How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (review)

If Tyler Cowen, Austin Kleon, and Ben Casnocha all recommend a book, I don’t really need another nudge. I loooooooved Mohsin Hamid‘s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Two structural things you don’t see very often in fiction: it’s written in the second person, and the novel’s chapter titles and general format are plays on the self-help genre (“Move to the City”, “Get an Education”, “Don’t Fall in Love”). In the story, the protagonist (uh…”you”) is a third-world scrub who gradually climbs his way up the social ladder. I really appreciated the perspective on economics and daily life in a world that that’s not all that familiar.

Some favorite parts:

You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.

Some understated humor on receiving bad news:

You take this news as well as possible, which is to say you do not die.

So much awesome imagery and color in this one. As in this classroom scene, where students look on as one of their classmates gets on the wrong side of their teacher:

They watch in horrified fascination, like seals on a rock observing a great white breaching beneath one of their own, just a short swim away.

On becoming a parent:

Fatherhood has taught you the lesson that, even in middle age, love is practicable. It is possible to adore those newly come into your world, to envision, no matter how late in the day, a happily entwined future with those who have not been part of your past.

On books:

Writers and readers seek a solution to the the problem that time passes, that those of us who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.

On taking out a business loan:

With borrowed funds, a business can invest, gain leverage, and leverage is a pair of wings. Leverage is flight. Leverage is a way for small to be big and big to be huge, a glorious abstraction, the promise of tomorrow today, yes, a liberation from time, the resounding triumph of human will over dreary, chronology-shackled physical reality.

That passage hints at what’s particularly hard to capture: the restless energy in this book. It just keeps coming and coming, so much invention, and it’s so fun to read. I wouldn’t be surprised if I reread this one soon.

Third Class Superhero (review)

This is a pretty fun collection. Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero has some good light scifi/speculative influences, along with a George Saunders-ian blend of dark but sympathetic takes on modern everyday life (cf. “the Capitalized Phrases, offering entry into an Exclusive Club for People Who Get It“). It’s fatalistic, but still curious.

Goofiness pops up in the title story (read an extended excerpt):

“Every morning, when I open my eyes, I think the same four thoughts:

1) I am not a superhero.

2) I have to go to work.

3) If I didn’t have to work, I could be a superhero.

4) If I were a superhero, I wouldn’t have to work.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Moisture Man. One of my favorite stories was “401(k)”, which has a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the treadmill of consumer society and life’s template.

“The Realtor is showing us our dreams. “Private, affordable, midrange,” he says. I never thought I’d have midrange dreams.”

And later in the same story, a sequence on aging:

“The thirties and forties. The long run. The lifelong conversation. Somewhere in here we’ll get incredibly lost, wander around in the desert, and get spit out on the other side of fifty-nine and a half, into the land of penalty-free-IRA-withdrawal, looking around like we just popped out of a quarter-century fun-park water slide tube, thinking, Where am I, how did I get here, can I do it again?”

Maybe my favorite bit in the whole book, a poke at how we think about travel:

“We plan a vacation. We want to see the Other. The travel agent sends us literature, glossies, video brochures. We choose a package deal with Authentic ExperiencesTM****. According to the brochure, there are five kinds of Experience: Urban, Rural, Semirural, Ethnic, and Ethnic with Danger. Standard Endangerment is Mild or Implied, but those in the know understand they may inquire discreetly about Actual Hazard—e.g., I’ve heard there might be something more?…”

This kind of writing – where skills of observation meet clever exaggeration – is just so fun:

“Five-year-olds are playing soccer nearby. More specifically, they are viciously kicking one another in the shins while a soccer ball sits unharmed in the vicinity.”

My other favorite story is probably “32.05864991%”, which explores “why men are such terrible emotional statisticians”, and the existing of two different Englishes – “the language of the wanted and the language of the one doing the wanting.”, and what exactly “maybe” means. I love this bit that touches on nervousness and superstition:

“He has two shirts left in the current dry-cleaning cycle and a pile of shirts on the floor and a pair of brand-new slacks with the tag still on that he doesn’t want to touch for fear that any deviations from his normal routine will affect something that happens during the day and turn “maybe” into “no.” In order to avoid disturbing whatever tension lines of cause and effect may be between him and Janine, he has to minimize perturbations in the system and allow chance to take him where it will.”

Good stuff.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (review)

“One dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim.”

Somewhere around Christmastime I fell into a massive reading rut. What I was reading was no fun, and there was nothing better out there, and there never would be. Everything was in ruins. Then I read this book. And for the past couple months, I’ve been on one of those glorious hot streaks where just about everything I’ve read has been fun, and the stuff that wasn’t I dropped without second thought. Coincidence? I have to give some credit to leaving behind the cold, dark, depressing winter, and stepping into the golden light of springtime… but Alan JacobsThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction definitely deserves some credit, too.

I like the tone of this one. It’s like your at a smart friend’s house, and he’s reclining in a chair and talking at length. Some favorite parts…

In an awesome footnote, relating to the “gateway drug” theory of lowbrow reading eventually leading to “better” books, an excerpt from Alex Rose:

“The only conceivable value of trashy books is the dubious but not unthinkable possibility that they might go some of the way towards engendering in young people a love of reading as an end in-itself, which in turn might whet the appetite for better books. For many, that’s the only way in. They’ll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.

If the argument applies to one form of entertainment, though, it should apply to all. Why is it that when kids become enraptured by some idiotic program, no one says, “well, at least they’re watching TV?””

In hindsight, this is obvious, but it’s a really good, liberating reminder:

“If I set a book aside today I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later—nor am I promising to do so. To everything there is a season, and, by corollary, everything is sometimes *out* of season.”

Timing is everything. And along the same lines of releasing the pressure on yourself, we’re reminded that “Many books become more boring the faster you read them” and that “All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention.”

I also liked this excerpt from Auden about thinking about how we evaluate the stuff we read:

““For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perserverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.””

If you find yourself in a reading rut, maybe this one will help you get out, too. Recommended.

Njál’s Saga (review)

With law our land shall rise, but it will perish with lawlessness.

Poor Njál. He’s caught in the middle of a bunch of hotheads, and his own sons are among the worst of the lot. (“I’m not in on their planning, but I was seldom left out when their plans were good.”) Njál’s Saga is a tale of a multi-decade blood feud in Iceland, and it was one of the most fun, bizarrely addictive books I read this year.

Fun, because it’s full of dudes swinging axes at each other, and various neighborhood troublemakers that keep spurring them on. There was one battle that had me leaping out of my chair, where Njál’s sons get in a fight on a frozen river. Dudes are jumping and slashing and sliding across the ice like something out of a movie. It’s fantastic.

It’s not all action-hero bravado, though. (“Only speak out if you are pushed hard and intend to act.”) What made the page-turning feel so strange is that, for all the action there is, it’s balanced out by a lot of legal wrangling and arbitration. It helps that this story is so deeply rooted in real events, and real people (lots of folks can trace their heritage back to specific characters), and real places (many of which I traveled through a few years ago). It’s not quite strict history, but you can think of it as highly dramatized truth. And part of the messy truth of real life involves a lot of repetitive conversations and agreements and bargains and compromises.

You have this society, one of the earliest democracies we know about. They’re making a go at having laws, contracts, and legal procedures, and sticking to them. They’re eking by at the environmental and social fringe. It’s all so fragile. Heartbreaking.

You’re not letting another man’s woe be your warning, as the saying goes.

I have to mention another part of what made this book work for me: I read the introductory material. That extra bit of context helps it all come alive. I don’t think I’d still be chipping away at The Histories for 17 months and counting if I hadn’t read the opening essays. I used to always, always skip that stuff for… no good reason, really. Now I always, always read it. You never know what you’ll sell yourself on.

My Struggle (review)

It wasn’t a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of something not existing; nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth.

It’s been a while since I finished My Struggle – mid-September, I think – but it has stuck with me. When I finished it, I wasn’t sure if I’d read KnausgĂĄrd’s second volume, to say nothing of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth. I pre-ordered the second last week.

