My First Nomad Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas

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Lisbon, September 2017. I’ve spent a few pleasant weeks there. I think to myself, “Self — you’ve been living outside of the US for about 8 months now. And you’ve got a conference to go to in October. Shouldn’t you be thinking of ways of getting back to the US, like maybe eventually? Also, your country called, and it needs you.”

Fair point. But I was in no hurry to return, especially with Agent Orange in power and Greed as the national religion. How could I get back to the States, but slowly? Maybe on a boat. That moves slowly. And stops in a lot of places.

This could be the best idea I’ve ever had, or the worst. Anchors aweigh!

At a talk I attended the very day I had the boat idea, somebody mentioned in passing this thing called “The Nomad Cruise.” Excuse me, what is this? 14 days on the water, 4 ports of call, and a full program of talks and workshops covering everything from marketing, web design, photography, cryptocurrency, financial planning, and other topics of interest to location-independent entrepreneurs. Oh, and unlimited food and booze. The cruise would be leaving in seven days from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Price: eminently reasonable.

I’ve never been on a cruise. I don’t know anyone on this cruise. I have no idea what is going to happen. Where do I sign up?

I. Who are these Digital Nomads anyway?

Location-independent workers are a recent thing, but not that recent. Even a pioneering book like Tim Ferriss’s 2007 The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich — the closest thing to a Bible of Digital Nomadism — was merely describing a trend already well under way. What’s new is the acceleration of this demographic trend due to a few factors. Some of them are push factors, some of them pull:

  • Advent of the freelance economy. Long-term employment is diminishing.
  • Advent of location-independent jobs. If you’re a graphic designer, personal coach, writer, virtual assistant or online entrepreneur, you can work from any café with an internet connection.
  • Ubiquity of internet connections, even in remote areas.
  • High cost of city living without a commensurate quality of life.
  • Political unrest.

Of course, there are as many reasons for going nomad as there are nomads. Personally, I had wearied of San Francisco’s coupling of high cost of living with mediocre standard of living. I asked myself, what else could I get for $2500/month in rent besides deficient-to-absent public transport, impossible parking, rampant petty crime, exorbitant taxation, pointlessly expensive everything, needles and humanure everywhere on the streets, and an embarrassing homeless problem? After November 2016, for the sake of my sanity, I was also eager to put as much distance between myself and Agent Orange as possible. My fellow American refugees felt similarly.

Many of the nomads shared my reasons for hitting the road. For some, price arbitrage is a motivating factor. At $1000 a month, you would be living in penury in a place like Paris. In the US, you would be below the poverty line, qualifying for government assistance. On the other hand, you can live very well on that budget in a place like Bali, Guatemala, or Chiang Mai (as illustrated by Chris Dodd’s well-crafted video). And you get an ocean view!

Here are some of the circles I noticed in the big Venn diagram of nomads:

  • Young folks with limited income who dreamed of seeing the world, and finally did something about it.
  • Entrepreneurs with passive income and location-independent jobs who figured it would be fun to hit the road for a while.
  • Dedicated nomads perpetually on the move, with little intention to return to their home country.
  • Political semi-refugees from where the atmosphere can get oppressive: Hungary, US, Poland, England.
  • People at a transition point in life: divorce, breakup, career change, or major health-related event.
  • Watersports enthusiasts who just need to surf, kiteboard, scuba etc.
  • Cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
  • Entrepreneurs leveraging cost arbitrage to get their startups off the ground on minimal cash.
  • People from affluent countries whose robust social services afford its citizens the latitude to take extended trips, e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.

Following that last observation, most of the Nomad Cruisers were from Germany and the Netherlands, with sizable contingents from Hungary, North America, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

Minutes before leaving port, the Nomads scramble for the last threads of free internet connectivity

Even beyond national origin, a few questions distinguished the flavor of nomad: Are you doing this by choice or chance? Are you broke or thriving? Are you running away from something you don’t want or towards something you do want? Are you a consumer or creator? Are you an active contributor to the places you visit, or just using them like utilities?

I predict that the nomad trend will only continue accelerating in the years to come. Humans are the only animals that remain curious well past childhood. Given a chance to move around and experience new surroundings, many will.

 

II. What to do when stuck on a really big boat for two weeks

What’s a typical day like on a cruise? So many options to consider: Have a cocktail by the pool. Drink a cocktail in the pool. Drink a cocktail in the jacuzzi, on a deck chair on the ship’s prow, while reading a book, as tropical breezes caress your body. Go to the buffet for a meal. Go to a kitschy ABBA tribute show. Nap. Climb a wall. Go to the buffet for a snack. Play ping-pong, basketball, foosball, or an improvised drinking game. Repeat nap. Go to the buffet just because it’s there, it’s all-you-can-eat, and it’s always open. Have an inspired conversation. Cocktail nap. Or do jack diddly squat (known as “fuck-all” in England).

My days on the ship quickly developed a discernible structure vaguely resembling my terrestrial life. Emphasis on vaguely:

  • 7-8ish (actual time depending on what transpired the prior night): Get up. Meditate.
  • 8: Go to the gym and hop on the treadmill for about 5000m, or join the 1-hour bootcamp conducted by Eddie the Egyptian-Canadian.
  • 9.30: Get a quick breakfast at the buffet.
  • 10-1: Attend the morning talks. If poor delivery or not interested in topics, go back to room and read.
  • 1-2: Have lunch with a bunch of Nomads. Do my best to join a table of people I haven’t met yet.
  • 2-3.30: Attend afternoon workshop.
  • 3.30-5.30: Attend other impromptu workshops, or create one of my own (which I did 3 times). If neither is happening, nap or goof off by the pool.
  • 6pm: Acroyoga on the upper deck of the prow, conducted by Nikki, Stephanie and Patrick.
  • 7.30pm: sit-down dinner. Find a table that’s a mix of people you know already and like, and new people you’d like to meet. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find someone you can talk to about how you both used game theoretic explore-exploit algorithms and the 37% rule (that would be Marius).
  • 9pm: Back to the upper deck for the poolside bar, or to the Latin dance bar, or the coffee bar, or one of the other bars whose identity is fuzzy now for some reason.
  • 10ish: If imbibed enough drinks to dismiss all standards, attend cheeseball show at the theater. Elvis, Beatles, ABBA, whatever. For the ABBA show, think lots of glitter and implausible blonde wigs on olive-skinned Spaniards. Bring more drinks to make the kitsch go down easier.
  • 11.30: Drinks and dancing at Cyan Disco, or music jam on rooftop, then disco.
  • 1-3am: Crash.

Now, you don’t have to be serious about sleep science (I’m writing a book about it, yo) to realize that something here is not sustainable — namely, partying late and waking up early. There were mitigating circumstances allowing me to pull this off and still be battle-ready every day.

First, I drank sparingly — maybe 3 days out of the 13 (the night of the ABBA show was definitely one of them). On a party ship with an open bar and perpetually drinking partiers, this is a far more impressive feat than it seems, so allow me to congratulate myself here. No alcohol means better quality sleep. Second, I crashed way early on some of the nights. Third, I took naps. The lilting rhythm of the ship’s movement is good for rocking you to sleep.

The fourth trick is a bit of a deus ex machina. The Canary Islands and Panama are 5 time zones apart. So if you’re sailing westward from one to the other over 13 days, you get an extra hour on the clock every other day. So you can party your buns off, go to bed late, and miraculously wake up at 8 o’clock again the next day. By the end of the cruise, I was effectively getting up well past noon by Canary Islands time, but according to my new time zone, it was only 7.30am. Bonus!

Of course, this means that a cruise in the west-east direction would be very physiologically taxing, as one would be waking up an hour earlier every day. That’s pointlessly brutal, and if I ever think of doing something that dumb, please talk me out of it immediately.

III. Yeah, but will this cruise make you smarter?

The centerpiece of the cruise was the continuing education program of officially scheduled talks and workshops, supplemented by independently organized meetups and masterminds. There were three 40min lectures every morning between 10 and noon, then a 90min workshop in the afternoon. The days were themed: Digital Nomad day; media; passive income; lifestyle; business; finance; marketing; the future.

Overall quality of the presentations was uneven with some of the presenters being totally unprepared, while others were very good at what they did. Some of those:

A. Photography

The first was Oguzhan (pronounced osan) Altun, a Turkish photographer who runs the biggest photography school in Geneva. I had always been a skeptic when it came to seeing photography as art. What skill was there in pressing a button to capture what was already there for the eye to see? Oguzhan finally explained the art and skill of photography in a way that I understood.

For example, there’s a lot you can do besides twiddling with the variables of aperture, exposure, composition and perspective.

  • Use an item of foreground interest to show scale, or to distract from a warhorse tourist attraction (e.g. Eiffel Tower).
  • Catch your subject in the diffuse light of the golden hour, around dusk or dawn.
  • Select, select, select — only show 1% of your shots.
  • Wait until you can capture “the decisive moment” when something rare and interesting happens. Oghusan goes to great lengths to stake out timing, locations, and perspectives, and his meticulous work shows in his photos.

A second photographer, Michelle (Shelly) Kutzner, offered other useful tips. Get closer instead of zooming. Photograph into the light for a silhouette effect. Use water reflections. Get interesting foregrounds, or create them. Use a small aperture to turn light sources into starbursts. Use the frog’s eye view to make people look taller and jumps higher.

This is how the pros do it. Oguzhan Altun’s night time picture of Panama City.

B. Web programming

Another presentation that I got a lot out of was by designer and programmer Marius Schulz. Often the most difficult step in learning anything is the first one. For years, I’ve been meaning to learn web design, but always got snagged on how to get started. What program do I open? How do I test my code? In 1.5hrs, Marius demonstrated great patience in showing a roomful of rank beginners how to use the native text editor on a Mac and the Chrome browser as a rudimentary platform for web development. Now I know how a CSS (cascading style sheet) works! Marius had impressive programming chops and an agile mind, so I’m not at all surprised that he started a new job at the London offices of Facebook.

C. Personal finance basics

Pauline Paquin is a French digital nomad for 15+ years residing in Guatemala in a house she built herself. She gave a subtly empowering talk on “Freedom Through Financial Independence.” The cornerstone of her financial independence math was to save half your salary. To those who only make, say, $1000 a month and can’t afford to save, she had a piece of simple arithmetic advice: “Then just double your salary! Then you can save $1000 a month. There’s no upper limit to how much money you can make.” Indeed.

D. Search engine optimization (SEO)

One of the supremely competent individuals on the cruise was Rob Bertholf. A former college lecturer in computer science, he’s a deep thinker on search engine optimization (SEO), Google Adwords, online marketing and branding. And in case you had any doubts about his abilities, just Google “search engine optimization expert.” His name pops up first. Impressive.

Rob has a framework of thinking about things much broader than just SEO which he calls ideation through research. He talked about the hierarchy of keywords: branded, product, authority and lifestyle. A key question the successful marketer must ask himself: “If my offering is the answer, then what is the question?” Then target that question and make sure those who ask that question are led to your offering.

Rob was also remarkably giving. Every afternoon, he made himself available for hours to whoever had questions, and stayed until everyone was sated. He has dozens of hours of video teaching everything he knows, so if you want to learn more about his work, look him up.

E. App development

Mirko Kiefer of Blackbelt Labs gave a workshop demystifying the process of creating a smartphone app. You go from an idea, to validating the problem, to validating a solution, to creating a minimum viable product (MVP). Then you iterate on the cycle until the app works. Mirko took us through a series of questions and exercises to clarify the development process:

  • What is the problem? Is it a problem worth solving?
  • How could an app solve that problem?
  • Why would someone pay for that?
  • Where are your users? Actually interview them.
  • Define your ideal user — age, location, income, habits, hobbies, goals, desires.
  • Build your app audience. Aim for 100 people who really care about what you’re doing, and get to know them really well.
  • Prototyping and user testing. Use POP (prototyping on paper), Marvel, Framer, Sketch, or InVision to come up with the wireframes, the key screens, and the sequencing of the screens.
  • Test the minimum viable product. Continuous beta testing is crucial. Use Fabric, TestFlight, or HockeyApp.
  • Launch and repeat!

Mirko emphasized that the most neglected part of the process was product validation. Never assume you know what your customers want. Talk to them instead!

And just like that, you know a lot more about what goes into app development than you did a few minutes ago. Amazing!

There were other eye-opening talks that whose details were too technical for me to write up.

  • Lars Müller gave a talk on Amazon “whole-tailing”, which was not about eating lobsters in one gulp but rather a cross between retailing and wholesaling which I had never heard of.
  • In her talk on re-marketing, Pamela Wagner, a certified Google Adwords expert, showed how to make an ad follow a customer around the web wherever they go. That ad you see on Facebook that just happens to be the thing you searched on Amazon five minutes ago but didn’t buy? That’s re-marketing (or re-targeting). Remarketing aims to monetize the 97% of your traffic that bounces, thereby increasing your return on investment as much as tenfold. I knew of it, but had no idea how crafty and effective it can be. Pamela is a 7th dan black-belt at this. Look her up if you feel your company could use her services.

