2016-10-24T01:58:08ZOne of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more … Continue reading →One of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more than one cocktail party conversation where someone is going on about how myths underpin modern society (which is one of the arguments of the book). It’s extraordinary in scope, engagingly written, and full of provocative factoids that make you stop and think. Through it all, there is an overarching argument about why homo sapiens overtook other human species on earth (punch line: our ability to cooperate and trade with strangers). And he also presents a history of the world that’s driven by what he calls three revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, scientific. But even if you don’t follow the overarching argument, there’s plenty to think about when it comes to ancient history, animal rights, religion, happiness, and technological revolution. Not surprisingly, with so much ground covered, subject matter experts have quibbled (or more than quibbled) with some of Yuval’s claims, though nothing triggered me to lose trust in Harari as a guide. I highlighted 170 sentences or paragraphs in the book. I’ve pasted a bunch of them below. As always, each paragraph is a new thought, and all are direct quotes from the book. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings. The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, a[...]
2016-09-17T20:40:29ZTribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, … Continue reading →Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, how our very old brain is ill-equipped for modern society, the community norms of Native Americans, and more. Somehow it manages to hold together to be a stimulating and coherent read from start to finish. I think does accurately describe some of the dynamics that lead to modern unhappiness. Recommended. Highlighted sentences from the Kindle below, not in order. “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticize Indian life, and it might well have been easy for men like George as well. That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbors and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in microcosm in the legal profession. In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6,000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession—such as high billable hours or making partner at a law firm—had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seem to lead significantly happier lives. Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are. Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression. “The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment… that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012. “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans. Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of [...]
2016-09-02T05:41:41ZA few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard … Continue reading
A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard to get some attention; to generate some controversy. But to make your name mean something and to have it stand for dignity and integrity — that’s rare. It’s not something you can buy. There are no shortcuts. Video below (start at minute 13).
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2016-08-21T23:36:46ZIt’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a … Continue reading →It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a partner, someone who’s close to you in terms of professional trajectory — can feel subtle resentment. Even if he asks for your feedback, a part of him is asking himself: “Who are you to be giving me advice?” I handle this in two ways. “I’m Trying, Too.” Make your advice come off as less condescending by acknowledging your own on-going quest to live up to it or your own on-going need to be reminded of it. In her brilliant book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes to a reader: You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation–I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgement of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out. She literally says: “I don’t say this as a condemnation — I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too.” And that’s what makes it work. Another example. Recently, a friend on Facebook recently wrote about how she is grappling with critiques of her personality. Another friend — who’s her peer, not an anointed Wise One — commented: “Be yourself, because your self is awesome. Trite to say, a lifetime to try to do. I know because I’m also trying.” I know because I’m also trying. That’s the sort of advice given by a friend who’s a peer. From “You should…” to “I would…” The second approach I take when giving advice to a peer or prideful person is I avoid directly addressing their scenario and instead I make it about myself. When you find yourself saying “You should do X…” you begin to trigger people’s pride instincts. Even if they asked you directly for advice, by directly telling them what to do, you risk unleashing subtle but very real swirls of resentment. So if you tell me about an employee you’re trying to hire and a dilemma you’re facing in the hiring process, and ask me what you should do about it, I would talk about a similar experience I’ve had and how I handled it, or construct a hypothetical parallel experience and talk through what I would do in that scenario. I’m avoiding the phrase “you should do X, you should think about Y.” I’m instead saying “I would be doing X, I guess I would be thinking about Y, I wonder about Z…” I’m trusting in their ability to connect the dots between my experience or my constructed parallel scenario and their own situation. Note that for people who are clearly my junior, or where I do not fear at all any status offense, I will sometimes be quite direct in my advice. But relationships with peers at work and the associated status considerations are rarely quite that simple! [...]
2016-08-19T18:16:58ZA five year old boy placed on an ambulance in Syria, after being pulled out of a bombed out house. NPR has a video of him being carried into the ambulance but the photo is almost more haunting. The eerie … Continue reading
A five year old boy placed on an ambulance in Syria, after being pulled out of a bombed out house. NPR has a video of him being carried into the ambulance but the photo is almost more haunting. The eerie stillness of it all.
