Categories
books

Book Notes: Station Eleven

Yes, I read a book about a pandemic during a pandemic. How unoriginal. I heard about Station Eleven on a podcast (forget which one) and it seemed interest and different enough to give it a try. I was looking for some fiction so decided to give it a try. I bought it as an Apple Book (enjoying that platform more and more for my ebook reading) and read it over the course of a few weeks.

Overall it was a good read. Easy to read and the characters were interesting. Mandel uses timeline jumps to great effect, filling the reader in on key background elements from the past immediately before they become relevant to the “main” timeline.

I would say this is a rather hopeful / cheery apocalyptic novel, if there is such a thing. But then again, my baseline comparison is The Road. Not many books more grim than that. Like most good fiction of the genre the story is really about how people relate to each other, in this case using a disease that wipes out 98% of the planet in what seems to be a few weeks, as a backdrop to explore how memory works, why we do/don’t get along with others and the importance of community / tribe.

Since finishing it, I discovered a more recent book from the same author, that uses some of the same characters, but is not a sequel or prequel. Rather she characterized it as an alternate timeline. Reminds me of using the same RPG character in different campaigns. Will have to add Glass Hotel to my list for the next time I am looking for some fiction.

Categories
books

Book notes: The Three Marriages by David Whyte

What started as some good posting momentum at the start of the year has slowed slightly. Pandemics will do that I suppose. I would like to say that I have been journaling a lot, but that would be a lie. At the start of things I spent far too much screen time on twitter and reddit. Not sure whether I was trying to actually determine whether this was the actual end of the world or simply basking in the doomer glory of it all. Probably a mixture of both. Fortunately I was able to break out of that cycle, a testament to how quickly the thrilling (even the thrilling for the wrong reasons) can become commonplace, and was able to get back to reading.

I am changing my approach to these posts since I was noticing some resistance to completing them. Rather than a “review” which connotes something of value that I add on top, I am framing these as simply notes – a marker of the books I have read and a few of the impressions I am leaving with.

I first heard of the poet David Whyte on a Sam Harris podcast that I listened to on the way in to work. That should place it in time well enough. I really liked the way he described reality as the frontier that exists between the “self” and the “world” and so I ordered his most recent prose book from my favorite local bookshop and picked it up a few weeks later. Another placement for when I started on this.

The three marriages is not about serial divorce nor polygamy, but rather the relationship one has with one’s spouse, with one’s work and with one’s self. Right off the bat Whyte points out that most people’s first experience of marriage is the one that they interrupt, specifically first children. The images we carry from our childhood of our parents’ marriage stay with us and inform how we see the three marriages throughout our lives.

As a poet, he makes many references to the poetry of others as well as ahis own. In first talking about the marriage to the self, he cites The Prelude by Wordsworth, with whom he shares a particular affinity, calling out the line:

I made no vows, but vows / Were made for me

The Prelude, Wordsworth

to make the point that life comes to find us as much as we go out to find it, but that can only happen if we are awake and aware to the world around us, stopping for even just a minute to pay attention to something besides our selves. He expands on this point is his own work Everything is Waiting for You

To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

Everything is Waiting for You, Whyte

He draws this conclusion about the work we have to do, as well as what is not up to us, in finding a “great work”:

To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourself findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

This passage struck me since it speaks directly to something I have more and more trouble with as I get older: trying something new and f*(&ing it up. This is an echo of Whyte’s idea from the podcast of reality being a frontier, a conversation, between the self and the world. As I look for great work, as much as I need to learn new skills and new ways of being, I need to put myself in (potentially unfamiliar or uncomfortable) situations even more to let a great work find me.

Whyte touches on the role that worry plays in self discovery, specifically the thing that we I do to battle with worry: make to do lists:

Millenia of worrying under night skies have brought human beings to the point where the complexities of our contemporary societies have almost reached a breaking point. In many ways, our to-do lists have become the postmodern equivalent of the priest’s rosary, the lama’s sutra or the old prayer book – keeping a larger, avalanching reality at bay. Above all, the to-do list keeps the evil of not-doing at bay, a list that many of us like to chant and cycle through religiously as we make our way to work through the commute.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

I totally saw myself in this. When I used to actually drive into the office, “chanting” my to do list was a regular pastime. One of the hidden blessings of CQ (COVID-19 Quarantine) has been my lack of focus on my to do list. There hasn’t been as much to do, and what was on there hasn’t seemed as important. I still check it, check things off and add things now and again, but it is not with the same religious ferocity as “before”. I have not quite arrived at comfort with the “evil of not-doing”, but I can feel myself getting closer. A few more weeks of quarantine and I think I might “arrive” somewhere (which probably means I am fooling myself).

In a chapter on the marriage with work, Whyte takes on the paradox of what seems to be vs. what is about the life of a writer:

From the outside, especially to those that long for a more artistic life, a writer looks to be involved in what looks like an unscheduled imaginative adventure, but what she needs above all else is structure and a goodly amount of space within that structure. It takes a good settled sense of what we are about, first to think that we deserve the time and the to arrange our days so that what we want comes about.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

When I am being honest I know that I am still looking for that settled sense of what I am about and that my to do list is the armor that I put up to avoid not-doing long enough to find it. The hardest part seems to be the feeling that after all this time I should already know what I am about. The sense that I knew once and it either wasn’t real, has left me, or that simply the frontier between my “self” and the “world” has shifted (I like that explanation most of all).

The Three Marriages is gently disturbing. White uses language to point to things that language can’t describe directly. While that is the gift of poetry, the long form of the Three Marriages helped me, who is “poetry-challenged”, to see some things I had been missing and realize some things I already knew.

