Directions and Destinations

“The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not… If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

It’s important to understand the difference between directions and destinations. We typically set goals based on destinations rather than directions, because a destination is clear and unambiguous. A target, if clearly set and understood, will either be met or it won’t. You motivate yourself towards it, and celebrate your arrival once you reach it.

The limitation of destinations is that they are rooted in the known. They can’t take you further than what you already understand, because your current understanding is what chooses the destination. Directions, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be reached. We don’t set our direction to the North Star because we mistakenly believe it’s within our reach. We choose it because sometimes the unreachable is the clearest view we have of where we want to be.

Directions require an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty. In striving towards something like compassion (in Hanh’s case), or empathy, or reconciliation, there is no point at which you can say you’ve done it, you’ve reached your goal and now you can stop. There are days where you stay on course, and others veer wildly off track. There are days where you don’t move at all, and others where the wind is at your back and the distance passes easily. And whichever day you have, your reward is to do it again the next day.

Destinations are an important tool in motivating ourselves to keep moving. It’s easier to climb a hill when we imagine ourselves basking in the view at the top. But if we have the courage to follow a direction instead of a destination, then we acknowledge we will never be perfect, we can always do better, and we won’t let our preconceptions stop us from traveling farther.

Station Eleven and the Fantasy of the Hard Reset

It was an essay about podcasting and Spotify, of all things, that helped me understand something new about apocalyptic fiction. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the insight, given that the essay was written by Roxane Gay, but it still caught me off guard. Gay was writing about her (justifiable) unwillingness to share her work on a platform that gave $100 to $200 million to Joe Rogan while claiming to be a content-agnostic bastion of free expression, but it was an early tangent on the appeal of survivalist reality TV that hit me:

“It’s clear that what these modern-day hermits want is to exist in a vacuum,” she wrote, “where they are not affected by nor do they affect anything beyond the boundaries of their home. That is, certainly, an illusion, but I can see the appeal.”

I’d just finished watching HBO’s Station Eleven when I read that article. The post-apocalyptic drama had been popping up everywhere, and all I knew about it before starting it was that it involved a theatre troupe that had emerged after some kind of global catastrophe. That was enough to sell me. I’ve seen a lot of films and TV shows about the end of the world, but they always tackle the immediate aftermath, and they’re always about survival. As dramatic as that can be, it’s such a limited topic in the scope of the human experience. I wanted something about rebuilding, and a show about art in the face of annihilation sounded like something made just for me.

As it turned out, Station Eleven wasn’t quite the show I thought it was, although it did have elements of what I imagined. Where the vast majority of mainstream fiction set in the aftermath of calamity take every opportunity to show humanity at its Hobbesian worst, taking as a given that we’re only a handful of hardships away from a war of all against all, Station Eleven tried to capture a wider swathe of the human experience. It understood that the compulsive desire for art, expression, and inspiration have been part of our nature for as long as humans have been around, sharing space with and helping to mitigate our more negative impulses. Ultimately it seemed like the show was more interested in exploring what makes a family than making a statement on the fundamental nature of our species, but at least it felt a little more optimistic than the average apocalyptic tale.

What Gay’s essay showed me, though, was that what lies at the heart of so much disaster fiction is the same thing that makes those modern-day hermits so watchable: the simplicity of it all. That may seem like a strange thing to say about fictional worlds where threats hide around every corner and scrounging up a meal is a matter of life and death, but what those stories all share is a wiping away of social complexity in favour of pure survival. It’s horror, but it’s also a fantasy: the fantasy of the hard reset.

Social reality is incredibly complicated. As Gay explores in her essay, none of us exist in a vacuum. The decisions we make all have consequences, and those consequences are often so intricate and multilayered that it’s almost impossible to track their ethical implications. When something as seemingly straightforward as buying a chocolate bar has a better-than-not chance of supporting child slavery, it’s easy to toss up your hands and say morality is just too ambiguous—a theme that was explored surprisingly well in the sitcom The Good Place, for what it’s worth. Cruelty and exploitation aren’t just the long-buried foundations of our political and economic system, they’re still actively necessary for keeping our day-to-day world running. And where our extension cords and supply chains used to be long enough to keep the costs of our lifestyle out of sight, our ever-more-networked world keeps reminding us of consequences we’d rather stay blind to. Every day gives new examples of one inescapable truth: absolutely nothing is simple.

