucy never gave the possibility a thought.


The sun was setting by the time they arranged themselves around the long wooden table. Orange and pink light seeped out spectacularly from the water and the trees. Lucy suspected that Frank had been waiting for this striking display before letting them sit for the meal. He seemed to have a great instinct for presentation. He took the head of the table and insisted that she sit next to him. “What did you think of your husband’s profile?” he asked. It was rather ingenious: a question about himself disguised as a question about her husband that might almost have been a question about her. She recognized a chance to test her commitment to honesty. “He went far too easy on you.” She gave the remark the tone of a joke, and Doyle laughed eagerly.


“You statheads want formulas that will settle every argument, but these arguments can’t be settled. One day you’ll succeed in objectively answering every question that can be objectively answered, and we’ll still be left with everything that actually matters. We’ll see that the things that can’t be proven are the only things worth talking about in the first place.


No emotion was less willing to appear on demand than a sense of the sublime.


This was all so typical of Frank, who did what he wanted when he wanted but could be irremediably wounded if someone else exercised the least bit of contrary will.


Most people raised the subject as a kind of test. Either Justin was meant to prove his loyalty by defending Frank or he was meant to prove his integrity by disavowing him. His honest answer—a man he cared about had said something hateful, which had hurt Justin to hear but hadn’t made him stop caring about that man—was bound to disappoint in either case.


She was making the very mistake that Eisen had warned him about—judging the unpolished surface instead of the truth at the core.


In Amy’s view, you didn’t spend several afternoons a week walking around aimlessly with a person you didn’t want to fuck, no matter how good the conversation.


(This last was meant to sound not cold but irreverent. She refused to take too seriously the desperate dance of an aging satyr. If she didn’t stay light on her feet, she was apt to get trampled.)


Margo looked at the email address and imagined hitting send. She told herself it had been a terrible mistake, a technological cautionary tale. An astonishing bit of carelessness. She hadn’t meant Richard any harm, she’d just wanted to be left alone. She would never have forwarded the email to this address on purpose. If there were only some way to unsend it, she would give anything to make it happen, but the past could not be rewritten. She savored briefly this delicious regret over something she hadn’t even done, and just when it started going stale in her mouth, she clicked send.


So it was almost a relief to hear Lucy lie. He knew that she was a good person; he was sure of it. If she was lying to him, this meant that lying to your spouse did not necessarily make you bad.


Of course she suspected the truth, but he might still be able to convince her otherwise. On the other hand, she might suspect quite a bit more than the truth, and if he lied now he might never convince her how little had actually happened.


She thought she was about to cry, and she didn’t want to do it in front of the girls. She knew they would be perfectly sympathetic, but she didn’t want their sympathy at the moment.


She already knew that she would be a wreck the next day, but she didn’t really mind. Krista and Danielle made it seem as though hungover mornings—sitting around in pajamas; watching TV; ordering bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the deli on the corner; complaining how terrible you felt while laughing about what had happened the night before—were the real point of it all, that this business of the party was just a necessary preliminary.


She imagined herself in forty years being like her father—a distinguished figure in her field who was nonetheless haunted by the realization that she had not done her real work, that she had wasted all her time. She didn’t even know what her real work was, but she knew it wasn’t teaching Byron to undergraduates.


You couldn’t plan your endings out in advance. Often you couldn’t even recognize them when they happened. If her family was indeed over, it had ended some time ago, when Kit went off to prison, or when Frank fell down in the backwoods, or on the day of the Ballpark Incident, when Margo lost faith in her father. It had ended when Eddie went off to war.


Everything was always ending, and nothing simply ended outright.


“Listen, the next little patch is going to be pretty rough for you. But there’s something you need to remember.” “What’s that?” Waxworth asked. For the first time that day, Blakeman’s old smile came back. As angry as Waxworth was, he found the sight of it comforting. “Everyone loves a redemption story.


There had been other opportunities over the years, but their life was so comfortable. He traveled with Brzezinski to Beijing, with Baker to Berlin. The great men of the world wanted his ear and eagerly offered him theirs. How easy to think of himself as great, rather than just a spectator to greatness.


World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

A fun and quirky sort of book that explains the joys of unusual animals. Full of fun facts.

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

The narwhal’s “horn” is actually a tooth with about 10 million nerve endings—a loooong, helix-spiraled tooth that pokes through the upper left “lip” into the chilly arctic ocean. It’s one of only two teeth they’ll ever get in their lifetimes.

Scientists believe that a narwhal can make up to 1,000 “clicks” per second that can be then transmitted out in narrow or wide rays to search for food or avoid ice. The tusk is also a sensory wand—it is sensitive to salt levels of the ocean and temperature changes, too. The tooth is surrounded by a soft and porous outer layer and filled with a dense inner core packed with delicate nerve endings connected to the brain.