Reading this book is a strange experience. It’s rarely fun. The book opens with a reflection on death, closes with death, and in between are all manner of musings and journalings about muddling through life and fatherhood. But it’s a great exercise in being aware, a wake-up call. Despite relying on some pretty intense memory-dredging, it doesn’t quite feel sentimental (“Nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous.”). The challenge seems to be to examine the past so closely that you can let it go – the contrast with what’s actually here and now becomes too stark to ignore.

And there’s a weird addictive quality to it, despite how dark it is sometimes. The writing is mostly functional, rather than poetic or luminous or whatever. And the boldness of his oversharing helps. But it’s the occasional big, beautiful payoff that makes the slogging really worthwhile. (And some of it is indeed pure slog – the 100-page story of a New Year’s Eve beer run is… something else.) There are delights like this description, taken from a section about his college days, when he discovered Theodor Adorno’s writing:

This heavy, intricate, detailed, precise language whose aim was to elevate thought ever higher, and where every period was set like a mountaineer’s cleat.

Such a great image! Or this, trying to capture the feeling of falling in love with a painting:

Yes, yes yes. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go.

Been there, for sure. I suppose when you write so much without filtering or apparent embarrassment (on life as a teen: “I have never been in any doubt that this is what girls I have tried my luck with have seen in my eyes. Too much desire, too little hope.”), there’s bound to be some memorable parts. Let it all pour out, and see what works. Like this passage early on, when he, a middle-aged guy, is thinking back to what it felt like to be a kid around his father, and using his now-adult perspective to reflect on what it was like to be his father, now that time has made him his father’s peer, in a way:

While my days were jampacked with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.

Speaking of being a father, here he is on the birth of first child:

There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy.

So beautiful. But as KnausgĂĄrd doesn’t seem to have much of a filter, nothing remains quite that simple or tidy:

Nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. […] Your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself.

He’s not afraid to acknowledge ambivalence. (That bit, by the way, reminded me of Carolyn Hax talking about introverts having children.) Along with the mundane details – like the dozens of scenes where’s he’s hanging out with someone and making coffee, tea, etc. – there are some more philosophical asides. In a passage that mirrors the opening and the closing of the book, he talks about death and and how our language mirrors the way we don’t quite accept it:

While the person is alive the name refers to the body, to where it resides, to what it does; the name becomes detached from the body when it dies and remains with the living, who, when they use the name always mean the person he was, never the person he is now, a body which lies rotting somewhere. […] Death might be beyond the term and beyond life, but it is not beyond the world.

These little excerpts don’t quite capture it, though. It really is a book better experienced in huge chunks. Recommended.

Filed under: books I’ve reviewed. I also enjoyed this LARB review and this Bookforum interview.

The Antidote (review)

As the Buddha said two and a half thousand years ago, we’re all out of our fucking minds! That’s just the way we are. – Albert Ellis

What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In every chapter, there’s some kind of personal connection–an interview, an experiment, field research–but it doesn’t turn preachy or antagonistic. He’s not much for dishy takedowns or “turns out” revelations. He examines a few traditions or lines of thinking, and connects them with an experience. I think he strikes a good balance between his first-person narrative and his research and exploration.

Early on, Burkeman suggests that one weakness in happy thinking is what you might call a reductionist problem: life is messier than that. Most things aren’t binary. Life is full of uncertainty, there are constant threats to our precarious hold on whatever we’ve got going for us, and, to top it all off, there’s a shitty,  guaranteed end result:

No matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story will be one of failure. Your bodily organs will fail, and you will die.

You have to make peace with that. And blinding, sunny optimism doesn’t always afford the opportunity.

Burkeman finds a practical objection to positive thinking that I hadn’t considered: Kind of like the challenge “do not think of a pink elephant”, when you try to live the admonition to “think positive”, you end up with this constant meta-cognitive scanning. Am I thinking happy? Is this a negative thought? Am I successfully not thinking about bad things X, Y, and Z? You naturally think of negative things while policing yourself for negative thoughts. How can you change this? One alternative is a more stoic approach. Avoid or minimize the labeling in the first place, or confront it honestly and let it go. After all,

Nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all.

It’s a more global perspective. Outside events run through a filter (our beliefs) and then generate some interior reaction. If you really embrace this, you get more power over how you (choose to) feel.

And how bad can it be, really? That’s another more stoic/realist tactic: face the disaster head-on. Imagine, in detail, how bad it could be. One advantage of this worst-case scenario approach: it “turns infinite fears into finite ones”. I love that.

Another practical barrier to positive thinking I thought was interesting was about affirmations: we simply don’t internalize them very well. And when things like “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…” just don’t ring true with how we already conceive of ourselves, thinking them is only going to make us more anxious. Even positive visualization can make you relax instead of pumping you up. And I love this line about advice and motivation:

Motivational advice risks making things worse by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you can act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal.

So, the stoic approach is valuable: it’s gonna suck, you don’t feel like it, and you won’t anytime soon, it might be a disaster, but do it anyway. Whatever “it” is.

In the chapter on Buddhism, non-attachment, and meditation, he brings up Albert Ellis‘ idea of “musturbation”. We become obsessed with things we want. We become absolutist about the results we need. There’s a related idea here: “goalodicy” (coined by Christopher Kayes), where we hang on to and internally defend faulty goals as a way of preserving our identity, because we’ve already invested so much of ourselves in a particular happy outcome. Build things up too much, and you get burned. So meditation is both practice in giving up control, and a way to honestly confront what life brings you. Burkeman quotes a great, great line from Barry Magid:

Meditation is a way to stop running away from things.

A related idea: considering any problems you face, how many of those problems are problems right now? As in, now now. Probably none or few–most problems we have (and our compulsively recycled thoughts about them) are about the past or about the future. Meditation brings you back to this moment, when you can actually do something.

Another way to think about the problem of optimism is that it can turn into a way of chasing security, and fleeing vulnerability. The problem, as Alan Watts says, is that

If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life.

I loved the final sections about death, too. Burkeman talks about memento mori, and mono no aware, and more broadly the idea of failure and “letting death seep back into life”. Carol Dweck comes up in a short discussion of talent and success, specifically her idea that the mindset we have about success tends to be either “fixed” or “incremental”. That is, we see success in terms of innate talent/ability vs. growth/learning, and thus tend to see failure in terms of dread/threat/identity crisis vs. improvement/opportunity/adaptation. (Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow!) So in the midst of a failure-shy, success-worshipping culture, we get a better sense of community and empathy when we acknowledge mess-ups as an expected, normal, more-than-likely-than-not occurrence. And more practically:

Failure is a relief. At last you can say what you think.

his book would pair well with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists–I detect similar attitudes in each. For good books on happiness, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, and Mark Kingwell’s In Pursuit of Happiness.

This Is Running for Your Life (review)

Often I went to the movies to mess with time, to get it off my back or keep it from staring glumly at me from across the room.

This Is Running for Your Life is a pretty great collection of essays, with a mix that includes some more personal, memoir-ish stuff and some that are a bit more historically-minded, on-the-ground reportage. I don’t think surgical focus is Michelle Orange‘s strong suit here, nor her aim, really. The joy is in the wandering. As she says late in the book,


Perhaps all I can offer is the setting down of a space, one whose highest aim is that you might roam, however elusively, within its borders.

Topics aside, what I really, really appreciated were the regular, like, slap-your-forehead/I-wish-I’d-written-that/I-need-to-read-that-again delights on the level of sentence and word and image, little pivots and reveals from behind the cape. If you’re jazzed by turns of phrase, you’ll find a lot to love here. A fun example:

Ryder’s shivering sad girl underwent a kind of ritual sacrifice in 1999, when newcomer Angelina Jolie devoured her in every frame of Girl, Interrupted and licked the screen. But Jolie was quickly isolated and quarantined as an anomaly; she eventually shed the force of her personality and slipped behind the imperial mask of her beauty.

