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, :).

Book Notes: The Mind Illuminated

The best practical guide on meditation I’ve ever read, as informed by a Buddhist understanding but written in exactingly clear and precise English, is The Mind Illuminated by John Yates and Matthew Immergut. I first read it several years ago at Russ Roberts’ recommendation, and re-read it for a second time recently. There is a great deal of commentary on the book that you can find online, including an entire subreddit dedicated to the book’s approach to instruction. I’ll include below direct quotes from my Kindle highlights that I think helpfully define some traditionally hard-to-define concepts. I appreciated the distinction between attention and awareness, which I bolded below liberally. It’s a powerful idea to internalize. Highly recommended to beginner or advanced meditators alike who seek very concrete instructions.

For your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind. But the kind of understanding required isn’t just intellectual, which is ineffective by itself. Like a naturalist studying an organism in its habitat, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our mind. This only comes from direct observation and experience.

The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings. The five most important of these are Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, and the illusion of the separate self (i.e., “no-Self”).

Willpower can’t prevent the mind from forgetting the breath. Nor can you force yourself to become aware that the mind is wandering. Instead, just hold the intention to appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath. Then, intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness.

Attention and awareness are two different ways of knowing the world. Attention singles out some small part of the field of conscious awareness to analyze and interpret it. Peripheral awareness provides the overall context for conscious experience.

“Concentration” as a concept is rather vague, and in danger of being misinterpreted or of having meditation students bring their own preconceived ideas to it. I prefer to use the more accurate and useful term, “stable attention.” It’s more descriptive of what we’re actually trying to do in meditation.

Now, sustaining attention is trickier than directing attention. Why? It’s possible to voluntarily direct attention. However, the part of the mind that sustains attention for more than a few moments works entirely unconsciously. We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. Instead, an unconscious process weighs the importance of what we’re focusing on against other possible objects of attention.

Throughout the Stages, you use conscious intention to train the unconscious mind in a variety of ways. The correct use of intention can also transform bad habits, undo incorrect views, and cultivate healthier perspectives. In short, skillfully applying conscious intention can completely restructure the mind and transform who we are. This is the very essence of meditation: we reprogram unconscious mental processes by repeating basic tasks over and over with a clear intention.

But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way. This is because having sati actually means that you’re more fully conscious and alert than normal. As a result, our peripheral awareness is much stronger, and our attention is used with unprecedented precision and objectivity. A more accurate but clumsy-sounding phrase would be “powerfully effective conscious awareness,” or “fully conscious awareness.” I use the word “mindfulness” because people are familiar with it. However, by “mindfulness,” I specifically mean the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness, which requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. Let’s unpack this definition.

Attention has a very specific job. It picks out one object from the general field of conscious awareness, then analyzes and interprets that object….Peripheral awareness, on the other hand, works very differently. Instead of singling out one object for analysis, it involves a general awareness of everything our senses take

Peripheral awareness allows us to respond more effectively by giving us information about the background and context of our experience—where we are, what’s happening around us, what we’re doing, and why (e.g., not mistaking the rope for a snake, since we’re in Alaska, and it’s winter).

Attention analyzes our experience, and peripheral awareness provides the context.

Any new sensation, thought, or feeling appears first in peripheral awareness. It is here that the mind decides whether or not something is important enough to become an object of attention. Peripheral awareness filters out unimportant information and “captures” the objects that deserve closer scrutiny by attention. This is why specific objects can seem to pop out of peripheral awareness to become the objects of attention. Attention will also browse the objects in peripheral awareness, searching for something relevant or important, or just more entertaining, to examine.

As attention hones in on something, peripheral awareness is alert and on the lookout for anything new or unusual. When awareness takes in something that might be of interest, it frees attention from its current object and redirects it toward the new object. Say you’re engrossed in a conversation while walking when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a shape moving toward you. Peripheral awareness alerts attention, which quickly processes the information, “We’re in the bike lane and a biker is heading straight for us!” So you grab your friend and step out of the way.

Fortunately, not every experience needs to be analyzed. Otherwise, attention would be quite overwhelmed. Peripheral awareness takes care of many things without invoking attention, such as brushing a fly away from your face while you’re eating lunch. Attention can certainly be involved with brushing the fly away, as well as with other small things, like choosing what to eat next on your plate. But there are simply too many basic tasks that don’t require attention.

On its own, attention usually involves a strong concern for “self.” This makes sense, considering that part of attention’s job is to evaluate the importance of things in terms of our personal well-being. But it also means that objects of attention can be easily distorted by desire, fear, aversion, and other emotions. Attention not only interprets objects based on self-interest, it leads us to identify with external objects (this is “my” car), or mental states (“I am” angry, happy, etc.). Peripheral awareness is less “personal” and takes things in more objectively “as they are.” External objects, feeling states, and mental activities, rather than being identified with, appear in peripheral awareness as part of a bigger picture. We may be peripherally aware, for example, that some annoyance is arising. This is very different from having the thought, “I am annoyed.” Strong peripheral awareness helps tone down the self-centered tendencies of attention, making perception more objective. But when peripheral awareness fades, the way we perceive things becomes self-centered and distorted.

