Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The 1,000-Year Plan

Plan of St. Gall, from 825 AD
Around 825 AD, at a monastery in modern-day Germany, one or two monks (thought to be Reginbert, the librarian, and Walafrid, his pupil ) drew up a plan for a 40-building monastery on five stitched-together sheets of sheep skin. It's the only surviving "blueprint" from the early Middle Ages, and, ever since it was discovered, it's been a precious artifact to historians. The monastery, though, was never built. The plan was folded up and the backside was used for a biography of St. Martin. For centuries, the plan sat in the library of St. Gall.
Fast-forward to the 2010s: German businessman Bert Geurten has the crazy idea of finally realizing the plan, almost 1,200 years later. He inspires a group of craftspeople in southwest Germany, who have been working on the monastery for the last seven years.
I wonder what Reginbert and Walafrid would say if we could tell them about the fate of their plan? Were they dissatisfied that the monastery was never initiated in their lifetimes? Would they be tickled to learn that it's taken us over 1,000 years to get started? Would it matter to them?
For anyone who's writing/creating/building, here's my takeaway from the story... We ought not be overly concerned with how many likes we get and how many books we sell. Focus on what you produce; fret not on how others consume. Create and leave the rest to fate. A rejected manuscript, a spurned poem, a forgotten composition could take years to find its audience. It might take millennia to come to fruition.

Campus Galli in 2010s, courtesy of

Sunday, January 13, 2019

What I'm Consuming #4


Joe Rogan Podcast with Jonathan Haidt - Here's a good talk on giving kids the freedom to roam in their neighborhoods, make mistakes, skin knees, and grow into more hardy adults. Haidt's worries about giving preteens phones and access to social media seem spot-on, and his suggestions are reasonable and helpful (no social media before high school, no phones in the kids' bedrooms, get together with parents and suggest sensible rules for the school principal to implement). 

WTF with Steve Coogan - Coogan is probably my favorite British comedian, and I look forward to both Stan and Ollie and the latest Alan Partridge series.

The Rewatchables (The Godfather)  


The End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jon FranzenFranzen may well be my favorite living fiction writer and essayist, and his beginning essays (notably "The Essay in Dark Times"), in which he asks deep questions about our place in a warming world, are superb. He uses his birding hobby as a sort of colorful segue into the deepest darkest of questions about our existence in an increasingly frightening world, and when he does this, his essays feel at once significant, moving, and relatable. They're so good because it's clear that Franzen's asking himself a question he's deeply interested in, and we get to enjoy the fruits of his research and thinking.  

Some of the later essays are more purely about birding, or simply the travel experience, and they feel less significant. Franzen’s essays gave me a small epiphany: Any travel essay worth its while should not be a travelogue; it should be a question, which the author will then think through over the course of the essay. The travel portion of the article should only be used as a background setting for the answering of the question, and the travelogue is only useful if it provides emotional resonance or insights into the intellectual question. 

This past summer I started writing travel essays about my first visit to the UK and my summer living with grizzlies at Lake Clark National Park. I lost heart and gave up several times, and I think I lost heart because I was writing these essays as start-to-finish travelogues. I should have started with a question I was interested in finding the answer to through the writing of the article. That would have kept me going, and it would have given something to the reader. 

This book also made me wonder: When should all of our artworks touch on climate change? It seems like this big giant force is slowly approaching us and most all of us are turning away from it. But Franzen, in many of this essays, links the mundane (birding) to climate change, and I'm wondering if we should all be doing that. Should we all begin to move what's looming in the background to the foreground? 

The Woolly Mammoth Lumbers back into View / The New Yorker by Rachel RiedererCount me as a fan of de-extinction, so long as the obvious questions have good answers (is there suitable habitat?). One could argue that we have bigger fish to fry (climate change, yes) and that we already have more than enough ongoing extinction problems, but as the article insinuates, through the re-creation of many long-gone animals, we could be creating tools to bring back the species we're presently saying goodbye to, perhaps at a future date in a more sensible age. But my romantic side speaks the loudest: a world with mammoths, passenger pigeons, and chestnuts would further enchant this world for me.

The Insect Apocalypse Is Here / NYT Magazine by Brooke Jarvis - Maybe the most depressing thing I've ever read. 


Black Mirror / episode Bandersnatch - This is about a video game programmer in the 1980s, creating a choose-your-own-adventure game. It’s also the first-ever “choose your own adventure” TV show, in which you, the viewer, decide some of the character's actions. I think this is an admirable attempt at novelty, but the story just seems to fall apart and make little sense. None of the multiple endings are satisfying (and I am capable of being satisfied by a bleak Black Mirror ending, but this one just doesn't get it right, perhaps because a story can only have one proper ending). Still, this might be worth a watch for the experience of it, and because this could very well be the historic beginnings of more interactive viewing experiences.