That’s great stuff. That bit comes from what I think is my favorite essay in the book, “The Dream (Girl) Is Over”, which is about movie stars and bodies and mythologizing and evolving silver screen ideals. (Film is a recurring topic in the book. I can relate.)

Movie is the shorthand that preceded talkie. But it’s the latter term that faded away. It’s the movement that sets the form apart (Action!), and the beauty of bright, moving bodies that transfixes.

The essay, among other things, touches on the ideals we’ve offered ourselves on the screen, from the impossibly dreamy Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to later muscular heroines like Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Madonna. And, yes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Oh, also there’s this great aside on how actresses disrobing becomes an important part of the meta-story, “explicit love scenes invariably described as ‘raw,’ ‘real,’ and ‘brave.'”–cf. Girls?).

Another smart observation on how we talk about bodies:

Men queue up to log specious, self-congratulatory elegies, ascribing vague laments for an earlier era’s voluptuousness to the bodies of the women who inhabited it. Women, meanwhile, get lost in arguments about the scourge of vanity sizing. But the body’s centrality is what sets it beside the point: Marilyn Monroe’s measurements were handed out by the same press agents hawking Theda Bara’s false passports; I knew Elizabeth Taylor’s eighteen-inch waist size before it matched my age. Because they look to our hourglass-starved eyes like more generous, “normal” shapes doesn’t make it so, nor does it retro-exempt former standards from their status as standards.

Some other favorite lines? In one essay that talks about brain scans and movie market-testing:

It’s no wonder we have started pair-bonding with our iPhones. In device attachment resides the old struggle between the possessor and the possessed, the shifting sands of desire and consent. What we respond to is not the gadget itself but its promise of some personal and highly specific gratification.

And a related earlier quote, one hazard of our awesome gadgets and the not-quite-hereness they can engender:

Modern cultural memory is afflicted by a kind of dementia, its fragments ever floating around us.

And a related problem:

What we call nostalgia today is too much remembering of too little.

On email’s subtle, sneaky draw:

Email opened up a kind of perpetually empty stage, an endless call for encores.

A bit from an essay on compulsive running and loneliness:

As a way of escape, distance running is the sensory negative of sexual oblivion.

From a chapter on photography:

Especially when they are held out blindly in big crowds, the screens that have replaced the traditional viewfinder appear to function as a kind of second subjectivity, a third eye to cope with a world that is less often collected with any kind of discretion than amassed in daily reality dumps. So that to raise a camera is mostly to remind yourself: Right now I’m here; I’m here right now.

Reminds me of Field Notes: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” A related aside:

I always laughed when a Dutch friend of mine referred to “making” a photo—a translation glitch he couldn’t keep straight. I just thought it sounded funny, but there is something strange about the one art form we talk about in terms of taking, not making.

In her essay reporting on the development of the DSM-5, which also touches on war and addiction, and growing up:

We reach maturity any number of times—biologically, religiously, legally, academically, socially—before the age of twenty-one, but the imputation rarely sticks. The world will not be informed of your various arrivals, the world informs you. […] Slowly, sometimes moment by moment, small choices about whom and how to be beget bigger ones–shading in the background, scaling out the continuum; striking out villains, fleshing in the overlooked–until the story begins to tell itself, with a fully-fledged hero at its center.

Another good line from that essay, one of my favorite observations in the book:

Treating apparently “new” emotional and behavioral disturbances like biological events would seem to be another evasion of a problem the 12-step program makes plain. It feels significant that the first thing someone seeking that program’s help does is walk into a room filled with other people.

So good. There’s much more range here than what my quotes might indicate. You’re likely to find something that works for you, too. Worth a read.

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
I have the hardest time finding good fiction. One working theory to explain that is that I usually don’t try very hard to find good fiction. I’ll own up to it. But sometimes my laziness (i.e., willingness to let trusted internet sources filter culture for me) works to perfection. This one got recommended by Austin Kleon, Maris Kreiszman, and Ben Casnocha, so I thought I’d better pick it up.

Ignore for a moment the fact that they mentioned it about a year ago and I read it this summer and I didn’t write about it until now. It’s a novel of baseball and college and friendship and family, and it is delightful to read at all times, from the off-hand asides…

This was a real college, an enlightened place–you could get in trouble for hating people here.

…to the self-aware observations:

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

And there’s the realist/critical eye toward modern business life:

Management consulting terms like *industry ante* and *decision factor* were the glue of their relationship–Affenlight tried to learn as many of them as possible, and to intuit or invent the ones he hadn’t learned.

Another good example, observing baseball scouts:

Smooth-featured and polite, business-casual in dress, with slender laptops in their laps and BlackBerries laid beside them on the bleachers, they looked like oversize consultants or CIA agents playing a very reserved sort of hooky.

Austin already pulled one of the best excerpts in there:

He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.

I also loved this section on the ontology of sport:

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed *sometimes*, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.

And one character’s thoughts on self-definition:

Don’t be dour about it. Straight gay black white young old–it’s not going to kill you or let you live.

This line reminded me of John Cage:

That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed.

Lastly, on men:

Men were such odd creatures. They didn’t duel anymore, even fistfights had come to seem barbaric, the old casual violence all channeled through institutions now, but they still loved to uphold their ancient codes. And what they loved even more was to forgive each other.

Religion for Atheists (review)

Religion for Atheists
Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists has a simple, reasonable, open-minded premise: whether or not you believe in God/Jesus/Heaven/afterlife/salvation/etc., religions can still be interesting, useful, and consoling. The idea here is to explore function rather than truth. Religious institutions are some of the most successful, influential, widespread, long-lived things that humans have ever done, so there’s a lot to learn.

There’s the idea of community, for one. “Religions know a great deal about loneliness” de Botton writes. And if you’ve been to mass with any frequency, you know how often things like poverty, sadness, failure, and loss come up—because the church “sees the ill, frail of mind, desperate, and elderly as aspects of humanity and ourselves that we’re tempted to deny.” But acknowledging these things can bring us closer, or at least make us more humble.

De Botton talks about this sort of groundedness again later. There’s an earthly pessimism that comes with some religious belief. Hopes are ascribed to the next life, not this one. For this one you just try to do right, be generous, and get by as best you can. This pessimism deflates our hopes a bit, but helps to balance those needy, absorptive, consuming, ever-optimistic desires that come in everyday life. Christianity is sober, where perhaps the secular world is too optimistic, or maybe too cowardly, to face life’s hard facts. I like this line where de Botton summarizes all secular arguments:

Why can’t you be more perfect?

Luckily, “sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost.” We need teaching, and religion’s insistence on that is pretty useful.

Christianity concerns itself with the inner confused side of us, declaring that none of us are born knowing how to live; we are fragile, capricious, unempathetic, and beset by fantasies of omnipotence.

The ever-seeking nature of secularism can also lead to lack of gratitude. Religions bring us back to the basics. A prayer of gratitude before you eat. Marking the passing of the hours with prayer or the seasons or harvests with celebrations. We need reminders of the transcendent, of our smallness. We need rituals and practices that put us in our place.

Art could do this, perhaps—“We need art because we are so forgetful”. De Botton has a great section on the opportunities that modern museum culture misses out on.

We tend to enter galleries with grave, though by necessity discreet doubts about what we are meant to do in them. […] It would take a brave soul to raise a hand.

Museums have a hard time explaining why they’re valuable. Education, sure. They’re not made for prayer or worship, really. We end up with buildings about history of art-ness. But what about something more ambitious? There’s an opportunity to meet our own psychological, emotional needs. We see placards on the walls about style and era and medium and influence. But just like churches aren’t made to teach us about the history of theology, necessarily, museums need not teach us about art history (exclusively). Why don’t we see an exhibition about Death? Or Parenting? Loss? Courage?

De Botton makes similar arguments about secular education, which is fairly impractical. Things like accounting and psychology are useful, yes, but where are the classes about tensions in marriage, or dying gracefully, or the struggles of friendship? (Of course, a philosopher would argue for these things, of course.)