Also, because attention works by isolating objects, it cannot observe overall states of the mind. If you do turn your attention introspectively, it takes a “snapshot” from peripheral awareness of your mental state right before you looked. Say someone asks, “How do you feel?” When you look inside, attention tries to transform awareness of your overall mental state into a specific conceptual thought, like, “I am happy.”

Why aren’t we naturally more mindful? Why does mindfulness have to be cultivated? There are two main reasons. First, most of us have never really learned to use peripheral awareness effectively. Second, we don’t have enough conscious power to sustain mindfulness, especially at the times when we need it most.

The first of these two problems I describe as “awareness deficit disorder.” This means a chronic lack of awareness due to overusing attention. Most people overuse attention because it’s under direct conscious control and peripheral awareness isn’t.

Think of consciousness as a limited power source. Both attention and awareness draw their energy from this shared source. With only a limited amount of energy available for both, there will always be a trade-off between the two. When attention focuses intensely on an object, the field of conscious awareness begins to contract, and peripheral awareness of the background fades. Intensify that focus enough, and the context and guidance provided by peripheral awareness disappears completely. In this state, awareness can no longer ensure that attention is directed to where it’s most necessary and beneficial. This is like wearing blinders or having tunnel vision. We simply don’t have enough conscious power to continue to be aware of our surroundings while focusing so intently on the object.

Because attention and awareness draw from the same limited capacity for consciousness, when one grows brighter the other becomes dimmer, resulting in suboptimal performance and loss of mindfulness.

The goal, therefore, is to increase the total power of consciousness available for both attention and awareness. The result is peripheral awareness that is clearer, and attention that gets used more appropriately: purposefully, in the present moment, and without becoming bogged down in judgment and projection.

Increasing the power of consciousness isn’t a mysterious process. It’s a lot like weight training. You simply do exercises where you practice sustaining close attention and strong peripheral awareness at the same time. This is the only way to make consciousness more powerful. The more vivid you can make your attention while still sustaining awareness, the more power you will gain.

The goal isn’t just getting to a calm, quiet pool, but learning about the makeup of the water itself as it goes from choppy to still, from cloudy to crystal-clear.

Because of these different qualities, the breath is used as the basis for the practice of Tranquility and Insight (śamatha-vipassanā), dry Insight practices (sukkha-vipassanā), and meditative absorptions (jhāna).

Keep your attention on the area where the breath sensations are clearest. Don’t try to follow the air as it moves into the body or out of your nose. Just observe the sensations from the air passing over the spot where you’re focusing your attention. Remember, the meditation object is the sensations of the breath, not the breath itself.

Interestingly, what you consider the start and end of a breath cycle matters. We automatically tend to regard the beginning as the inhale and the pause after the exhale as the end. However, if you’re thinking about the breath in that way, then that pause becomes the perfect opportunity for your thoughts to wander off, since the mind naturally tends to shift focus when it has completed a task. Instead, try this: consider the beginning of the out-breath as the start of the cycle. That way, the pause occurs in the middle of your cycle, and is less likely to trip you up. This may seem like a small detail, but it often makes a difference. Another approach is to silently say the number during the pause at the end of the out-breath. This “fills the gap” and helps keep the mind on task.

Even if you use a meditation object other than the breath, counting is still a wonderful way to transition from daily activities into a more focused, meditative state. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, the mind becomes conditioned over time to counting as a sign to start meditating, and it will automatically calm down.

The best antidote to this kind of agitation is to take up the practice of virtue. When we behave virtuously, we don’t create further causes for Remorse or Worry. But what is virtue? I don’t mean morality in the sense of adhering to an external standard demanded by a deity or other authority. Nor do I mean ethics, as in following a system of rules that prescribe the best way to act. Both moral principles and ethical codes can be followed blindly without necessarily having to resolve your own bad mental habits. Rather, virtue is the practice of inner purification, which results in good behavior.

Also, avoid becoming annoyed or self-critical about mind-wandering. It doesn’t matter that your mind wandered. What’s important is that you realized it.

Beginning meditators often try to stabilize attention by focusing intensely on the breath and pushing everything else out of awareness. Don’t do this. Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness. Instead, to cultivate mindfulness, do just the opposite—allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings to continue in the background.

The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice. While this isn’t always easy, a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert.

When you find the mind agitated and there are more distractions, ask yourself: Is the breath longer or shorter, deeper or shallower, finer or coarser than when the mind is calm? What about the length or depth of the breath during a spell of drowsiness? Do states of agitation, distraction, concentration, and dullness affect the out-breath more or in a different way than they do the in-breath? Do they affect the pause before the in-breath more or less than they affect the pause before the out-breath? In making these kinds of comparisons, you’re not just investigating the breath to sharpen and stabilize your attention. You’re also learning another way to detect and become more fully aware of subtle and changing states of mind.

Unconscious conditioning is like a collection of invisible programs. These programs were set in motion, often long ago, by conscious experiences. Our reaction to those experiences—our thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions—may have been appropriate at the time. The problem is they have become programmed patterns, submerged in the unconscious, that don’t change. They lie dormant until they’re triggered by something in the present.