In that world, the appeal of the fantasy of the hard reset is obvious. When the disaster hits, history ceases to be a continuum. The complicated web of causes and effects that we’re currently worried about gets reduced to a single threat: zombies, cannibals, and marauders may be unpleasant, but they’re also unambiguous. We can wrap our heads around the threat and our relationship to it in a way we just can’t with essentially any contemporary issue.

Survival also tends to be an individualist affair in those spec-fic worlds, which plays into the desire for simplicity. Stereotypical post-apocalyptic science fiction idolizes the lone survivor, the jack-of-all-trades and master of most who doesn’t need your help to get by. Never mind that he had to learn those skills from someone, or more likely from a large number of someones. Never mind that those skills were honed over generations by societies of one form or another, passed along by teachers and caregivers, preserved by knowledge-keepers and storytellers. Never mind that the only reason we were able to develop those survivalist skills in the first place was through cooperative communities dividing up tasks to allow for specialization and growth. That communal history was wiped out by The Event, whatever it may be, leaving only the individual.

Once you recognize the Fantasy of the Hard Reset, you can’t stop seeing it. Its most dramatic manifestations may be in ideas like the singularity or the Metaverse (let’s scrap the physical world for a fresh start in a digital wonderland) or the notion of Martian colonies as an ecological escape hatch (as if terraforming a whole world from scratch is somehow simpler than finding a way to exist on the only planet we’re remotely adapted to), but it has been at the root of almost every techno-utopian fantasy. The internet will let us abandon the politics and philosophy of nation-states for a truly borderless world. Disruptive apps can shed the weight of regulations and oversight without any negative repercussions. Time and again, people convince themselves that we can shake off our current reality through cleverness and will. They imagine we can make a clean break from history, and then wonder why things spiral out of control.

I’ve been wondering how much the fantasy version of apocalypse is clouding our ability to act on issues like COVID and climate change and democratic decline. It sometimes feels like we’re so consumed by a need for narrative that we deny the reality of anything that doesn’t operate on the clear logic of beginnings and endings. We ask ourselves when the disaster phase of climate change will start, as if that’s a question of fact and not one of arbitrary definition. We look at emission targets and temperature goals as if they’re on-off switches between safety and chaos, when they’re points along spectrums of probabilities. We want things to be binary. They almost never are.

The hard reset only exists in the narrative realm, not the physical one. It marks the end of an old word and a beginning of a new one, when reality doesn’t have beginnings and endings, just effects and causes, which are in themselves effects of other causes. Beginnings are useful in storytelling, but with the possible exception of the big bang (and even that is debatable), nothing emerges free from initial conditions. As badly as we may want to believe we can start fresh, either now or in the near future with a magical technology, it is ultimately a form of escapism: a way to avoid responsibility for the world we’ve built.

Narratives can be troublesome, but they can also be enlightening, so let’s take it back to Station Eleven. At first I was frustrated with how the show kept flashing back to the days before its world-changing pandemic. I was more interested in the story of rebuilding, and especially in the role of art as a central aspect of our humanity. Because of that disappointment, I almost missed one of the show’s most insightful aspects, which I’ll try to share with as few spoilers as possible.

One of the series’ main conflicts is between a group of people dedicated to remembering the pre-disaster world, and a faction who believe that the only way forward is to erase that past and start anew. The show doesn’t present those stories in a chronological fashion, though; it loops back and forth between the early days of the disease and a world that, 20 or so years later, is still dangerous but at least verging on a kind of functionality. And although it’s hard to imagine a cleaner break from history than a disease wiping out 90% of humanity, those temporal leaps make it clear that even that wasn’t enough to sever the influence of history. The decisions that were made before the disaster, and the people our central characters were before the disaster, were still shaping the “new” world.