Topics aside, there’s also the structure and etiquette of the modern class to consider. Lector, desks, students, whiteboard. Boring. Contrast with a vibrant church where the attendees are shouting “Amen” and “Preach on!” and “Thank you, Jesus.” You can’t underestimate the value of rapture and assent and an active audience. Teaching is a kind of performance, too.

What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after ever sentence.

There’s also the idea that religious education isn’t, well… it’s not all that new. But the lack of novelty is a blessing in its own way. It makes room for reflection. The church hasn’t had big discoveries or breakthroughs. But it does a fantastic job for structure, schedules, repetition, and reinforcement of its long-held ideas.

A Catholic lectionary, for example, outlines everything you’ll be reading over the course of three years, with readings matched to season and occasion in the church calendar. If you’re devout and interested, there’s a plan there for you to follow. Even if you’re a casual but regular churchgoer, you’re going to cover a lot of material, and it’ll be appropriate to the season. But what’s the best way and context for me to revisit Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations? Is there a good calendar for reflecting on Leaves of Grass, if that’s your thing? How can you carve out a space for secular reflection in your life? It’s not just a scheduling thing. It’s knowing what to do when the time comes. Church attendance is a kind of rehearsal for life outside its doors, and inside its doors you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Another favorite passage:

An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for “patron saints” of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence, or Skepticism. We can still profit from moments when we give space to voices of the more balanced, brave, generous–and through whom we may reconnect with our most dignified and serious possibilities.

Again, whether or not Mary gave virgin birth, or whether or not Jesus was also God, or whether or not Saint So-and-so really bled from her hands and levitated? Make your own call. The truth is secondary to De Botton’s argument. The function of these beliefs is to get you to be a better person.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012 so far. Very highly recommended.

Mindless Eating (review)

Mindless Eating

Eating right is a long-term goal, eating better is something we can start today.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is really great. It’s not just prescriptive tactics (eat this, don’t eat that). It takes a bigger perspective, drawing on psychology and environmental influences, and suggests some guidelines with those pressures in mind. Smart, moderate changes over long periods of time.

There’s a double meaning in the title there: there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of the subconscious habits and tendencies we have around food (grazing, over-ordering, overeating, impulse purchases), and there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of re-writing those scripts and re-structuring our eating environments so that our choices about food are easier, healthier and more automatic in a smarter way. And since we make ~200 food decisions a day, relying on willpower alone is a recipe (ha!) for disaster.

Besides, deprivation diets don’t work. Our body and brain and environment tend to conspire against us. There are all kinds of signals and cues, both internal and external, that persuade us to keep eating. That brings us to what author Brian Wansink calls the “mindless margin”. We can only lose roughly half a pound per week without triggering our bodies’ metabolic alarms. It’s science. Lose weight more quickly, and your body panics a bit and starts compensating by being more stingy, storing more fats, etc. If 1 pound is ~3500 calories, we’re talking about cutting 1700 calories/week or 200-300 calories a day. Doable. At that amount, you basically won’t miss it. Slow and steady is the key.

With a modest goal in mind, the books explores a lot of the psychology and research behind eating, and comes up with some simple tactics. Many of these are great even if you’re not trying to lose weight, but just trying to maintain weight or get some better habits:

  • We tend to eat by volume, not by calories. So triple how much healthy stuff you put on your plate. Consider serving 20% less of the unhealthy stuff. You’ll tend to eat all that you serve and see in front of you, so get a head-start on setting a smart satisfaction point. Don’t cut the unhealthy entirely, immediately, because deprivation tends not to work and that’s no way to live, anyway.
  • See the food. Plate everything beforehand, and leave the serving dishes in the kitchen. Don’t clear away the refuse like chicken bones or corn cobs. You need a reminder of your progress through a meal.
  • Presentation counts. We eat more from bigger packages → Buy food in smaller packages. And dear God, don’t eat straight out of the box. We eat more from bigger dishes and silverware, and and drink more from shorter, wider glasses → Replace your dishes and silverware with smaller versions and get yourself some taller, narrower glasses.
  • We eat our expectations. We tend to think better-named products taste better. Those aren’t noodles, it’s Grandma’s Artisan Pesto alla Genovese. Would you rather have wine from Burgundy or Tallahassee? We eat what we think we eat. Remember this if you’re hosting a dinner, or if you’re the primary cook in your household. It’s salesmanship.
  • Beware variety. There’s a thing called sensory-specific satiety. You tend to get tired of one flavor or food item and stop eating. Introduce a new flavor(s), and it’s like getting a fresh new appetite. More variety, more consumption. That’s one reason why you overeat at buffets. Besides the fact that it’s really awesome sometimes.
  • Beware variety, part II. Since you’re gonna get bored with any flavor, remember you’ll get the most bang for your bite by ending dessert after a few forkfuls. Perhaps split one with the table.
  • Beware extra food. “Leftovers signal that you made too much—and probably ate too much—of the original meal.”
  • Beware visible food. We eat more of what we see (and think about) often. Apples and carrots go on the kitchen counter. Cookies go in the pantry. (Storytime!: I woke up one recent morning to find a cake on the kitchen counter. I walked past it about a dozen times that day, proud of my will to resist. Then I found myself in the kitchen at 1130 that night, staring at the platter, and sighed, knowing exactly what was about to happen. The next morning I draped a napkin over the cake stand. Haven’t touched it since.)
  • Beware eating scripts. The way you always do things. Do you eat cereal until you finish your magazine? Do you eat Peanut M&Ms until the TV show is over? Do you order a cheese plate basically every time you walk into Brick Store Pub because that’s what you do there? (Oh, me? Guilty on all counts…)
  • Beware distractions. TV. Books. Friends. These things pair well with just about every dish, and you’re pretty much guaranteed eat more and eat longer. Try pacing yourself with the slowest eater.
  • Welcome smart hassles. Leave food in the kitchen so you have to get up for a second serving. You’re much less likely to eat from the candy dish at the office if it’s tucked away in your desk drawer, or better yet, in the office kitchen. Maybe keep only one or two beers in the fridge, instead of the whole six-pack.

Great stuff. A couple other parts I appreciated…

  • I loved the observation that fast food places are designed for high turnover: bright lights, hard surfaces that do nothing to diminish noise, and high-contrast and high-arousal colors. I’d never put it all together.
  • One reason we tend to buy name brands, despite the added expense: “We like to remind ourselves that we’re not hopelessly cheap.”
  • When it comes to comfort foods, males tend to prefer meals like pizza, pasta, soup, etc. (Think: attention, being pampered, cared for). Females tend to prefer ice cream, cookies, etc. (Think: convenience, ease, time away from other people’s demands).
  • So simple, but kinda blew my mind: “Food companies don’t care if you eat the food, as long as you repeatedly buy it.”

The First 20 Minutes (review)

The First 20 Minutes
The First 20 Minutes is a decent summary of what we know about exercise, at least for those of us who aren’t preparing for the Olympics and are just trying to avoid dying. It’s worth flipping through for a hour or so.

“Exercise more!” Yeah yeah yeah. What’s best here is the attitude. It’s not motivational or encouraging, really, but it’s practical. The author calls out her own failings and averageness, which helps drive home one of the early points: if you’re looking to not die a stupidly early death, you have to exercise, but maybe not as much or as hard as you think. This book pairs very nicely with Mindless Eating. Moderate changes with a long-term attitude will do you a world of good.

The vast majority of exercise’s benefits come with any movement at all above zero. Think power law relationship or Pareto principle. If you get about 150 minutes of walking each week (or equivalent light activity), or about 75 minutes of jogging each week, you drastically reduce your risk of fairly avoidable things like diabetes and heart disease. When it comes to mortality, the benefit of a small activity change like that is right up there with laying off cigarettes. Anything beyond is icing on the cake.