Thus people who have cultivated mindfulness are more attuned and less reactive. They have greater self-control and self-awareness, better communication skills and relationships, clearer thinking and intentions, and more resilience to change.

Whenever some event triggers one of our “invisible programs,” we have the chance to apply mindfulness to the situation so our unconscious conditioning can get reprogrammed. Anytime we’re truly mindful of our reactions and their consequences, it can alter the way we will react in the future. Every time we experience a similar situation, our emotional reactions will get weaker and be easier to let go of.

In particular, the thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with a sense of self are seen more objectively, revealing themselves to be constantly changing, impersonal, and often contradictory processes occurring in different parts of the mind.

As you “look beyond” the meditation object, don’t just look at the content of peripheral awareness. Become aware of the activities of the mind itself: movements of attention; the way thoughts, feelings, and other mental objects arise and pass away in peripheral awareness; and any changes in the clarity or vividness of perception. By using the breath as an anchor while you mindfully observe the mind, you’re “watching the mind while the mind watches the breath.” This is metacognitive introspective awareness…

You want to create some objective distance from these unpleasant emotions. Verbalizations are important for this. If you have the thought, “I am angry,” replace it with the thought, “Anger is arising.” This kind of rephrasing isn’t just useful to avoid getting tangled up in emotions. It’s simply more accurate. You’re not these feelings. There is no self in emotions. Remember that, like everything else, emotions arise due to specific causes and conditions, and pass away when their causes disappear. Do your best to dissociate from these emotions, keeping the role of an objective observer, even though that can be challenging.

No matter the emotion, your goal is always the same: acknowledge, allow, and accept. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “It’s not what we are feeling that’s important, but how we relate to it that matters.” Let the emotion just be until it goes away. Sometimes it will simply disappear. Other times, it will remain, but become less intense.

It’s simple: any moment of consciousness—whether it’s a moment of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc.—takes the form of either a moment of attention, or a moment of peripheral awareness. Consider a moment of seeing. It could be either a moment of seeing as part of attention, or a moment of seeing as part of peripheral awareness.

The second aspect of metacognitive awareness is being cognizant of the state of your mind. This refers to its clarity and alertness, the predominant emotion, hedonic feelings, and the intentions driving your mental activity. In everyday terms, you’re aware of being patient or annoyed, alert or dull, focused or distracted, obsessively focused or mindfully

You cultivate metacognitive introspective awareness by intending to objectively observe the activities and state of the mind. This means that you intend to know, moment by moment, the movements of attention, the quality of perception, and whether your scope is stable or expanding to include distractions. Are thoughts present in peripheral awareness, and if so, are they verbal or nonverbal? Is the mind restless, agitated, or relaxed? Is it joyful, or perhaps impatient?

That aversion opposes pleasure should not come as a surprise. It’s harder to feel pleasure when we’re angry, and harder to stay angry when we’re feeling pleasure and happiness. But there’s more to it than that, because aversion is a cause of pain, as well as an effect.

When you know that you’re remembering something, in the sense that you’re aware of a memory coming up in the background, that’s actually part of present-moment awareness. Likewise, being aware that discursive thoughts are coming up in the background, or even being aware that you had been engaged with those thoughts just a moment before, is part of being fully present.

Mindfulness with clear comprehension also has two other important aspects. The first is clear comprehension of purpose, which means being metacognitively aware of why you’re doing, saying, thinking, and feeling whatever it is that you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. The second is clear comprehension of suitability—of whether or not what you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling is appropriate to this particular situation, to your goals and purposes, and in accordance with your personal beliefs and values.

Book Review: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

There’s a Franzen-sized hole in our reading lives that gets filled about once every eight years — that’s how Dwight Garner put it about Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads.

What is the hole Franzen fills when he publishes a new novel?

Among other things, our desire for piercing insight into all matters of the American family. Crossroads, Franzen’s latest, is as absorbing on that topic as in any of his previous work that I’ve read. (Here are my reviews of Purity and Freedom, both of which I enjoyed tremendously, and my quotes from his non-fiction essay collection How to Be Alone.) Crossroads is a tour de force: utterly vivid characters, dynamic plot development, gorgeous – seemingly effortless – prose styling.

As he tracks one set of family dynamics, various themes or sub-themes run through the plot:

  • Religion. “Crossroads” is the name of the Christian youth group around which the plot is anchored. The pastors’ struggle to uphold basic religious precepts introduces persistent hypocrisy throughout the story. Yet in their frequent returning to religion and being present with the “feeling” of God, faith for the couple at the center of the book somehow comes off as a source of continual redemption — a true north for goodness.
  • The self-absorption of individual family members. The story gets told, chapter by chapter, from alternating perspectives. In this way you see how self-absorbed each person is as the same plot unfolds from each of their perspectives. They’re so in their heads and they’re so unaware of what others are doing or thinking. Their interest in each other slides along the surface in a self-interested way; there’s not a lot of apparent fundamental empathy.
  • Grass is greener on the other side. As husband and wife pursue affairs and the children pursue travel or drugs or other acts of rebellion, you get the sense that everyone sees contentment on the other side of their current reality. There’s a persistent dissatisfaction.
  • Approval-seeking adults surrounded by teenagers. The pastors who oversee the youth group crave the kids’ validation and fight for it in all sorts of amusing ways. The parents crave the approval of their kids — much more so than the reverse.
  • A high IQ person’s drug addiction. One character in the book seems modeled on David Foster Wallace (the person) in multiple ways (recall Franzen and DFW’s friendship). The scenes where this character gets high or drunk while still being exceptionally articulate are some of the best moments of the book. You really get a sense of the “the pulsing nowness” of a high, to his use phrase.