Who are these toothy creatures’ predators? Orcas and the occasional polar bear sometimes hunt baby narwhals. When orcas go after an entire pod, the narwhals just dive, dive, dive—they can survive at almost five thousand feet below sea level.


This smell is basically what I imagine emanates from the bottom of a used diaper pail left out in the late August sun, after someone has also emptied a tin of sardines and a bottle of blue cheese salad dressing on top and left it there to sit for a day or three. But that smell—and the deep, meaty red of the spathe—is what attracts insects to pollinate the flower before it goes dormant for several years, folding back up into itself.


In those moments I held it, how many things it might have felt or known about me. Could it sense the love and exhilaration I felt for it or my sheer despair once I realized it was dying in my hands? I only know that I had never been looked at, consumed, or questioned so carefully by another being.


To get to this intensely colored fruit, we begin with one of the most ethereal displays of blossoming I have ever witnessed. The flowers bloom in full for just one evening. That means they have one precious night to be pollinated by a bat or bee, and turn the flower into a dragon fruit. Otherwise the six-inch, greenish-white bloom wilts by sunrise—a whisper of heat and bat wing rattling the crumpled, pale blossom.


The ones who move the most succeed in finding mates in a dance of mimicry and rhythm that is marvelous—especially in gatherings of upward of several hundred thousand birds. It’s a search for the right partner who wants to step together through one of the longest bird lives on the planet: about fifty or so years together.


Under a brilliant moon, and unbeknownst to us, the darkened world silvers and shimmers from pink and ebony wings, a small thunder. We can’t possibly hear such an astonishing wind while we try to keep in step with our small dances on this earth. But we should try. We should try.


Ribbon eels are all born jet black males—they are protandric, changing to female only when necessary to reproduce.


If while you are scuba diving a ribbon eel happens to wriggle and flick its way over you, you might not even see it—its underbelly is perfectly camouflaged against the refracted sky above.


These newts are one of the only amphibians to contain a ferromagnetic mineral in their bodies, and that, combined with their incredible capacity to memorize sun- and starlight patterns to return to their original pond waters, make them an animal on par with salmon for their excellent homing capabilities.


Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid

Entertaining and thought provoking story. Easy to read. Highly recommend.


Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

by Robert Kolker

Sad yet ultra informative story about one family wrecked by mental illness.

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


In the 1950s and 1960s, it became hard to find any emotional or mental disorder that was not, in one way or another, attributed by therapists to the actions of the patient’s mother. Autism was blamed on “refrigerator mothers” who failed to show enough affection to their infants. Obsessive-compulsive disorder was blamed on problems in the second to third year of life, clashing with the mother around toilet training. The public conception of madness became hopelessly intertwined with the idea of the mother-as-monster.


Going back even further, of course, that idea of whatever society deems to be mental illness sharing the same wellspring as the creative, artistic impulse has been with us for centuries: the artist as iconoclast and truth-teller, the only sane one in an insane world.


At Dorado Beach, Rosenthal declared that biology, not proximity to people with a history of schizophrenia, appeared to explain nearly every single documented instance of the illness. Where you grew up, or the people who raised you, seemed to have nothing to do with it at all. On the whole, families with a history of schizophrenia seemed more than four times as likely as the rest of the population to pass along the condition to future generations—even if, as ever, the illness rarely passed straight from parent to child.


Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers

by Chip Heath and Karla Starr

How can you communicate better when it comes to numbers, statistics, data points? This book is chock full of tips from the wonderful Chip Heath.

My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Heath and Starr’s words:

We’ve come to believe, after working with these principles for years, that almost every gnarly number has something—an analogy, a comparison, another dimension—that will allow us to translate it into something we can remember, use, and discuss with others.


The secret to translating numbers is simple: avoid using them. Translate them into concrete, vivid, meaningful messages that are clear enough to make numbers unnecessary.


You might be tempted to make an apples-to-apples comparison here, and say Olympus Mons is more than twice the height of Mount Everest. But what is Everest to most of us? It’s something we read about. It’s rare we meet even one person who’s seen it directly (if we did, we’d know—they’d never shut up about it).


Moving back to Earth, in 2018, the New York Times published a long article showing data, field by field (politics, Hollywood, journalism), that demonstrated how far our society is from equality. But rather than quoting a dense wall of numbers, they cleverly illustrated the disparities by using some striking comparisons. A very small percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women.


Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored over 35,000 points. Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored an average of over 27 points per game.


For numbers less than 1, you can use a method we call “counting in baskets” to make things start to show up as whole numbers. If you find that .2% of people have a certain trait, use a basket size of at least 500, maybe 1,000, to make them show up as real people. “1 out of 500” or “2 out of 1,000” makes these abstract percentages into real things.


The amount of meat recommended as part of a healthy meal is 3 to 4 ounces. The amount of meat recommended as part of a healthy meal is 3 to 4 ounces, which looks about the same size as a deck of cards.