And with that in mind, if you’re not a driven athlete and don’t particularly care to be one, you don’t need to train like one. Spare yourself the need for exercise paraphernalia that people would love to sell you. You don’t need special shoes, special clothes, performance gels or nutritional supplements. Basically the stuff you’ve got and a reasonable diet and you’re good to go. And exercise is going to make your brain even more awesome, too. Better memory, better mood, etc.

There’s also some good myth-busting in this book:

  • Static stretching before a workout isn’t worthwhile; a simple warm-up is.
  • Massages and ice baths don’t have much benefit for muscles after workouts, though the psychological perks probably still exist.
  • Your basic grocery store chocolate milk is pretty ideal for workout recovery.
  • Carbo-loading before a race isn’t particularly useful if you’ll be replenishing while you run, anyway (via sports drinks, gels, etc.).
  • Eight glasses of water a day is kinda bullshit. Drink when you’re thirsty. Don’t drink when you’re not.
  • There’s no “afterburn”/metabolic ramp-up over the day after moderate exercise–if that’s what you want, you have to do intense workouts.
  • Strength training can be just as beneficial as cardio, especially when it comes to the effects of aging. If you’re not a runner/swimmer/whatever, hit the weight room. And you’re not gonna Hulk out unless you really amp up the protein, too.
  • Simple running shoes are best. Shoes that feature fancy structure for high arch or pronation/supination control do what they advertise, yes, but they don’t seem to have any effect on injury rates.

One last interesting idea here was that inactivity has its own physiology. Sitting and laying about cause their own (often negative) processes in the body, like normal gene activities shutting down or enzymes getting made in the wrong proportions. And that’s gonna happen every time you spend a lot of time on your ass. I don’t claim to understand the science, but the point is, exercise can’t reverse all of it. You gotta stand up more. Walk around. Do some more ironing or cooking or carpentry. Pace while you’re on the phone. Dance. Wiggle. Fidget.

One small complaint: I wish this book had a better index.

Private Empire (review)

Private Empire
Long-time readers will recall that I loved The Bin Ladens, a previous book by Steve Coll. So, I was really glad to get a copy of Private Empire in the mail a few weeks ago1.

This one doesn’t have the same narrative drive as The Bin Ladens (it’s not as biography-based, for one), but it’s dang good. It covers the modern history of ExxonMobil from the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, just touching on the old Standard Oil days briefly here and there. The bookends are disasters: Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. It’s an ominous way to open and close the book, but those parts—like the middle sections on ExxonMobil’s involvement in Indonesia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia and elsewhere—are really fair and thoughtful. I’d wager that public opinion weighs pretty heavily against ExxonMobil, so a lot of this is good corrective or at least perspective. Think of it as a healthy re-complication of the simpler stories you might hear or assume, whatever your stance.

My favorite parts of this book weren’t the environmental concerns or the human rights horrors or the tangled geopolitical wrangling so well documented here, but the perspective on the business side. It woke me up to the sheer nerve (impudence?), courage (recklessness?), and (evil?) genius it takes to run a business like this. It’s incredible. Things I hadn’t thought much about before:

  • The planning has to take into account huge time scales. If you’re building new wells, new pipelines, new plants, and new shipping routes… for billions of gallons of reserves… in a war-torn country… you’ve got your hands full. And on top of that, assessing environmental risk, political stability, and managing investments over 30, 40, 50 years and behond in those environments, and managing to turn a profit? I can’t help but admire it.
  • ExxonMobil much prefers to own the whole process, upstream to downstream, from ground to well to refinery to processing to gas stations and other end products. Reminds me of Apple. Owning the whole value chain makes it easier call your own shots.
  • ExxonMobil isn’t a place for cowboys. Of all the big players in the industry, it has the reputation for being the most anal, rigid, calculating, precise, conservative, family-oriented, engineering-minded culture. And the most cocky. But it’s earned.
  • I kind of cynically assume a little bit of chicanery for any really big company, but I was surprised by how much ExxonMobil seemed to prefer to stay away from the government. A request here and there, but the firm seemed staunch in its stance: it’s not the Red Cross, and it operates worldwide. Global responsibility to employees and shareholders means that ExxonMobil’s interests may or may not always align those of the U.S. government. Best to keep your distance and keep the favors to a minimum.
  • With these volumes of money that ExxonMobil makes, tax becomes a huge concern in negotiations and business operations worldwide (not just the IRS). Even small variations can swing earnings.
  • There’s a great section on the we-started-the-Iraq-War-for-oil fallacy and our dysfunctional understanding of “energy security” in general, a corrective I wish we’d heard more 10 years ago. But, alas, it’s so hard to keep a holistic perspective in stressful times.

If anything, Coll errs on the side of detail. There were times I wondered why I was reading about so-and-so’s time in college or career trajectory, when I knew I wasn’t going to remember it and they wouldn’t be mentioned after the next 7 pages. But it’s that careful, steady, inclusive approach, carried out over hundreds of pages, that makes it easier to trust Coll’s sense for the nuances in really sensitive topics. Think “oil industry” or “global corporation” and try not to have a strong gut reaction. I’d thank this book for tempering my knee-jerk response on a lot of topics. Life is messy. I’m really glad I read this one.

1. Disclosure: I got it for free on the condition that I write about it. I would have gotten it for free from the library anyway because I like Coll’s writing. But just so you know.

The Gift of Fear (review)

The Gift of Fear
This is all about violence, evaluating risk, and how to keep yourself from being a victim. The Gift of Fear is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

The key idea here: trust your intuition. Early on in the book, Gavin de Becker won my interest when he appealed to my inner word-nerd. He points out that the root of the word intuition is “tueri”, meaning protection, defense, guardianship. As he says later, when it comes to violence,

Intuition is always right in at least two important ways: 1. It is always in response to something. 2. It always has your best interests at heart.

Whether we respond correctly, or even interpret those signals correctly, is another matter.

We’re born with a lot of relationship sensitivity (“all relationships start with predictions”), and by the time we’re adults, we’ve got pretty good wiring. Becker:

You can imagine every human feeling and it is that ability that makes you an expert at predicting what others will do.1

So he gets practical. Those ideas and impulses tip us off. Let’s look at De Becker’s Pre-Incident Indicators or PINS. Lazily copying and paraphrasing from the Wikipedia page on the book:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true. Look out for “we” and “us” and “together”-type language.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her. “Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait”.
  • Too Many Details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to the victim… and to themselves.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one. Negging, anyone?
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return. Give a little, collect a lot more.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt you. An unsolicited promise shows nothing more than that the person wants to convince you of something. There’s no collateral.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept a clear rejection is a big signal.

What instantly struck me about this list? It made me think of salesmen and pick-up artists. Not all of whom are criminals, but winning confidence and power plays a big part. And thus, one of the best forms of protection is a healthy bullshit detector. After all:

The nicest guy, the guy with no self-serving agenda whatsoever, the one who wants nothing from you, won’t approach you at all.

It follows from those PINs that good strategies to avoid coercion or worse might include…

  • A single, crystal-clear, direct “NO”. Anything less as a first volley is open to negotiation. Backing down from it later just makes you weaker.
  • Communicating awareness. If you’re walking down the street, that might mean direct eye contact and sustained attention on an approaching stranger.
  • Don’t give threats credence. Threats don’t usually come from a position of power, anyway. It’s the listener who decides how credible it is. After all, who benefits if the victim acts like the threat will be carried out? Which relates to the idea of…
  • Forcing the person to be explicit. If extortion is the goal, “I don’t understand what you’re getting at” forces the asshole to be explicit. Many would rather back down rather than be clear about the evil they want to do.
  • Allow opportunities for retreat. Give alternatives to violence. Avoidance first, folks. Fighting is always a later option, but it’s really hard to reverse it.

I should mention here that the book is focused on predicting and avoiding pursuit/coercion/violence from men, as we are the source of most of it. And it won’t surprise you that women are much more likely to listen their instincts without second-guessing.