Here are some of my highlighted quotes from the novel — all direct quotes:

…on his bad days he was unable not to do things he would later regret. It was almost as if he did them because he would later regret them. Writhing with retrospective shame, abasing himself in solitude, was how he found his way back to God’s mercy.

Her father was like a cross maker, only worse. His earnest faith and sanctity were an odor that had forever threatened to adhere to her, like the smell of Chesterfields, only worse, because it couldn’t be washed off.

Her father’s heart might have had room for two daughters if the first one, Shirley, hadn’t filled it inordinately. His obsessionality (the dumpling’s word) served him well in his business, Western All-Sport, to which he devoted sixty and seventy hours a week, but at home it served to make Marion feel invisible. Ruben’s darling was Shirley. When he happened to look at Marion directly, it was often to ask, “Where’s your sister?” Shirley was the really pretty one, even as an infant, and took his adoration as her due. On Christmas morning, she didn’t tear through her immense haul of presents with a normal child’s greed. She unwrapped them like a wary retailer, carefully inspecting each of them for flaws of manufacture, and sorted them by category, as if checking them against a mental invoice. The repeated chiming of her voice—“Thank you Daddy”—was like the chinging of a cash register. Marion took refuge from the excess by absorbing herself in a single doll, a single toy, while her mother yawned with open boredom.

“What I said to her was—I said that marriage is a blessing but can also be a struggle. That the enemy in a long relationship is boredom. That sometimes there’s not enough love in a marriage to overcome that boredom.

Russ knew he was being childish, but his hurt and hatred had a horizonless totality, unrelieved by adult perspective, and beneath them was the sweetness of being thrown upon God’s mercy: of making himself so alone and so wretched that only God could love him.

The image of Marion’s dewy dark eyes, her kiss-inviting mouth, her narrow waist and slender neck and fine-boned wrists, had come buzzing, like a huge and never resting hornet, into the formerly chaste chamber of his soul. Neither the imagined fires of Hell nor the very real prospect of breaking with his brethren could still the buzzing of that hornet.

Doris Haefle had a grossly inflated sense of the importance of a pastor’s wife, was sensitive to every slight to it, and therefore, because the world didn’t share her regard for the role, existed in a state of perpetual grievance. Among the crosses she bore was being married to a pastor who ironically deprecated his own role. For Marion, the miserable thing was that she, too, was a pastor’s wife and thus, in Doris’s view, worthy of the highest respect. She had to endure not only Doris’s unsolicited suggestions on how to comport herself, in her exalted role, but the unfailingly tender manner in which she offered them. It was awkward to be called dear by a person you felt like calling insufferable bitch.

“Thank you, all. Thank you. I’m afraid we only have time for one more song.” Toby paused for expressions of disappointment, and someone in the audience politely moaned. Toby had an unctuous sensitive-guy sincerity, a self-pleasuring way of smiling when he sang, that never failed to make Clem’s skin crawl.

The dress had slipped down her shoulder without exposing a bra strap. The skin of her upper back, which he’d never seen before, was smooth and lightly freckled. It, too, was real, and it gave him a pang of nostalgia for the safety of his fantasies.

And yet, when he thought of doing God’s will, at the cost of his week with Frances on the mesa, he felt unbearably sorry for himself. It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins; none was deadlier.

It took more than an hour to go around the circle, and Russ wasn’t Ambrose. He didn’t have limitless patience with the self-drama of adolescents, the Crossroads-encouraged inflation of emotional scrapes into ambulance-worthy traumas. He himself was upset, but his fault gave him the right to be, and although he’d asked to hear from everyone, because this was the Crossroads way, it tried his patience to sit in a world of real social injustice, real suffering, and make such an opera of the theft of two guitars, easily replaceable by their owners’ parents.

The letter was like a match struck in the dark.

How quickly, once clothes had been shed, the wildly unmentionable became the casually discussable. It was like being whisked to a different planet.

Her enthusiasm sounded effortful, and when he called her that night, calendar in hand, their search for a mutually workable date had a flavor of dreary obligation.

The pressure that was lately always in her head, the loneliness and something less definable, a low-grade dread, was balanced by her outward composure. She was a girl interesting enough to herself to sit alone, pretty enough to draw glances from men walking by with their families, tough enough that no one bothered her for long, and smart enough to know that being discovered while sitting on a bench was just a daydream.

Book Reviews: The Sweet Spot and 4,000 Weeks, on Happiness and Meaning and Time Management

I’m quite interested in the literature on happiness and meaning and yet I usually pass on reading new articles or books on the topics. I liked Paul Bloom’s explanation for why he’s the same, from his new book The Sweet Spot:

There is a famous remark by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, dismissing the work of another scientist: “He isn’t right. He isn’t even wrong.” I often think about this line while reading about meaning and purpose. The problem isn’t usually that I disagree with what I read—it’s that it’s too fuzzy and vague and general to take seriously.