F. Environmental science in the Anthropocene

The most mind-expanding talk of the entire trip, however, came as a surprise. Adam, the environmental officer of the ship, had been quietly attending the lectures, and volunteered to give one at the very end. I was frankly looking forward to hearing the specifications of the ship and its environmental impact. How many horsepower does this baby have anyway?

That was not what his talk was about.

Instead, Adam made a deep, technical foray into environmental science in the anthropocene. What effects do we have on the environment when our value system prizes economic growth and acquisition of goods at any cost? In Adam’s words, “The problem with the current economy is that we value man-made things more than natural things.” If we’re serious about reducing human environmental impact and protecting the biosphere (and ultimately, ourselves), we need to flip that around.

I think of myself as a reasonably well-read person — hey, I’ve read both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. But this talk was an exhilarating barrage of statistics and paradigms I had never seen before.

• The maximum power principle or Lotka’s principle, or the fourth principle of energetics in open system thermodynamics: “In network design, the pattern that maximizes power will prevail.”

• Maximum amount of freshwater that can be consumed per year is 4000 cubic kilometers. Right now we’re at about 2600.

• Aragonite saturation ratio: Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate used by many organisms, including corals, to build their shells. The higher the acidity of the ocean surface, the lower this ratio gets. In pre-industrial times, the ratio was about 3.44:1, meaning that there was three times as much aragonite in the water as needed to prevent shells from dissolving. Now, it’s around 2.90. 2.75 is thought to the magic number. Below that, corals and other shells dissolve, and you get ecosystem collapse. To keep the ratio high, you need to drop CO2 levels below 430 parts per million, which is even lower than the 450ppm suggested as the upper limit to prevent global warming.

• Everyone knows that in an ecosystem, there are more predators than prey. In scientific terms, you have more primary producers (plants) than primary consumers (herbivores) than secondary consumers (antelopes) than tertiary consumers (carnivores and omnivores). So people immediately grasp that if you have a jungle with, say, 1,000,000 tigers, you’ve got a problem. Which means that right now, we have a problem, because the average human consumes 75 lb (34kg) of meat per year. Americans consume 271 lbs (123kg) of meat per person per year, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up. In their eating habits, humans are now behaving like apex predators, and Earth cannot support 7.3 billion apex predators. So we humans have a choice. We can either eat into extinction everything that moves, and drive ourselves into extinction in the process. Or we can change to a much more sustainable and perfectly palatable plant-based diet.

• Emergy, transformity, and solar emjoules per joule: That is not a typo. According to Wikipedia, “Emergy is a type of energy (exergy) that is consumed in direct and indirect transformations needed to make a product or service; it is a measure of quality differences between different forms of energy. It is measured in units of emjoules, a unit referring to the available energy consumed in transformations.”

Let me illustrate with an example from food. Let’s say you have a handful of wheat and a slice of bread that have the same amount of calories. It’s straightforward that the slice of bread took a lot more effort to produce. So the bread took more emergy, even thought it contains the same amount of energy.

What makes emergy a trippy concept is that it’s about the amount of energy that goes into creating different kinds of energy. Get it? So wood is less energy-intensive than coal, which is less energy-intensive than oil. Sunlight is the base measure; by definition it has a transformity (or transformation ratio) of 1.0 solar emjoules/joule (seJ/J). For wood, that ratio is 36,000:1; for coal, 67,000; oil, 148,000; electricity, 300,000.

Once you start thinking in terms of emergy and transformity, you realize that electricity and oil are highly refined forms of energy that should not be used frivolously. Burning oil for heat, or even for internal combustion engines, starts to seem mindlessly profligate — like feeding your dog caviar or something. Yet that’s what billions of vehicles do every day.

• “Electricity is not an energy source; it’s just a vector.” An obvious truth which had not occurred to me until Adam mentioned it.

• “The countries with the highest conflict are the ones with the highest reserves of oil and natural gas.” Think: Middle East, Russia, US. Another blindingly obvious truth, corroborated by my recent reading of Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard, a fantastic book that will reshape your understanding of global politics.

The Geobiosphere: Ecosystems and monetary value. This one slide summarizes a mind-boggling amount of information.

 

IV. Talks I presented

I also gave a few talks and workshops. The first was “SuperCharisma: How to be a compelling speaker”, a public speaking workshop I’ve conducted before in places like San Francisco, Bali, and Lisbon (VIDEO). The audience was receptive to that, so I also conducted “Self-Hypnosis for motivation, health and pleasure”, “Meditation for hustlers”, and “Cultivating authentic sexual power.”

These last three I made up on the fly. Briefly:

• In the self-hypnosis workshop, I taught people a simple countdown method to hypnotize themselves into a trance state and then give themselves suggestions. A technique I demonstrated helped an audience member reduce his subjective back pain by 80% in about 2 minutes. Another helped folks get rid of phobias. Over the next days, multiple people told me about breakthroughs they had achieved with the technique, from pain control to better sleep. People: hypnosis works.

In the meditation workshop, I taught five different techniques:

• Focus meditation: The ability to focus is the key skill enabling success. Also, your life is what you choose to pay attention to. Therefore, there is no skill more essential than the ability to concentrate and focus your attention.

• Open attention: This is about perceiving everything coming through your sensory channels instead of tuning it out: attending to vision, feeling, sound, smell, and taste. It’s the flip side of focus, and a big part of enjoying the stimuli the world is offering us.

• Loving-kindness (metta) meditation: here, you practice compassion by first focusing on someone you like effortlessly (e.g. niece, nephew, pet), then extending those warm, fuzzy feelings to the rest of the world. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.

• Walking meditation: walk slowly enough that you can actually feel and catalog everything that your body is experiencing. A favorite of Zen centers.

• Tonglen: from the Tibetan, “giving and receiving.” This is where you breathe in and feel the suffering of the world (receiving), then exhale pure white light and relief (giving). Intense and powerful.

The sexual power workshop was a bit more esoteric, but enough people were interested that I went ahead and did it. It was an introduction to basic energetics systems of Eastern wisdom, and how to cultivate it in the body.

• In the Taoist tradition, chi is the energy that we can learn to cultivate and circulate. The polarity between the receptive feminine (yin) and the projecting masculine (yang) initiates the flow. The microcosmic orbit is the path running up the back, to the top of the skull, down through the mouth and the front of the body, terminating in the perineum. By coupling breath to a visualization of the energy flow, you can get pretty high pretty fast. This visualization is also useful for delaying orgasm in men and intensifying it for both men and women.

• The Tantric tradition speaks of spanda, the vibration of the universe. All forms of energy involves vibration: molecules vibrating is heat; sound is vibrating air; radiation is photons vibrating. Even at absolute zero, the universe is still vibrating, as required by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. By plugging into the spanda for 5-10 seconds at a time throughout your day, you can access bliss. The works of Daniel Odier cover this stuff well.

• Strengthening the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle in men and woman can both enhance energy circulation and intensify orgasms. There are two main exercises: holds and flutters. Holds are intense contractions held for a few seconds to build strength. You’d want to do a set of 10 2-3x a day. Flutters are light, repetitive contractions that increase control. Do sets of 30 a couple of times a day. The Multiorgasmic Man by Mantak Chia and Doug Abrams is an indispensable reference for all men.

V. The Ocean

Staring at the ocean is one of the pleasures of a transatlantic cruise. The immensity of it: water in every direction as far as vision permits. I saw no land, no other ships, no birds, nothing for a whole week: just water.

Being amidst such aquatic immensity moves something deep and unnameable within me — some atavistic pull to jump into the big swimming pool where all life began. Perhaps this is why I’m not distressed to be on this life raft completely at the mercy of the elements. The worst that can happen is that I return to my birthplace from 2 billion years ago, rejoining the cycle of life by becoming fish food.

That said, our raft is a pretty nice one. The Pullmantur Monarch is totally self-sufficient for a maximum of 2730 passengers and 800 crew, with gigantic diesel engines to power 74,000 tons of steel, wine and disco to cross any ocean at a mildly hairdo-perturbing 19 knots (35 km/h).

All of this makes me wonder: how did the old explorers do it? There were no satellite maps, radar, sonar, depth charts, or GPS. Heck, they weren’t even sure that the world was round. It wasn’t until the 1740s that sailors could determine longitude accurately, so all of the sailing that happened before then was guesswork. Ships were rickety rat-infested wooden things that routinely ran aground. There was no refrigeration, so you had to develop a palate for salted pork — every day for 300 days — to survive. They didn’t know about vitamin C, so if starvation didn’t get you, scurvy did. And ship doctors were not just worthless but downright dangerous. So if you got sick, you were literally bled to death by a “surgeon” even before the cholera could get you.

If you were lucky enough to reach land, that was the beginning of your troubles. Malaria, dengue, yellow fever, poisonous plants, wild animals, hostile natives — no shortage of threats on your life.

So when a Vasco da Gama, Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan), Francis Drake or any other would-be conquistador set out on a mission to discover the western route to the spice islands or the “New World”, they were signing up for a suicide mission. The captains had no idea how far they had come, how far they had left to go, how deep the water was, and where the sea monsters were hiding. They could run out of food, freshwater, or their crew’s subordination.

It was a total act of faith. And completely, utterly nuts. I promise never to complain about slow on-board wi-fi again.

I’m sure most of the explorers got shipwrecked. Those stories you don’t hear about. But shockingly large numbers of them successfully made it to West Africa, India, Caribbean Islands, Central America, and North America, creating the modern world in the process.

Staring at the sea was awe-inspiring at the far scale and endlessly fascinating at the close scale. The surface of the water is a continuously variable skin, rising, falling, undulating, breaking up, re-forming, foaming, splashing. Its topography and motion is fractal: tiny waves look and move like big waves.

After staring at the water for some time, I started to see valleys, mountains, rivers, gullies, just like on solid land. Ocean is like land, only sped up. Here’s a watery mountain range, rising out of flat nothing! And now it’s gone. A time-lapse video of continental plates sped up a trillion times would look a lot like the ocean.

Or maybe land is just like the ocean, only slowed down. Caught in a crystalline lattice, rock molecules want to flow like water, but need more time. The movement of stars in galaxies is water slowed down even further. The center of the Milky Way looks like a giant whirlpool, sucking down stars into a supermassive black hole of 4.5 million solar masses. Even though the process is unfolding on a time scale of millions of years, you can recognize the pattern immediately: it looks just like the water draining out of your tub.

VI. Don’t do as they do: the via negativa of cruise health

There’s an old Persian saying about Loghman the Learned (Loghman-e Hakeem), a freedman who was renowned for his wisdom, gentility, and self-made wealth. Someone asked him, “How did you become such an exemplar of civility and politeness?” He responded, “I learned politeness from the impolite. I observed what they did, and studiously avoided doing it.”

Going on a tropical cruise is a crash course in learning the via negativa of wellness. Watch what the average cruise passenger does on a daily basis. Watch what their bodies look like (they’re all wearing swimsuits, so that’s easy). Now ask yourself, “Is that what I want to look like at 60?” Then, proceed to not do whatever they are doing.

How do people behave with unlimited access to food, alcohol, and leisure activities? Most people in affluent Western societies have all of that on a daily basis, so a cruise isn’t dramatically different from their everyday lives. It’s not like they go on the Stuttgart savanna with a sharp stick to dig up tubers. The main things you’re adding on a tropical cruise is free time and sunlight.

The problem is that we are 3 million-year old brains and bodies thrown into the year 2017 C.E. Then, there were no supermarkets. No bakeries. No TV. No cars. No handheld attention-sucking gizmos. People hunted and gathered their own food, walked many miles a day, rose and slept with the sun, and conversed for entertainment. Sugary and fatty foods were scarce and therefore prized.

If you lived in a nordic region, you had fair skin (low melanin) so you absorbed as much sunlight as possible to manufacture vitamin D. If you lived in the tropics, you had dark skin (high melanin) to shield your body against harmful ultraviolet rays.

Now, herds of pale people have traveled beyond their overcast ancestral homes into places with unlimited sunlight. Their ancient DNA says, “Look! Sun! Get out as much as possible! Make more vitamin D!” So they lay out in the sun for hours on end, while radiation emanating from a big fusion reactor in the sky bakes their skins, cracking it into ravines, gullies, and canyons, mutating their DNA into cancerous form.

Incidentally, do you know which country has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world? It’s Australia — English palefaces getting too much sun.

So the passengers lie down in the sun for hours, eat to excess, smoke, drink too much, exercise rarely. They eat kilos of beef and sausage. They load their plates with 5 kinds of dessert because it’s there. They drink nutritionally void, diabetes-inducing sugar-laden sodas. This probably does not come as a surprise to anyone. What continues to surprise me is that everyone knows that this stuff is bad for you, and continues doing it.

Why do so many people consider health such a disposable commodity? Our bodies are the ultimate non-replaceable good. There’s a word for that: sacred. There’s not a whole lot that’s sacred in Western societies. Except for maybe cars, and expensive possessions in general. People generally don’t graffiti their cars, ram them into walls for fun, or pour beer in the gas tank just to see what happens. If anything should be sacred, it’s your body. If people treated their bodies with the same degree of reverence as their cars, they’d be far healthier.