Categories
books

When Things Fall Apart

I have been and still am a “fan” of Buddhism. I think I am allowed to be that and still be an Episcopalian. I think it started listening to Tim Ferris’s talk about the benefits of meditation. I’m not ready to fly to Tibet and renounce all of my earthly possessions, but I do think there are some interesting ways of thinking about things that the Buddhist tradition has to offer.

So it was when I started reading Reboot that I was interested in Jerry’s connection to what he learned from his teacher and added a few of the books he mentioned to my to-read list. It was only a few days later that I found myself in the place where the universe gives me a sign of what to read next when I saw one of the books on the shelf: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

I am not struggling right with anything specifically right now, but that’s not what this book is about. While it can help you with a crisis, although probably not if you read it in the middle of one, the essays in this book more wake you up to the idea that things are falling apart all the time. That’s the way of things. Living is dying. It’s only our clinging to the way they are or the way we think they should be that causes problems.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.

There were a few essays that stood out to me. Three for ideas I found helpful and even comforting. And one that I am still struggling with.

The first in the helpful / comforting category is “The Six Kinds of Loneliness”. The message in this essay resonated with me since it gets right to the heart of how I feel before I start to subconsciously (although more a more, day by day I can at least notice it) look for a distraction.

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we invite in….

…When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and rolling loneliness the turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

The 6 kinds of this cool loneliness are:

  • Less desire: the willingness to be be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up
  • Contentment: giving up the feeling that there is being able escape from our loneliness will bring any lasting happiness, joy or sense of well being
  • Avoiding unnecessary activity: notice when we are keeping ourselves busy simply as a way to avoid the pain of being lonely
  • Complete discipline: being ready at any opportunity to come back to the present moment
  • Not wandering the world of desire: noticing when we look for food, friends, entertainment and instead relating directly to things as they are
  • Not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts: not hiding in the joy of our own inner dialog when things get lonely.

The second helpful essay was about Nonaggression and the Four Maras. This one spoke to me since it gave a label to all the ways I have tried to hide various fears and avoid what is in front of me. The four maras are:

  • Devaputura Mara involves seeking pleasure.
  • Skandha Mara has to do with how we constantly try to reinvent ourselves.
  • Klesha Mara is all about how we use our emotions to stay asleep.
  • Yama Mara is fear of death.

I have been visited by all of these Maras at various times and have not responded well. I think that knowing their names will help me see them more easily…and invite them to tea.

The final helpful / comforting essay was the final one in the book called The Path is the Goal. This was a nice wrap up that basically says…where ever you go, there you will be. The path is not preset. There isn’t a manual. The path presents itself in each moment and our only job is to be awake in that moment and do the best we can. Everything is a teacher.

The one chapter I struggled with was on Hopelessness and Death. Big surprise, eh? It actually wasn’t so much the death part as the hopelessness. Chodron seems to be arguing in favor of taking up the position of hopelessness, as it represents a rejection of how things are and/or a clinging to an idea of how they might be. Perhaps its my “American” showing through, but I struggle with the idea of hopelessness being a superior position to having and hope. How would anything ever get better if people had no hope. No clear idea of a better tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I also know that things are better by many measures today than they were 200 years ago largely based on hope and skill. Perhaps I am missing the point. Or I still have some more work to do. Both are probably true.

Overall, I enjoyed When Things Fall Apart very much and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the pathless path, the groundless ground and the ways we think ourselves into knots.

Categories
books

Reboot

I am going to attempt to keep better track of the books I have read with quick posts here. These won’t be full reviews per se, but rather simply a note (perhaps just to myself) that I finished it and a few of the things I am taking away. The idea is that a year or more into the future when I am trying to remember either the title of a book I read or where I picked up an idea, I can just search my own blog. Rather lazy I know and another outsourcing of memory to the machines, but what can I say.

A colleague at work reccomended the reboot.io podcast to me several months ago. It sounded interestin so I added it to my feed, but didn’t get around to listening to an episode until over the Christmas break. Wow. I was interested in the subject mentioned in the title (reclaiming the shadow) but didn’t expect to hear what I did. I had to know more.

Turns out the podcast is a promo for a book of the same name, so a few days later I was absolutely devouring this book. The big idea I walked away from is that many (all?) of us bring our unresolved childhood issues to work for the very simple reason that that’s where most of us are most of the time so where else do we have to work them out. I am a little learly of the line of thinking that blames everything on childhood, but the way that Jerry tells the story drew me in. It’s very personal.

Another amazing take away are the questions that are peppered throughout the book, some in line with the text and some at the end as invitations to journal. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What am I not saying that needs to be said? What am I saying (in words or deeds) that is not being heard? What’s being said that I am not hearing?
  • How would I act were I to remember who I am? What choices would I make, what actions would I take, if I regularly said the things that needed to be said?
  • When our employees and colleagues leave our sides and our company, what do I want them to say about our time together?
  • The question “Does my life have meaning” is really another set of questions “In what ways have I been brave? and “How have I been kind?”
  • How will I know my work is done?
  • What would it feel like to not have to know?
  • What might my reluctance about looking inward say about the protective patterns of my life? How might such reticense be shaping my organization and our ability to consider alternative possibilities?

If you are looking for something to shake you out of our ledership rut and set you in the direction of doing the hard, but meaningful work of self discovery with through an amazing combination of real stories from the front lines of startups, developmental psychology and budhism, then this is for you.