“He isn’t right — he isn’t even wrong.” I’m going to have to start using that line!

I don’t know Bloom personally though I’ve been an avid consumer of his podcasts and writing over the years. Around the same as I read The Sweet Spot, I also read my old friend Oliver Burkeman’s new book 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I’ve been reading Oliver’s stuff for years, have recommended his books widely, and was delighted to discover a few years ago that he’s as engaging and pleasant in person as he is on the page.

Both Bloom and Burkeman offer sophisticated and provocative perspectives on timeless questions about how to construct a happy and/or meaningful life.

Burkeman’s falls under the guise of “time management” but it’s really about relinquishing your desire to be productive in all areas of your life in order to achieve higher levels of peace and happiness. He advocates for “strategic underachievement”: to be intentionally bad at things you care little about. Give up the idea you can get everything done you want to get done in your ever-so-short 4,000 weeks on this planet. Burkeman presents a sort of a manifesto for coming to terms with the fact that you’re not going to put a dent in the universe, and given that fact, he makes a case for smelling the flowers in the here and now.

Burkeman’s diagnosis of what ails unhappy high achievers starts from their fear of death and their lack of belief in an afterlife: “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future. And so they try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience.”

He argues there’s no way you’re going to accomplish all that you want to accomplish. Find peace in that, somehow. “You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.”

The advice reminds me of something a wise man once told me in a breakout session on the bucket lists. He said that the art of the bucket list as you get older is removing items from your bucket list, not adding them.

One especially provocative image from Burkeman’s book — somewhat unrelated to his core thesis — relates to the shortness of history. I had never thought about the past in this way; in how recent the past actually is:

In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough….

by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.”

Burkeman’s book was super and I highly recommend it.

Paul Bloom’s book is more directly about happiness and meaning and what it takes to achieve either or both. Happiness is great but meaning may be better, he argues, and there’s some amount of suffering that’s actually helpful for leading a meaningful life. He approvingly quotes Jordan Petersen: “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden you can bear and bearing it” and Slavoj Zizec says “the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle.” Want a meaningful life? Sign up for struggle.

Bloom divides chosen struggle/suffering into two categories:

The first involves spicy food, hot baths, frightening movies, rough sex, intense exercise, and the like. We’ll see that such experiences can give pleasure. They can increase the joy of future experiences, provide an escape from consciousness, satisfy curiosity, and enhance social status. The second is the sort involved in climbing mountains and having children. Such activities are effortful and often unpleasant. But they are part of a life well lived.

We seek out the first kind of suffering all the time. Think of the phrase “it hurts so good”: the pleasure that comes from pain. Sometimes we even express the same thing in pain and pleasure:

We scream when we are in pain. But, weirdly, we also scream for the opposite of pain—intense pleasure, joyous surprise, great excitement. Have you seen the videos of fangirls in the sixties in the presence of the Beatles? They positively shriek…. Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Bloom talks about the difference between the inputs for happiness and the inputs for meaning:

Health, feeling good, and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. The more people report thinking about the past and the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. Finding your life to be relatively easy is related to more happiness; finding your life to be difficult is related to less happiness and, though it is a small effect, more meaning. Do you consider your life a struggle? You’re likely to be less happy but more likely to see your life as more meaningful. Are you under stress? More meaning and less happiness. What about worrying? Again, more meaning and less happiness.

Bloom says people who have happiness tend to also be the people who have meaning – there’s a correlation:

It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning. If you describe yourself as being bored, then you are less likely to have either a happy life or a meaningful life. Similarly, if you describe yourself as lacking social connection—as lonely—this is also bad for both happiness and meaningfulness. Indeed, one main finding by Baumeister and his colleagues is that there are correlations between happiness and meaning…

Over the years, I’ve moved more toward a focus on happiness. I’ve looked more skeptically at those who want to eat glass and stare into the abyss, to invoke a famous Musk line on entrepreneurship.

The title of Bloom’s book, “the sweet spot,” refers to finding the ideal balance between pleasure and struggle, between happiness and meaning. Practically this means: Have a ton of pleasure but not much struggle? Turn up the difficulty dial. Constantly stressed? Turn up the pleasure/happiness dial.

If you are, like me, more naturally oriented to ambitious, difficult endeavors, the appropriate counterbalance of focus would be hedonistic or leisure activities that drive happiness.

In previous writings on Buddhism, I’ve made the claim that for those of us who grew up in the West, we’re so over-programmed to Western ways of thinking that tacking a little bit more in the direction of Buddhism is helpful, and you needn’t worry about losing all your attachments or ambition overnight. At best, you will become a little more Eastern. The same applies here, in my opinion, in terms of adding sprinkles of hedonism on top of a meaning-rich — meaning-obsessed? — baseline.

Balancing happiness activities with meaning activities could be framed within “opponent-process” theory:

In modern times, many psychologists endorse an “opponent-process” theory of experience, whereby our minds seek balance, or homeostasis, so that positive reactions are met with negative feelings, and vice versa. The fear of skydiving is followed by feelings of relief and accomplishment, for instance.