Watching these cruise passengers evoked a spectrum of emotions. Compassion, because damn, it must be difficult being creaky and out of shape. Terror, because that’s what I’ll become some day, if I’m lucky to get that old. Bewilderment, because surely they know better than to keep mistreating their bodies. Anger, because what the hell is wrong with them?!? Despair, because there’s not much I can do about it.

In the end, as if going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, I arrived at acceptance. Like the Tao Te Ching says, the world is perfect as it is. I continued to do my thing: eat a mostly plant-based diet; exercise every day; avoid alcohol; sleep well. And by being able to just look at situations instead of getting all worked up about them, I can be much more effective as a public health educator.

VII. Ports of Call

One of the features of a cruise is that it stops places. So after, oh, ten days of seeing nothing but water, we made our first stop in St Kitts. It’s a little Caribbean island — half of St Kitts & Nevis — with friendly people and nice beaches. I walked around the downtown area of Basseterre a little bit, camped out in a café to slake my 10-day old thirst for a decent internet connection, then hopped a cab to go to the beach where our group congregated. Our cabbie talked nonstop: about his 3 kids, 4 names, and 5 different jobs. Most important: a native of the island is a Kittitian, which sounds like a cross between a small cat and a petition.

That is the stuff Blue Curaçao is made of.

Apparently the scuba diving in St Kitts is outstanding, and a large contingent from our group dove, spotting some manta rays and sharks. So I made a mental note of getting PADI certified for the next such outing.

Curaçao was substantially similar to St Kitts, except with a persistent Dutch influence. We hopped buses and went straight to the beach and stayed there all day, so I have nothing cultural to report other than it being super nice and insanely hot, with white sand beaches and pellucid blue water.

Aruba was the final stop before Panama City. The beach was walking distance, so that’s where I walked. From the high food prices and proliferation of luxury stores along the main drag, I gathered it’s a high-end destination. So I went for a high-end swim, swigged down some high-end beer, and took a selfie of myself with on the beach with said beer to out-selfie all selfies for all time. I’m in Aruba, peasants. For a solid 6 hours.

Panama City was the final destination, which afforded me the opportunity to catch up with my old friend Luis. He knew that I would want to check out the Canal, so we went straight there as soon I arrived in town.

“I’m sorry, can’t hear you — I have a fake phone in my ear.” Teasing dummies at the Panama Canal Museum

The Panama Canal Museum is excellent. Now you’ve all heard of the Panama Canal, but nothing will prepare you for the superhuman magnitude of this engineering marvel. The exhibit did a good job of conveying the sheer hubris and pigheadedness that went into the building of the Canal. “Yeah, there’s like swamps and jungle and stuff, for like, oh, 80km (50mi), but we’ll just plow through the whole thing and excavate 800 million tons of mud. Oh, also malaria and yellow fever.”

The first people to attempt the project were the French. After dumping today’s equivalent of billions of dollars, they just gave up. Then the Americans came, and with the help of the legendary Dr William Gorgas, they managed to reduce the threat of malaria and yellow fever so not all the workers dropped dead.

A man, a plan, a canal. Palindrome ruined.*

On an even grander scale, Panama recently added another lane of traffic in 2016, doubling its overall capacity. The receipts from the Canal afford Panamanians a decent standard of living, with free education and no income tax.

 

VIII. Farewell

The night of our arrival in Panama City, our crew gathered one last time at a rooftop bar for drinks, revelry and goodbyes. Many of the cruisers would continue their nomadic ways at Bocas del Toro, an archipelago 10hrs by bus up the isthmus. Others returned home or went to neighboring countries like Colombia and Costa Rica. The next morning I hopped a plane back to Los Angeles. Huge thanks to Johannes Voelkner, the creator of the Nomad Cruise, for taking the initiative to create this adventure in friendship and learning, and to Bori Vigh, for organizing the learning program.

Preparing for the group photo. We were arranged according to height, so this part of the photo is mostly guys. The cruise was 60% male, 40% female.

* The original palindrome was “A man, a plan, a canal. Panama.”

Dispatch from Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Terrorism, and the Fabric of Trust

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If you were to create a river flowing with humans instead of water, it would look a lot like Las Ramblas (La Rambla to the locals). Night and day, at all hours, people walk up and down the middle of the famed boulevard. It’s wide enough to accommodate twenty bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, plus a sidewalk restaurant on each side, plus a lane of traffic in each way, plus conventional sidewalks and stores at the far edge.

And yet, a few days ago, the flow of humanity was so dense and turbulent that I could not walk in a straight line more than 10 meters at a time. The mix is variegated, multilingual, multigenerational. In one five-minute stretch I heard English, German, Danish, Swedish, French, Arabic, occasionally Spanish and even Catalan! Families amble and feud, college kids frolic and gawk, stag parties stagger, and seated white-haired vacationers sip on sangria, watching the river flow by.

The particular threat to straight-line walking is the smartphone-addled amblers – a global phenomenon hardly specific to Las Ramblas, but rendered particularly treacherous here through sheer numbers. People looking at on-screen representations of the world instead of the real thing are liable to plow right into you unless you’re looking sharp and wearing your dancing shoes.

Yet, underlying the seeming chaos, there is an order. People don’t run into each other. The wind-up microcopter salesmen launch their wares skywards but catch them before they land on unsuspecting heads. Nobody trips. And I’ve never seen a fight. All of this can only arise from implicit rules harbored so deeply as to not need to be spoken: We coexist peacefully. We look out for each other. This is a safe place.

Yesterday, at 5.14pm, I got a text from a local friend asking if I was okay. She spoke of a van plowing into the Las Ramblas crowd. The unspoken contract had been violated.

At night, a miasma of pain and bewilderment permeated the air of Barcelona. The Festa de Gracia, the mad weeklong fount of creativity and zest that envelops the Gracia district with miles of offbeat recycled decorations and music, had been put on hold. And, unimaginably, Las Ramblas was shut down. Around 2am, I decided to walk the 1.5km from my neighborhood of Poble Sec to Las Ramblas to see the dried up river from up close. On the way, I walked through several neighborhoods normally bustling at this hour – Raval and Ciutat Vella. No one was there except for homeless folks who had nowhere else to go. And Las Ramblas was cordoned off for the night.

Earlier that evening, I had paid a visit to my favorite local pintxo bar, L’Atelier de Blai. Lisa, the young woman sitting next to me at the bar, worked a block away from where the accident happened. She had heard the screams of the crowd and run out to see the injured folks on the street – bodies with limbs contorted at unnatural angles, some dying, some already lifeless. She ran back into the store and pulled down the metal shutters until the police told them two hours later it was okay to come. She went to a hotel and asked if they could be kind enough to call her a cab: “Yes, after we get one for the other 200 people waiting ahead of you.” She had certainly earned her glass of white wine for the day.

There is an invisible but ubiquitous fabric interconnecting all humanity – indeed, all life on Earth. Whether we realize it or not, we are one giant superorganism, intricately dependent upon one another. It’s easy to see that relationship between, say, a bee and a flower. But it may not be as immediately obvious how my life connects with that rowdy English tourist, or the Catalan grandmother wheeling her groceries home. But it does, and it’s the only way things can ever work.

What the terrorists did was to punch a hole through that fabric of trust and deep interdependence, thereby declaring themselves outside of it. Outside of the fabric there is only death and exile – a fate to which Muslim extremists like the ones who drove the truck routinely consign themselves.

The good news is that the fabric heals itself. And people have the power to accelerate the healing – by choosing to trust, to live, to keep rambling on Las Ramblas. I am happy to report that today, Las Ramblas is open again.

The criminal justice system removes from society those who have willfully damaged the fabric, lest they do more harm.

But state institutions of justice have less latitude to act against those who intend to damage the fabric, even when they declar it publicly – say, through a white supremacist rally. So we must take it upon ourselves to protect it actively.

When someone marches in Charlottesville or anywhere else under a Nazi banner, they are declaring unequivocal intention to do harm. Believe them. Look up from your mere representations of the world and realize that the real world is not as safe as it used to be.

These people want to hurt you if you don’t agree with them, and kill you if you don’t look like them. So you need to let them know that it’s really not okay.

Often they will be too caught up in their own hurt to reason with them. And if you punch them in the face first, you become more like them, defeating our own purpose.

But you can help accelerate their declared intention to exile themselves from society.

The first step is to examine your attachment to aspects of your own identity which you did not get to choose – your nationality, your hometown, your religion, your sexual orientation, name, and even your gender. If you’re doing this because you’re a New Yorker, Jewish, black, Muslim, white, a woman, gay, an immigrant, whatever – it’s already the wrong reason. All those things were just the roll of the dice. Let them go.

Your circle of self either embraces the whole of the world, or you’re just doing this for selfish, tribal reasons that can just as easily turn you into one of the bad guys.

Once you realize that you’re defending all sentient beings, you’re on much better footing. And yes, National Parks contain sentient beings, and you’d better believe they’re under threat, too.

Next, you must seek out and uproot the sources of anger and hatred in yourself. Anger clouds your judgment and makes you less effective, and we need your mind to be sharp here. As William Blake said in Auguries of Innocence, “To be in a passion you good may do/ But not if a passion is in you.” Instead of letting the anger consume you, feel just enough of the anger to let it to propel you.

Hatred is an even bigger problem, as it tends to redound on itself, making you miserable and less effective – and once again, more like your enemy.

The solution? If your circle of compassion embraces the entire world, this has to include your enemies, too. Having compassion for them precludes hating them.

This is probably easier said than done. The central story from the Bhagavad Gita is instructive: Arjuna’s relatives have unfairly usurped the monarchy from him and his brothers. So now his army is arrayed against that of his uncles and cousins. But how can he fight and kill his own relatives?

His charioteer happens to be a pretty wise person – Lord Krishna in disguise, who just happens to be the creator of the universe. And he tells Arjuna that he will do this because it’s his dharma – a mixture of duty and fate: “Put your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord, and plunge into the heat of battle.”

If you are a decent person, then your duty and fate is to protect all sentient beings from forces of harm. You are the guardian of the web of life. Luckily, in America, this dharma thing is a familiar concept. We call it doing your job.

And yeah, it’s your job now. And mine. There isn’t anyone else. So get organized. Protest. Publicly identify white supremacists, Nazis and Trump supporters. Make it difficult for them to have jobs, relationships, permits. Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and any other number of effective organizations that right-wingers want shut down.

And through all of it, above all, maintain your humor. If there’s one overarching thing that Fascists, Nazis, right-wingers and totalitarians have in common, it’s this: they’re utterly humorless. They’re just not funny. How many pictures of laughing dictators have you seen? Exactly. And they can’t stand being made fun of (see: Trump’s reaction to Saturday Night Live sketches). Srdja Popovic’s brilliant Blueprint for Revolution depicts humor as the central tool for nonviolent resistance.

So take a deep breath, and take stock of your own prejudices, and embrace the whole world with your heart. Like a Zen master, detect then uproot the sources of hate. Get clever by reading Blueprint for Revolution, get creative, get motivated, get organized. And see if, instead of getting livid, you can chuckle a little at the absurdity of it all. You’ll be even smarter and more effective that way.

Then go ahead and do your job. The whole river of life is propelling you forward.

Bali: Rules for the Road

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Bali scootersMost of the people I know here in Ubud have had some kind of scooter accident, from mild (gash in foot) to severe (broken hand) to life-threatening (concussion with broken leg and jaw). Scooters are the way to travel in Bali. Since there’s no way around them, might as well learn how to be safe on them:

Always wear a helmet. No ifs, ands or buts about this one. Make sure it’s a good one, and get a full-face helmet if possible, a $40 investment. Unless you don’t think your head and face are worth 4 gin-and-tonics.

First look right, then left. Like England and Australia, people drive on the left side of the road here, so look right first when crossing or merging. The corollary to that is “left turn easy, right turn hard.”

Keep feet inside footwell. Inside the footwell, your feet are protected. Outside of it, it can get snagged by trees or other motorbikes, or run over by cars.

Flip down your helmet visor when riding. The other day, a bat flew into my face at 30km/h. I didn’t have the visor down, but I was lucky that it mostly bounced off the helmet and only grazed my face. So now I always pull the visor down. At scooter speeds, a bug can shred your cornea. Protect your face and eyes when in motion.

Always wear closed-toe shoes. No exceptions to this one, folks. It’s unbelievably easy to injure your feet on a scooter — e.g. drop the kickstand accidentally on your foot, and voilà, now you need five stitches. Wearing real shoes instead of flip-flops prevents a whole host of minor disasters.

Slow way down when it’s raining. Your brakes don’t work nearly as well in the rain, and neither do those of others on the road. Avoid driving in the rain if possible, but if not, slow way the hell down.

Gravel and sand are the enemy. Gravel and sand eat scooters for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They make your traction and balance go to shit, then devour you whole. Avoid them.

Don’t pass if you don’t need to. We’re in Bali, not New York. Relax. Enjoy the warmth of the diesel exhaust on your face. Passing might save you 10 seconds; not turning into road pizza by an oncoming truck saves your whole life.