Categories
books

90 Second Book Review: The Myth of the State

I don’t consider myself a philosopher.  I’m more of more a “fan of philosophy” to borrow a phrase from my favorite podcaster.  I still have to look up the definition of meta-physics and epistemology.  I am not sure of the difference off the top of my head between existentialism and positivism.  But that doesn’t keep me from following along, perhaps in the same way that a dog enjoys television.
My latest jaunt into the philosophical realm was “The Myth of the State” by Erst Cassier.  This was a HBP find that I must admit I bought completely based on the title (give me a break, it was something like $3).  What I thought Ersnt would teach me is why the state is an illusion of our collective conscious or unconscious mind.  It doesn’t really exist.  It’s just some people telling other people what to do.  What the book is actually about turned out to be quite different, but just as interesting.
The Myth of the State was published posthumously, and with a little controversy about how it was finished.  It came on the heels of Cassier’s blockbuster (if there can be such a thing in the 20th century as a philosophical blockbuster) Essay on Man (which I happened to add to my tsundoku pile a few weeks back).  In this book, Cassier gives a rather complete (especially for only 300 pages) and fascinating account of how the state has used myth to propagate itself.  If it were written today it might be called something like “Lies the state tells you (for your own good of course)”.
For this review, I will give a brief overview of the first 90% of the book to focus on the concluding chapter.  I think its extremely relevant to what I sense is going on these days.
The opening section attempts to answer the basic question “what is myth” and comes to the conclusion that myth is the stories we create to explain things when we don’t have any better way to understand them. I’ve come to realize how important story or narrative is over the past few years.  Harari argues in Sapiens that its the “one thing” that allowed humans to rule the world (while everything else carries our stuff).  At the top level, narrative seems to decompose into rational stories (aka hypothesis) and mythical stories (aka fairy tales). Cassier completes the opening section with an exploration of the impact that myth has on language, psychology and social life.
With that basis set, the center section, which is the bulk of the book, tells of the different twists and turns in the development of state myths from the time of Plato, who propagated the idea of the “legal” state through to Machiavelli’s contribution of removing the connection between religion and transcendent order (as an aside, the two chapters on Machiavelli contained some of the most interesting analysis of his work that I have ever read) through to the Romantic’s reversal of the Enlightenment view that myth “had been a barbarous thing, a strange and uncouth mass of confused ideas and gross superstitions, a mere monstrosity” to the view that myth was “the mainspring of human culture”.
The final section sets up the few philsophers and thinkers that, in Cassier’s view had the biggest impact on 20th century political myth (aka those that we can thank for the mess we are in).  He begins with a discussion of Carlyle’s theory that Hero Worship is “oldest and firmest element in a man’s social and political life”.  From there, it was just a hop skip and a jump to some of the terrible ideas put forward by Gobineau on race worship and the totalitarian race.
From there of course we end up at Hegel.  I will set the time aside to read what he had to say for himself one day, but I do get the sense that I understand some of Hegel’s ideas better after reading Cassier’s synopsis.  Cassier posits that the form of Hegel’s arguments had for more impact than their content.  What’s more Cassier is of the opinion that Hegel himself would have strenuously objected to the arguments made by people using the form of his arguments after his death (if he could find a way to project from the Absolute Idea…).  That being said, I still can’t get my head around Hegel’s notions about the state being the ultimate expression of freedom.  Perhaps this is an example of what he means that philosophy is only a product of its time, and can’t project forward or backward.
Now to the final chapter.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the concluding chapter hit me so hard I was contemplating the myth of HPB actually being a portal from another universe that sends me things I am supposed to read.  It lays out in 20 or so pages everything that I have experienced in politics as exemplified by the current election cycle.  I am going to attempt to communicate the idea Cassier is trying to get across in this chapter (and arguably in the book overall) with as little commentary as possible.  Just enough to connect the thoughts without just quoting the whole chapter and making a TLDR post RTLDR.
As you read this think about what you’ve just witnessed.  Regardless of who you plan to vote for tomorrow (I’m out of state and darn it if I didn’t forget to absentee ;-), think about the larger context in which this “discernment” process has occurred.  Think about how much or little real content there has been.  Think about how often emotion was employed instead of reason.  Think about who has benefited.  Then let me know if you see any parallels between what Cassier was warning about at the start of WWII and what we’ve all just witnessed from both “sides”.
The chapter starts with a discussion about how “unusual and dangerous situations” drive “modern” man to abandon reason and resort to myth.

The call for leadership only appears when a collective desire has reached overwhelming strength and then, on the other hand, all hope of filling this desire in an ordinary and normal way, have failed.  At these times the desire is not only keenly felt, but personified.  It stands before the eyes of man in a concrete, plastic, individual shape.  The intensity of the collective wish is embodied in the leader. The former social bonds – law, justice and constitutions – are declared to be without any value.

He then claims that “modern” man is too sophisticated to buy into the “simple” myths of our “savage” ancestors:

If modern man no longer believes in natural magic, he has by no means given up the belief in a sort of ‘social magic’.  If a collective wish is felt in its whole strength and intensity, people can be persuaded that it only needs the right man to satisfy it.

Cassier moves on to point to what he views as the most significant development in the 20th century relative to political myth:

…our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing.  For what we find in them in the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other.  The modern politician has to combine himself into two entirely different and incompatible functions. [He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion.  But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically.  Nothing is left to chance’ every step is well prepared and premeditated.  It is this strange combination that is the most striking feature of our political myths.
Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination.  But here we find myth made according to plan.]
Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.  This is the new thing – a thing of crucial importance.