This explains the unique pleasure of sauna followed by cold plunge!

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Bloom explains and disputes one of Dan Gilbert’s theories of happiness.

Gilbert, whose writing I’m a fan of, is — by Bloom’s account — pro happiness, pro pleasure, and pro hedonism to an extent. Gilbert puts forward an example of someone whose life is empty of meaning but who’s enjoying a wonderful, unbelievably pleasurable pool. Here’s Gilbert, as quoted by Bloom:

I may be a shameless hedonist happily swimming in my Olympic size pool, feeling the cool water and the warm sunshine on my skin and my hedonic state could only be described as pleasurable. Occasionally I jump out of the pool, pause, and think about how empty my life is, and for a few minutes I feel bad. Then I get back in the pool and swim some more.

Bloom goes to paraphrase Gilbert:

He points out that in his pool example, there are two different sorts of conscious experiences, which we can see as akin to two different people. There is the Experiencer, who feels the cool water and the warm sunshine and who is happy. And there is the Observer, who passes judgment on the life as a whole and who is disappointed….

Gilbert notes that the Observer is rarely present in our lives. We spend little time thinking of our lives as a whole. When you are in the pool, with the cool water and warm sunshine, or laughing with friends (or, for that matter, undergoing a painful dental procedure or falling down a flight of stairs), you aren’t evaluating your life. You are living it—you are the Experiencer.

So, if you’re mostly in the pool, even if you feel empty when you’re sitting poolside and reflecting on whether you’ve made contributions in the world, Gilbert says if the number of hours you’re in the pool far exceeds the poolside hours — you’ll be fine.

If you’re someone who has lots of pleasure and happiness in your life, then, it’s critical to be an Experiencer as much as possible — to live in the present moment, and don’t wallow in reflection too much. Mindfulness meditation is helpful here.

Bloom supports Gilbert’s case via another thought experiment:

Would you rather that your child has a life in which she was almost always happy except when she reflected on her life, or the other way around? . . . It’s hard to imagine condemning our children to 23 hours of unhappiness every day just so they’ll be glad for 1.

Powerful. Few parents would condemn their child to 23 hours of unhappiness just so they can have one hour of deep, meaning-rich reflection. Ultimately, though, Bloom is unconvinced by Gilbert:

There is also a more prosaic reason not to spend the rest of your life in Gilbert’s pool. You will probably get tired of it. This is one reason, I would suggest, that having a life of meaning and having a life of pleasure often go together. Long-term difficult projects, for instance, provide opportunities for novelty and excitement; they avoid one of the big problems faced by hedonists: boredom.

Bloom’s right that boredom is a risk with a life too centered on happiness. But it’s hard to get to that point, at least for me. There’s so much hedonistic novelty out there. So many experiences to have. So many pleasures to experience. It’s why I’m more convinced by Gilbert on this particular point.

But I take Bloom’s argument very well too: strike a balance. Bloom wouldn’t want you on the side of the pool reflecting all the time, or running 7 marathons a week just to experience the struggle. He would suggest you jump in and enjoy the water from time to time. He’s arguing for each of us to find our unique sweet spot between pleasure and pain, meaning and happiness. It strikes me as the absolute right way to think about things.

Some other random highlights from Bloom’s book:

Pain as a way to get in the present:

Psychologists who study benign masochism like to quote a dominatrix who said, “A whip is a great way to get someone to be here now. They can’t look away from it, and they can’t think of anything else.” Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, agreed, asking, “Where is indifference when pain intervenes?” (Elsewhere he wrote: “Seek pain! Seek pain, pain, pain!”)

Reminds me of a technique in Zen where the teacher screams at the top of his lungs in the middle of a sit to jolt the meditators back into the present moment. It happened to me once.

Stay in the present moment and you’ll be happier:

On the whole, people were less happy when they were mind-wandering than when they were not.

When my mind wanders, it’s usually in the direction of anxiety.

It’s hard to reach a “flow” state:

Flow is wonderful, then, but it’s difficult to find—sandwiched between boredom and anxiety, hard to get started, hard to sustain.

On stories and the arc of positive vs. negative:

… another analysis chugged through thousands of works of fiction, analyzing their emotional content as the stories progressed, and found that the stories fell into six main categories, only some of which end on a happy note: Rags to Riches (rise) Riches to Rags (fall) Man in a Hole (fall then rise) Icarus (rise then fall) Cinderella (rise then fall then rise) Oedipus (fall then rise then fall) This variety holds for aversive fictions as well. Yes, many horror movies end with the monster being killed, but many don’t.

We’re all different. I loved this way of putting it:

To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.

What I’ve Been Reading (September 2021)

I’ve been as busy as ever and thus delinquent in sharing some highlights from recent books.

1. The Institute by Stephen King. Totally gripping and addictive novel. Outstanding plot premise from a master of the craft. Expect to stay up late while reading.

2. The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina

Really well researched and well told stories from the lawless high seas. You learn about the brutal human rights violations of the people who work aboard fishing boats for literally years on end without seeing their families; piracy; ship stealing; and the terrible animal abuse of all types of fish.

