Resist flattening your neighbor

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Describing political perspectives on a left-right spectrum began with the French Revolution.

In the National Constituent Assembly of 1789, deputies most critical of the French monarchy began to congregate in seats to the left of the President’s chair. Supporters of the monarchy to the right. No assigned seating. Just a natural affinity for sitting near those with which you most agree. So developed the party of movement, and the party of order.

Left-right is a metaphor. It only means something because the concept developed widespread familiarity, and it’s a helpful framework for explaining complex identities. Helpful, at least, in that it neatly described a spectrum of opinion on that very specific question in 1789: where do you identify on this spectrum between movement and order during this open debate on the role of monarchy?

Continue reading Resist flattening your neighbor

Hold firm your beliefs, let your opinions change

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Hippasus was a student of the Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras 2,500 years ago.

Pythagoras, whom you may know for popularizing a theorem that is today named for him, taught that all numbers could be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. This seems obviously wrong to us today.

Continue reading Hold firm your beliefs, let your opinions change

Will the world be a better place to live in the future?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

In 2018, Harvard psychologist and pop intellectual Steven Pinker wrote a book that made a lot of smart people very mad. He argued that, on the global whole, quality of life was continuing its trend of getting better for humans. It was the continuation on a theme from a book he wrote in 2011.

His argument was that we are so (understandably) focused on the immediate pain, suffering and injustice of the day that we feel heartless to zoom out and acknowledge broader trends. Diseases are eradicatedGlobal poverty is downLife expectancy is up. As Pinker often put it: We remember stories about airplane crashes but we ignore stories of airplane takeoffs. (In fact, there’s a movement among journalists to respond to that last point.)

Those aren’t trivial accomplishments for the world. Yet many intellectuals waved Pinker off as an overly-optimistic privileged pollyanna who went beyond his expertise. 

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More notes on what I’ve learned about writing

Every year or so, I’ve gathered enough of a collection of notes and perspective and general writing about writing that I want to share here. This is especially geared toward creative and fiction writing, which is decidedly not what I am professionally trained in.

But I’ve always thought of myself as professional writer first, and so I routinely invest time in reading about process.

Below find some links and perspective that I share here likely more for me than anyone.

Continue reading More notes on what I’ve learned about writing

Predicting the future isn’t as hard as predicting when that future will come

On a long enough timeline, you might be right about plenty.

The cars might drive themselves. The software might generate itself. The transited American “inner cities” might become wealthy hubs segregated from poor inner-ring suburbs.

You could make predictions for days. Looked indefinitely, there are few trends I’d challenge. If a bet is a tax on bullshit, it’s not the idea I’d be as quick to challenge as the timing. That’s because, of course, it’s easier to predict the future than it is to predict when that future will happen.

Predicting the future is difficult because it’s easy to expect that future to look too similar or too different than the past. That stays tricky because

Look at predictions about 2019 that Isaac Asimov made in 1983. It’s difficult. But he just might have gotten the timing more wrong than the content.

It’s worth remembering that the very reason our memory can be faulty may be a consequence of our evolved ability to imagine a future.

(Photo by Naomi Tamar via Unsplash)

Authenticity is having no other choice

Is that pizza authentic? What about that neighborhood? Or the clothes they’re wearing? Or the slang they’re using?

To my ears, authentic doesn’t mean famous or even necessarily good. Authentic is not having a choice. Or not even being conscious of the choice.

Someone is authentic when they are true to themselves; they haven’t conjured up some sense of self. Rather, they’ve remained more or less true to their experience. A product or service or idea or experience is similar. It’s doing a job without being overly aware of itself.

Authenticity is having no other choice.

Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind

Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.

That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I ready it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.

Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.

Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.

Continue reading Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind

To get only the ‘right’ words on paper, that’s the struggle: Janet Benton

As a followup to my 2018 podcast The Writing Process, I’m sharing occasional interviews with other celebrated authors, storytellers and other writers to gather their own writing advice.

Below, hear from Janet Benton, whose historical fiction novel Lilli de Jong came out in paperback last year. (Follow her on Twitter here) When her debut novel launched, Bustle called it striking and NPR listed it as one of its books of the year.

The book, known as a poignant look at feminism and motherhood, set in 1883 Philadelphia, is readily available as a hardcover, paperback, large-print edition, audio book and ebook through most booksellers and online.

Continue reading To get only the ‘right’ words on paper, that’s the struggle: Janet Benton

Here are 5 trends in ‘startup clusters’ I discussed in a lecture at Jefferson Innovation

Back in February I gave a lecture at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s ‘Innovation’ lab about trends in ‘startup clusters,’ or the modern, dense collection of next-stage companies.

I wrote about those trends here, and you can find my slides here (with my hilarious jokes). Below, for the hardy among you, watch my hour-long presentation.

Apparently I have a lot of opinions about what cup you should use for your drink

The words we have for drinking vessels are old ones. Glass, mug and cup are all very old ideas.

Hence, there’s quite a bit of culture tied to them. So, though, I’m not an overly particular person in many household respects, I have a lot of opinions about them.

I remember being a teenager and finding a common bond among friends because we all agreed (and struggled to explain why), we thought it was strangely discomforting to have milk served in a plastic cup. Understand, we weren’t richly cultured.

We were middle -class teenagers who for the first time were confronting together an opinion developed independently based on culture and lived experience. This was new.

This is going to be a strange little post about feelings and memories about tiny, meaningless things. If you’re paying attention, you might draw conclusions to feelings about language and fashion and so many other cultural elements.

Continue reading Apparently I have a lot of opinions about what cup you should use for your drink