In other words, the world changing isn’t enough to provide a fresh start, because there is no version of the future that doesn’t emerge from the past. Imagining a clean break is the same impulse as the modern-day hermit wishing they could live in a vacuum—it’s a wish for simplicity rooted in a refusal to accept the complexity and uncertainty that are fundamental to existing as social creatures in a cumulative culture.

Despite what this apocalyptic fantasy may hope, and despite what some utopian fantasies advocate, the way forward isn’t to sever ourselves from the past. It’s to confront that past, to look at how it shaped the world and how it shaped ourselves. We need to understand the impulses that have led us to the brink of ecological disaster, and what they say about our relationship to the Earth. It isn’t enough for the world to change, because the world is always chaning anyway. We have to change ourselves.

Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

From Charles F. Durant’s Algae and Corallines of the Bay & Harbor of New York (1850), via Public Domain Review

A lovely essay from the Public Domain Review, on the 18th and 19th century fad of seaweed collection, touching on its countercultural and feminist connections, and some of the fascinating figures who became obsessed with the “useless” plants. Sasha Archibald captures the strange allure of seaweed collecting, seen by its advocates as a more refined alternative to the more obvious, less subtle pleasure of flower collecting. This passage on the hobby’s effect on air-balloon pioneer, pseudoscience debunker and generally fascinating character Charles Durant really struck me:

His research served only to remind him, again and again, how partial his knowledge. Algology is a concession, and a surrender too. Durant seems to bow his head before the “unfathomable abyss” of his topic, which proves “too wide, too deep, too vast for perfect exploration”. Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.

Longreads: The Sounds of Silence

My first piece for Longreads was published this week, sharing five articles about listening to nature. The Reading List format is a pretty natural one for me—I’m much more comfortable sharing other people’s thoughts than passing off my own as in any way authoritative—and the process of writing it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts on music, noise, and silence

It also led to a conversation with a friend about their own experience of listening to music, and how it can be a way to take us out of the present, “to go someplace that isn’t this, either to the past or the craving for something new.”

I think there’s definitely truth in that, but there’s a positive side to it, too. A while back, I started seeing a certain kind of active musical listening as essentially training wheels for being present in a moment. To really enjoy a song, you have to ride along with it and get lost in it, experiencing each note as it comes. In the last few years, I’ve been working on getting that same experience of a stretch of time without the music.

For a long time, though, I thought the training wheels were the bicycle. Music has been such an accessible way to get fully absorbed in the flow of time that I never thought to wonder if it was keeping me from experiencing something more. Now that I’ve made the connection, though, I’ve found one of the best ways to enjoy silence and contemplation is to imagine it as music without the music. It makes emotional and intuitive sense even if I can’t quite explain it in more depth.

In any case, go read the piece on Longreads, and enjoy some thoughtful writing by much wiser folks than me.

Kindle Clippings, Feb. 2022

Everything I highlighted on my Kindle over the last month. As always, presented without context and for the Instapaper excerpts, without attribution. Honestly, these posts are more for my own reference than anyone else’s interest, but hey—maybe something will catch your eye.


Instapaper: Sunday, Jan. 30th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 405-409 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 22:21:26

The environmental costs of crypto are very large, undoubtedly. But, even if there existed a magic wand whose waiving would make blockchain run on zero watts, crypto currencies would remain more of a problem than a solution – for reasons I explained above. In brief, within our present oligarchic, exploitative, irrational, and inhuman world system, the rise of crypto applications will only make our society more oligarchic, more exploitative, more irrational, and more inhuman. This is why, in opposing the crypto enthusiasts, I never even bother to mention their environmental repercussions.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 35 | location 528-529 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:11:17

The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 37 | location 555-557 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:14:11

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 37 | location 555-558 | Added on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 23:14:15

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.


