Recently read, recently resolved

Read, or nearly:

  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari—At over 400 pages, it’s not that brief, but it’s worth it. It’s my kind of history book, light on details, heavy on concepts. The big one: civilizations are built on myths or mental constructs (religion, culture, class, rights, justice, money, etc.). It’s the only way to achieve a scale of organization (e.g., millions of people) beyond what biology would facilitate on its own (e.g., hundreds). Here’s an interview with the author, which inspired me to read the book. (In truth, I’ve not yet finished it.)
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr—I may not yet have read a more beautiful book. It’s a novel, not a physics book, but there is some light (in two senses) physics in it. Delightfully, there are even a few equations (trigonometry), but one need not understand them. I will read it again, which I almost never do of any book. What it taught me: the (biological?) drive for a meaningful life is so easily co-opted by civilization, even a grotesquely destructive one like the Third Reich. Harnessing the ambition of millions of people—or even a few—is a remarkable thing. Do we slip on the clothes or are we dressed by others? “Isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and the world sets upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it. Each bite of food, each particle of light entering the eye—the body can never be pure.” Here’s the NY Times review.
  • What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe—Highly entertaining and a not bad review of some science. If there isn’t yet a physics course designed in this style, there should be. Not addressed: How much more of the electromagnetic spectrum would we need to see before we couldn’t see an object (like a computer screen) two feet from our face? Quoting All the Light We Cannot See again: “Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters on them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again […] and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly […] over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.”

Maybe some of us are already seeing way too much of this light, in a way. I’ve decided I am and have resolved to implement a new approach to work and life: I am only reading email, news, and checking Twitter a few, set times on weekdays and even less on weekends. Alerts are off, always. Expect less responsiveness. I’ll get to everything, just not right away. This will allow longer stretches of time to focus, something I’ve denied myself for too long, possibly deteriorating my ability to concentrate as I once did (or is that aging?). This is a common complaint. See this Note to Self episode; this one is also relevant.


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