My Kindle highlights are pasted below; all Urbina’s words.

Also known as icefish, the toothfish can grow to over six feet long and gets its name from a sharklike double row of steel-sharp teeth. Among Antarctica’s largest predators, the grisly gray-black creature can prowl at depths of more than two miles, and its heart beats unusually slowly—once per six seconds—to preserve energy in the frigid depths. Its eyes are the size of billiard balls that grotesquely bulge from their sockets when fishermen pull them up to shallower depths with lower pressures. The fish is also a favorite entrée in upscale restaurants in the United States and Europe, costing about $30 a fillet. But diners won’t find “toothfish” on menus. There, it is sold under a more palatable name: Chilean sea bass. Demand soared in the 1980s and 1990s after a Los Angeles fish wholesaler with a flair for marketing renamed the fish.

To avoid wasting space and contaminating more valuable catch, deckhands usually throw the rest of the shark back into the water after they cut off the fins, which can sell for a hundred times the cost of the rest of the meat. It is a slow death: the sharks, alive but unable to swim without their fins, sink to the seafloor, where they starve, drown, or are slowly eaten by other fish.

By 2017, roughly a third of all shark species were nearing extinction.

By 2015, about ninety-four million tons of fish were caught each year, more than the weight of the entire human population.

As the size and strength of nets increased, so too did the amount of bycatch that was inadvertently killed and thrown back. More than half the global catch is now tossed overboard dead, or it is ground up and pelletized to feed pigs, poultry, and farmed fish. For instance, feeding a single “ranched” tuna can require catching and pelletizing over thirty times the weight of that tuna in fish pulled from the sea. These technological advances, as well as the industrialization of fishing, are a big reason why catches from the high seas rose 700 percent in the last half a century. They also partly explain why many of the world’s fish stocks are at the brink of collapse.

So-called pescetarians, indignant over the suffering of farm cows and chickens, frequently include wild fish in their diets, he said.

“No one has ever asked about us before,” said Purwanto, who had been working on the ship for a year. “Why do you want to know about life on the ship?” he asked. The investigator and the union inspector responded that they were simply checking for labor violations. Purwanto said that even if there were violations, it didn’t matter—he needed the job, so he would not say anything more. There was nothing else for him back in Indonesia, he said. “This is the best we can get.”

The Dutch doctor and founder of Women on Waves traverses the globe in a converted medical ship carrying an international team of volunteer doctors that provides abortions in places where it has been criminalized. Running these often-clandestine missions since the early years of the twenty-first century, Gomperts has repeatedly visited the coasts of Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, Morocco, and a half dozen other countries, dangerously skating the edge of federal and international law.

Over a thousand stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, like those desperately fleeing North Africa and the Middle East on boats crossing the Mediterranean.

after the September 11 attacks, when antiterrorism laws in the United States and much of Europe restricted crews’ access to ports. Crews were required to park no closer than half a mile from shore as they waited for a call from ship operators informing them of their next destination. On board, a crewman can sit, sometimes for months, within sight but out of reach of sending his wife an email, eating a decent meal, having a doctor check the toothache that keeps him up at night, or hearing his daughter’s voice on her birthday. In many ports, dockside brothels adjusted their business models to these new norms. “Love boats,” or floating bordellos, began shuttling women or girls, along with drugs and alcohol, out to the parked ships. But the longer the men were stuck, the less such boats came calling. Everyone knew that a stranded seafarer is soon a penniless seafarer.

The biggest change, though, I felt in my stomach. During several years of reporting at sea, I grappled with a worsening case of what some mariners called sway. Others referred to it as dock rock, land sickness, reverse seasickness, or mal de débarquement (French for “disembarkation sickness”).

An impatient raconteur, Hardberger listened as if he was eager for you to finish your story so he could start telling his (which was invariably better).

More than 90 percent of the world’s goods, from fuel to food to merchandise, is carried to market by sea,

If a chase starts on the high seas, it’s even more fraught. Except under special circumstances, a ship may only be stopped in international waters by a warship of its own flag or with permission granted from the fleeing ship’s flag state. Liberia, the country with the most vessels sailing under its flag—more than forty-one hundred—has no warships.

Whenever possible, Hardberger preferred to talk his way on board, using the collection of fake uniforms and official-sounding business cards he maintains. Among them: “Port Inspector,” “Proctor in Admiralty,” “Marine Surveyor,” “Internal Auditor,” and “Buyer’s Representative.” If he could win himself a formal tour from the ship’s crew, Hardberger wears glasses with a built-in video camera.

Over 56 million people globally work at sea on fishing boats. Another 1.6 million people work in shipping on freighters, tankers, container ships, and other types of merchant vessels. For the most part, both kinds of workers get their jobs through employment firms called manning agencies.

Over the past decade, no country has exported more seafarers annually than the Philippines, which provided roughly a quarter of the crews on merchant ships globally, despite comprising less than 2 percent of the world’s population.

American territories like Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas may be tiny islands, but they add huge swaths of ocean to U.S. jurisdiction. As a result, no country has a bigger maritime domain than the United States.