Merge with authority. Punch it when you’re about to get on the road so you can rapidly match the flow of traffic. This is one of the times when speed makes you safer.

No drinking. Even one drink compromises your focus.

No distraction. There are many attractive, minimally dressed women on the sidewalks. Wait till you get to yoga class to check them out — they will still be there. While riding, look only straight ahead.

Beware of dogs, kids, and tourists. All three are highly unpredictable and will wander onto your path, oblivious to danger or honking. Bali dogs are particularly spaced out, with zero respect for road rules.

Beware of mud and dog poop. They make the road far more slippery than you think. Riding onto a patch of either one could mean losing control of your bike.

Expect the unexpected. Oncoming trucks switching into your lane; extra-wide loads; vehicles going the wrong way; cars backing out onto your path; man-eating potholes; flash floods; drivers passing you while you’re passing; dogs sleeping in the middle of the street; chickens falling out of the vehicle in front; sudden traffic stoppage — all these happen on Ubud roads regularly. Anticipate the strange, and always pay full attention.

Impresssions: Bali

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There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to wear helmets, but compliance is lax and enforcement even more so. The sensible ones wear long sleeves, pants, and real shoes, but most people drive around in minimalist tropical gear: shorts, tank top, and flip-flops.

If you think this is a public health disaster waiting to happen, you’d only be half right: it’s already happening every day. Especially with the inexperienced Westerners, who think they can jump into this roiling fray without pre-existing mad scooter skills and full-body Kevlar and somehow remain unscathed.

Every day of my stay, a consistent percentage of my friends got bruised and bandaged from some kind of motorbike accident. Hell, I have a full motorcycle license and I took two weeks to practice and understand the traffic patterns before jumping in. Of course, if you’re only in town for a week, you don’t have the luxury of time. So, in the interest of keeping your body free of rips, scrapes, bruises and breaks, here are some inviolable rules of scooter transport:

  1. Always, always, always wear a helmet. Especially when riding with someone else.
  2. Always, always, always wear closed-toe shoes. Especially when riding with someone else. If you just wear flip-flops while riding behind someone, you are a fool, because your feet are sticking out of the scooter, unlike the driver, whose feet are inside, and somewhat protected by the platform and footwell. All it takes is a stray branch or rock to trash your feet and render you a hobbling invalid. Not how you want to spend your vacation.
  3. If you’re a beginning driver, start out slow and be patient. Remember that you’re on vacation, which means that you don’t need to hurry, ever.

Appeasing the spirit gods
One of the first things I noticed in Ubud were the curious little square flat baskets on the ground and on various statues. The baskets were made of interwoven coconut leaves, and contained flowers; rice (dry or cooked); pieces of fruit; sometimes a small candy, cracker or cookie; and always incense. What the heck is going on here?

Banten! Photo by Jamie Marvin

Banten! Photo by Jamie Marvin

Then I saw a young woman dressed in a formal sarong and colorful ceremonial shirt place one of these at the foot of a statue and reverently sprinkle it with water. Is this some kind of sacred ceremonial gesture? Why yes it is. The offerings are called banten, and they are a consuming preoccupation of the Balinese.

Although Indonesia is mostly Muslim (87%), most Balinese are Hindu. It’s a special flavor of Hinduism, mixed in with Buddhism and Balinese animism. So the banten are not just offerings to the legions of Hindu gods, but also to the Balinese demons pre-dating Hinduism — in particular, the good demon Barong, and the evil demon Rangda.

The Balinese are deeply invested in this contrast between dark and light, evil and good, impure and pure. So much so that they leave as many banten at the Rangda altars as they do at the Barong ones. There must be balance! So good and evil get equal time. Kind of like the US Congress.

Speaking of altars, apparently every Balinese house has three of them: a high one for the major deities, a middle one for the family, and a low one for the demons, with each altar statue wrapped in a formal sarong. Ganesha the elephant-god and Hanuman the monkey-god are popular subjects, and Shiva is ubiquitous. Altars with just the symbol of the swastika are also common, which here only carries its original meaning of a lucky or auspicious object.

Initially, I thought these reverential gestures touching, especially when seeing a formally-clad lady laying down flowers and holy water on a lowly scooter. But after a while, I couldn’t help but notice two things. First, these banten — 1-3 times a day, with items of dubious biodegradability — generate a stupendous amount of waste. Second, are they laying down these offerings out of love or fear? Turns out it’s a bit of both, but mostly fear. Balinese culture is profoundly superstitious. Its ceremony culminates in the new year celebrations.

Nyepi and Ogoh-ogoh
Nyepi (March 28) is the Balinese new year. In the run-up to it, there is a ton of preparation for the new year’s eve Ngrupuk parades. All over the island, craftsmen build giant demons (ogoh-ogoh), musicians practice till late in their gamelan bands, and designers build costumes and headdresses. This means that in the weeks before the new year, you’ll walk by some terrifying half-finished giant papier-mâché baby’s head and wonder what the hell is going on.

One of the magical experiences for me was stumbling upon a midnight gamelan rehearsal. The men are dressed formally, most of them playing a xylophone-like instrument. But gamelan music is tuned to a pentatonic scale. So if you have an ear trained by Western music, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and it’s utterly captivating. My brain was trying to figure out every note: why the hell it was off by just a little bit?

Apparently I wasn’t the only Western music enthusiast entranced by gamelan music. Claude Debussy was famously influenced, and I will now hear the shimmering sounds of Estampes and Suite Bergamasque with new ears. Erik Satie emulated the gamelan sound in his Gnossienne piano suite. More recently, Lou Harrison went so far as to construct his own gamelan instruments to compose original pieces. Some of these pieces and instruments were showcased by Michael Tilson Thomas in the San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox 100th birthday tribute to Lou Harrison in December 2016.

But, back to the ogoh-ogoh. The finished specimens weigh hundreds of kilos and can be a good 6m (20ft) high. They sit on bamboo platforms, and dozens of young men carry, hoist and twist these beasts through the streets of Bali in parades and make-believe battles with other demons. After much storytelling, shadow plays, faux street fights, and insanely loud percussion music, the celebrating Balinese folks burn these exquisitely crafted demons to the ground. At midnight, the town goes into silence.

demon_nyepi

Ogoh-ogoh. Photo by Daphne Tse

kali_nyepi

Ogoh-ogoh of the goddess Kali. I would not mess with her. Photo by Daphne Tse

One thing you have to understand about Balinese people is that they are unfailingly polite. To you, the visitor, they will always smile and never say “no.” I asked a taxi driver, “Do you speak English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said, “Yes, yes.” So I asked, “How good is your English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said “Yes, yes.”

However, on one and only one day, they will get in your face. That day is Nyepi, which is Balinese for “shut up and stay home.” Because on Nyepi, the bad demons come flying over the neighborhood. If there’s nobody on the street, then the demons just kind of look at each other, shrug, and go, “Nope, nuffin’ to see here,” and move on. A relatively demon-free year can then ensue. But woe betide the neighborhood if somebody’s outside the house doing stuff. Because that gives the bad demons a landing spot, with predictably dire consequences. Did I mention the part about superstition?

So on Nyepi, the day of silence, everyone stays home, fasts and meditates. The entire island of Bali shuts down, even the airport. Some cities go so far as to shut down electricity. I spent the day meditating, reading two books (both by social psychologist Timothy Wilson, in case you were wondering) and doing a 36-hr fast, conveniently obviating the need for food in a restaurant-less city. At the end of one of my walking meditations, I ventured to the edge of the hotel to see who was on the street. Nobody, except for a sole fella with an enforcer t-shirt. I resisted the smartass impulse to ask him what he was doing on the street, and returned poolside to savor the quiet of the day.

Yoga Barn
The ostensible purpose of my stay in Bali was to work on my next book. It’s safe to say that I got no writing done the first two weeks I was here. Okay, maybe three. Or four. If the point of leaving San Francisco was to avoid distractions in the form of talks, concerts, classes and people, Ubud scores a giant fail for that. There may be no SF Symphony or City Arts & Letters here. But there is Yoga Barn, and that is enough to keep your day full. The whole day, every day.

See, if you are into yoga, healing, or meditation, then Yoga Barn has something for you, from 7am to 9pm. They have yoga classes with excellent teachers all day. They have offbeat classes like Thai Yoga Massage, Sound Healing, and Shamanic Breathing. And they have the Garden Kafé serving vegetarian and vegan food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And smoothies. And desserts. Oh, and a spa, with all kinds of massages and facials. Basically, it’s heaven for the Affluent Western Woman (AWW).

So what happens is that you’re sitting at lunch, chatting away with your newfound friends from Australia, or Norway, or Germany, or Colorado. And then someone says, “Hey, why don’t you come to Yin and Meditation class? Emily’s great.” And you think, well, why don’t I? I can always postpone the meeting with Angela Merkel till later. And that’s how I experienced a whole panoply of classes I would have otherwise neglected:

Sound healing: This amazing musician named Punnu Wasu who can do Sanskrit kirtan and Urdu qawwali and the harmonium, and his band of musicians assembled most likely that very day, play a bunch of devotional music while you lie down, head-first. What ensues is the most pleasant musically-accompanied nap you can imagine, and much cheaper than Wagner’s Ring cycle. He also does a kirtan session, which is phenomenal if you’re into that whole devotional-call-and-response-to-pagan-deities-in-languages-you-don’t-understand thing.

Thai yoga massage: You use your body to stretch and knead another body. Taught by the outstanding, multitalented, dreadlocked Carlos Romero (aka the Venezuelan Lenny Kravitz), who also teaches vinyasa flow, Acroyoga, and capoeira. I have yet to meet a woman (or man) here who doesn’t have a teacher crush on him (to be clear, I just want to be him).

Shamanic breathing: For 90 minutes, you hyperventilate your heart out with open-mouth breathing. This disrupts your blood chemistry in a way that induces whole-body tingling, some cramping, and potential hallucinations. See, I knew you’d love it. An inexplicable crowd favorite.

Bali Spirit Festival
Through sheer happenstance, the annual Bali Spirit Festival, a 7-day feast of yoga, music and dancing now in its tenth year, was happening during my stay. Through the generosity of an old friend from Boston, I came into a pass for the festival (thanks a million, Maria!) and decided to attend. As a result, I experienced some more classes that I can now report on:

Afro Flow Yoga: The delightfully energetic Leslie Jones leads you through a combination of African dance, chants, and yoga poses, all accompanied by her percussionist husband Jeff.

Contact improvisation dance: I always thought of this as the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of dance, but the way Baptiste taught it made a lot of sense and was much strenuous sweaty fun. Basically, roll into, lean on, crawl under and carry your partner till it gets old, then switch partners and do it all over again.

ZenThai Yoga Massage: Like Thai yoga massage, but with more zen! Taught by an Australian surf god named Gwyn, with emphasis on acupressure points.

Laughter yoga: After the uproarious sounds of this class made paying attention impossible in my quieter class next door, I decamped to see what the hell was up. Teacher Kay-Wararuk Sunonethong was utterly charming with exercises that seem goofy at first glance (“Very good, very good, hahaha!”) but are quite effective in changing mood. Psychologists call this embodied cognition: emotions follow the body’s actions. Her winning motto: “Please keep being silly.”

The Healer Hustle
Of course, for every great teacher and healer in Ubud, there are scores who are mediocre, unqualified, or downright dodgy. To be fair, most of these self-styled healers sincerely believe in what they are doing. However, no amount of belief is ever going to turn an ineffective healing technique (e.g. bloodletting, which hastened the demise of George Washington and Lord Byron) into an effective one (e.g. penicillin).

Said healers also hang out at Garden Kafé, because that’s where the open-minded AWWs are talking about their latest cleanse, juice fast, 7-day silent retreat, yoga teacher training, colonic treatment, or chakra clearing. If so, they’re already 9/10 of the way towards booking a session with someone who convincingly presents a solution to their real or imagined problems.

For example, this is what this one guy who calls himself Nadao Medium (name modified to prevent free publicity) did to a friend of mine. Stacy is sitting there having dinner, minding her own business, when Nadao comes over and says in all earnestness, “Sorry to interrupt you, but I just got a transmission about you and had to share it.” Like gearboxes and differentials? No, a transmission from beyond, silly. Next thing, he’s telling her about how she had a big shift in her life at age 8 — omigod, how could he know?! — and how she’s a true seeker and he has some answers for her, if she’s interested. Would she like to book a session?

Stacy did end up booking the session, for $100 and 2.5 irretrievable hours of her life. For a sense of scale, $100 is a lot of money in Ubud — we’re talking ten one-hour massages. I should probably mention that Stacy is young and pretty, and during the session Nadao kept pointing out that her relationship with her boyfriend was not going to last, oh and by the way, her sexuality was shut down. He also made a bunch of completely misplaced pronouncements about her life that left her perturbed the next day when I spoke to her.

Dear friends: one of the most reliable ways of inflicting misery upon yourself is to believe in magical thinking. That is, to think that someone else has the solution to your problem, and that solution is of a supernatural nature. Look, it’s cool if you still want to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But if you’re over 6, people will start looking at you funny. Belief in healers with magical powers is pretty much the same thing.