I thought the best parts of this book were on relationships and stalking, but there were other good sections on workplace violence and threats to celebrities/politicians, and plenty of great psych-factoids throughout, like:

  • Everything a person does is done twice: once in the mind, once in execution. Ideas and impulses are tip-offs. Someone who has bothered to smash a beer bottle is more likely to fight. Suicidal people who can describe their intended methods in greater detail are at a much higher risk.
  • Threats against random public figures are generally unreliable. More likely tip-offs are (perceived) connections like lovesickness, adoration, rejection, feelings of debt or being owed something.
  • Non-anonymous threats are more likely to be credible and dangerous, because they’re attention-seeking.
  • Restraining orders are common, but aren’t much of a solution. Shelters, on the other hand, are generally awesome at preventing murders.
  • Stalking/unwanted pursuit is a form of relationship addiction. The only way to make it better is to make yourself unavailable.2

And later there’s a good bit on anxiety and worrying, when he points out that “Most often, we worry because it provides some secondary reward”. Like what? Worry is a way to avoid change, avoid a feeling of powerlessness, avoid disappointment in the future by moderating expectations, and to connect or commiserate with others. I also like his notion that “anxiety is caused by low-confidence predictions”.

Read this book. Get other people to read it. It is so good.

1. Two tangents here: One, it makes me think of the power of fiction — how much we relate to fictional characters, how the fun of great storytelling is our participation and trying to guess what’s coming. And two, it reminds me of a part from the Philosophy Bites interview with Alex Neill talking about the paradox of tragedy: We love tragedy not only because it tugs our heartstrings but also because it offers insight. And that insight is what sets it apart from other blatant emotion-rousing genres like horror or porn.
2. Carolyn Hax connection here: Behavior is easier to change than expectations are. Never not loving Carolyn Hax.

Extra Lives (review)

Extra Lives
What I love about Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is Tom Bissell’s ambivalent relationship with video games. This is a book by an enthusiast, yes (aren’t most books?), but he also hates them sometimes:

I was then and am now routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time and often ask myself why I like them as much as I do, especially when, very often, I hate them. Sometimes I think I hate them because of how purely they bring me back to childhood, when I could only imagine what I would do if I were single-handedly fighting off an alien army or driving down the street in a very fast car while the police try to shoot out my tires or told that I was the ancestral inheritor of some primeval sword and my destiny was the rid the realm of evil. These are very intriguing scenarios if you are twelve years old. They are far less intriguing if you are thirty-five and have a career, friends, a relationship, or children. The problem, however, at least for me, is that they are no less fun.

And that’s the thing. I’m reminded of Daniel Mendelsohn once again, from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken:

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

And Bissell is definitely a critic, and a very good one. He gets really annoyed when video games don’t try hard enough, or try to do things they really aren’t made for. Here he is in the midst of talking about Fallout 3 and other open-world games (the genre at the core of the book) in general:

The art direction in a good number of contemporary big-budget video games has the cheerful parasitism of a tribute band. Visual inspirations are perilously few: Forests will be Tolkienishly enchanted; futuristic industrial zones will be mazes of predictably grated metal catwalks; gunfights will erupt amid rubble- and car-strewn boulevards on loan from a thousand war-movie sieges. Once video games shed their distinctive vector-graphic and primary-color 8-bit origins, a commercially ascendant subset of game slowly but surely matured into what might well be the most visually derivative popular art form in history.

The art comparison comes up a lot. Here he talks about the idea of surrender and participation in art, which gets right to the core of video games’ special offering and really, really difficult challenge:

When I watch a film, the most imperial form of popular entertainment—particularly when experienced in a proper movie theater—I am surrendering most humiliatingly, for the film begins at a time I cannot control, has nothing to sell me that I have not already purchased, and goes on whether or not I happen to be in my seat. When I read a novel I am not only surrendering; I am allowing my mind to be occupied by a colonizer of uncertain intent. Entertainment takes it as a given that I cannot affect it other than in brutish, exterior ways: turning it off, leaving the theater, pausing the disc, stuffing in a bookmark, underlining a phrase. […] Playing video games is not quite like this. The surrender is always partial. You get control and are controlled. Games are patently aware of you and have a physical dimension unlike any other form of popular entertainment.

And later, tying in with Mass Effect, he talks more about the control that video games offer. It’s not just kinetic/spatial; it can be moral:

Games such as Mass Effect allow the gamer a freedom of decision that can be evilly enlivening or nobly self-congratulating, but these games become uniquely compelling when they force you to the edge of some drawn, real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation that, to your mild astonishment, you find you cannot step across even in what is, essentially, a digital dollhouse for adults. Other mediums may depict the necessary (or foolhardy) breaches of such lines, or their foolhardy (or necessary) protection, but only games actually push you to the line’s edge and make you live with the fictional consequences of your choice.

There’s one excellent extended passage—seriously: exciting, edge-of-your-seat writing about a video game—where he talks about a particular moment of Left 4 Dead heroism. I’ll let you find the details in his book, but it’s followed up with this sharp comedown experience:

I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.

Delightful sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. That’s video games for you. I haven’t really played video games since I sold my dearly beloved PlayStation and Dreamcast. This book made me miss them.

The Authenticity Hoax (review)

The Authenticity Hoax
It’s a stretch to call this a review, because I mainly just wanted to purge some quotes that I’ve had lying around that I kept being lazy about sharing because they were a bit too long or needed more context than I wanted to bother with on my tumblr. Anyway. Great book, especially the first five chapters on modernity, business, art, self, etc.

On bullshit, and where to find it:

It is hardly surprising to find that the two areas of human enterprise most concerned with sincerity as opposed to truth—namely, politics and advertising—are also the two areas most steeped in bullshit. Or would it be better to say that politics and advertising are the two areas most concerned with the appearance of authenticity? This might be a distinction without a difference.

Validating the suburbs:

The people who move to the suburbs aren’t nearly as stupid or careless or brainwashed as the urbanites seem to think. They know they’re going to get a lawn, a garage, and a backyard. They know they will be miles from a store or cafe, and that they’ll have to drive everywhere. Most people move to the suburbs with eyes wide open, fully aware of the tradeoffs they are making. They are not looking for some pastoral idyll, but for more privacy, space, quiet, and parking.

On meaning in a modern world:

The search for authenticity is about the search for meaning in a world where all the traditional sources-—religion and successor ideals such as aristocracy, community, and nationalism-—have been dissolved in the acid of science, technology, capitalism, and liberal democracy. We are looking to replace the God concept with something more acceptable in a world that is not just disenchanted, but also socially flattened, cosmopolitan, individualistic, and egalitarian.

A good example of his cantankerous sarcasm. He likes jabbing at liberals:

The exact mechanism of the apocalypse is unknown, but if you troll around the Internet you can find any number of speculative scenarios. Most of them presume that there’ll be a sort of massive ecological collapse and extinction event caused by a combination of global warming, deforestation, peak oil production, overfishing, overpopulation, suburbia, megacities, bird flu, swine flu, consumer electronics, hedge funds, credit default swaps, and fast food.

With regard to recent developments in art (specifically pivoting off of Alec Duffy and his Sufjan Stevens recording):

Can you see what is happening here? It is the return of the aura, of the unique and irreproducible artistic work. Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity, which is what Alec Duffy is doing with his listening sessions. Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground—involving staged pillow fights in the financial district, silent raves on subways, or games of kick the can that span entire neighborhoods. This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect. But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle.

On consumption gravitas:

Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet. This basic fusion of the two ideals of the privately beneficial and the morally praiseworthy is the bait-and-switch at the heart of the authenticity hoax. This desire for the personal and the public to align explains why so much of what passes for authentic living has a do-gooder spin to it. Yet the essentially status-oriented nature of the activity always reveals itself eventually.

Meditations (review)


Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.

Funny to think how I am still very much myself. Same Mark, more detail. If you overlapped all my pattern-stereotypes I had around 1992, you’d get a pretty good picture of me today of what 2012 Mark is like.

