What I’ve been reading and watching lately. A pretty good haul these last few months.
Around the Web
Two essays on love and intimacy in programming and elsewhere.
The first is Robert M Ochshorn’s Notes on Intimacy, a little aphoristic:
intimacy is vital to all manner of human endeavors… creative and intellectual work is closer to speaking a language than processing a workflow. Nothing is stable, definitions are circular, every utterance rewrites its every word, insight is a simultaneity of meaning, and profundity comes through the temporal sequence of process rather than the compilation and execution of result
The second, the brilliant Linus with a much more accessible exploration, Made of Love:
From the perspective of a maker, your ultimately scarce resource is the love and care you can put into your craft. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many hours I can put into making my work bear the marks of my love, and that makes these works of quality inherently valuable.
Matt Lakeman’s Thoughts on Meaning and Writing. Creating meaning by filling out the bullet points of your life.
The Etymonline biography page is staggeringly beautiful.
One man’s gorgeous and emotional memories of his father.
A new pseudonymous blog, Slime Mold Time Mold, burst onto the scene recently with a series called A Chemical Hunger. It lays out in rigorous detail and clear thinking why the current obesity epidemic is most likely caused by environmental toxins. The series is unfinished but so far the leading candidates are livestock antibiotics, PFAS and lithium.
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. Strongly recommend. An incredible portrayal of people who go above and beyond altruistically. In another time they might have been called saints. What makes them do it? I have a detailed review, forthcoming. Inspiring and thought-provoking.
Susan Sontag, as quoted in the book, on this topic:
Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation—like Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s—was Simone Weil’s. I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil’s life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and this mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.
House of God by Samuel Shem. Modern hospital medicine is intensely depressing, but this might be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It covers a new resident’s yearlong introduction to the grim facts of life. Probably several hundred pages too long. A cousin of mine was a resident at the hospital it’s based on, and he reports “people quote it all the time around the hospital.”
After the others had left, the Runt turned to me and said he had a confession to make: “It’s about my third admission last night. In the middle of all this crap… this guy comes into the Emergency Room and I . . . I couldn’t handle it. I offered him five dollars if he’d go home. He took it and left.”
The Earthsea Series, Books 1-3. By Ursula K. Le Guin. On Sam’s recommendation. Delightful, quick reads. A reminder that names have power, and that sometimes we do not choose our own fate.
Book 1, Wizard of Earthsea:
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.
Book 2, Tombs of Atuan:
She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.
Book 3, The Farthest Shore:
We must learn to keep the Balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. Who am I—though I have the power to do it—to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?” “But then,” the boy said, frowning at the stars, “is the Balance to be kept by doing nothing? Surely a man must act, even not knowing all the consequences of his act, if anything is to be done at all?” “Never fear. It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting. We will continue to do good and to do evil. . . . But if there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Reasonably entertaining, but I don’t see why this book is so famous. A very heavy-handed morality, in which the 20th century with its lack of prosocial behavioral conditioning comes under direct attack:
“Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives), but their theory was wrong—half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.” “Sir? I thought—But he does! I have.” “No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not—and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.
Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. An opinionated partial biography of Steve Jobs, explaining how he went from boy wonder tyrant to an astonishingly capable executive and leader. Recommended. An anecdote from the launch of the Apple Store:
On the car ride over to the prototype hangar, Johnson told Steve that he thought they’d gotten it all wrong. “Do you know how big a change this is,” Steve roared. “I don’t have time for this. I don’t want you to say a word to anyone about this. I don’t know what I think of this.” They sat for the rest of the short ride in silence. When they arrived at the hangar, Steve spoke to the assembled group: “Well,” he said, “Ron thinks we’ve designed our stores all wrong.” Johnson waited to hear where this line of thought would go. “And he’s right,” said Steve, “so I’m going to leave now and you should just do what he’s going to tell you to do.” And Jobs turned around and left. … Later that day, after he’d returned to the Apple campus, Johnson went to see Steve. “You know,” Steve told him, “you reminded me of something I learned at Pixar. On almost every film they make, something turns out to be not quite right. And they have an amazing willingness to turn around and do it again, till they do get it right. They have always had a willingness to not be governed by the release date. It’s not about how fast you do something, it’s about doing your level best.”
Clean by James Hamblin. A fun little pop science/history jaunt, covering the history of soap and different ideas cleanliness, current knowledge about the skin microbiome, and the charlatans trying to sell you all kinds of products. You should probably use less soap.
The idea that some soaps are beauty products and some are health products, for example—or that some are for men or women or children or dogs or various types of skin—is much less a product of scientific innovation than marketing genius.
Books I didn’t finish
Albert and the Whale. Philip Hoare is a wonderful writer who brings long-forgotten stories and ideas to light with great beauty. Whales, Dürer and the late medieval/early modern period are all interesting, but this book dragged on a bit. I enjoyed it and found it enriching, but ultimately gave up.
To Lazarus Ravensburger—a German trader with a raptorish name—Dürer gave a print of St Jerome in his cell, plus three large and expensive books. In return, he received a big fin, five nautilus shells, two dried fishes, a white coral, and a red coral; plus four bamboo arrows, and four silver and five copper medals. It was a good deal, so far as he was concerned.
ZeroZeroZero. About the global cocaine trade, recommended by a friend, I hated it. Long on personal stories, long on assertions and grand claims, very light on facts. I found the style kind of annoying and stopped after ~50 pages.
Baseless. Nicholson Baker is a gem. I adored House of Holes and Fermata, and am saving Mezzanine for a rainy day. This book was supposed to be about the CIA (worse than you thought!) and the US biological warfare program. Yes, we had one. It made a huge number of mistakes, likely accidentally released a variety of diseases infected humans and other species alike. And yes, Baker claims, we used biological weapons intentionally on our enemies. But the evidence is not always forthcoming, so the project begins to circle in on itself; we learn about the Freedom of Information Act, one of our nation’s great ideas but one which in implementation often falls infuriatingly short. This book is full of righteous outrage and interesting detail but the format – a day-by-day record of the author’s research – ultimately wore me down. Too many amazing quotes in this book, a selection:
I kept thinking today of the list Rexmond Cochrane gives of all the animals killed in the pursuit of germ weaponry at Camp Detrick during World War II: 2 roosters, 5 pigs, 11 cats, 25 ferrets, 30 sheep, 34 dogs, 48 canaries, 75 “wistar rats” (white rats), 98 brown mice, 166 monkeys, 225 frogs, 399 cotton rats, 4,578 hamsters, 5,222 rabbits, 16,178 rats, 32,339 guinea pigs, and 598,604 white mice. The killing increased during the Cold War.
I ate some boiled potatoes for breakfast and thought about the word “aerosol.”
Vannevar Bush, MIT’s godfather of germ warfare, reportedly woke up screaming sometimes, thinking of all the Japanese people he’d burned to death by recommending a new substance, napalm, to Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces.
Scattered, on ADD. Barely got into this, the beginning is full of unproven assertions made as though they’re obvious, and the author doesn’t seem to understand heredity at all.
Free Solo, about the exceptionally talented and intense rock climber Alex Honnold. Inspiring. His relationship with his girlfriend infuriated me, though.
Fear Street 1 and 2 on Netflix. These movies were terrible, but sometimes you just need to watch a dumb horror movie. The less said the better.