2016-08-19T04:39:18ZI’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing … Continue reading →I’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing Happiness. Brooks shares stories about exemplars of moral virtue from various historical periods. He makes a special point to underscore how our modern culture may be distorting the most fulfilling version of the good life. He challenges those who take moral shortcuts en route to professional achievement. Most of all, he recommends prioritizing “eulogy virtues” (the sorts of things people talk about at your funeral) over “resume virtues” (the sorts of accomplishments you list on your resume). Highly recommended. Below are some of my favorite paragraphs and sentences. The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.” This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation. But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time. One could, Frankl wrote, still participate in a rapturous passion for one’s beloved and thus understand the full meaning of the words “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” A dozen voices from across the institution told students that while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure. Eisenhower himself would later lose his own firstborn son, Doud Dwight, known in the family as “Icky,” an experience that darkened his world ever after. “This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life,” he would write decades later, “the one I have never been able to forget completely. Today, when I think of it, even now as I write about it, the keenness of our loss comes back to me as fresh and terrible as it was in that long dark day soon after Christmas, 1920.” The fragility and remorselessness of this life demanded a certain level of discipline. When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and [...]
2016-08-01T06:26:27Z“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved … Continue reading
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr
2016-07-30T20:49:27ZI’ve been reading n+1 magazine for a long time. It gives me a flavor for the Brooklyn intellectual hipster scene. Some of the topics are too highfalutin for me but the writing usually makes me think in a new way. Their … Continue reading →I’ve been reading n+1 magazine for a long time. It gives me a flavor for the Brooklyn intellectual hipster scene. Some of the topics are too highfalutin for me but the writing usually makes me think in a new way. Their greatest hits — essays, that is — have been compiled into a book titled Happiness: 10 Years of n+1. It’s excellent. So many well written essays on literature, sex, torture, and writing itself. Below are my highlighted paragraphs/sentences. Note they come from different essays so do not necessarily make sense in order… The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them. Thought adds something new to the world; simple intelligence wields hardened truth like a bludgeon. Far more effective, the torture theorists say, is to shatter the routines that make us adults without physical violence. Sleep deprivation becomes the favored tactic, accompanied by such macabre tricks as putting clocks forward or back randomly, making sure that the prisoner cannot tell day from night, irregular feeding, temporary starvation, random extremes of temperature, loud music constantly, and, of course, random responses from the captors, either rage or bizarre affection, always absurd and unmotivated. (It’s allowed, for instance, to reward uncooperative behavior, the better to induce false hopes in the subject.)…Deroutinization… At least since the Scottish Enlightenment, people have recognized that habits and chains of association make up a strong part of individual identity, but it would be a twisted view of humans that made our habits both the necessary and sufficient condition of our individual life. Did they notice that the scene begins when Ivan Karamazov asks his brother if he would torture a child if it meant ensuring happiness for the rest of the world? We know our president’s answer would be an enthusiastic thumbs-up, as long as it’s someone else’s thumb. Adults project the sex of children in lust, or examine children sexually with magnifying glasses to make sure they don’t appeal to us. But these lenses became burning glasses. Now children from junior high to high school to college live in the most perfect sex environment devised by contemporary society—or so adults believe. Now they are inmates in great sex colonies where they wheel in circles holding hands with their pants down. The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can—since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane. Though the young person has never been old, the old person once was young. When you look up the age ladder, you look at strangers; when you look down the age ladder, you are always looking at versions of yourself. As an adult, it depends entirely on your conception of yourself whether those fantastic younger incarnations will seem long left behind or all-too-continuous with who you are now. And this conception of yourself depends, in turn, on the culture’s attitudes to adulthood and childhood, age and youth. This is where the trouble arises. For in a culture to which sex furnishes the first true experiences, it makes a kind of sense to return to the ages at which sex was first used to pursue experience and one was supposedly in a privileged position [...]