A Tale Of Two Ecosystems: On Bandcamp, Spotify And The Wide-Open Future (npr.org)

  • Your Highlight at location 35-37 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:05:38

Spotify is focused on “capturing the share of time listeners spend elsewhere.” This is why Ek talks about “audio” generically, because it doesn’t matter specifically what those listeners are doing elsewhere, Ek just wants them doing it at Spotify instead.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 43 | location 654-655 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:19:41

The potential beauty of human life is constantly made ugly by man’s everrecurring song of retaliation.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 49 | location 742-745 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:30:12

undeniable sinfulness, but also its appalling blindness. And if American democracy gradually disintegrates, it will be due as much to a lack of insight as to a lack of commitment to right. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war and eventually transforms his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine, it will have resulted from downright badness and also from downright stupidity.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 49 | location 742-745 | Added on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 23:30:19

And if American democracy gradually disintegrates, it will be due as much to a lack of insight as to a lack of commitment to right. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war and eventually transforms his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine, it will have resulted from downright badness and also from downright stupidity.


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 3rd (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 170-171 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 22:25:58

When I open my doom machine now, I try, as best I can, to see past the abstraction. I try to remember that the internet is powered by real, live people. It’s a frightening thought. But also, maybe, a hopeful one.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 51 | location 775-777 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 22:49:22

Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:26:25

We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Note on page 53 | location 806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:27:24

So what is the equivalent secular reasoning?


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-806 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:27:32

We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 54 | location 825-827 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:30:04

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 55 | location 843-845 | Added on Friday, 4 February 2022 23:32:09

A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 60 | location 919-926 | Added on Sunday, 6 February 2022 22:20:35

This midnight in man’s external collective life is paralleled by midnight in his internal individual life. It is midnight within the psychological order. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Deep clouds of anxiety and depression are suspended in our mental skies. More people are emotionally disturbed today than at any other time of human history. The psychopathic wards of our hospitals are crowded, and the most popular psychologists today are the psychoanalysts. Bestsellers in psychology are books such as Man Against Himself, The Neurotic Personality of Our Times, and Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Bestsellers in religion are such books as Peace of Mind and Peace of Soul. The popular clergyman preaches soothing sermons on “How to Be Happy” and “How to Relax.” Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, “Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and, lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.”


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 73 | location 1108-1111 | Added on Monday, 7 February 2022 22:44:54

In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 77 | location 1166-1167 | Added on Monday, 7 February 2022 22:52:08

Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 83 | location 1272-1273 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:47:39

First, whom the gods would destroy they must first make mad with power. Second, the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small. Third, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. Fourth, when it is dark enough you can see the stars.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 84 | location 1276-1278 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:49:05

We must be careful at this point not to engage in a superficial optimism or to conclude that the death of a particular evil means that all evil lies dead upon the seashore. All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 84 | location 1280-1281 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 22:49:36

But just as we must avoid a superficial optimism, we must also avoid a crippling pessimism. Even though all progress is precarious, within limits real social progress may be made.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 68 | location 1040-1041 | Added on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 23:10:00

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit cites the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: “To be lost is to be fully present.”


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 78 | location 1189-1191 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 20:48:16

Why do we so often break with the pattern of movement that landscape architects and city planners want us to take? They put up fences and hedges, put down gravel on the paths, and erect signs, but to no avail. People will always choose where they want to walk. We take shortcuts across areas where landscape planners don’t want us to walk; it is a quiet form of rebellion against uniformity and conformity.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 83 | location 1266-1269 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 20:57:23

Walking is the only form of exercise that does not require you to actively decide to exercise but that is rather merely an extension of the life you are already living and the activities you are already doing every day. If you want to transform your walking into exercise, all you have to do is walk a bit more often and a little farther than you usually do.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 87 | location 1328-1329 | Added on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 21:39:42

The hopes of our childhood and the promises of our mature years are unfinished symphonies.


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 281-282 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 20:43:04

“The psychological premise of human manipulability,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion.”