Cassier’s point seems to be that over time, rationality has replaced myth as the primary narrative structure.  This has happened everywhere except in the realm of politics, where myth still reigns supreme, except now we have scientifically created myths.  Myths on steroids.  GMO myths.
Cassier outlines three changes that happened to allow this myth making machine to come into existence:

  1. Change the function of language from conveying meaning (i.e. semantics)  to conveying emotion.  Anyone triggered much these days?
  2. Create of new “magical” rites that “lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgement and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personal responsibility.”  Remember…you have to vote…or else you won’t get your sticker. 
  3. Reinstate “divination” since “Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership.  The most improbable or impossible promises are made.” Which do you trust more: campaign promises or liars?

The book ends with this, actually somewhat hopeful, view:

I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

And, echoing Francis Bacon’s advice that “victory over nature can only be won by obedience”,  he even starts us down the path of how to get there:

We must learn how to obey the laws of the social world before we can undertake to rule it.

Maybe we all need to become at least a fan of philosophy.

Categories
books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: Self Reliance

This book doesn’t need an intro, so I’ll make it short: Self Reliance was one of several essays written by American Transcendentalist movement.  Emerson is also sort of a Socrates to Henry David Thoreau’s Plato.
You can read it online for free, but the specific version I am reviewing here was put together by the Domino Project.  It puts passages from the original text together with excerpts from other authors and famous thinkiers throughout the ages that were trying to make the same point as Emerson.  I’ve read  it several times, but this was an interesting way to read it anew.
As the title implies, the focus of the essay is individuality.  Each time I read it, a new section speaks to me, and this time around it was this one, on the subject of travel as a means of “finding oneself” (spoiler: Emerson is not a fan):

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

This was an epic summer of travel for me and my family.  I spent all of 4 nights of June in my own bed, and two of those were for less than 6 hours.  We went to Russia, Ireland and New Hamsphire.  And I had business trips to Italy, Germany, China…and Detroit.  Emerson made me think more deeply about the motivation for the voluntary / non-work related trips.  Was I looking to learn something more about myself, or more about the world?  Upon reflection it was definitely the later, so my trips were Emerson-approved.
Emerson has a good point of course.  If you travel hoping to learn about yourself, you are destined to fail.  You have to have a good amount of self knowledge before you take that first step out of your door if you are going to be able to process all that you will experience when travelling through anything roughly approaching an objective lens.  Since everything you experience at home or abroad is perceived through the subjective lens of your personal experience and the narrtive you contstruct around it, having some idea about how that might color things will help you strip some of that away and see things on your travels as they truly are.  Without that, then you are likely to simply reinforce what you already think you know instead of learn something new about the world.
The passage that was paired with this selection is from Pythagorus, and I think the editors did a good job of finding the same idea expressed in a far more company fashion, two thousand years earlier:

No one is free who is not a master of himself.

Categories
books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Red Queen

Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is another book that made it on my “to read” list somehow that I can’t quite remember, and came to be on my “to read” pile by way of Half Price Books. Since I can’t remember how I became aware of it, I also can’t remember what interested me about it initially or what I hope to get out it when I added it to my list. When I saw it on the HBP books shelf thought I recalled it was “on the list” and upon scanning the back and inside covers it seemed to fit in a genre of books that I typically enjoy: pop science.
Red Queen fits that genre to a tee, although it focuses on a domain of science that I have never felt particularly strong in: biology. I think I have taken a grand total of one biology course, my sophomore year of high school. I don’t recall doing particularly poorly…or particularly well. I also don’t recall being particularly interested. At least not as interested as I was in what I saw at the time as the “purer” science of physics and it’s close relationship with the maths. I somehow avoided biology as a college course altogether, yet here I found myself reading a nearly 400 page biology book. Strange are the path ways that self directed learning will take you sometimes.
The title of the book comes from Lewis Carroll’s character of the same name in Through the Looking Glass. In that story the Red Queen (not to be cofused with the Queen of Hearts in the first book) has a dialog where she explains that she has to keep running faster and faster just to keep in the same place since the scenery around her is accelerating as well. In mathematic, rather than literary terms, the story focuses on the idea of a zero sum game. Which is the claim that Ridley makes about evolution.
I have been giving more thought and study to evolutionary theory of late. Some of that is from my interest in one of the story lines in Sapiens: that cultural evolution through language and narrative, became a faster mechanism than biological evolution and that’s why we Sapiens rule the planet today. The rest of it comes from the opening of the Arc Museum just a few miles from my house. Suddenly the ability to succinctly state and defend the case for evolutionary theory has become much more relevant.
Ridley argues that rather than some of the traditional conceptualizations of evolution as a progressive, if not always linear process, it is in fact circular. At any given point in time, one branch of the evolutionary tree may be able to get ahead of its competition, but given time for enough random mutations and selection to occur, the leader is overtaken and the cycle begins again. Evolution may seem progressive if you pick specific start and end times, but taken as a whole, it never really gets anyone anywhere. He writes:

“Before ‘civilization’ and since democracy, men have been unable to accumulate the sort of power than enabled the most successful to be promiscuous despots. The best they could hope for in the Pleistocene period was one or two faithful wives and a few affairs if their hunting or political skills were especially great. The best they can hope for now is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded in every decade or so. We’re back to square one.”

(NB: There are a lot of quotes like the above throughout the book. Ridley points out early on that he is not making any moral judgements about the behavior he describes. He is merely trying to describe the behavior as it happens and come up with a narrative that explains why that fits the facts. That’s called science.)
He bolsters his argument with theory after theory from a variety of different biologists (all supported with experimental evidence). The book is literally chock full of them, so I will just list a few that I found interesting here:

  • The early church was so obsessed with sexual matters for less heavenly and more earthly reasons. Namely, as a way to preventing private wealth accumulation and leaving more church coffers:

“It (the church) had little to say abut polygamy or the begetting of bastards, although both were commonplace and against doctrine. Instead it concentrated on three things: first, divorce, remarriage, and adoption; second, wet nursing, and sex during periods when liturgy demanded abstinence; and third ‘incest’ between people married to within seven canonical degrees. In all three cases the church seems to have been trying to prevent lords from siring legitimate heirs.”