2016-07-18T06:22:07ZI’m a huge Haruki Murakami fan. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki: And His Years of Pilgrimage doesn’t disappoint. While not quite as richly textured as some of his longer, stranger novels, there’s nonetheless a vivid, intoxicating mood to Colorless … Continue reading →I’m a huge Haruki Murakami fan. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki: And His Years of Pilgrimage doesn’t disappoint. While not quite as richly textured as some of his longer, stranger novels, there’s nonetheless a vivid, intoxicating mood to Colorless Tsukura’s story. The book is easy to read. There’s a core story told with few characters: A young man gets exiled from his childhood best friends and tries to understand why. As he comes of age, he struggles to form new friends and romantic partners in adulthood as a man who, in his own estimation, is utterly ordinary (“colorless”). The unstoppable flow of time becomes a central theme. In one of my favorite passages, Tsukuru is with an old female friend from high school. They hadn’t seen each other in a long, long time. She is now happily married and living abroad. As they reminisce about what once was, she confesses to having a crush on Tsukuru back when they grew up. She says, “That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.” Opportunities bloom and wilt before you’ve even noticed them. Friendships that seemed unshakable somehow manage to peter out, but new ones form with a beautiful immediacy. Soon the future becomes the past. You can only wonder what would have happened had you made a different decision at some crossroad along the way. These are the sorts of thoughts I had when I read the book; the tone of the book is wistful. As with all Murakami, Japanophiles will appreciate some the ambient descriptions. The protagonist’s profession is as a designer of train stations. There are some lovely scenes set in Shinjuku station, describing the orderly chaos that you have to see to believe. I loved this final paragraph from the NYT review of the book: The writer sits at his desk and makes us a story. A story not knowing where it is going, not knowing itself to be magic. Closure is an illusion, the winking of the eye of a storm. Nothing is completely resolved in life, nothing is perfect. The important thing is to keep living because only by living can you see what happens next. Only by living can you see what happens next. [...]
2016-06-27T19:57:56Z“All conditioned things are impermanent. They are arising and passing away. Understanding this deeply, Brings the greatest happiness which is peace.” When someone close to you dies, there’s a gaping emptiness. Death causes a lot of people to engage in … Continue reading → “All conditioned things are impermanent. They are arising and passing away. Understanding this deeply, Brings the greatest happiness which is peace.” When someone close to you dies, there’s a gaping emptiness. Death causes a lot of people to engage in spiritual inquiry. It sparks a realization that there’s more depth to life than whatever you’ve experienced. I imagine this is what happened to a fellow retreatant on the 10 day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock that I completed a couple weeks ago. During lunch on day 4, I entered the dining hall and noticed a postcard someone had pinned to the “Meal Dana” board. Retreatants can choose to donate money (“dana”) to sponsor the cost of a meal in order to honor or remember someone they love. A retreatant had sponsored our lunch for the day and wrote a brief remembrance of her husband on the pinned postcard: “In loving memory of my beloved husband who, on this day 36 years ago, set off on a wondrous adventure with me. He died two years ago. I miss him more than words can say.” After reading the note, I took took my seat and began to eat. It was a silent retreat, so there was no talking, no passing of notes, no eye contact. Everyone kept to themselves. As I nibbled on my vegetarian meal, I wondered which woman had shared the remembrance. It was likely one of the several elderly women in attendance who, late in their own life, had found themselves at Spirit Rock. After finishing the plate of food, I went out and sat in the sun on a bench. I stared off into the mountains. I thought about the woman and her husband. Mainly, I thought about death and its inevitability. Death had come up a lot in Dharma talks on this retreat. The Buddha said impermanence was one of the three characteristics of all phenomena — including the phenomenon of life itself. Tears welled in my eyes as I sat there. No one interrupted me. No one asked what I was thinking about or how I was doing. Everyone was in their own world. I felt totally mentally secluded, even though I was sharing the space with about 70 other people. I felt completely comfortable being completely raw in that moment. I then walked to a bench positioned in front of a big stone Buddha statue. My eyes were open. With a soft gaze I looked at the ever-so-slight curl of the lips on the Buddha’s face. I had the thought: “Human war is really a tragedy. We’re all here for such a short period of time, and we kill each other over stupid things.” I know. It sounds like pop-Buddhist cliche. Yet it’s a true statement, I think, and it’s the feeling I had in that moment, and it’s the sort of thought you’re prone to having on retreat, and I wager there are worse thoughts one could have. Now, for the most part on this retreat, I didn’t feel as emotionally raw as I did on that afternoon. I felt much more like I was in a mental workout class, sweating profusely: training my mind over and over again to recognize the present moment, to notice the sensations on the body, to understand the damaging “visitors to the mind” that lead to suffering, to build a mind that’s equanimous in order to respond to the world around me (rather than thoughtlessly react) and, ultimately, maybe, eventually, finally… achieve peace and happiness. You know: just little things. This Retreat: Awareness + Wisdom My first 10 day silent Vipassana retreat was four years ago. Since then, I completed a 3 day silent retre[...]