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 433-437 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:10:59

Facebook is full of ugly memes and boring groups, ignorant arguments, sensational clickbait, products no one wants, and vestigial features no one cares about. And yet the people most alarmed about Facebook’s negative influence are those who complain the most about how bad a product Facebook is. The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks? Why should we suppose the rest of the world has been hypnotized by it? Why have we been so eager to accept Silicon Valley’s story about how easy we are to manipulate?


Instapaper: Thursday, Feb. 10th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 445-446 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:13:22

One reason to grant Silicon Valley’s assumptions about our mechanistic persuadability is that it prevents us from thinking too hard about the role we play in taking up and believing the things we want to believe.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 103 | location 1574-1578 | Added on Thursday, 10 February 2022 21:40:14

The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut-throat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. It can make men so I-centered that they no longer are Thou-centered. Are we not too prone to judge success by the index of our salaries and the size of the wheel base on our automobiles, and not by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity? Capitalism may lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the theoretical materialism taught by Communism.


In Praise of Paths (Torbjørn Ekelund)

  • Your Highlight on page 105 | location 1605-1607 | Added on Friday, 11 February 2022 22:04:29

…saw the newly upgraded highway between the ancient beech trunks and I was overcome by a peculiar feeling. Here I stood with one foot in the past and one in the present. From a holloway to a highway in ten minutes. Vikings and financiers. One old path and one new. A thousand years’ time. Light-years of evolution.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 114 | location 1739-1741 | Added on Sunday, 13 February 2022 21:55:12

In these days of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty, is there any man who does not experience the depression and bewilderment of crippling fear, which, like a nagging hound of hell, pursues our every footstep?


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 116 | location 1772-1774 | Added on Sunday, 13 February 2022 21:59:42

Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 170-173 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:47:16

Trees are the longest-living life form we know, and manifest their temporal and geographic histories within their very bodies. In both form and function, trees tell the stories of their individual past, which is intimately connected to the history of their microenvironments as well as that of the planet. This distinctive and intimate relation between trees and their temporal and geographic histories is what we call the ‘embodied history of trees’.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 273-277 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:56:55

In the humus-poor earth, the root, just as much as any other part of the tree, expresses its environment. The tree does not begin with the aspiration of becoming a very large oak and adapt only afterwards. Rather, from the very beginning the tree senses its context and emerges in dialogue with it. This unity or coherence in the tree’s response is possible only if the various parts of the tree emerge interdependently. The parts, in other words, cannot exist independently of one another or pre-exist the whole, but actively form and inform one another, such that the one cannot exist without the other.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 281-284 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:57:41

The consequences of this view challenge us to think carefully about the relation between organism and environment, and about the line we usually draw between life and nonlife. For if we begin to conceive of the environment as an essential component of the tree organism, then we must conclude that the physical environment is neither something external to the tree, nor something inert or dead, in opposition to the living character of the tree. Rather, we must begin to recognise that the processes we usually identify with life are also present in the relations between life and nonlife.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 303-307 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 21:59:05

After all, as mobile as we might think of ourselves, we are ultimately bound to the planet. In fact, it is the forgetting of our boundedness, of our dependence on healthy soil, clean water and air, forests, swamps and deserts, that has brought us to the suicidal situation in which we find ourselves. Remembering our boundedness, remembering our tree-like character, might serve an important step in transforming the way we think about ourselves, our place and our environmental future.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 333-335 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:06:45

At some point in my late 30s, I recognised the paradoxical source of this anxiety: that every single thing in life took much longer than I expected it to, except for life itself, which went much faster, and would be over before I knew where I was.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 360-3___ | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:09:53

Until fairly recently, I was not a person who had a lot of time for nature. I wished it well in all its dealings, and was glad to take its side in any quarrel with the forces arrayed against it, but my regard for it was essentially abstract, and I would just as soon have left it to its own devices.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 434-435 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:16:52

But it is an instructive kind of boredom, insofar as boredom is the raw and unmediated experience of time.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 604-605 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:36:01

A new generation of electronic artists, such as Japanese producer Yosi Horikawa, incorporate nature field recordings into their experimental grooves.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Feb. 16th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 647-648 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:39:53

There is something humbling, and exhilarating, about human unity with nature sounds; we are no longer would-be conquerors, but innately connected to the life around us.