  • Three of the things that many evolutionary theorists point to as being uniquely human my have evolved in parallel and were dependent on each other:

“Men keep an eye on their wives by proxy. If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor is his wife was up to anything during the day. In the African pygmies that Wrangham studied, gossip was rife and a husband’s best chance of deterring his wife’s affairs was to let her know that he kept abreast of the gossip. Wrangham when on to observe that this was impossible without language, so he speculated that the sexual division of amor, he institution of child rearing marriages and the invention of language – three of the most fundamental human characteristics shared with no other ape – all depend on one another.”

  • The development of our oversized brains (as compared to our ape brethren), and the resulting cognitive capabilities that make us unique, may have been an accidental outcome of sexual selection for youth:

“If men began selecting mates that appeared youthful, then any gene that slowed the rate of development of adult characteristics in a woman would make her more attractive at a given age than a rival. Consequently, she would leave more decedents, who would inherit the same gene. Any neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adult life and which is also credited with allowing further brain development after birth) gene would give the appearance of youthfulness. Neoteny, in other words, could be a a consequence of sexual selection and since neoteny is credited with increasing our intelligence (by enlarging the brain size at adulthood), it is to sexual selection that we should attribute our great intelligence.”

  • The basic genetic programing that all modern men and women are walking around with:

“There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gathers, but deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple male hunter-gatherer rule: Strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy other men’s wives who will bear bastards.”

“Likewise int he mind of the modern woman is the same basic hunter gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: Strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man.”

Beides a series of fascinating evolutionary theories, I came away impressed with the imaginations of the various biologists that came up with these theories. I have become aware of an entirely different approach to narrative construction that is more complex than the straightforward physics of force A applied to point 1 results in force B at point 2. Evolutionary narrative construction involves enough varied groups and and interests that a Game of Thrones writer would be well served by picking up a copy of this book for plot ideas.
Ridley knows that many of his ideas will be used by some to make political arguments on one side or another since he writes in the Epilogue:

“No doubt its (red queen evolutionary narratives) politicization and the vested interests ranged against it will do as much damage as was done to previous attempts to understand human nature.”

He shares his story anyway since having these stories is how we break out of the seeming pre-destiny of genetics. Our genetic “programming” may seem to some like an inescapable prison. I view it differently (thanks to Sapiens): the power of language and story has given us both the tools to become aware of our base level “programming”. With this awareness we can then write a new higher level “program” that over rides what our genetics tells us to do. Culture eats genetics for breakfast every day. We just have to decide what we’re cooking.

Categories
books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Tribe

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, explores the ties that bind small groups together though the lens of men that go to fight and die for their country.  Tribe was an impulse buy for me.  I listened to an interview that Junger did on the Tim Ferriss podcast while mowing, pulled my iPhone from my pocket, did a search, “Buy Now” and two days later (Thanks Prime!) I was cracking it open.  Sorry to all the other books on my “to read” pile…sometimes something just catches my fancy.
I was hoping to get some insight into why tribes form and why they are important to human well being.  The subject of tribe has interested me since I first learned about the Dunbar number.  Part exploration, part lamentation, Tribe is not a deeply scientific work. There are no anthropologically verified per bonding models discussed.  There really isn’t any evidence to speak of.  There is however, plenty of anecdotal narrative, direct experience and some deep reflection on that experience.
Junger is probably most well known as the author of The Perfect Storm, which was made into a movie.  I first heard about him when I watched Restrepo, a documentary he directed that follows a group of soldiers through a deployment in Afghanistan.  Regardless of your views on the war in Afghanistan, you should watch and reflect on Restrepo (available on Netflix last I checked).
In Tribe, Junger is attempting to explain why those that we send to war to kill and die in our name are suffering the effects of PTSD in increasing numbers.  He starts with an exploration of the “going native” phenomenon of the early colonial days.  In the decades before the founding of the US, and for some time afterwards, there were numerous stories of white colonials leaving their cities, towns or villages and joining the local native american tribes.  There were even stories of people being taken by the tribes against their will, and after being “rescued”, returning to the tribes that had kidnapped them, drawn by something more than an early version of Stockholm syndrome.  What Junger points out about all of these stories, is that there are almost no examples of a native american leaving his/her tribe to live in a colonial city, town or village.
The conclusion that Junger draws from this is that there was something fundamentally better about the native way of life that even colonists that had never experienced it before immediately recognized when they saw it.  He argues that the natives live in a way that we are more adapted to from an evolutionary standpoint and that:

“First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about human experience.  The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good.  And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group.  A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers.  They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

The rest of the book takes place in more recent history, from the big wars of the previous century through the present conflicts in the middle east.  Junger credits his very existence to war, tracing the series of events that lead his ancestors to move from here to there, driven on by wars or rumors of war.  He talks about his own refusal to sign his draft card when it arrived shortly after the end of the Viet Nam war and the conversation he had with his anti-war father that changed his mind.
Junger never served, but through a series of twists and turns eventually became a press correspondent assigned to various conflict zones.  So while he was never a “tigger puller” he has been in the line of fire (with nothing more than a camera and a microphone).  At one point in Tribe, Junger relates his own experience with PTSD, which first surfaces in the New York Subway.

“Suddenly I found myself backed up against an iron support column, convinced that I was going to die. For some reason everything seemed like a threat: there were too many people on the platform, the trains were moving too fast, the lights were too bright, the world was too loud.  I couldn’t really explain what was wrong, but I was more scared than I ever was in Afghanistan.”