Replace your lights with CFLs when your child is learning how to walk. The next time you’d have to replace the bulb, your child would be in second grade, learning about oxygen. The next time, they’d be taking driver’s ed.


Imagine if Earth’s 7.7 billion people were shrunk to a village of 100: » 26 villagers would be children (14 years old or younger). 5 villagers would come from North America, 8 from Latin America, 10 from Europe, 17 from Africa, and 60 from Asia.


What if Reagan had used the power of 1 instead, and said that every man, woman, and child in the United States owed $4,000 or—probably more useful—if he had grouped people and said that every household owed about $12,000?

Translating 1%: Ways to feel/sense/understand 1%: It’s 1 Pringle in a can of 100. It’s 1 card between 2 decks. It’s 4 days out of the year. It’s 1 meter in a 100-meter dash. It’s one minute out of an average-length movie.


Back in his youth, Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder turned celebrity turned governor of the state Nation of California, once said of another bodybuilder who was a formidable competitor, “Those aren’t arms, they’re legs.” Arms as big as legs, cities as big as nations, a sister as annoying as an entire elementary-school lunchroom. Category jumpers bring extra emotion and extra respect back to their interactions in their home category.


Use whole numbers, not too many. Preferably small. Whenever possible, count real things, not decimals or fractions.


So, to recap, choose common language when possible: “One out of three” instead of “1/3.” Choose percentages over decimals: “33%” instead of “.33.” And also choose percentages over complex fractions: “41%” instead of “7/17.”


Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness

by Patrick House

Interesting nuggets. I learned about Patrick from his fascinating appearance on EconTalk.

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

The basic story is that a neurosurgeon, using small, carefully placed blasts of electricity to the brain, was able to cause the patient, Anna, to laugh. Alone, this is not surprising. We have long known that electricity powers our muscles to act, and laughter is just a series of rapid, coordinated muscle movements. What was so surprising was that Anna said afterward that she also felt the subjective sensations of joy and mirth alongside the laughter and that she, when asked why she laughed, gave different and implausible answers each time.


The brain is messy and venous and dense and soaking wet, all the time, and is about as heavy as a hardback copy of Infinite Jest.


Instead, she confabulated the reasons behind the laughter and mirth because the brain abhors a story vacuum and because the mammalian brain is a pattern-recognizing monster, a briny sac full of trillions of coincidence detectors that are only useful if there are connections between things. Even a wrong pattern, a guess, is at least a pattern to learn against.


Those in the water who don’t fear being eaten, like humpback whales, often sleep vertically, often in groups, like the large towers of an aquatic city, for less than ten percent of their day. Sleep concerns are highly specific: birds dream of bird problems, whales of whale problems, dogs of dog problems.


Interestingly, this means one can make a code, like those in a video game or medieval monastery, that lets one break the subjective fourth wall and communicate with the great sleep researchers in the sky. For example, a person can learn to, if lucid, move their eyes in a certain pattern and then count to ten, after which they move their eyes in that same pattern again, to mark the end of their test. Remarkably, some people take around ten “objective” seconds to do so, which implies that their subjective, incepted time—the waking dream within the dream—not only has a time keeping device but that it may be the same one we always use.


A friend of mine, a bird-watcher, once told me that the best time to search for birds is right after a storm because the grounded ones are very anxious to get going again. He called it Zugunruhe, a German term, and translated it roughly, perhaps poetically, as “the anxiety felt by migratory birds prevented from migrating.” A body, too, is restless to get moving; in fact, the entire purpose of the brain is to make efficient movement from experience, and everything else, including consciousness, is downstream of these efforts.


What we see is not the object itself, but an evolved decoding of the parts of that object relevant to survival, not to the truth.4 A red pill is not red. A blue pill is not blue. They are the same color, which is to say that they are no color at all, to all but our eyes.


[Soldier in Afghanistan who had an intuition to turn around and not drive his daily patrol route.]  “What do you think it was?” He says, “There were no kids. We drive that same route every day at the same time and there are kids kicking around an old soccer ball, in that field, and today there were none. And that felt really dangerous to me. And thinking about it, it’s because the moms know when the bad guys have planted a roadside bomb, and they keep their kids away.”


Can you travel in time back and forth?3 Can you imagine? Tell me something about the day you’re going to get married. Tell me something about what you will do when you have a daughter. Those are questions in principle you should be able to answer, “Well, if I have a daughter I would do this and that with her. I would take her here and here and the other.” Some people can’t do that, particularly if they have hippocampal lesions. Turns out these people not only have retrograde amnesia but also have difficulties traveling forward in time, imaging a future for themselves.


As well, some people claim to have no internal visual imagery; some see images in their head as a flickering slide reel; others as if the memory is happening to them from the vantage exactly as it once did; others watch their memories unfold from a few dozen meters away, through a single aperture, as if filming them; others as if they are watching a television one hundred feet away. Some have photograph-like memories and can redraw cityscapes from scratch. Some people claim to have no inner, vocal monologue.

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, :).