Hiking Laugavegur

Wow. Unearthed this 3.5-year-old draft from the dusty back hallways of my computer. Read on for one of the best hikes of my entire life…—

In mid-September [of 2008], just slightly off-season, I spent a couple days hiking Laugavegurinn (translates something like “the warm pools way” or “the hot springs route”) in south-central Iceland. I started at Landmannalaugar and hiked south to Þórsmörk. Immensely helpful in planning my hike, which I sandwiched between some tourist days, were Andrew Skurka’s Iceland page, Jonathan Ley’s Iceland photos and advice, and Ferðafélag Íslands, a group that maintains some of the very nice huts along the way.

The weather wasn’t very extreme, but it did change frequently, like every half-hour or so. Temperatures were mostly in the mid-40s to high 50s F (5-10C). Low-hanging clouds mostly–just a few hours of genuine, full sunshine. No terrible rainstorms, but the occasional rain changed to sun changed to mist change to light rain change to fog, etc. Heavy winds were common, as there was no tree cover until the last 30 minutes of my hike.

I’ve got the full set of photos on the Laugavegur available on Flickr, but here are some highlights:

First morning out, looking back at the hut at Landmannalaugar:
Landmannalaugar valley

A short walk over a lava field and into the hills beyond:
First morning of hiking

Unfortunately fog and high winds were the norm on the way to Hrafntinnusker, where the trail skirts a volcanic crater at about 3000 feet. This is where I had repeated moments of being lost and found, lost and found. And when I stopped to take a break with no shelter from the wind, my hands froze. Lesson learned:
Limited visibility

I made it over the crest of the volcano and back down, then stopped and warmed up at Höskuldsskáli hut for an hour or so. The old season’s snow had melted, and the new snow hadn’t yet arrived. So the next stretch was up and down and up and down a series of small creek valleys.
Little waterfalls

Here’s a look back where I came from. The hut is a speck about 1/3 of the way in from the right edge of the image:
Rhyolite hills

Then uphill again, where thankfully the weather was fair enough to see those famous rhyolite hills:
The money shot

Next was a steep drop down to Álftavatn, where I spent the night:
End of the first day

The second morning featured several very cold river crossings. Bláfjallakvísl was easily the widest, deepest and coldest I’ve ever crossed on foot. Just over knee-deep at the worst, and really swift. NOT fun. VERY stressful. I had to run for about 10 minutes afterward to warm my frozen legs again.
Bláfjallakvísl

I was glad that the Nyrðri Emstruá had a bridge!
Nyrðri Emstruá

The most of the rest of the day was mostly flat, going through some very cool volcanic wastelands. Only a few little plants could eke out a living there:
A little life

I finished the second day in the early afternoon at Emstrur/Botnar hut, so I spent a few hours trail running and exploring the surroundings, like the Markarfljótsgljúfur. The Markar river canyon is about 500 feet/180m at the deepest point.
Farewell to Markarfljótsgljúfur

The third day was the warmest and best weather, the only day I got to wear shorts. The trail snaked down to cross the river at the bottom of the Syðri-Emstruá canyon (Entujökull glacier in the background), then bent back to head towards the right side of this photo:
Syðri-Emstruá canyon

A walk in the lovely Sandar, a glacial wash, and then up the basalt cliffs in the distance:
Short walk in Sandar

Up and over the basalt cliffs, it goes on to the Almenningar plateau:
Doing what I do

One last break to reflect on the trip before the last major river crossing…
Thinking it over

…and then into the more lush environs of Þórsmörk Reserve:
Lush

And lastly, I took a quick jaunt up Valahnúkur while waiting for the bus back to Reykjavik.
On Valahnúkur

I highly recommend this trail if you happen to be nearby. I’d gladly do it again.

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.

Look what I made: a MacBook Air sleeve

Meant to post this a couple months ago. I was commissioned by a friend. After a couple experiments with scotch tape and newspaper, I laid out the hide and got to work:
New project

Then I spent roughly 900 hours punching holes and sewing:

MacBook Air envelope, before

Not too shabby.

MacBook Air envelope, before

My hindsight hunch is that I should have reinforced this better. Time will tell:

MacBook Air envelope, before

Dyed and ready for action:

MacBook Air envelope, after

Fits the 13-inch model like a dream. Other things I’ve made: a super-simple wallet, a leather tray.

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)

Meditations

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.