Junger relates this experience as a launching point to talk about the increasing occurrence of long term PTSD in todays vets.  He points out a few factors which are contributing to it’s rise.
First, in very traditional (read: tribal) societies, war was always very close to home.  In most modern conflicts at least one of the armies (and almost always ours) is fighting far from home. As a result, the war fighters are the only once that experience the war first hand.  This asymmetry of experience between war fighters and those they leave at home leads to a feeling of separateness that pushes against the bonds of tribe that may have motivated them to go to war in the first place.
Next, he talks about studies which show those that are the most aggressive are actually the least affected by long term PTSD.  He concludes from this that overall we have become less aggressive.  I’m not sure whether he views this as an overall good or bad thing, but he does make pains to point out that it has left our soldiers less capable of dealing with the long term impacts of fighting.
Lastly, he focuses on the near instantaneous transfer from battle front to home front that modern soldiers experience due to the wide availability and use of air transport.  He relates stories of soldiers riding boats home after WWII, and the time that gave them to decompress and process what they had seen in the company of others who had seen the same before they were confronted with re-assimilating to the the home they had left to go and fight.  Modern soldiers can be on the front lines one day and mowing their lawn the next.
He concludes the book with some recommendations including using public holidays that used to mean something (anyone happen to know what we are memorializing on memorial day) as a chance for veterans to speak to their local community about their experience.  I do think that might do a lot to heal the unseen wounds many of these veterans as well as make those that decide to send them to war (or not oppose those that do) more awake to the realities of exactly what they are asking someone else to do in their name.
On the larger point about tribe, war and what we’ve lost in the modern world, I can understand where Junger is trying to go, but I think he misses an important connection and sequence.  While his assessment of the modern catalysts for the increased rates of PTSD is right on, he stops short of naming the root cause: war itself.  He can’t quite bring himself to reach the obvious conclusion that without war there would be no PTSD.  In fact he still sees war as having some redeeming qualities:

“If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does.  But in addition to all the destruction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people that experience them.”

I have no reason to doubt that this is true.  But I have to ask is this the only or even the best way to inspire these ancient human virtues?  Does the means justify the ends?  Can war be considered just, or perhaps even valuable, since it makes those that fight in it courageous, loyal and selfless?  Is it worth it, even to the individual, to experience those virtues if in exchange they are faced with being more scared of a crowded space for the res too their life at home than they were on the battlefield? While Junger concludes correctly that a greater sense of tribe can heal those suffering from PTSD, I have to wonder if a greater sense of tribe could prevent the wars that create the need for healing in the first place?
 
 
 
 

Categories
books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I must admit that I don’t quite recall where I first heard about the subject of this quick review, but as has happened many times, that intergalactic portal that sorts through the thousands of books I’d like to read and picks the right one at the right time to send my way did its job and I found myself in its possession.  Dan Gilbert’s work falls into that interesting category that is blend of psychology, biology, evolution, anthropology and self help.  It’s extremely readable, which is a great asset since the message is so important.
When I’m done with this review, I will end up putting it on the shelf next to Haidt’s “Righteous Mind” which argues that rather than humans being Rational, we are actually “Rationalizing”, i.e. we apply a rational framework to our decisions post hoc as a way of telling ourselves and our friends a story about why we did what we did.  Haidt argues that this reversal of the commonly accepted cognitive process stems from basic evolution – it’s just the way we are wired.
Gilbert, in “Stumbling on Happiness” similarly argues that due to a series of evolutionary accidents our brains work in some particular ways that run counter to the stories we tell ourselves about how they work.  The rational animals story and the captains of our own ship story have been with us for a long time and its only now with the bright light of scientific inquiry are we learning that we may have been fooling ourselves.
While there are some detractors, many great philosophers will claim that happiness is the ultimate virtue, since happiness is sought as an end in itself, and not as a pathway to anything else.  In Stumbing on Happiness, Dan Gilbert constructs a compelling story about why humans are so bad at actually being happy.  Even better, he offers practical advice on what we can do about it.
Gilbert states his thesis early on:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find out destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope*.
*(a made up word he uses to describe the mental “device” we use to predict the future).