Brexit: An Uncivil War - What begins as a stylish political-techno thriller (à la The Social Network) quickly becomes a bloated docudrama with too many character introductions and dragging focus group scenes that attempt to give a comprehensive portrait of the leave-or-remain perspectives of the British electorate. It suffers from what is either excessive ambition or inadequate focus. The narrative would have been more compelling if it focused on Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) the way The Social Network always kept its eyes on Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Instead, Brexit tries to be the end-all-be-all story of Brexit by introducing 20+ characters, the “Remain Team,” and various focus group subcharacters. [Side criticism: I think Cumberbatch is a perfectly adequate actor, but also one of the most overrated, and I think (and I’m being serious here) that this is due in part to his at-once hip and old-sounding name.]

That said, its weakness as a movie is its strength as a docudrama: the viewer (especially a foreign one like myself) comes away with a solid understanding of the Brexit mess: the behind-the-scenes politics, the influence of foreign money, the game-changing data collecting technologies, the sophisticated propaganda, and even the resentment, hopelessness, and perceived disempowerment of the British people. 

While the flames of this resentment were, with precision and skill, fanned by shadowy figures with an agenda, the resentment, nevertheless, is at least partly real and justified (just as it is in America). But one comes away thinking, that in both of our countries, this reservoir of resentment has been mischanneled by a group of opportunistic and destructive wrecking-ball-wielding charlatan-clowns, who, conveniently for them, don’t have to bear any responsibility for the messes they’ve made.

The ingenious slogan of Team Leave (“Take Back Control”) carries the same sense of resentful and racially-loaded nostalgia of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Even if this nostalgia has in part been fabricated and manufactured by dark corporate forces playing a decades-long game of slow propaganda (read Democracy in Chains), there is enough truth and realness in voters’ resentment that Democrats and Remainers must take notice.

What are the most effective ways we can “take back control” of our lives, our communities, our countries (without blowing everything up)? Whenever I hear about “taking back control,” I think of some of the island communities here in Scotland. For the past twenty years, communities have been given rights to purchase and collectively manage the land around them. Here, people have votes, jobs, and roles that give everyday citizens a sense of responsibility that they probably wouldn’t have elsewhere. I don’t know how replicable this is for the U.S., but something must happen to give us all access to such roles and the feelings they generate.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Best Podcasts I Listened to in 2018

I took two road trips across the Northeastern states this year, in which I binge-listened to a whole bunch of stuff. Podcasts have become my primary source of news and edification. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I suggest that I listened to over 500 hours in 2018. 


Making Obama - This series — about Obama’s meteoric rise — is riveting. If I have any criticism, it’s that the show should have followed Obama all the way to 2008, when he gets elected. Instead, it ends somewhat anticlimactically when he announces his candidacy for the presidency. (It was so good, I wanted more, so this is hardly a criticism.)  

Revisionist History - I binge-listened to seasons two and three, which are remarkable. Gladwell has a knack for finding one interesting story or character and then zooming out to tell a broader story about the country. 

The Joe Rogan Experience - I come here to listen to all the cutting-edge thinkers of the day, on matters of diet, science, history, astrophysics, cosmology, etc. 

The Rewatchables - I really enjoy listening to Bill Simmons and his smart friends break down popular nineties movies.

Serial Season III - This season is like the nonfiction podcast version of The Wire. This is a premier podcast.  

On the Media - A fascinating episode on a live-streaming service called Twitch, in which the real and virtual worlds entangle. 

Radio Lab - The three-part In the No series, on consent, was fascinating, if a bit disturbing.

Dave Ramsey - I have no particular episodes to recommend, as most cover the same ground. I generally agree with Dave's financial philosophy and there's something fun about listening to him help solve other people's crises. 

Meaning of Life - I only listened to one episode from this show. It was a strange and fascinating podcast on "Occult Politics in the Trump era."

This American Life 

Fresh Air - The best thing about Fresh Air is that I get a nice overview of books (from the authors) that I want to read but probably won't. 

99% Invisible - How can I not list a podcast in which I play a principal role? This is about the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, which was a forbidden mountain in what is now the Peak District of Northern England. The Kinder Scout trespass is the main narrative in Chapter Three of This Land is Our Land, so I know my history pretty well. All in all, it was a fine episode from a podcast I greatly respect. I love how shows like these normalize what is, for us, a radical concept. 

Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? Seasons 1 & 2 - This podcast is full of good, practical relationship advice. (One helpful tip from Perel: When discussing a problem with your partner, put your partner’s complaint into your own words and ask her if you got it right. This way, everyone stays on the same page.) Also, her intimate therapy sessions with couples are extremely entertaining. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best Books I Read in 2018

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)

The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone, and to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I'm on board with, is that there's nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it's a luxury. For some, a necessity.