Summer of last year, I started reading more works of and about Stoicism, and that led to tumbling a lot of stoicism quotes. This was not a new interest by any means. I remember thinking Stoics were cool back in childhood, when I first learned about them. I think my interest then was more of a tough-guy, counter-culture, I-am-a-rock/island sort of thing. Maybe a way of validating introversion, independence, self-protection.

Men seek retreats for themselves–in the country, by the sea, in the hills–and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. (4.3)

I remember picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on at least three different occasions, but never finishing. In fact, barely starting each time. Some lessons can’t be learned early, I guess. I still like the independent-minded ideas, but I think now a lot of what gets me are the ideas of acceptance, attitude, gratitude (which is the focus of the entire amazing first chapter). And, yeah, being hard on myself….

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted–but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power–integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. (5.5)

I bookmarked the hell out of it when I was reading and made a bunch of notes to myself (hypomnema!). I’ll probably be turning back to this one for a long time to come. All the quotes below come from Martin Hammond’s translation. The numbers refer to chapter and sub-section, should you decide to pick up this book. Which you should do.

On gossip. (3.4)

Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task? I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and why, what he is saying or contemplating or plotting, and all that line of thought, makes you stray from the close watch on your directing mind.

On hurt and its source, our compulsion to draw conclusions and render judgement on what has befallen us. (4.7)

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: removed the thought “I am hurt”, and the hurt itself is removed.

On revenge. (6.6)

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.

On transience. There were several moments of this kind of beautiful writing that makes you slow down or rest the book and think it over. (6.15)

Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? It is as if he were to begin to fancy one of the little sparrows that fly past–but already it is gone from his sight.

On history repeating and our shared universal experience. (6.37)

He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same.

On adapting to and embracing what is, caring. (6.39)

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you–but your love must be genuine.

On composure, comportment, grace, style. (7.60)

The body, too, should stay firmly composed, and not fling itself about either in motion or at rest. Just as the mind displays qualities in the face, keeping it intelligent and attractive, something similar should be required of the whole body. But all this should be secured without making an obvious point of it.

On vice and keeping good company. (7.71)

It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.

On change, being wrong, graciousness. (8.16)

Remember that to change course or accept correction leaves you just as free as you were. The action is your own, driven by your own impulse or judgement, indeed your own intelligence.

On looking back, looking forward, being present, letting go. (8.36)

Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future. Just ask yourself in each instance of the present: “What is there in this work which I cannot endure or support?” You will be ashamed to make any such confession. Then remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs on you, but always the present: and the present burden reduces, if only you can isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it cannot hold against something thus stripped bare.

On simplicity, kindness, perseverance, virtue. Like water off a duck’s back. (8.51)

If a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it–it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom–and staying kind, simple, and decent.

On fame, attention, transience, obsessions, Facebook, death. (10.34)

All things are short-lived–this is their common lot–but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

On duty, openness, constancy, honesty. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans say, “Look at the sky at dawn”–to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.

On dying. (12.36)

It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. “But I have not played my five acts, only three.” “True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.” Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

The Age of the Infovore (review)

One overriding sense that I get from Tyler Cowen’s books (and the blog he co-writes) is that he could explain a lot more in more exhaustive depth and detail, but prefers not to do so. The brainpower is there, for sure, and the writing is clear, but the feeling is that he wants me to think rather than be spoonfed. I appreciate this.

You might have heard of The Age of the Infovore under its earlier name, Create Your Own Economy, which maybe explains the contents a bit better (his own summary). Here’s the idea: we live in a crazy modern world etc. etc. information overload etc. etc. BUT the optimistic take is that this cultural explosion coupled with technological advancement means it’s easier and easier for us to assemble these cultural pieces in ways that are meaningful for each of us as individuals.

One result of the internet, I think, is that it makes almost everyone smart more eclectic, whether in terms of substance or presentation.

Which ties in with a later argument…

The mixing of populations lowers the cost of being unusual.

And similarly…

As cultural production becomes more diverse, more and more art forms will be directed at pleasing people with unusual neurologies. More and more of the aesthetic beauty of the world will be hidden to most observers, or at least those who don’t invest in learning.

And luckily, that applies not just to the consumers of art but the art itself. The neurology thing comes up again and again, because one of the continuing threads throughout the book is autism/Asperger’s. He tries, successfully I think, to show the advantages that these conditions can have. Above-average strengths often appear in the autistic cognitive profile (in sorting/ordering, perception of detail, specialization, pattern detection, accurate recall, etc.) and you could say we’ve begun to use things like the internet to order our lives and pursue our interests in ways that more closely mimic autistic traits. Unfortunately, our culture seems to sweep autistics aside because it’s more stereotypically associated with more observable, less desirable personality/behavioral traits. Much of the book tries to set this straight, and in a typically Cowen-esque approach, see the other side.

So back to maybe the greatest joy of modern life: the way we can delve into so many different interests (social, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, etc.) and media (books, blogs, movies, music, etc.) at the same time. And at this point I realize I’m writing this while listening to Mbalax music and texting with a couple friends. While the immediate outside impression-at-a-glance is of overwhelm or disorder, this stuff usually relates to our long-term interests:

While it is easy to observe apparent overload in our busy lives, the underlying reality is subtler. The common word is “multitasking” but I would sooner point to the coherence in your mind than regard it as a jumbled or chaotic blend. The coherence lies in the fact that you are getting a steady stream of information to feed your long-run attention. No matter how disparate the topics may appear to an outside viewer, most parts of the stream relate to your passions, your interests, your affiliations, and how it all hangs together. […] The emotional power of our personal blends is potent, and they make work, and learning, a lot more fun. Multitasking is, in part, a strategy to keep ourselves interested. […] The self-assembly of small cultural bits is sometimes addictive in the sense that the more of it you do, the more of it you want to do. But that kind of addiction doesn’t have to be bad. Anything good in your life is probably going to have an addictive quality to it, as many people find with classical music or an appreciation of the Western classics, or for that matter a happy marriage. Shouldn’t some of the best things in life get better the more you do them?

Cowen has a definite anti-snob bent. Not a cultural relativist per se, but a similar word to the title, “omnivore”, definitely fits. One chapter analogizes modern culture and marriage:

Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship, with thrilling peaks, when most of us are growing into something more mature. We are treating culture like a self-assembly of small bits, and we are creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating daily brocade, much as we can make a marriage into a rich and satisfying life. We are better off for this change and it is part of a broader trend of how the production of value—including beauty, suspense, and education—is becoming increasingly interior to our minds.

I love that idea of a “daily brocade”. Speaking of texting and such, here’s a bit on phone calls:

When you make a cellphone call, you open yourself up to being asked questions. You have to commit yourself on matters of tone and also on key information, such as telling your mother where you are and what you are doing and why you didn’t call earlier. A phone call is actually a pretty complicated emotional event and that is one reason why so many people remained “cellphone holdouts” for so long. […] A phone call is a demand on you. A phone call is a chance to be rejected. And a phone call is a chance to flub your lines or overplay your hand.

On the internet’s potential to open your mind politically-speaking:

Being a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. doesn’t many any single thing for what we are actually like as human beings. One thing we do on the web is seek out others who are like us in non-political ways and then we cement those alliances and friendships. Over time, we will discover that many of these truly similar people do not in fact share our political views. Then we realize that politics isn’t as important as we used to think.

Here’s a nice/terrifying bit on education that I first read on Ben Casnocha’s blog. Comparing high-school-only grads to college grads is common, but if you really want to control, you have to compare college grads to people who think they’re being college-educated to find out if it’s actually working…

It’s now well-known in the medical literature that a medicine needs to be compared to a placebo, rather than to simply doing nothing. Placebo effects can be very powerful and many supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo. The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a placebo. What if we just gave people lots of face-to-face contact and told them they were being educated? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question. Maybe that’s what current methods of education already consist of.

I really liked his chapter on “The New Economy of Stories”. You’ll get a good idea of what he has to say if you watch his awesome TEDxMidAtlantic talk on stories.