Before Gilbert can describe why we’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy, he spends some time defining what happiness is, and just as importantly for a work attempting to take a rational approach, how we can measure it.  Gilbert spends a few pages discussing the fact that defining happiness is not that easy and one of the main reasons is that seeking is often seen a selfish or petty.  Thanks Puritans!  What he settles on is the basic idea that happiness is a subjective experience, so the person best situated to measure happiness of any particular individual is that individual themselves as long as you do as much as you can to control for the distortions caused by memory and social norms.
With a working definition and measures of happiness, the next three sections focus on the three failure modes of imagination which make it such a bad tool for predicting what will make us happy.  The first of these he calls “Realism” which refers to the fact that our imagination works so quickly, we often don’t even notice that what we are thinking is imagined.  This can lead to confuse imagined ideas with real ones.  Which leads to making decisions on things we think are true when they in fact aren’t…but we think they are.
The next failure mode of imagination he calls “Presentism” which argues in the opposite direction of the first failure by claiming that despite our ideal about imagination, it’s really not all that imaginative in that our imagined futures are very often extremely similar to our actual presents.  If Realism is all about the imagination working to well to be useful for accurate prediction, presentism is all about it not working well enough.
Gilbert calls the third and final imagination failure mode “Rationalization” which is all about how hard it is for us to accurately predict how we will think and feel about the future we imagine for ourselves once we get there.  Realism and Presentism keep us from being good forecasters about what will happen next and Rationalization seals the unhappiness deal by making sure we will most often be wrong about how we’ll feel about it on the off chance we happen to get lucky and correctly predict future events.  The basic idea of rationalization is that humans are way more resilient than most psychologists would give us credit for.
Gilbert provides the strongest evidence for this when he applies his objective happiness measurement to people that have undergone a specific tragedy (loss of a love one, terminal illness) and those who haven’t but that he asks to imagine how they would feel if they had.  Those that actually have had the experience are consistently happier than those that haven’t imagine that they would be if they had.  In short: we can get used to pretty much anything.
Fortunately, Gilbert doesn’t end his book here, on an “all is lost” tone.  He offers a way out, although he immediately says that he does this knowing that almost no one will take it.  Gilbert claims there is a simple way to see through the mirages provided by hind sight and foresight: find people that have recently, or even better are currently, doing what you are thinking about doing or have stopped doing what you are thinking about stopping and ask them how they feel.  You will likely feel the same.
However, this rescue comes with a caveat: most people wont chose this path due to what I have always known as the “special snow flake” argument.  “I’m special.”  “I’m different.”  “I’m complicated.”  Gilbert calls BS on these and a thousand other similar claims, at least when it comes to what makes us happy.  In the realm of happiness we humans are all more or less the same.  What makes other people you know happy will more than likely make you happy and vice versa.
Thinking about some big life change and not sure whether to pull the trigger?  Or already decided, but not started?  Find someone in your circle of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, or even random people you search for on the internet that have done the same and ask them how they feel. Then relisten to what they tell you.  You’ll be happier for it.
 

Categories
books miscellaneous

450 second book review: A quintet to clear the decks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any book reviews.  It’s not that I haven’t been reading…it’s just that I haven’t taken the time to write up my thoughts and impressions.  But no more.  With this post I am clearing out my backlog of book notes and clearing the decks.  In no particular order, here are some quick notes on books I have finished in the last few months:
Amusing Ourselves to Death
I started and finished this one most recently.  I ran across a copy in the portal where the gods send me books to read from my too long/unprioritied wish list (AKA Half Price Books) a few weeks ago and read it in about a week.  It was written more than three decades ago, and although Mr. Postman sets his sights on Television, he makes a few mentions of the threat posed by “Micro-Computers” ;-).
His general argument is that television fundamentally alters the nature of discourse as compared to print.  A “print culture” has cohesion of thought based on the fact that everything in print is placed in context.  Based on that context, the reader has the ability to ferret out any contradictions and thus determine the truth of any claims made by an author.  Shifting to television, Mr. Postman writes:

The fundamental assumption of that world (refering to the world of television) is not coherence but discontinuity.  And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.

I would argue this is even more true of more recent media such as twitter and facebook.  Don’t even get me started on vine!  An alternative explanation of his thesis is that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong.
The first half of the book establishes the argument, then the second half explains the impact of the change from print to television as the primary media for discourse on news, religion, politics and education.  Hint: none of the impacts are positive.
The book ends with a couple suggestions of how to restore conhesion to discourse.  In that discussion he writes what I think is actually the most interesting idea in his book:

Public conciousness has not yet assimiliated the point that technology is ideology.

Mr. Postman admits that the suggestion first is unworkable, at least in America: eliminate Television altogether.  The second suggestion, using the school system to give people the tools to “help the young learn how to interpret the symbols of their culture”, is held up as the only option.  As prescient as the rest of Mr. Postman’s book is, this hope seems awfully naive by comparison.
This is Why I Came
I discovered this book via a review from The Atlantic. , which I subscribed to earlier this year in an attempt to look smart to my mail lady.  (Actually I suscribed to Reason magazine the same day.  Nothing makes me giggle as much as when The Atlantic, Reason and the NRA magazine all show up in my inbox the same day.  I think I’ll subscribe to the National Review and Foreign Affairs next year ;-).
As a work of fiction, this is a bit of a change up from my normal reading list, but it was well worth it.  The story starts and ends with Bernadette entering and exiting a confessional, but in reality that is just a “prop” for Ms. Rakow to tell her real story: the woman’s rewriting of all the major stories of the Bible.  Those of you that believe in the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God might stop reading here, but stick with me (or at least skip down to the next review).  The Atlantic review is better than anything I could write here, so I won’t attempt any deep analysis, rather I’ll focus on the few things that spoke to me personally.
Bernadette seems to be motivated to come to confession (repeatedly from what I can tell) from some deep seated guilt about her doubt.  Her doubt is so deep, that she took up the task of rewriting “the greatest story ever told” into something that she could relate to.  In that way, This is Why I Came, may be on of the most “protestant” pieces written since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle church, in that it is quite literally a personal retelling of the stories that we all know.  In those stories, Bernadette is reflecting back what her interpretation of what she hears when she is told the story of Adam and Eve or Jesus in the dessert.  What I find fascinating about this aspect of the story is that in the end, the priest who hears her confession points out that rather than acting as a source of guilt, Bernadette’s doubt should be seen as her gift:

To doubt the God you believe in is to serve him.

The idea that asking questions (i.e. doubting) is a gift in a religious context is so refreshing to me in an age of increasing dogma from many religious circles is a breath of fresh air.  In Bernadette’s stories, I saw her getting closer to an understaning of the Universe and her place in it.  And if that’s not what religion is supposed to help us do, then I am not sure what it’s for.