But you know what? You don’t have to believe me. In 2005, my personal hero Derren Brown came to the US to film Messiah, a TV special in which he impersonated 5 different practitioners of the spiritual and supernatural arts: a medium, an alien abduction specialist, a psychic, a dream interpreter, and an evangelical Christian preacher. His goal was to have prominent professionals from each of those fields endorse him as the genuine article. 4.5 of the 5 did. You have to watch the whole riveting show to see what happened. Expect your brains to be rearranged.

What people like Nadao the Medium are doing is cold reading. It’s an art and a science, and if you get good at it, you can fool pretty much anyone. Palm reading is a form of cold reading, because there is no proven correlation between the lines in your hand and life events. So are all forms of astrology and tarot. I do pretty good palm readings. Afterwards, even when I tell people that I totally made everything up, they still want to believe it was all true. It was not. It was bullshit. Manufactured it personally, so I should know.

In fact, as you’re sitting there right now, reading this page, I’m getting a transmission about you. Ah yes — you are a very self-assured person. Outwardly, everyone sees you as confident and competent. And yet, you have areas of self-doubt that you’ve gotten very good at hiding. In fact, you may even think that you’re a fraud at the very thing that everyone else thinks you’re really good at.

Here’s another intuition about you: as you were growing up, you had a turbulent relationship with your opposite-sex parent, particularly starting around age 11 or 12. And I have a feeling you have a scar on your left knee.

How did I do? If those things sounded eminently plausible to you, it’s because they’re plausible to everyone. We all have insecurities; everybody was a teenager at some point; and all kids fall a lot. However, as I’m cold-reading you and creating this warm and oh-so-special personal cocoon between us, your mind is only paying attention to the hits, not the misses. And you’re completely ignoring the base rate — the degree to which my oracular pronouncements are true of the general population. Oh, and you have an obsession with underwear — in fact, you’re wearing some right now!

Now I’m not saying that these treatments bear no benefit whatsoever. Hell, there are studies that show even chiropractors sometimes get good results. This is because meaningful contact with another human being can itself be curative. Someone sits down, listens to you, and pays attention for a full hour — something neither doctors nor spouses seem able or willing to do these days.

The other problem with these treatments is that they’re nonspecific. I’ve gotten some significantly tingly feelings when someone did Reiki on me, but what did it accomplish? Did it solve the problem or merely treat it temporarily? How do you measure the before and after? How big a dose did I get? Are there side effects? Real drugs undergo rigorous testing to answer all of these questions, and even they don’t work all the time. If all you want is an experience of healing, hey, knock yourself out and stimulate the local economy in the process. But if you have appendicitis, may I suggest a scalpel.

I’m nowhere as good as Derren, but here’s my challenge to Medium Anao specifically, and healers in general: if I do a session with your client, and they declare that it was as good as yours, then you’re a fraud. Taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities is totally uncool, so if that’s your business model, I’m coming for ya.

So, in the interest of reader safety and getting this rant out of my system, here’s a list of healing modalities you’re better off avoiding. Keep in mind that I’m trained not just as a doctor but also a clinical hypnotherapist, so I’ve been moving in these circles for a while, and my experience with the woo is usually firsthand:

Past-life regression: Daydreams that you pay a lot for. It’s fun to make up stories; the whole business of books and movies is based on it. But there is no scientific evidence that this stuff actually works. And under hypnosis, it’s trivially easy to implant memories and prompt all kinds of weird tales. In my live stage hypnosis shows, I routinely get people to pretend they’re aliens, speak in an alien tongue, and have someone else interpret it. This does not make Planet Xorkon real. You already have a real life with enough problems that you don’t need past ones to pile on top of it. Let’s stick with that.

Intuitive healers: Some of these people have a talent, but it’s just really hard to quantify what they’re doing. Mostly they make you feel good about yourself. If that’s worth money to you — hey, you look great today! Really, you do. And you’ve got so much kindness and generosity in your heart. That’ll be $150, thank you.

Colonic hydrotherapy: Nature created one-way streets for a reason — arteries, veins, bile ducts, digestive tracts. Do not try to reverse that flow. Colonics are totally unproven, with risk of colon perforation. Surely one can find more wholesome entertainment than this.

Psychics and mediums: This is straight-up cold reading. Incredibly manipulative, and dangerous even as entertainment.

Astrology: Let’s say you have a problem in your life. Is it more likely to be caused by some random person 10,000km away, or the person occupying your seat right now? Well, the average planet is 100 million km away, and stars 100 billion km. So quit blaming Mercury in “retrograde” instead of the reprobate in your seat who’s good at making bad decisions. This is magical thinking at its worst. I’ve noticed an astonishing number of perfectly smart, educated women who believe in this nonsense. Superstition is the opposite of power, and makes you incredibly easy to manipulate. And no, putting “Vedic” in front of anything does not make it less bogus.

Cleanses: Cleanses seem like the custom-made antidote to Judeo-Christian feelings of guilt, sin and impurity — some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card after abusing your body for too long. Friends don’t let friends do cleanses. But they do encourage them to lay off the sugar, processed food, alcohol and crystal meth.

The good news is that your body is exquisitely good at clearing waste out of your body. If your lungs, kidneys and liver weren’t working at it around the clock, you’d be dead in minutes. There is no central repository of toxic gunk hiding somewhere in your body that can somehow be released through ingesting fruit juice, water, clay, maple syrup, lemon juice, motor oil or any other voodoo concoction.

If you have a parasite, take a pill. If you have a heavy metal problem, do chelation therapy under medical supervision, or listen to less Metallica. Otherwise, consider all cleanses to be snake oil. The Master Cleanse, developed in the 1920s by a felon jailed for damaging people by practicing medicine without a license, is a particularly popular culprit.

Also, know that fruit juice is bad for you. Yup, you heard it right. It’s basically sugar water, and it spikes your blood glucose to the stratosphere. Buying “cold-pressed” fruit juice just broadcasts “I’m credulous enough to drop $8 on a glass of juice and too lazy to chew.” Fruit was meant to be eaten whole, with the fiber and everything. May want to peel that pineapple, though.

Veganism: A plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health and that of the planet. Veganism, however, is more like an ideology than a diet. No stable community anywhere on earth follows a vegan diet, except for affluent Westerners who have the time and money to afford this kind of indulgence. It’s nutritionally deficient, pointlessly expensive, and just plain weird. I mean, tofurkey? Really? And do you appreciate how much environmental havoc soybeans farming wreaks? Vegans also make for difficult dinner companions and tend to be judgey. I know this because during my two-month vegan stint, I was insufferable. Cheese, I promise we’ll never be separated for that long again.

In the end, I’ve learned that the business model of preying on people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities remains robust. Since predators are going to keep preying, it’s incumbent on us to educate ourselves and remain vigilant against the never-abating tide of nonsense, sophistry and bullshit.

Hubud
Besides Yoga Barn, Hubud (“Hub in Ubud”) was the other place that everyone told me about. This is the first co-working space in Asia. Starting at $30 a month, you get a shared workspace and access to fast internet. Hubud prides itself on hosting tons of events — talks, workshops, skill shares, startup weekends, hackathons, and Fuckup Nights (really). They foster an atmosphere of collegiality, and everyone is super-friendly and helpful. If you’re able to work remotely, Hubud allows you to gaze at a rice field and monkey forest while you pad around barefoot (no shoes inside!) and create a great startup or novel.

Outpost, a newer co-working space, is Hubud’s crosstown rival which I have only heard good things about. Co-working spaces like these are ideal harbors for the digital nomad. I appreciate a space where people have their heads down and get stuff done; otherwise this book ain’t ever gonna write itself.

But really — why Bali?
Every decision has a push and a pull to it. Bali sounded like a great place to camp out to do some thinking and writing. But I’d also gotten a bit tired of San Francisco, its incessant talk of “crushing it” and unicorns (both the billion-dollar valuation kind and the rainbow-farting kind), bullshit startup culture (“I know! Let’s deliver pre-digested food directly into people’s stomachs!” — that was Soylent, a real company), casual squalor, stupidly expensive housing, rampant materialism, egocentrism and preciousness. My six close friends who were the impetus for moving to San Francisco had all left town, so I was also starting to feel lonely. I probably ate 90% of my meals alone.

It was also getting harder and harder to get people to show up to anything — to receive an advance commitment of any kind. It seemed like people were more interested in company as a fungible commodity, like something you could order via an app — Uber for friendship, y’know? — versus my company specifically. But it was also impossible to get anyone to do anything spontaneous, because omigod I’ve got a board meeting at noon on Sunday, conference call 6am Tuesday, and some other utterly forgettable crap 9pm every day that ends in Y. In the pursuit of success, all these fabulously talented, hardworking people hadn’t noticed that they had lost control of their own time — which is my definition of enslavement. A golden cage is still a cage.

On top of all this, stuff happened in November 2016 that made me realize that the religion of the United States is one thing above all: greed. That is not my religion. More on that in the book I’m working on, Happiness Engineering: Redefining Success in an Age of Anxiety and Greed. If you’re one of those fabulously talented, overachieving people who’s starting to think that maybe your priorities are misplaced, drop me a line if you’d like to be featured as a case study for the whole world to read about.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m quite happy here. The environs are pleasant, everything I need is walking distance, work is good, and there is much novelty and wonder at hand. Do visit if you have a week or two to trade concrete for green.

Hella Important, Mind-blowing, Super-useful and Fun: 100 books I read in 2016

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screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-11-26-37-amAt the beginning of 2016, I decided to devote more time to my favorite activity: reading. I set myself a rough target of two books a week, and got through 110 of them. Below are capsule reviews and ratings of about 100 of those, categorized into the following 5 headings: Hella Important; Mind-Blowing; Super Useful; Fun & Fast; Loved it!; Heart-Expanding; and More. Note than I’m counting audiocourses as books, some of which are much longer than the average audiobook (36hrs vs 6hrs). If a book looks like it doesn’t have a review, it means I put it in more than one category and the review’s coming right up.

Enjoy, and please chime in with your own reviews, reflections and recommendations in the comments!

HELLA IMPORTANT!
These books aren’t necessarily the most fun to get through, but they’re talking about something super important that is probably affecting your life right now.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (ebook and paper). The most behavior-altering book I read in 2016. Georgetown computer scientist Newport differentiates between deep and shallow work, making the case that a life of meaning has more of the deep than the shallow. A roadmap for fulfilling your purpose in life, which I intend to fully deploy in 2017 and beyond. 10/10

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle (ebook and paper). We’re in the midst of a social revolution, and not in a good way: digital communication is eating away at face-to-face interaction, with measurable, scary and disastrous effects on our minds and relationships. Turkle places the problem in its proper apocalyptic context and proposes some solutions. 9/10

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley MD/PhD and Larry Rosen PhD (ebook and paper). You can’t multitask. Period. The authors, a renowned neuroscientist and a psychologist, provide the scientific evidence for how distractions and interruptions of high-novelty digital media degrade our brain function, productivity and relationships. An accessible and thorough presentation of an extremely important, timely topic. My full Amazon review here. 9.5/10

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State, Graeme Wood (ebook and paper). Who really gets ISIS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of acronyms, leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are they real Muslims? What’s up with the beheadings, amputations, and sex slavery? What compels so many seemingly nice young men to leave everything behind and join them in Syria? This brand-new book places IS in an historical, religious, geographic and ideological context so by the end of it we can all say, “Aahh, now I get it.” The encounters are kinda amazing. Full review here. 9/10

Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging, Sebastian Junger (ebook and paper). Pretty short as far as audiobooks go, but it packs a wallop. Junger gets deep into the human psyche’s need for affiliation and fellowship, and how that manifests (or doesn’t) in the modern world. 9/10

Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, Srdja Popovic (ebook and paper). Loved this book! Enough to review it twice, push it on all my friends, and befriend the author. Srdja knows what he’s talking about. As one of the founders of Otpor!, he masterminded the nonviolence movement that eventually toppled the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Later he and his colleagues consulted with the nonviolent movements in the Maldives, Egypt, and Burma. This book draws upon these frontline experiences: what worked, what didn’t work, and how to do it better. Read my rhapsodizing review here. 10/10

Girls and Sex: Navigating the New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein (ebook and paper). Hoo boy. Sobering, sometimes terrifying stuff here. Our girls are in trouble, and Orenstein shows us why, mostly from the mouths of girls. Eye-opening stuff. 8.5/10

The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture, Philip Slater

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Davis (ebook and paper). A jaw-dropping work of investigative journalism so explosive that it subjected its incredibly ballsy authors to years of harassment and death threats, continuing to this day. You read it and think, “That didn’t actually happen, did it? People can’t possibly be that evil.” Oh yes it did, and yes they are. Remember these names: Competitive Enterprise Institute; Heartland Institute; Marshall Institute; Frederick Seitz; Bill Nierenberg; Robert Jastrow; Fred Singer. These are some of the denialist Cold Warriors and turncoat scientists who for decades defended the tobacco industry, denied the industrial origins of acid rain and ozone depletion, disseminated pseudoscience in support of the Strategic Defense Initiative, defended DDT, and are still trying to discredit the science of global warming. Another fantastic recommendation from Jesse Kornbluth’s Head Butler blog, and one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Know thine enemy. 10/10