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 136 | location 2076-2076 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:42:34

How much of your modern life can be summarized in the words of your poet Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end.”


Strength to love (King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968)

  • Your Highlight on page 142 | location 2171-2172 | Added on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 22:52:39

He who loves has discovered the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality; he who hates stands in immediate candidacy for nonbeing.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 29 | location 436-437 | Added on Thursday, 17 February 2022 22:50:02

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 53 | location 804-807 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 09:49:35

A recent study25 that looked at Darwin’s finches found that after a single drought had limited their available food to just a few hard seeds, those birds with unusually hard beaks were more likely to survive to pass on their genes. Of the next generation, only 15 percent of the group had normal beaks. The change occurred within one year and its effects were seen for 15.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 55 | location 838-841 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 10:04:32

Raw fads are not new—the Romans toyed with a kind of Russian-doll feast of raw meat involving a mouse placed inside a chicken, placed inside a peacock, inside a boar, and so on. The diner would sit in a scalding hot bath in order to cook his meal from the outside. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in severe illness and several fatalities, and was mocked by public intellectuals from Juvenal30 to Pliny.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 59 | location 899-900 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 12:08:27

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE IS indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 65 | location 994-996 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 12:19:21

It’s sometimes helpful to think of evolution as the failure of the least fit, rather than survival of the fittest. Among the diversity of processes and techniques, some will fail, becoming rare or eliminated by society over generations. The rest will continue to be copied and available to the social group, giving populations adaptive flexibility.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 143-145 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 22:16:56

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 193-197 | Added on Saturday, 19 February 2022 22:21:40

When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves. When we open ourselves up to a TV program, we let ourselves be invaded by the program. Sometimes it is a good program, but often it is just noisy. Because we want to have something other than ourselves enter us, we sit there and let a noisy television program invade us, assail us, destroy us. Even if our nervous system suffers, we don’t have the courage to stand up and turn it off, because if we do that, we will have to return to our self.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 245-247 | Added on Sunday, 20 February 2022 21:50:59

When Buddhists say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” they are expressing trust in their own capacity of understanding, of becoming awake. The Chinese and the Vietnamese say, “I go back and rely on the Buddha in me.” Adding “in me” makes it very clear that you yourself are the Buddha.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 366-367 | Added on Sunday, 20 February 2022 22:03:46

Reality, ultimate reality, is free from all adjectives, either pure or impure.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 93-97 | Added on Monday, 21 February 2022 23:15:26

Such theories sound incredible, and perhaps they are. But then again, so is every other possible theory that explains consciousness. “The more I think about [any theory], the less plausible it becomes,” says Chalmers. “One starts as a materialist, then turns into a dualist, then a panpsychist, then an idealist,” he adds, echoing his paper on the subject. Idealism holds that physical matter does not exist at all and conscious experience is the only thing there is. From that perspective, panpsychism is quite moderate.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 581-585 | Added on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 09:16:02

Leaves are usually looked upon as the children of the tree. Yes, they are children of the tree, born from the tree, but they are also mothers of the tree. The leaves combine raw sap, water, and minerals, with sunshine and gas, and convert it into a variegated sap that can nourish the tree. In this way, the leaves become the mother of the tree. We are all children of society, but we are also mothers. We have to nourish society. If we are uprooted from society, we cannot transform it into a more livable place for us and for our children. The leaves are linked to the tree by a stem. The stem is very important.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 115 | location 1750-1752 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:00:32

There is usually a longer gap for No responses than Yes responses. But we’re predisposed to give positive responses as part of our evolved adaptation for cooperation, so it really is harder to say No. Imaging studies show our brains recoil from the word No.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 121 | location 1845-1846 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:13:03

“We are different people when we use different languages. Language has power over us. Our humor changes. Our body language changes. I like to use Turkish to write about sadness and English when writing satire,” explains author Elif Shafak.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 126 | location 1920-1922 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 09:21:47

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets, and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language—an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies, and many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 136 | location 2080-2083 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 21:30:43

a recent brain-scan experiment,10 in which people were offered cash in exchange for painful (but harmless) electric shocks being applied to them or to a stranger, they experienced less pleasure when they got the cash at someone else’s cost than when they got a smaller payout but suffered the pain themselves.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 723-725 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 23:05:32

I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.