War of Art
Changing gears completely to a immenently practical book, this could end up being a really short review since the most imporant this I can say is that everyone reading this should click the link above (no, it’s not an affiliate link), but this book, and read it from cover to cover as soon as it shows up.  Seriously, JUST READ THIS BOOK.
What’s it all about you might ask?  In a word (Mr. Pressfield’s word in fact): Resistance.  The resistance that keeps you from living the life you really want.  The resistance that keeps you from having the relationships you really want.  The resistance that keeps you on the bench instead of doing the only thing that will make you better…which is doing something.
Steven Pressfield is a fiction writer, but this book is squarely in the “how to” genre.  Pressfield describes his process for getting off the dime and doing the hard part, described so well in this quote from Jerry Pournelle (not cited in The War of Art, but great nontheless):

The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There’s always something better to do, like I’ve got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There’s always something better to do.

Resistance takes many forms, but the most common one is fear.  Pressfield has the most wonderful take on fear that I have ever read:

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

In these few words, he turns fear from something you should be afraid of (duh!) into an indicator of what you should be paying attention to.  This one idea is worth 10x the price of the book.  Buy it and read it anyway.

The cultivation of the ability to notice where my mind is that I have been developing through my mindfulness practice combined with this simple idea has helped me recognize what’s important (hint: it’s what I feel resistance to getting done), explore the source of that resistance and then overcome it to get things done.  This approach has put me more at peace than anything else in the last few years.

Remember:

Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

(NB: in full disclosure, I didn’t read this book, I listened to it.  For this type of book listening worked great, so if the prospect of sitting a reading casuses you resistance (see what I did there), then download an audio copy)
Free Will
I’m starting to realize that this post is a reflection of my magazine subscriptions and iTunes music library.  That is, it might one day be used to prove some sort of mental error.  This book is anothe left turn.
I first heard of Sam Harris at last year’s Porcfest and ended up subscribing to his podcast shortly thereafter.  For those of you that don’t know, Harris is one of the so called “New Atheists” along with folks like Chrisopher Hitchens and Dan Dennet.  Harris is a neuroscientist by degree and profession (in addition to being an author and “personality”) and he comes at everything with a seemingly level (cold some might say) scientific rationalism.
I continue to read and listen to things from Dr. Harris for two reasons: he is not afraid to engage in precisely the sort of discourse that Mr. Postman feared television was killing (side note: I do wonder what Mr. Postman would think of podcasts as a medium?) AND because he makes me think.  At the end of half of my thinking about what he has said or written, I find myslef agreeing with him.  At the end of the other half, I find myslef disagreeing with him, in some cases violently (which is to say severely…I mean no harm ;-).  In the case of Free Will, it is most definitely the latter.
In this rather shor book (and I mean that as no disparagement – I like the fact that he can make his points directly and doesn’t feel the need to go on and on) Dr. Harris makes the case that free will as it is commonly perceived is an illusion.  I think he tries to make the case that this does not place him in the determinist camp, but I must admit that this point wasn’t entirely clear to me, nor did I fully grasp the difference between his view and that of the classical determinists like Bertrand Russell.
What I did grasp, however, was the thread of the main argument backing up his claim, which to me seems to be this: since we are neither concious of every possible option available to us nor we in control of every particle of our beings, free will does not exist.  If Dr. Harris was not an atheist, he might state it like this: free will is illusory since we posses neither the mind nor the will of God.
This seems like a rather binary position to me.  Since we can’t control and know everything, we can’t control or know anything.  What really bothers me (and in some ways makes me think I don’t fully understand Dr. Harris’ chain of reasoning here) is that it seems horribly inconsistent with what else he has written and said.
For example, he is perhaps best known as a vocal opponent of poltical islam and its reaches into international terrrorism (which as an aside, I always like to bring up to my more fundanmentallt religious friends since its something they agree on with a devout atheist ;-).  If I understand his view on free will, then Dr. Harris should say that a terrorist blowing himself up on a bus or flying a plane into a building was predetermined at the moment that universal inflation began billions of years ago.  But he doesn’t say that; he seems to be awfully sure that something can and should be done about the problems posed by political islam.  Perhaps he would say that he doesn’t have any choice in saying that either?  As I said, he makes me think and in this case he’s made me think about the limits of materialism.  I believe in science and rationalism, but as Godel tried to (and perhaps did?) prove any system is either complete or consistent.  It can’t be both.  Dr. Harris seems to disgaree.
Radical Acceptance
And now for a u-turn from the previous book.  I learned about Tara Brach on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  I’ve been interested in Buddhism for the last year or so.  No, I’m not ready to ship off to Tibet quite yet, but I do find fascinating the corrleation between Buddhism and Stoicism as well the Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices.
There is a little bit of “woo-woo” in this book, but I was able to get past it and retain some pearls of wisdom.  Dr. Brach opens with a discussion about first listening to and befriending yourself.  She asks the interesting question “If I talked to others the way I talk to myslelf, would they want to be friends with me?”  From here she goes trough a whole series of exercsies to first recognize your self talk for what it is, then to simply accept it as the path to moving forward.
I think the most important thing to understand about the book is that the word “acceptance” as its used here doesn’t mean saying “it’s OK” to everything or “turning the other cheek.”  Rather I took it to mean identifying things as they are.  Not fighting against the current state of reality.  Reading the facts on the ground as they are, accepting them as true.  Once you have done that you can then decide what to do next.  In this way, acceptance in Buddhism is very much like the input stage of the Trivium: coming to understand things as they are.  Another fascinating cross-over between seemingly very different ideas.  Anytime that happens, I get the sense that there is some universal truth being uncovered.
If you are looking for some ideas about how to be a better friend to yourself, this book is a great place to start


 
So there you have it.  5 book reviews and 5 things checked off my to do list.  Now to finish up a few more of the three or four books I am in the middle of.  Then I can finally visit that mystical book portal again.