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey (ebook and paper). Another life-changing book I’m embarrassed to have taken my sweet time to get to. Ratey makes a spirited case for exercise being the best thing you can do for yourself, ever. Fun to read and highly motivating. Exercise makes you smarter! 9/10

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer (ebook and paper). Where do fanatic nutjobs come from? Hoffer – an unaffiliated, self-educated longshoreman awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his writings – breaks it down in exacting and prescient detail. When he wrote this in 1952, WWII was still fresh in people’s minds, and folks like Mao and Stalin were still in power. With the 2016 US elections, fascism and nationalism on the rise, this classic is a timely read. 9/10

The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care, Angelo Volandes (ebook and paper). Have you talked to your parents about advance directives, living wills and other uplifting topics yet? What, you think they (and you) are somehow exempt from death? This is pretty important stuff, folks. Take-home message: the three end-of-life care choices are life-prolonging care (“Do everything, doc!”), limited medical care, or comfort care. After watching the videos, most people opt for comfort care. Watch the videos here in 20 languages. The book also has links to all the forms you’ll need. Every new book these days has the word “revolutionary” in the title, but this one earns it. Essential resource. 9/10

The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, Brené Brown (audiobook). How good is this? Really, really good. 6 hours to shift your thinking and change your life. Screw perfectionism. 9.5/10

The Power Paradox: How We Gain & Lose Influence, Dacher Keltner (ebook and paper). How is it is that to get power, you have to be nice to people, but once people become powerful, they tend to turn into jerks? Keltner is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and this book illuminates the relationship between kindness and power. Lots of useful, revealing tidbits about human behavioral quirks. 8.5/10

MIND-BLOWING
My reaction after reading these books was “Holy cow that was amazing,” whether due to content, style or both. Many of them would also fall under the “Important” or “Loved it!” categories.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari (ebook and paper). Deep insight into what it means to be human, from evolutionary beginnings to modern days, from micro to macro. Seriously mind-expanding stuff. Everybody’s read it, so why haven’t you? 10/10

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, Phil Knight (audio, ebook and paper). An intimate, revealing, moving, poetic, and often hilarious account of an extraordinary life. I cracked up listening to this book more than any other since Dave Barry. Knight may have missed his calling as a writer, but I’m glad he made some damn good shoes. A masterpiece of the genre. 10/10

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt (ebook and paper). Normally, I don’t read a lot of history, and I only came to possess this book through a Harvard January-term class taught by Greenblatt himself. Years later, I finally deigned to pick it up. It’s astonishingly, mind-blowingly good. There is a direct line from the modern world to the writings of the preposterously prescient Roman poet Lucretius. Greenblatt takes us through the history of classical Rome, re-creates the world of the Renaissance book fiend Poggio Bracciolini – quite possibly the only person who could have dug up a copy of De Rerum Natura – and makes it all relevant to our present-day lives. This book deserves its Pulitzer and every other accolade it ever gets. 10/10

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee (ebook and paper). I acquired the galley of this at Book Expo America six years ago, and thought I’d leaf through it before putting it in a donation pile. Except that I couldn’t put it down till I’d read the whole damn thing. Holy rumbling Krakatoa it’s one of the greatest books I’ve ever read! Sid Mukherjee is a brilliant scientist in his own right, and therefore supremely qualified to write on this topic. What he does above and beyond the call of duty is to tell a damn fine story, too. Humane, erudite, moving. Can’t wait to dig into his new one, The Gene. 10/10

The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture (2008), Philip Slater (ebook and paper). Every once in a while a book comes along and tilts your whole world such that you can’t but see it differently. This is one of them (like Sapiens). Slater is a deep thinker, and his formulation of Control Culture vs Integrative Culture has enormous explanatory power, especially in an age of rising authoritarianism. Read it and be blown away. Another Head Butler favorite. 9.5/10

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi (ebook and paper). For the three people who haven’t read this yet, Kalanithi was a hotshot neurosurgery resident with a wobbly relationship when he got diagnosed with lung cancer. With months to live, he decided to finish residency, get married, have a kid, and write this book. We’re really glad he did. Life-affirming, poetic, deeply moving. Next time someone asks, “What is the meaning of life?”, hand ‘em this book. 10/10

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Sean Carroll (ebook and paper). It took me a month to get through this, and I’m glad I did. Sean is a brilliant theoretical physicist who has the distinction of being the only person to turn down a postdoc with Stephen Hawking twice. He’s also one of the best living popularizers of science, with a lively and funny delivery. This is a deeply rewarding book, if not one you can necessarily speed-read. You end up questioning your assumptions, and reconfiguring your worldview on almost every page. 10/10

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, Alice Schroeder (ebook, paper, audiobook) An amazing book! It’s really a biography of 30+ people – not just Warren Buffett, but also Charlie Munger, Ben Graham, Susie Buffett, Buffett’s grandparents, parents and children, Katharine Graham, all of Buffett’s business partners, Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway, and the US economy in the 20th century. The vividness and empathy with which Schroeder describes them makes each character come alive, illuminating Buffett and his era through the prism of his relationships. You also get inside the head of one of the richest men who has ever lived. A masterpiece. 10/10

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, by Karima Bennoune (ebook and paper). The atrocities, inhumanity, resistance, bravery and hope that Bennoune describes in this 2013 collection of interviews and stories from around the Muslim world will shake you to your core, bring you to tears, and ultimately, make you hopeful for humanity’s future. She collected these accounts at considerable risk to her own safety. Bennoune’s father was a noted fighter of fundamentalism in Algeria, so she speaks from firsthand experience. Mind-blowing stuff. 9.5/10

The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, Charles Spence (ebook and paper). Once I had heard about Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Lab, I had to get this book written by its director. I used the book to design my first Neurodinner Party, and it worked magnificently. Required reading for neuroscientists and aspiring chefs. 8.5/10

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (ebook and paper). Mitchell is a genius, and his book is a mad tour de force of novelistic craft. He re-creates or invents six worlds, getting the tone, diction, genre and feel for each one pitch-perfect. Who can sound convincing as a 19th c. sailor, a 1930s aristocratic English musician and a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian? Whether the novel itself is fun to read is another question entirely, and although it was mostly riveting, it was also a slog at times. However, my sense of the possibilities of fiction has been expanded, and the likelihood of ever writing a novel commensurately shrunk. 9.5/10

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease, Dan Lieberman (ebook and paper). One of those awe-inspiring reads that makes you wonder what took you so long to get to it. Dan is the man. 9.5/10

Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Steven Gimbel (Great Courses) Prof Gimbel goes through the history of revolutionary scientific thought – micro to macro, from Aristotle to Copernicus to Galileo to Newton, Eintein, Hawking, Darwin, Freud, Kahneman – and how our view of the world reconfigured itself each time. Mind-blowingly good. Learned so much. 9.5/10

Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, Huston Smith (ebook and paper). To write a great memoir, it helps to have lived a great life. Huston Smith has lived at least five of those. Astonishing story from a generous, wise soul. Very sad that he passed away on 30 Dec at 97. 9/10

The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku (ebook and paper). Physicist Kaku is a great popularizer, and this journey into cutting-edge neuroscience is exciting, accessible and thought-provoking. 8.5/10

SUPER USEFUL
I read a lot of personal growth books, and these are the ones I found particularly useful.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson & Robert Poole (ebook and paper). A superb compendium of the work and thought of Ericsson, the undisputed god of high-performance studies and father of the misnamed 10,000hr rule. This book completely upended my notions about talent, achievement and expertise. Hard work beats talent every time. 10/10

Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within, Chade-Meng Tan (ebook and paper). You may be tempted to dismiss this book because of its goofy humor and non-sequitur cartoons. That would be a mistake. Meng, the Google engineer who founded their in-house meditation program, packs this book with transformative meditative practices, most of them new to this long-time meditator. I expect to re-read this one regularly. Full review here. 9/10

Money: Master the Game – 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom, Tony Robbins (ebook and paper). Tony’s first book in 20+ years. Wordy and exhortative in Robbins’ trademark good-natured hectoring style, this book makes all kinds of sense. Well worth the slog. 9/10

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, Neil Fiore (ebook and paper). One of the most popular books ever written on procrastination. And effective, too! Fiore decriminalizes the habit and provides some solid tactics for managing it. I’ll start implementing its suggestions next week. Maybe. 9.5/10

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, Raj Raghunathan (ebook and paper). This is the best book on happiness I’ve read so far because it’s so damn practical. The exercises are excellent. Take the free online course that goes with it. 9.5/10

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown (ebook and paper). What with Oprah as a fan, all women seem to already know about Brené Brown. If not, this is where you start. Transformative thoughts on living a more self-compassionate, fulfilling life rid of perfectionism and other pernicious cultural afflictions. If you’re too lazy to read a whole book, start with this 27.7m view TED talk. 9.5/10

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating Like Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss (ebook and paper). In business, parenting and relationships, we’re negotiating all the time, so we might as well be good at it. Voss, the former lead FBI hostage negotiator for 20+ years, spills the beans on how it’s done. With pithy maxims and riveting anecdotes, this book is both compulsively readable and eminently useful. Essential reference. My full review here. 9.5/10

Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, Robert Cialdini (ebook and paper). I’ve been a Cialdini fanboy since 1997, and pre-ordered this, his first real new book in over 20 years. It did not disappoint. Full review here. 9.5/10

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor (ebook and paper). Because of its practicality, this is one of the better happiness books I’ve read. And I’ve read ‘em all. 9/10

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Susan David (ebook and paper). One of the best personal growth books I’ve read in recent memory. David, a South African psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School, has seen and experienced a lot. Her storytelling and clear instructions for implementing change make this a standout. 9.5/10

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson (ebook and paper). Outstanding guide for all levels of speakers. Enjoyable and authoritative, considering the hundreds of TED talks Anderson has vetted. 9/10

Steal the Show: From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches, How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life, Michael Port (ebook and paper) Port sets out a whole program for conceiving, outlining, rehearsing and delivering a great speech. I particularly appreciate his emphasis on rehearsal, and doing it in three separate phases. I will be taking almost all of his suggestions to heart in my next performance! 9/10

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation, Mark Muesse (Great Courses). Muesse is one of my favorite teachers at The Great Courses. Even as a long-time meditator, I learned a ton, and the guided meditations were excellent. Fantastic introduction to the field. 9.5/10

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard (ebook and paper). Based on his brain scans, scientists have called Ricard the happiest man in the world. I think of him as one of the wisest. This is a broccoli book for sure, and if you follow its precepts, your life will improve. 9/10

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C Brown (ebook and paper). Very good stuff, of which very little managed to stick since I listened to the audiobook. Lesson: visual learning lasts longer. 8.5/10

The Doors to Joy: 19 Meditations for Authentic Living (2014), Daniel Odier (ebook and paper). Daniel Odier is my secret stash for esoteric Eastern wisdom. I started with Tantric Quest, and have been hooked on his stuff ever since. Great little quick read to lift you up. 9.5/10

Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World, Adam Grant (ebook and paper). I was bowled over by Give and Take, Grant’s life-altering first book, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, especially since I’m a creativity junkie (see Amazon review). I found the title a bit of a misnomer since the central message of the book ends up being that massively successful people are often more risk-averse conformists than not. Otherwise a hugely informative and fun read. Favorite bit: to disarm your audience when pitching, open with your flaws. 8/10

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Angela Duckworth (ebook, audiobook, and paper). I listened to the audiobook twice, and enjoyed it both times. However, I couldn’t help but think about all the people with passion and perseverance who still didn’t make it big. Without accounting for them and only looking at the victors would make grit merely a psychological just-so story. Also missing: how to get grittier. Still, the central message of hard work trumping talent every time holds true. 8/10

Mind-Body Medicine: The New Science of Optimal Health, Prof Jason Satterfield (Great Courses). Really good. 9/10

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert (ebook and paper). 9/10
Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, Steven Pressfield (ebook and paper). 8.5/10
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield (ebook and paper). I read these three books in rapid succession in April, probably feeling the need for a creativity boost. All three are excellent, able to pull you out of a creative rut of any depth. I refer back to the Pressfield books periodically. The War of Art is rightfully considered an indispensable classic, which is why I give it a 10/10.