Instapaper: Monday, Feb. 21st (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 886-889 | Added on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 23:22:50

Here in the supreme simplicity of life amid these mountains the spirit laughs at man’s concern with the form of Art, with new expression because the old is outworn! It is man’s own poverty of vision yielding him nothing, so that to save himself he must trick out in new garb the old, old commonplaces, or exalt to be material for art the hitherto discarded trivialities of the mind.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 984-987 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:15:40

In modern society most of us don’t want to be in touch with ourselves; we want to be in touch with other things like religion, sports, politics, a book—we want to forget ourselves. Anytime we have leisure, we want to invite something else to enter us, opening ourselves to the television and telling the television to come and colonize us.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1006-1008 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:20:37

Interbeing is a new word in English, and I hope it will be accepted. We have talked about the many in the one, and the one containing the many. In one sheet of paper, we see everything else, the cloud, the forest, the logger. I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am. That is the meaning of the word interbeing. We interare.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1020-1023 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:22:03

The first promise is: “I vow to develop my compassion in order to love and protect the life of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” The second promise is: “I vow to develop understanding in order to be able to love and to live in harmony with people, animals, plants, and minerals.”


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1054-1057 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:25:23

We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1147-1150 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:35:53

There is a gatha that can be recited before picking up the telephone: Words can travel across thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love. May they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1180-1183 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:39:33

If the Buddha, were here, he could not avoid that either. The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1181-1183 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 08:39:41

The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.


Being Peace (Thich Nhat Hanh;Foreword by Jane Goodall;Illustrated by Mayumi Oda)

  • Your Highlight at location 1294-1294 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 20:46:53

“Calming, Smiling. Present moment, Wonderful moment.”


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 156 | location 2381-2382 | Added on Thursday, 24 February 2022 22:35:57

It is through the symbolism and meaning of beauty that we draw unity, community, shared values and beliefs, compassion, and other emotions that bind us as cooperative societies.


Instapaper: Friday, Feb. 25th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 155-156 | Added on Saturday, 26 February 2022 23:44:55

The metaverse is just another platform like the ones we already know: a means for bosses to better control workers, for retailers to have more information and leverage over shoppers, and for advertisers to have the data and space to target people with more ads.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 180 | location 2753-2754 | Added on Monday, 28 February 2022 21:49:54

We trade with each other because it improves our survival: specialization is the most energy-efficient strategy,5 which is why it is ubiquitous across biological systems, from ants to brain cells.


Transcendence (Gaia Vince)

  • Your Highlight on page 183 | location 2806-2809 | Added on Monday, 28 February 2022 22:02:42

A SMALL MUSEUM in the Bavarian town of Ulm, on the banks of the Danube, holds in its collection an exquisite figurine, called the LionMan. Carved 40,000 years ago from a piece of mammoth ivory, this mysterious beast has the head of a cave lion—its carver’s most fearsome predator—and the stance of a human, and is the oldest known physical representation of a supernatural being.

The Lion-human of Hohlenstein-Stadel

The Lion-Person (its intended gender is the subject of debate) is “the oldest known physical representation of a supernatural being,” a 30cm figurine dating back approximately 40,000 years. Carved from a mammoth tusk, scientists estimate it would have taken a skilled person around 400 hours to create with the tools of the era.

That long of a process implies that the culture that produced it made room for artists or craftspeople, excusing them from at least some of the more survival-oriented duties of the tribe to create objects of beauty and imagination. As the British Museum’s Jill Cook puts it (quoted in Wikipedia), the object points to “… a relationship to things unseen, to the vital forces of nature, that you need to perhaps propitiate, perhaps connect to, in order to ensure your successful life.”