Favorite movies of 2011

I watched a lot of movies last year, 82 if my count is right. I re-watched some favorites (Out of the Past, Alien, Back to the Future), but I kept these monthly selections focused on new-to-me stuff. Out of all of them, I think Winter’s Bone and Apocalypto were really amazing movies that you’d be a fool to miss. All the links go to my tumblr, where you’ll find whatever brief or sometimes rambling commentary I had in mind after watching. Right now I’m too lazy to get images like I did for my favorite albums of 2011. So here’s the quick text-only run-down, mostly to give you an encouraging nudge if you get the chance to see them:
January
The American

February
Double Indemnity
The Virgin Suicides
Brazil
Force of Evil

March
High Noon
Chinatown
Winter’s Bone

April
Some Like It Hot
The Social Network

May
Shotgun Stories
ATL
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

June
127 Hours, by default.

July
Days of Heaven

August
3:10 to Yuma
The Last Days of Disco

September
Apocalypto
The Seventh Seal
Ivan’s Childhood

October
Drive
Mystic River
Scarface (1932)

November
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Badlands

December
D.O.A.
The Purple Rose of Cairo
The Artist

Favorite albums of 2011

Here we go again. Short version: you should buy Kaputt, Hotter Than July, Trap Muzik, Five Italian Oboe Concertos, Apocalypse, The Last Days of Disco OST, Night Drive, and Watch The Throne.
The same rules hold from 2008, 2009, and 2010: these recommendations are selected from all the new-to-me music I listened to this year. Old stuff, new stuff, no matter. Fortunately, 2011 started with my favorite album, which means I got to listen to it all year long.

January

Kaputt

My favorite album of this month, and the year, was Destroyer’s Kaputt, and very few come close to topping it. Amazing listen.

January was my first exposure to Freddie Gibbs, who quickly became one of my favorites. It’s not the most polite music you’ll ever hear, but still… Midwestgangstaboxframecaddilacmuzik is excellent (see: County Bounce, I’m the Man, Boxframe Cadillac).

Curren$y, Pilot Talk and Pilot Talk II. I love the production on both of these. The first has higher peaks, I think (e.g. Breakfast, The Day), but the second is more consistently good.

The Roots, Rising Down. Rock-solid.

February

Bach/Kozena - Arias

Bach. Arias. Can’t go wrong with that combo. Magdalena Kožená sings with Musica Florea cond. Marek Strync. I loved Kožená’s album of French Arias that I heard last year. The highlight from this one was an aria from Cantata BWV 208 Schafe können sicher weiden.

You might recall that I got hooked on dhrupad last summer. Gundecha Brothers to the rescue again with Tears on a Lotus: Ragas Gaoti and Shivranjani.

March

Five Italian Oboe Concertos

Five Italian Oboe Concertos. I played the shit out of this one. Nicholas Daniel and the Peterborough String Orchestra.

Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet, Afro Latin Soul. Great start to finish. Latin tends to wear on me after a while, but this one stays pretty fresh.

Irma Thomas, Wish Someone Would Care. Without Love (There Is Nothing) is a strong, strong tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. It grew on me. Bloom and Give Up the Ghost are the top picks here.

April

Hotter Than July

Big month. Brace yourself.

In April, I started a Stevie Wonder review project, which made clear to me the trouble with best-of lists. Forget Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions. They’re the reflexively-mentioned albums because they’re damn good. But one of the problems with them being both great and popular is that if you don’t *really* *love* the albums like you think you should, you might give up on the guy. Like I did.

So I’d never heard of his actual best album, Hotter Than July (←opinion!). All I Do, Rocket Love, I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It, and As If You Read My Mind make one of the best four-song sequences you’ll hear.

Fullfillingness’ First Finale is Wonder’s second-best album for me, in no small part because Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away has become one of my all-time favorite songs. Music of My Mind is a close third (see: Happier Than the Morning Sun and Keep on Running). Talking Book is also great (Maybe Your Baby is my fave).

I guess the bottom line is that he’s written a TON of REALLY GOOD music. I need to keep in mind the rule for many really good artists: if the super-popular super-great album/painting/sculpture/book still isn’t quite your thing, there’s still a good chance there’s another worthwhile one out there.

End of digression.

Marvin Gaye, I Want You. I’ve frequently mentioned my love for the title track, but there’s also After the Dance, I Wanna Be Where You Are and Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again.