The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype — and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More, Michael Breus (ebook and paper). The science of chronotype is just emerging, and I predict that the near future will make it a major part of how we think about work and health. This book helps classify yourself into one of four activity patterns of lion, wolf, bear or dolphin, with corresponding recommendations. 8.5/10

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain, Prof Jason Satterfield (Great Courses). As a part-time therapist, this seemed like a topic I needed to know more about. CBT is no panacea but a useful tool nonetheless. Satterfield is an immensely knowledgeable and sympathetic lecturer. 8.5/10

Million-Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice, 5th Editionby Alan Weiss (ebook and paper). Weiss is Jesus, Buddha and Moses rolled into one when it comes to solo consulting practice. I consider him the ultimate authority. Whether you’re a seasoned consultant or just about to strike out on your own, his principles can multiply your income, sometimes overnight. The section on value pricing alone is worth 100x the cover price. 9.5/10

The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, Brené Brown

The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the “Love Lab” About What Women Really Want, by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, with Doug & Rachel Abrams (ebook and paper). John and Julie Gottman are the husband-and-wife founders of the University of Washington’s Love Lab. For the past 40+ years, they have observed thousands of couples, and know of that which they speak. Gottman is the Magus, and I consider his word gospel. A treasury of insight into relationships; should be required reading for all heterosexual males. 9/10

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The San Francisco Lectures Resource

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Many great public organizations in San Francisco put on high-quality talks and book readings. Here are some of the good ones I’ve encountered:
1. The Commonwealth Club: The grandaddy of them all, 112 years strong. They hold 2-3 talks per day, in SF and Silicon Valley. $100 yearly membership pays for itself if you attend two talks a month. They get all the world-class speakers, and practically every major new book goes through here. Inforum is their celebrity arm.
2. City Arts & Lectures: Weekly talks by names big enough to fill the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley.
3. Jewish Community Center of SF: very high quality speakers once or twice a week at the JCCSF in Pacific Heights on a variety of topics in science, arts and humanities.
4. Being Human: great speakers on neuroscience, mindfulness, spirituality. Frequency is sporadic but quality high; their last talk was with the amazing Prof Robert Sapolsky. Annual 1-day conference is worthwhile.
5. Wisdom 2.0: talks and workshops on the intersection of mindfulness, business, spirituality and technology. 4-day annual conference in Feb.
6. Odd Salon: series of short (10-20min) talks on a given theme on Tuesday nights. Sample themes: Revenge; Undead; Anomaly; Intrepid; Dystopia.
7. The Long Now Foundation: deep thinkers on science, technology, humanities and the future giving “seminars on long-term thinking.” 2-3 talks/month. Totally worthwhile membership. Founded by the legendary Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who conducts all the interviews and then sends you email summaries of them. Their bar, The Interval, was voted one of the best 20 new bars in the country – check it out.
8. Spirit Rock: daily classes, workshops and retreats on mindfulness, meditation, well-being and personal growth. A true treasure in Marin, 45min from the city. Jack Kornfield, the closest thing America’s got to the Buddha, teaches there.
9. Consciousness Hacking: Wed night gatherings with neuroscientists, technologists, meditators and entrepreneurs interested in the functioning of the brain and how to enhance it. Cool community.
10. Nerd Nite: monthly lighthearted gatherings with short, TED-style talks on scientific topics, with the occasional big event on an aircraft carrier or even Alcatraz. Quality varies, but usually a fun young crowd. Chapters in SF and South Bay.
11. Book Passage: bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings in its SF and Marin stores. Everybody comes through here. Probably the least-mobbed place to meet your favorite author for free. Check their site for listings.
12. Books Inc: The other SF bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings.
13. Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE): Based in Palo Alto, so a bit of a haul from the city. Periodic lectures and workshops with big names in psychology, mindfulness, meditation (eg Dalai Lama).

There are more (e.g. World Affairs Council), but I’ve only listed ones that I have personal experience with. If you have a noteworthy venue in mind that I haven’t included, please mention it in the comments!

The Ultimate Party Playlist: To Not Suck as a Party DJ, Play These Songs

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djgoofyThere’s an epidemic sweeping the land that hardly anyone talks about, infiltrating dining hall parties, Cambridge college bops, reunions, weekend conferences, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and all sorts of other mission-critical gatherings. It usually strikes around 9pm on a Saturday night, when partiers are most itching to get their groove on. Some of these people have taken time off work or study, hired babysitters, and even made nice with their exes to bring this window of free time into existence. And if they’re white, they’ve probably been drinking since 4pm the prior day for the prospect of actual dancing on this fine night. And what do they get instead of a chance to get down? A big fat let-down, that’s what.

I’m talking about the epidemic of crappy djs, which is harshing the mellow of many a partygoer. There you are, hoping to hop around to some thoroughly recognizable party anthem — say, “Vogue” by Madonna. And instead, you are confronted by some unfamiliar pattern of beats and words to which you cannot shake your booty, no matter how hard you try. And you notice that everyone else on the dance floor feels the same way, evidenced by their standing around, mobbing the bar and definitely non-dancing. And yet, the dj seems blithely oblivious to this fact which is as obvious as a polka-dotted pink rhinoceros, as he keeps on spinning song after non-danceable brick of a song.

What the hell is going on here? I could speculate on the etiology of this degenerative neurological condition which makes djs crawl deeper and deeper into the Hole of DJ Snobbery & Pretense, as they try to introduce fresh new tracks to these unwashed masses, and do oh-so-clever beat-matching between songs so unrelated that you will break your ankles trying to dance to them consecutively.

But you know what? The partiers don’t care about your cleverness, or your command of bands so esoteric they hardly exist, Mr/Ms DJ. Really. They think of you in the same way as the bartender, the server, the party planner: staff. Which means that you’re expected to do an unobtrusively good job, but will inspire serious wrath if you fuck it up. Especially if you’re the dj, because everyone is paying attention to your work. And did I mention that they’ve been drinking for the past 16 hours? You definitely want this crowd on your side, brother.

Now if you’re some kinda name-brand dj with an unpronounceable name like Deadmau5 or Aviciiiiiiii that people have paid specifically to hear —  be my guest, mess with your audience all you want. Hell, you already got paid your 100 grand — what do you care? But if you’re a hired party dj, you’ve got one job and one job only: to keep the dance floor bumping.

Luckily, being a party dj is not terribly hard work. I know this because I used to do it at the now-mythical house parties I used to throw in Cambridge (MA) many moons ago. I didn’t write any of the songs or play any instruments, and yet the dance floor was always full of sweaty, writhing bodies making out with each other. My point is that it’s not like the dj’s a composer or musician even. You’re just selecting a song and playing it for the audience. Hell, you even know which songs people generally like: they’re called hits. All you’ve got to do is read the crowd a little, and play them what they like. The crowd’s reaction gives you instant feedback on how well you’re doing. Simple.

So if the dance floor empties, it’s not because your audience is uncool. Mark my words: the audience is never uncool. If they aren’t dancing, that means you’re bad at your job, dj.

Fortunately, there is a simple remedy. There are songs out there that are so stupendously catchy and danceable that hardly any sentient being that’s not on life support can resist wiggling to it. These are the Irresistible Boogie Initiator Songs (IBIS).

Now Mr DJ, you may think that these songs are cheesy. Or played out. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, people love dancing to these songs. Some of these songs are the musical equivalent of pigs in a blanket: not terribly nutritious, but oh-so-tasty. Forgive the mob their mob tastes, and play what they want. And remember that some of these songs are masterpieces of the pop genre (“Hey Ya”, “Twist and Shout” and anything by Michael Jackson or Prince come to mind).

Generally, if people are able to sing along to a song, it’s a good song to play, so long as it’s somewhat danceable. For example, Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” is only marginally danceable, but when you play it, people will be too busy belting it out huddled around a beer-bottle microphone to notice.

Familiarity is a key criterion here: a solid IBIS will take people back to their college days, to high school, to their first kiss, to any number of pleasant memories associated with that song. And if you do a good job, the party you’re dj-ing will go into that same bin of positive association to draw upon for the future.

Now I know there’s some serious dj out there reading this and fuming: what about crowd-reading, song selection, sequencing and beat-matching — these are serious skills! Yes, but there’s software that can do most of these things now, such that anyone can be a competent dj for party purposes. Hey — if Paris Hilton can do it, then I’m gonna guess this ain’t neurosurgery.

In the interest of protecting all party djs out there from the fulminating wrath of drunken partygoers, I have compiled below a list (in no particular order) of IBISes that will have audiences from 18 to 48 screaming with glee, taking off their heels and grinding on strangers. The songs that will empty the bar and fill the dance floor instantly are marked in bold. And readers: if you are at a party where the dj is sucking, copy this list and hand it to him/her. The guests will thank you for it. And if you’ve got a song that you think I should include on this list, please mention it in the comments! If we’re going to stop the epidemic, we’re gonna need all the help we can get.

  • YMCA – The Village People
  • Just dance; Poker face – Lady Gaga
  • Hey ya – Outkast (quite possibly the all-time champion)
  • Shake it off – Taylor Swift
  • Groove is in the heart – Dee-lite
  • 1999; Kiss; Erotic City; Let’s go crazy – Prince
  • Billy Jean; ABC; The way you make me feel; Rock with you; Gonna be startin’ something; Don’t stop till you get enough – Michael Jackson
  • All night long – Lionel Richie
  • Yeah – Usher
  • This is how we do it – Montell Jordan
  • Can’t stop the feeling; Rock your body; Señorita; Like I love you; SexyBack – Justin Timberlake
  • I will survive – Gloria Gaynor
  • Come on Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
  • Got Your Money – Ol’ Dirty Bastard
  • Cheap Thrills – Sia
  • Wake me up – Avicii
  • Centerfold – J Geils Band
  • Living on a prayer – Bon Jovi
  • Love shack – The B-52s
  • Tainted love – Soft Cell
  • Happy – Pharrell Williams
  • Crazy – Gnarls Barkley
  • Jungle Boogie – Kool & the Gang
  • Heart of Glass, Rapture – Blondie
  • Bulletproof – La Roux
  • Titanium – David Guetta/Sia
  • In da club – 50 Cent
  • Wake me up before you go-go – Wham!
  • Jump Around – House of Pain
  • Here comes the hotstepper – Ini Kamoze
  • Hideaway – Kiesza
  • A little respect; Chains of Love – Erasure
  • Just can’t get enough – Depeche Mode
  • Rio – Duran Duran
  • Girls and Boys – Blur
  • I love it – Icona Pop
  • Call me maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Smells like teen spirit – Nirvana
  • Brown-eyed girl – Van Morrison
  • Take me on – a-ha
  • Hypnotize – Notorious BIG
  • Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars
  • Last Nite – The Strokes
  • I’m coming out – Diana Ross
  • Get up – James Brown
  • Single ladies; Crazy in love – Beyonce Knowles
  • Toxic; Baby one more time – Britney Spears
  • Dirrrrty – Christina Aguilera
  • Twist and shout – Beatles
  • Mr Brightside – The Killers
  • Like a prayer; Vogue; Ray of Light; Holiday; Like a virgin; Express yourself – Madonna
  • Regulate – Warren G
  • Don’t you want me – The Human League
  • Gold digger – Kanye West
  • Mo’ money mo’ problems – Jay Z
  • Get Lucky – Daft Punk
  • Moves like Jagger – Maroon 5
  • I wanna dance with somebody – Whitney Houston
  • Dancing Queen – ABBA
  • Boom boom pow; I gotta feeling – Black Eyed Peas
  • Low – Flo Rida
  • Party rock anthem – LMFAO
  • We found love; Umbrella – Rihanna

For Millennials: The Guide to Using a Telephone

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oldschoolphoneHey there, people born after 1985! I noticed that a lot of you are having issues with your smartphone’s simultaneous real-time voice chat app, also known as The Phone. So just in case you don’t want to turn yourself into a pariah and die alone and friendless, here’s a short guide to how The Phone works:

1. You do not have to ask permission to call someone in the same way you have to ask for permission to, say, marry them. You can just call them. If they can answer, they will. If they cannot, then they will see that you have called and/or left a voicemail, and call you back at their leisure.

2. Calling someone is not considered an unpardonable intrusion into their lives. In fact, a single two-minute phone call has been known to replace 5 days of meandering inconclusive texting. Come to think of it, calling is often the less intrusive choice, since I can’t drive, cook or have sex while texting. Talking can be hands-free and practically attention-free, while texting requires at least one of my hands and all of my attention. Far more intrusive.

3. Talking to people is how you make friends. Texting people is how you lose them. Your pick. Unless you enjoy annoying your friends with cryptic messages like “Let’s meet at mine at the tar”, “You’re she nest” and “I realty hike you,” you need to get on the horn (= more hip slang for “The Phone” — you’re welcome!) and actually speak to me, so I can say “what the fuck was that gibberish” when you don’t make any sense.

4. The term “dial” refers to the circular number dials that used to be on phones. You would stick your forefinger in a number hole, turn it around all the way for each number, then wait for the ringing signal to speak to someone. Crazy, huh?! Now of course you can say “Call Madison” to Siri, or just lick the smartphone screen, and it will do the same thing. Hell, you don’t even know what Madison’s number is and never will, and she’s, like, your bestie, you spoiled little brat you. But, hey, I’m not jealous — oops, I mean jelly — because you’re gonna be senile by like 50, because you never had to actually use your brain to remember 2000 phone numbers like we did.

5. Expect the unexpected. Talking to people on the phone can be daunting. For starters, anything can happen. It’s not like you can prepare your remarks for 3hrs, show them to four of your friends for editing, and consult on le emoji juste to end it with before sending it out. Nosirreebob — it’s all happening in real time. Someone could ask something tricky like, “Are you having a good day?,” and then your Conversational Response Decision Tree explodes out into a gazillion branches — do I go nonchalant? stoic? or do I actually risk real vulnerability and tell ’em that my hair’s frizzy and I’m broke? Luckily, there’s always Toastmasters. And for top-notch public speaking training, there’s also KNP Communications — if we’re good enough for 70+ members of Congress, we just might be good enough for you, too.