"'That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.' Later he added, 'I will admit to feeling a little contempt for those who can't keep quiet.'"

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber (2018)

This is a seriously good book about bullshit jobs, useless work, and how the pervading meaninglessness that comes from such work leaves scars on the soul of both the individual and his/her society. 

“It’s not just an assault on the person’s sense of self-importance but also a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.”

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (2018)

I'd never given a passing thought to psychedelics, so I picked up this book with the sole purpose of broadening myself in typical random liberal arts fashion (while also knowing that Pollan would be a competent guide), and by the end I was eager to give psychedelics a try and captivated with previously unknown-to-me subjects, like the fascinating theories and research on consciousness.

"Reading Robin’s paper helped me better understand what I was looking for when I decided to explore psychedelics: to give my own snow globe a vigorous shaking, see if I could renovate my everyday mental life by introducing a greater measure of entropy, and uncertainty, into it. Getting older might render the world more predictable (in every sense), yet it also lightens the burden of responsibility, creating a new space for experiment. Mine had been to see if it wasn’t too late to skip out of some of the deeper grooves of habit that the been-theres and done-thats of long experience had inscribed on my mind."

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford (2009)

This is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. I thought this would be merely a call to reclaim the manual arts, but it is so much more: a polemic against consumerist culture, against planned obsolesce and the need for “esoteric screwdrivers,” and against how office work creates “vague feelings of unreality, diminished autonomy, and a fragmented sense of self that [are] especially acute among the professional classes.”

"Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.”

10 Lessons to Transform your Marriage by John and Julie Schwartz Gottman (2006)

I have passing interests in all-things psychology (and I feel like I wouldn't have been a bad couples therapist if I'd taken a different career path), so I oftentimes read relationship self-help books when in or out of relationships, largely because the subject fascinates me, and partly because practical lessons learned can be put to good use. I've probably gone through at least a dozen such books, and this is the only one I'd wholeheartedly recommend. This book isn't just for improving communication with your romantic partner; it's for helping you talk to and understand all the people around you.

Bear by Marian Engel (1975)

I'm thinking about writing an essay about the bear in the North American imagination, so how could I not read this award-winning Canadian novel about a woman's sexual relationship with a pet black bear? It was a hugely enjoyable and page-turning read, and I adored Engel's spare prose.

“Once and only once, she experimented with calling him 'Trelawny' but the name did not inspire him and she realized she was wrong: this was no parasitical collector of memoirs, this was no pirate, this was an enormous, living creature larger and older and wiser than time, a creature that was for the moment her creature, but that another could return to his own world, his own wisdom.”

Best Books by Friends

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways (2017)

This book was written about my friends in Nebraska by an author whose dogs I once dog-sat for. Regardless of the various personal connections, I legitimately thought that this was a "best book." Somehow Genoways manages to make a lot of technical details (you will learn a lot about modern farming) really engaging, and it unexpectedly becomes a real page-turner. It also made me nostalgic for my old life in Nebraska and time spent on the Plains. I thought my friends depicted came across as real people who've had to make tough decisions, and who are also lovable, sympathetic figures who care dearly for the land and their way of life.

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (2018)

This book is about an epic cycling journey along the Silk Road, with meditations on borders, boundaries, and biking like mad. The writing is exceptional.

"We're so used to thinking of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night because they're reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways. At least that's how I sense them on the Aksai Chin--as a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by wind. What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanences on the fact of flux?"

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better after 50 by Jonathan Rauch (2018)

I admire the way Rauch blends memoir with interviews and research. Because of the blending, it's a very readable and persuasive book that has me concerned about plummeting to my happiness trough at age 46 (the typical age for Americans, which, for me, is just 11 years away). This all makes me reflect on how the next decade might play out. Will knowledge of this sort of imaginary slump (that has a lot to do with neurotic and self-loathing comparisons with peers and personal expectations) help me avoid it? I am not immune to slumps and mini depressions, so I'd say this is a possible path. Or not, I don't know. Maybe the unusual life I've so far led has placed me on an anomalous trajectory? Either way, this book is a fascinating look at human nature.

"But then what if, where life satisfaction is concerned (remember, we’re talking about the inner, subjective world, not about what’s actually happening to you), next year brings another disappointment? Things are pretty good, but you’re not as content as you expected to be. Then the same thing happens the next year. And the next. And the next and the next and the next. After a while, it dawns on you that disappointment seems to be a permanent feature of life. This has a couple of effects. On the one hand, your expectations for future satisfaction fall—pretty quickly, as the graph shows. So the hard work of realigning your happiness expectations is being done. But meanwhile, until the realignment happens, you’re being hit from two directions at once. 'On the one hand,' Schwandt told me, 'you feel all this disappointment about your past. And then also your expectations evaporate about the future. So in midlife you’re feeling miserable about the past and the future at the same time.'"

Best books read in 2014