I learned that corals are masterful hunters. They use minute poisonous barbs to spear tiny planktonic prey or deploy nets made of mucus to nab their victims. I learned that corals are also densely populated microcosms with more marine species living in a two-acre area than there are different species of birds in all of North America.

Long said he often considered jumping overboard to escape. He told a doctor who later treated him that he never once saw land during his three years at sea.

My nose nearly brushed the swinging hindquarters of the boy above me. Being that close to a complete stranger and breathing in his funk felt like an invasion of his privacy and a self-inflicted assault on mine.

Other officers offered more helpful tips [for not drowning]: Wear a headlamp and bright colors when on deck. If the water is cold when you fall in, clench your jaw and resist taking that first panicked gasp because it’s usually the one that drowns you. Limit heat loss by keeping your knees to your chest, they told me. Never swim against the current. Kick off heavy boots or shoes. If it’s not too cold, remove and tie off the ends of your pants or shirt to capture air in them and to use them as floatation devices.

The nonchalance on his face reminded me of a saying that truly dangerous men are not of a certain size but of a certain look.

Cruise liners, like most large ships, burn massive amounts of the dirtiest fuel on the market.

Their engines groaned when turned on or off, like an old man bending down to pick up a dropped cane.

Essentially waterborne dormitories for guards, these armories double as depots for their weapons, and they allow maritime security companies to avoid moving their guards on and off shore with every new assignment. Private security firms pay the armories as little as $25 per night for room and board for each guard, who tends to deploy for six to nine months or longer at sea.

Orcas are the largest apex predators on earth, meaning they sit at the top of the food chain and are not prey to any animals, except humans.


3. Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr

Some good nuggets about Amazon’s practices and policies that have contributed to years of innovation.

My kindle highlights are pasted below; all Bryar and Carr’s words:

When ranking candidates: There are only four options—strongly inclined to hire, inclined to hire, not inclined to hire, or strongly not inclined to hire.

One question that often gets a telling response [in reference checks] is, “If given the chance, would you hire this person again?”

Amazon’s SVP of Devices, Dave Limp, summed up nicely what might happen next: “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

Tufte offered wise advice on how to get started. “Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is Microsoft Word, not PowerPoint. Get used to it.” That is essentially what we did.

“Let me orally walk you through the document.” Resist that temptation; it will likely be a waste of time. The whole point of the written document is to clearly present the reasoning and to avoid the hazards of live presentation. The attendees have already walked themselves through the argument.

Watch what happens when we improve customer experience: Better customer experience leads to more traffic. More traffic attracts more sellers seeking those buyers. More sellers lead to wider selection. Wider selection enhances customer experience, completing the circle.

In the same 2015 shareholder letter, Jeff wrote, “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible—one-way doors—and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that—they are changeable, reversible—they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long.

Put another way, if the average discount of a free shipping promotion was 10 percent, we’d see significantly more demand lift (called elasticity) by offering free shipping than by discounting product prices by 10 percent. It wasn’t even close. Free shipping drove sales. We just had to figure out a sustainable way to offer free shipping.


4. The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you by Rob Fitzpatrick

A rare business book that I found original and super helpful. I’ve recommended it to several of our founders at Village Global who are engaged in customer development. The premise is that most potential customers will lie to you about how they perceive the value of your product, so you need to be really smart in how you frame and phrase questions to elicit honest responses.

My kindle highlights are pasted below; all Fitzpatrick’s words.

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it. We do that by asking good questions. The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about.

Eventually you do need to mention what you’re building and take people’s money for it. However, the big mistake is almost always to mention your idea too soon rather than too late.

Talk about their life instead of your idea

Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future

Talk less and listen more

How to fix it: Just like the others, fix it by asking about their life as it already is. How much does the problem cost them? How much do they currently pay to solve it? How big is the budget they’ve allocated? I hope you’re noticing a trend here.

Rule of thumb: Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are, not where the customer thinks they are.

“Did you google around for any other ways to solve it?” He seemed a little bit like he’d been caught stealing from the cookie jar and said, “No… I didn’t really think to. It’s something I’m used to dealing with, you know?” In the abstract, it’s something he would “definitely” pay to solve. Once we got specific, he didn’t even care enough to search for a solution (which do exist, incidentally).

Rule of thumb: If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.

Rule of thumb: People stop lying when you ask them for money.

Rule of thumb: While it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them.

The first startup I worked at fell for the “I would definitely buy that” trap and subsequently lost about 10 million bucks. They mistook fluffy future promises and excited compliments for commitment. They incorrectly believed they had proven themselves right and wildly over-invested.

You: “When’s the last time that happened?” We use The Mom Test and ask for a concrete example in the past. Them: “Two weekends ago.” We’ve successfully anchored the fluff and are now ready to get real facts instead of generics and hypotheticals.

While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.

“How are you coping without it?” “Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is it something we could add later?” “How would that fit into your day?”

Or, in shorter form: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask The mnemonic is “Very Few Wizards Properly Ask [for help].”

Phone calls end up sounding more like scripted interviews than natural conversations, because they are. It’s a constraint of the medium.

Collecting compliments instead of facts and commitments. “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback.” “Everybody I’ve talked to loves the idea.”