As incredible as the artifact itself is, I was also surprised to learn that is in a museum in Ulm, a relatively small German city on the border of Bavaria. I would just assume that something like this would be in one of the world’s largest or best resourced museums. It just goes to show what wonders you can stumble across in unexpected places.

(Found through a reference in Gaia Vince’s book Transcendence, which is packed with so many fascinating asides that I’ve had to stop bugging my partner with them and start sharing them here.)

What I Read in January 2022

Non-fiction

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (James Bridle, 2018)

Read in preparation for Bridle’s upcoming Ways of Being, which sounds like a more optimistic expansions of New Dark Age’s themes. Not that I think Bridle was wrong to be concerned about the consequences of our current technological direction, and New Dark Age makes an excellent case that the desire to conflate the real with the computable is causing more harm than good. Well-chosen examples make for an enjoyable read, but Bridle’s critiques have permeated the culture over the last few years. Diagnosing the problem is important, but dark as things get, the future never truly ends, and I’m looking forward to something with a little more hope.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2021)

If there’s one key arguments I took from this—and given its massive scope, it’s probably foolish to reduce it to a single message—but if there is, it’s that society and humanity are much more malleable than we usually think. The Davids take it as their task to complicate our notion of pre-history. Instead of a straightforward progression from utopian foraging cultures to hierarchical farming states, they point out that there’s been an incredible variety in how societies organize. Some societies even change their models seasonally, choosing different structures, hierarchies, and even identities throughout the year.

Given all that variety, the question is: how did we get so stuck in one model of society, and how do we start imagining a way forward? I’ve seen grumblings that Dawn of Everything’s history isn’t as radical as it presents itself, and that it isn’t as accurate as it should be, but taken as a prompt for imagining better futures, it’s still well worth a read.

My View of the World (Erwin Schrödinger, 1951)

Maria Popova’s Marginalian blog prompted this one, and while her summary does a fantastic job capturing both the meaning and the spirit of Schrödinger’s essays, I’m still glad to have read its entirety. Popular memory of cultural figures tends to reduce them to a single idea, and for Schrödinger it’s the one thought experiment; if it wasn’t for Popova’s post I would never have guessed he was writing on notions of panpsychism or universal consciousness while he was also helping redefine our understand of the nature of reality. His writing is wonderfully poetic in places (“What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?”), a touch overly technical in others, but I guess that’s to be expected for someone with such wide-roaming thoughts.

Fiction

The Taiga Syndrome (Cristina Rivera Garza, 2018)

Referenced in Jack Young’s phenomenal essay, Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community, Garza’s book is something like a detective story, a poem, a fairy tale, and a collection of cryptic koans. Difficult to pin down, in other words, but fortunately it’s short enough to be read in one sitting, which makes it more inviting for future re-reading. Given how obliquely it approaches its subjects, it strikes me as one that will reward time spent percolating in the unconscious, too.

“A Story of America in Three Scams”

A blend of a whodunnit, art appreciation, and political analysis, Richard Warnica’s Hazlitt piece Rothko at the Inauguration traces the history and repercussions of one of New York’s biggest art scandals, its connection to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the lasting impact of the battle over Rothko’s legacy.

As much as I appreciated the art scene intrigue, it’s Warnica’s own obsession with Rothko that really stuck with me. Describing the impact of those paintings is no easy task. Seeing a photo doesn’t do them justice; there’s an emotional power to them that only really comes with seeing them in person, a combination of their scale and some mysterious aspect of their technique. You can feel that struggle in the way Warnica talks about the paintings, a mix of straightforward description and pure emotion:

“There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why.”

“Rothko at the Inauguration” is about institutional rot and the corrupting influence of “easy” money, along with the way the financialization of fine art has played into those stories. Where some writers approach that subject with academic detachment, Warnica never forgets how art gained that power in the first place. Before it became just one more financial vehicle, a faceless asset in a tax-sheltered storage facility, it was a gateway to transcendence.