In another example of how critically-acclaimed amazing things can overshadow other amazing things (what I loosely term the Wonder Conundrum), Let’s Get It On is known for… Let’s Get It On. Rightly so, great track. But If I Should Die Tonight is sooooooo damn good. I also have this weird association with it, as it shuffled on when I found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “How many hearts, baby, have felt their world stand still?”

R. Kelly’s Love Letter got foisted on me somehow and I don’t regret it. Love Letter and Number One Hit are the favorites.

John Coltrane’s Stardust was one of the few jazz albums I heard and liked this year. Title track.

Curren$y & Alchemist, Covert Coup. Mostly recommending on the strength of Freddie Gibbs’ guest appearance on Scottie Pippens, though Smoke Break and The Type are also quality.

Speaking of Freddie Gibbs again, I also got into The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Str8 Killa No Filla. Both worthwhile. See: How We Do, Do Wrong, Crushin’ Feelin’s, Slangin’ Rocks and most especially Rock Bottom.

May was another really strong month…

May

Trap Muzik

Holy shit, T.I.. My favorite rapper? Probably, yes. Trap Muzik is brilliant. See: Trap Musik, No More Talk, Doin’ My Job, Look What I Got, and Be Better Than Me.

I’d never listened to much Bill Callahan, but glad I started with Apocalypse. Such a good album. My favorite tracks are Drover and One Fine Morning.

Cass McCombs was also new to me. Wit’s End wears out just a little bit by the end, but County Line is a damn fine song.

I’m gonna go ahead and add in Terry Riley’s You’re No Good single here. Partly because it’s awesome, and also because its late ’60s minimalist sound segues nicely into June’s top pick.

June

Electric Harpsichord

Catherine Christer Hennix, The Electric Harpsichord. It’s one track that’s only 25 minutes and change, but this is fantastic.

Another must-recommend single from June was Radiohead’s Staircase (live From the Basement). I hope you didn’t miss it.

Getting back to full albums, The Rosebuds were a nice surprise. Of the albums I heard, Loud Planes Fly Low and Life Like are the best. See: Come Visit Me, Waiting for You, and Border Guards.

July

Down with the King

Bach again. He rarely goes wrong. Cantatas: Trauerode BWV 198 and Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 is a nice pair of cantatas performed by La Chapelle Royale under Philippe Herreweghe’s direction.

T.I. again, with DJ Drama. Down With The King. This one came from a list of albums recommended in Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South. Top picks are Jackin’ for Beats, Welcome Back, and Xtaci’s hilarious/brilliant “Why?” freestyle.

Bumba Massa, Dovi. This is sonic Prozac.

August

The Last Days of Disco OST

The Last Days of Disco OST. I previously called this an UNDENIABLE SOUNDTRACK and I stand by that statement. Disco!

I’d never listened to much MF Doom. Take Me to Your Leader is funny and mental and weird and delightful. I love his production and the use of old film clips. I ought to find some more of his work in 2012.

September

The Last Laugh

Yeah… so… Young Jeezy pretty much owned September. I’m the first to admit his lyrics often blow, but man his delivery and production are so good, so often. The Last Laugh mixtape had my favorite tracks, with Pressure’s On and Game Over on repeat pretty often. Trap or Die (see: “GA” freestyle), Trap or Die 2, and 1,000 Grams were the most consistent of the other mixtapes I listened to.

October

Night Drive

I played the shit out of Chromatics’ Night Drive. It seems to fit a lot of moods: work-time productivity, lazy lounging, driving about town…

Hariprasad Chaurasia made one of my favorite albums from last year. Raga Darbari Kanada & Dhun in Mishra Pilu is another solid one.

T.I.’s The Leak is a classic. Front Back Side to Side and Do U Really Want Me are the favorites here.

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the only Camera Obscura album I hadn’t heard yet. It’s amazing how consistent their sound has been since this early stuff, and how it still satisfies every single time.

November

Watch the Throne

Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne. I didn’t want to like this album. It’s part of a foolish contrarian streak that doesn’t always serve me well. I actually didn’t like much of it besides No Church in the Wild and Otis (still my favorites) on first listen, but it keeps growing and growing on me. I expect this one to last.

Drake, both Thank Me Later and Take Care. Apparently I’m a Drake fan? I also didn’t want to like these, an opinion mostly based on songs I was tired of hearing on the radio. Happy to be proven wrong. I like Marvin’s Room, Doing It Wrong, and Karaoke in particular.