Some of this branches off from economist Thomas C. Schelling’s essay, The Mind As a Consuming Organ.

Schelling emphasizes that we “consume” stories through memories, anticipations, fantasies, and daydreams. Concrete goods and services, such as Lassie programs, help impose order and discipline on our fantasies and give us stronger and more coherent mental lives. Of course consuming stories is not just about watching television, even though the average American does that for several hours in a typical day. If the tube bores us, we play computer games, read novels, reimagine central events in our lives, spin fantasies, or listen to the narratives of friends.

One way we tell ourselves stories is in how we use our money. (A book that’s become a sort of touchstone for me, Geoffrey Miller’s Spent, comes at these ideas from a similar angle):

You’re not just buying a sneaker, you’re buying an image of athleticism and an associated story about yourself. It’s not just an indie pop song, it is your sense of identity as the listener and owner of the music. If you give to Oxfam, yes you want to help people, but you also are constructing a narrative about your place in the broader world and the responsibilities you have chosen to assume. The Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote: “The buyers of useless things are wiser than is commonly supposed—the buy little dreams.” That is a big part of what markets are about. Whether you are buying cosmetics, a lottery ticket, or an oil painting, you are constructing, defining, and memorializing your dreams into vivid and physically real forms.

And it’s important to keep in mind that these dreams, the stories we tell ourselves, may not be so special or unique to us:

Hollywood blockbusters… end up drained of vitality and risk-taking in an effort to appeal to the least common denominator in a large group of people. We’re less likely to see that the same logic applies not just to the Hollywood studios but also to ourselves. In this way I am pretty typical. Some of the inputs behind my deepest personal narratives suffer from the least-common-denominator effect. The logic applies to my dream. To my fantasies. To my deepest visions of what I can be. I treasure those thoughts and feelings so much but in reality I pull a lot of them from a social context and I pull them from points that are socially salient. That means I pull them from celebrities, from ads, from popular culture, and most generally from ideas that are easy to communicate and disseminate to large numbers of people. We all dream in pop culture language to some degree.

This next quote is all Pessoa, writing perhaps too stridently about the dangers of novelty, but it’s worth considering:

Wise is the man who monotonizes his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel. A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion. Fro my monotonous cook, a fist-fight on the street always has something of a modest apocalypse… The man who has journeyed all over the world can’t find any novelty in five thousand miles, for he finds only new things—yet another novelty, the old routine of the forever new—while his abstract concept of novelty got lost at sea after the second new thing he saw.

A later chapter goes into art and culture and aesthetics. Branching off some ideas from neurology and from David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”:

Sociological approaches to cultural taste often imply that taste differences are contrived, artificial, or reflect wasteful status-seeking. The result is that we appreciate taste differences less than we might and we become less curious. Neurological approaches imply that different individuals perceive different cultural mysteries and beauties. You can’t always cross the gap to understand the other person’s point of view, but at the very least you know something is there worth pursuing.

I liked the argument here about musical complexity, but surely the argument applies anywhere else you have cultural competence:

An issue arises if you get “too good” at finding the order in music. You must resort of bigger and bigger doses of informational complexity to achieve the prior effects that were so enjoyable. It’s a bit like needing successively stronger doses of heroin, wanting to move beyond Vivaldi, or more prosaically having to switch from one pop song to the next. Don’t we all do that? But the metric for the right amount of complexity differs across listeners, even across listeners with the same degree of musical experience and education.

And this ties in with how we evaluate cultural works…

The most common reaction is simply to evaluate the aesthetic perspective through the taste of either the public or the educated critics. We privilege those perspectives either because they have social status or because, in the case of the consumers, they have buying power and thus they command the attention of the media. So if it is serial killer stories, maybe the critics call it too lowbrow and talk about the decline of our society. If it is atonal music, it gets labeled as too inaccessible or too highbrow or it is claimed that the academic composers are perverse and self-indulgent. Most cultural criticism is staggering in how much it begs the question of what is the appropriate middle ground.

Boom. Read this book.

On Being Ill (review)

I don’t have much to say about On Being Ill other than it’s incredibly short and its meanderings in that space cover the spectrum from silly to sentimental. You will spend perhaps 30 minutes reading this book. I heard of it via Tyler Cowen’s breathless recommendation.
It’s hard to block quote such a short flowing text, but I like these next couple passages. Here’s one at the heart of the book: people don’t write about pain much. It’s overlooked by the great writers, and thus we have no words to steal or clichĂ©s to rely on:

The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.

And I think most can relate to the the perverse sort of joy we take in being sick, reclining, casting off social graces, embracing our misery:

There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.

Decoded (review)

Jay-Z’s Decoded is a wonderful book. Read it. I’d love to read more nonfiction like this. So conversational, relaxed, super-smart. And it’s just a really beautiful book. Lots of photos, lyrics and footnoes, pull-quotes. I started off a little skeptical, just skimming for pictures and quotes and anecdotes, but then I just had to start over and read it straight through. Highly recommended. Here’s some favorite parts…

An important lesson from “Coming of Age”:

Ten thou’ or a hundred G keep yo’ shit the same

Next up is maybe my favorite line from the whole book. The context is the music business, but the wisdom applies well beyond. Emphasis mine:

In the streets there aren’t written contracts. Instead, you live by certain codes. There are no codes and ethics in music because there are lawyers. People can hide behind their lawyers and contracts and then rob you blind. A lot of street cats come into the music game and expect a certain kind of honor and ethics, even outside of contracts. But in business, like they say, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. So I mind my business and I don’t apologize for it.

Speaking of business, when he was just getting started, he knew to put the plans on paper…

We didn’t know the business yet, but we knew how to hustle. Like a lot of underground crews on a mission, we were on some real trunk-of-the-car shit. The difference with us was that we didn’t want to get stalled at low-level hustling. We had a plan. We did more than talk about it, we wrote it down. Coming up with a business plan was the first thing the three of us did. We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.

I think this next bit is a pretty incisive take on poverty. Cuts right to the heart of it. Emphasis mine:

One of the reasons inequality gets so deep in this country is that everyone wants to be rich. That’s the American ideal. Poor people don’t like talking about poverty because even though they might live in the projects surrounded by other poor people and have, like, ten dollars in the bank, they don’t like to think of themselves as poor. It’s embarrassing. […] The burden of poverty isn’t just that you don’t always have the things you need, it’s the feeling of being embarrassed every day of your life, and you’d do anything to lift that burden.


Later in the book he talks about the tension between being a ridiculously wealthy businessman with lingering remnants of street thug…

Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bullshit is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you, that you’re so dull and unimaginative that your mind never changes or wanders into strange, unexpected places.

Which reminds me of a quote I already tumbled:

I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old. People sometimes say that now I’m so far away from that life—now that I’ve got businesses and Grammys and magazine covers—that I have no right to rap about it. But how distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?

I first read this bit in The Millions (thanks, Austin!). It’s about piecing together your influences:

The seventies were a strange time, especially in black America. The music was beautiful in part because it was keeping a kind of torch lit in a dark time. I feel like we–rappers, DJs, producers–were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift: We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.

And speaking of fathers, one of the wisest bits come in his footnotes for the song “Moment of Clarity”:

My father and I didn’t have a lot of deep conversations before he died, but we did have one important one. When I first reconnected with him, I hit him with questions and he came back with answers until I realized nothing he could ever say would satisfy me or make sense of all the feelings I’d had since he turned his back on us. In the end, he broke down and apologized. And, somewhat to my surprise, I forgave him. […] Although this verse starts off on a cold note–I seem indifferent and even smirking about his death–that’s only me being honest. I didn’t cry. I didn’t know him that well. But at the same time, it was so important that we did meet up before he died. It was important for me to hear him say he was sorry and for me to hear myself say, “I forgive you.” It changed my life, really. I wish every kid who grew up like me could have the same chance to confront the fathers who left them, not just so they can lay out their anger, but so they can, in the end, let that anger go.