December

Southern Royalty

After listening to a bunch of other mixtapes this year (and re-visiting Big Pimpin’), I realized I love Bun B. Of the mixtapes I collected, Legends Series Vol. 1, No Mixtape, and Southern Royalty are favorites. Give a listen to It Ain’t Me, I Made It, and The Champion.

I also got UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, which is awesome — thanks again to Westhoff’s Dirty South recommendations for the tip.

Look what I made: a tray

I like to have a place for everything.
I made a tray

I have a drawer in my nightstand for all my day-to-day stuff, but it still didn’t feel together enough.

I made a tray

A light went off in my head when I saw these leather trays from JW Hulme and Aspinal. This was actually the whole reason I started messing around with leatherworking in the first place.

I made a tray

Turns out, besides being convenient in my actual house, this is *exactly* what I never knew I always wanted when I settle into a strange hotel room. I hate having my stuff scattered about the room. Everything centralized, mind at rest. Snaps let it pack flat.

I made a tray

I didn’t know how to set snaps when I started, but a few minutes of obnoxious late-night hammering and cursing had me on my way. I also didn’t know how to sew leather at the time, so this one remains unlined.

I made a tray

By the way, I still can’t sew leather very well at all. Evidence forthcoming.

When jazz cats cover classical

I got to wondering the other day, what’s the best-ever jazz cover of a tune from classical music? Seems strange that jazzinfluenced classical stuff seems so much better known than the reverse. Is there a jazz-community stigma from drawing on the old white stuff? A classical tendency to canonize? More marginalized musicians? A comparatively higher level of general quality in in-house jazz than in-house classical? Maybe I’m just more ignorant?
In any case, the question came up when I was listening for the millionth time to what is my nominee for #1, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane & Co.’s cover of Abide with Me. Take a great tune by William Henry Monk (no relation?) and add some breathy woodwinds. What a beautiful piece of music.

"Abide with Me" sheet music

You’d have to try pretty hard to mess that one up. Another bulletproof melody comes from Joaquín Rodrigo‘s Concierto de Aranjuez, which I think is probably better known in Miles Davis form:

Another strong contender for 2nd place is Duke Ellington’s twist on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite:

Also, the man has charisma coming out of his ears:

Beyond those, I didn’t know any really outstanding ones. Bill Evans’ version of Fauré’s Pavane seems a little safe and boring until you get to the improv. At least he avoids the heavy, trodding, sappiness that a lot of classical recordings seem to embrace. Wayne Shorter’s take on Sibelius’ Valse Triste is lively. Glenn Miller’s riff on Verdi’s Anvil Chorus ranks above the Woody Herman recording of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, but both are a little too… swing-y? Big band-y? for my tastes. I don’t expect anything different from those guys, but I’ve always struggled with the big band stuff. Although maybe that’s because I’m not dancing. I wonder what else I’m missing.

Look what I made: a wallet

I love this thing.
I made a wallet

Rollin’ flush with my single dollar bill. That’s just how I do.

I stole the idea after stumbling across Leffot’s Fold wallet when I was trying to find some shoe porn. Mine isn’t nearly as nice as theirs. On the other hand, it didn’t cost $100, so I’ll call it a draw. I also got the satisfaction of a job-kinda-well-ish done. I made a quick paper prototype and then went to cuttin’. Part of the fun of doing a quick sloppy draft is that often times the quick sloppy draft is surprisingly good enough.

I made a wallet

Like they say, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. I loved the stripped-down feel. I will spare you the #lifehack #diy #dailycarry #tips about how I use it. You’re welcome.

I made a wallet

The point is, this thing is awesome. Now that I’ve tested and loved the concept, I’m considering making myself an upgrade with nicer leather and non-crooked cuts. And there’s also the expected satisfaction that comes with generally trying harder—not to be underestimated.

Alas, the ascendancy of this wallet means that my previous favorite, the Backpacking Light/Simblissity collaboration, the LiteFOLD XP, is now retired. After 6 or 7 years of hiking and, um, sitting on my ass, the old wallet was showing its age. I still highly recommend Simblissity and will probably pick up another one for multi-day outdoorsy use. My fold is the new king.

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 clichés 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)

Decoded
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.

Yep.

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.