If you have a face, you could also practice talking to people face-to-face — y’know, IRL. Really good warm-up for talking on the phone.

6. Know how to end a conversation gracefully. Another scary thing about the phone: how do you get off it once you’re on? It used to be you could say “Gotta run”, but that doesn’t work anymore because everyone knows your phone is on you when you run (and also when you’re driving, eating, peeing and showering). So the way to gracefully end a conversation in 2016 is to say “Gotta swim.” People totes get that, especially if you mention it’s breaststroke.

7. Answer phone calls on your birthday. One day a year, it’s your birthday. People are very likely to call you on that day. Now some of them may be trying to sell you sketchy time shares in Reno. But most are calling you to hear your voice, wish you a happy birthday and express their gratitude for your existence on Planet Earth. So unless you’re inside someone’s skull removing a medulloblastoma, or beating back ISIS with your bare hands, you are not doing anything more important than speaking to friends who for some reason still seem to care about your text-only negligent ass. Pick up the fucking phone on that day whenever it rings. All day long.

8. Hanging out > phone call > text. Have you ever said to a friend you’re hanging out with, “Hey, you’re really interesting and all, and I am toootally enjoying your company, but someone else just came along who may or may not be as interesting, so I’m just going to cut you off right here mid-sentence, because who knows!” No? You’ve never done that? Of course not, because that would the definition of a dick move, and you are not a dick. However, every time you pick up an incoming phone call, or check your phone for a text when you’re already talking to someone else, that’s exactly what you’re doing. S0 stop making dick moves already and talk to me.

9. You can use the phone to get to know people. You do not need to have a baseline of deep trust, intimacy or a condom before you talk to someone on the phone. This is because talking on the phone is one of the ways you establish trust and intimacy with another person — y’know, getting to know them and stuff, at a safe distance. And if you think texting is better than talking for establishing trust, why not try telegrams, too! STOP. And skywriting! Oh, and for our dinner tonight, you should look up at the sky where Orion would be around 7.30pm — I’ll be putting up the venue there in red smoke. Come hang out with us and talk. Don’t miss out, ’cause then you’ll be totes jelly.

Dr Ali Binazir is a speaking coach and pitch doctor at KNP Communications and the author of The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible (ebook, paperback and audiobook), the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 4+ years. You may reach him at abinazir(at)knpcommunications dot com.

“When Breath Becomes Air”: A call to life before death

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“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

whenbreathbecomesairI picked up When Breath Becomes Air (hardback; ebook; audiobook) at about 10pm on the first day of spring by a recommendation from the inimitable Jesse Kornbluth. From his and other reviews, I roughly knew what the book was about: death. What better time to meditate on death than on the very cusp of Earth’s re-awakening?

In one sitting, it was read. It’s a tonic against the unreality that assaults us in the world today — politics, entertainment, advertising, broken promises, missed meetings — because it’s the most real book I’ve read in recent memory. Paul Kalanithi is 36 years old, and chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Medical School. Every day, he opens up people’s skulls with a drill and saw, dissecting through the dura and meninges to get to a tiny tumor in the cerebellum. One false move of his scalpel by 2mm, and instead of a productive career and fatherhood, his patient is fully paralyzed for life. This is not about shifting around some spreadsheet numbers or holding meetings with middle management about shareholder value, folks. Kalanithi’s work is at the interface between thriving and withering, life and death, every day.

And then, Kalanithi’s life takes a turn for the even more real: he himself is diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, he has to decide whether he will be spending the remainder of his time on Earth dying or living — a span of 1 to 10 years, depending on disease progression. He chooses to live: to rehabilitate himself and go back to full-time surgical practice in spite of his exhausting chemotherapy regimen; to repair his marriage; to have a child; and to write this book. I am very glad he made that decision.

It turns out that Kalanithi’s time on earth was much closer to the lower end of the predicted range, which makes his story even more poignant and the creation of this book even more heroic. Between 100hr weeks at the hospital, mind-fogging chemotherapy, and a newborn, when did he write?

This is a book that stays with you. It’s a lucid exposition from a consummate insider on the practice of medicine and work of healing. When can doctors heal? What do they tell patients when they can’t? How do they react when a patient dies? How do they convey that news to the family? Is life always worth living?

Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew the number was small. But so are ours. If you’re 25, that number is 18,000 to 20,000. If you’re 45, it’s closer to 13,000. If your light plane crashes, or you have a mountaineering accident, or have a freak untreated food poisoning, that number could be much smaller, like it was for my three friends who died in the past year, all under the age of 35.

So the bad news is that we’re all going to die, folks. Especially you. The good news is that every moment that you live is a gift. You can have that fact impressed upon you by a terminal diagnosis. Or you can read When Breath Becomes Air. Let that inform your days, and you just may infuse every moment of your existence with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.

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Madrid: 13 Observations

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1) Stylin’ clothes. People here dress sharp. Not a lot of velour tracksuits with flip-flops.

2) Jesus do they party. Clubs don’t get going till well past 1am, and the streets are filled with people till 4am, but only on days that end in Y.

3) Free food. There is a tradition of giving away tasty little tapas snacks with your drink order. Or with your tapas order, like your tapas had tapas offspring or something. I love this tradition.

4) Rampant smoking. The memo that smoking cigarettes is one of the dumbest, foulest things you can do as a human being has not reached these parts. People of all ages, especially youngsters, smoke like they’ve got lung and life to spare (truth: you absolutely, positively do not).

5) Parking. This is a nation of champion parallel parkers. The streets are narrow, parking spots tiny, and somehow these guys wedge their cars in with 10cm between themselves and their neighbors. Amazing.

6) Smartphone addiction. Spaniards love their smartphones every bit as much as Americans, obliviously walking into intersections while staring at their screens like the best of New York and San Francisco.

7) Low obesity. There are no fat madrileños. The overweight people are almost exclusively tourists.

8) PDA. This is the capital of public displays of affection. In the airport, at the bar, on the sidewalk, a guy will grab his girl and start a serious, extended make-out session with zero compunction.

9) Trains. The trains are amazing — polished, gleaming, graffiti-free, air-conditioned beasts of modern transport efficiency. And Madrid has three layers of public transport: the CERCANIAS city train, the metro, and buses.

10) Globally homogenized youth culture. In their manner of dress and ornamentation, Madrid kids are indistinguishable from their American counterparts in San Francisco or Brooklyn (and Berlin and Paris, for that matter). Hipster style is the same, with the beards, hairdos and skinny pants. Septal nose rings, random tattoos and those ghastly earlobe-expanding washers also abound, perhaps even more so than in the US.

11)  Ubiquitous free internet access. These people are big on public WiFi (pronounced wee-fee). It was not just in every small cafe and tapas bar — it was in the buses. Damn.

12) Silent Spanish. There are a few facial gestures Spaniards make that are unique to them, which is how I could tell them apart from the foreigners before even speaking to them.

13) Tapas! Holy cow. The variety of ingredients, the flavors, the combinations were astonishing. Pinchos (or pintxos, the equally common Basque spelling) are the tiny snacks put on a single piece of bread, like Spanish sushi. I found the broadest variety (if not necessarily the cheapest at 2.70 euro a pop) at this converted old movie theater called Platea. It’s in the swanky Salamanca neighborhood near the city center, and you need to check it out: two floors of tapas and food shops, one full restaurant, one gleamingly suave cocktail bar, and a DJ spinning bumping tunes the whole time.

Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015

Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015

The Science of Sleep: A Talk With Matt Walker

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mattwalker

Last night I attended Matt Walker’s conversation with Indre Viskontas as part of the City Arts & Lectures series at the Nourse Theater on the science of sleep. He and Indre did an excellent job of conveying a ton of useful information in a conversational format that was both accessible and entertaining. Some highlights from the talk:

1. Sleep is so important from an evolutionary standpoint that organisms will develop byzantine mechanisms to make sure they get their shut-eye without becoming dinner. For example, marine animals (e.g. dolphins) sleep with one brain hemisphere at a time. And when a flock of birds sit on a branch, the birds in the middle will go to sleep with both hemispheres. The birds on the sides, however, will sleep with only one hemisphere and keep one eye open as a lookout – the opposite eye from the birds on the other end. Then, after a while, they will turn around and switch hemispheres, close one eye and open the other! That way, they always have a 360-degree lookout for predators. This is a movie I would pay to watch.

2. Every language that Walker has looked into has an expression for “sleeping on the problem” as a prescription for

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The Commencement Address That Harvard Will Never Let Me Give

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Dear Super High-Achieving College Grad and parents now deep in educational debt, except for those who are rich enough to cough up the whole $200 grand no problem —

You may want to adjust your seat right now, because I’m about to be a major pain in the ass. Today, I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news.

Actually, I’m just kidding. It’s all pretty much bad news. And here’s the summary: You kids just spent what could have been the best 4 years of your life stressing out way too much, way too often over shit that simply did not matter, and acquiring knowledge that you’ve already forgotten or will never use again*.

After you leave Tercentenary Theatre today, everything that you did in college – every deadline you met, every bullshit paper you wrote, every exam you crammed for, every all-nighter you pulled, every comp you passed or flunked, and every extracurricular you ran – all of that gets summarized into two measly lines on your résumé. And nobody will ever care about any of that shit again.

What’s even worse is that these 4 years have laid down a pattern for the rest of your life, which you will now spend the next 20 years of your life trying to unravel. But only if you catch on to how bad it is now, instead of living in a fog for the next fourscore.

Right now, you’re like a greyhound – a sleek, fast, racing machine bred to

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San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City

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On the morning of Tuesday, 6 November 2012, I walked to Joslyn Park to cast my ballot for the US Presidential elections for the last time in Santa Monica. I then visited my parents up the road and had lunch with them. After taking a picture with them wearing their little “I Voted” stickers, I got in my car and drove up to San Francisco.

The move to San Francisco was a belated one. As early as 2009, I had ventured up north and checked out an apartment a friend was getting with the idea of becoming housemates. He wanted an answer the next day, I wasn’t ready to make a decision that fast, and perhaps not entirely willing to trade in my two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachside pad for a 10’x10’ room in a shared apartment. The opportunity passed.

And yet, I repeatedly found myself in San Francisco which favorably impressed me each time. TEDx SF invited me to come speak on creativity in November of 2009, and the people I met were very interesting indeed. Then, every other month, I’d find myself in the Bay Area to visit friends for weddings and other special events. In fact, I had three sets of close married friends (two in Oakland, one in San Francisco) who always welcomed me and subtly campaigned for my move to the Bay. Two other close friends also made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles and made murmurs of approbation.

Moreover, all these great

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Ten Reasons Why I’m Skipping Burning Man in 2014

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“Let’s go.”
“Whaddya mean ‘Let’s go’? I spent all of last week trying to convince you to go, and you mumbled and waffled and made lame excuses and said no. Now, all of a sudden you want to go?”
“I changed my mind. Let’s go.”
“Just like that? Well screw you and your fickle ways. Let’s go.”

180min before the dust

180min before the dust. Incidentally, what’s on the bench is ALL of our stuff. Ahh, the days of simplicity…

I had been aware of Burning Man for a couple of years before finally deciding to go in 1997. There would always be some article about the best parties in the world in a newspaper of record like Maxim (which totally kicked ass then, by the way). I’d make a mental note along the lines of “Hey, that does sound like a good party,” then promptly lose said note for its lack of adhesive quality in my cranium — and with it, the intention to plan this quixotic desert excursion.

But this time around, things were

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It’s not you — actually, it is you: friendship-terminating linguistic pet peeves

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1) “Homogenous” instead of “homogeneous”: The correct word rhymes with “you’re a genius”, not with “erogenous.” Yeah, I know the verb is “homogenize”, so homogenous sounds right, but it’s totally, completely and utterly wrong. Note: “homogenous” is a word, but it’s rarely used and means homologous or of same origin. Unless you’re a professional evolutionary biologist talking about phylogenetic trees, leave it alone and you’re a genius.

2) “Compliment” vs “complement”: In the salad bowl, the fennel turned to the orange rind and said, “My, you look zesty today.” Unless you’re on ‘shrooms and this kind of thing happens to you regularly, then you may not say “compliment” when you really mean “complement” — you know, like when something goes well with something else. When it’s complementary and stuff. Don’t even tell me they’re close in meaning, because they’re about as close as Guinea and New Guinea.

3) “Processes” being pronounced “process-ease”: If you’ve got a Latin word ending in -is like “nemesis”, the plural is “nemeses.” Most of the time. Some of these Latin words are Greek-derived, though, and the correct plural substitutes -ides for the -is, as in “clitorides” for “clitoris.” (See, your day just got more interesting.)
I go down this rambling path to demonstrate that unless the singular form is “processis”, there is no way that can turn into “processeeeeez” when pluralized. It’s a faux-erudite overcorrection that I’ve heard committed by professors (professors!) and others who should know better. Stoppitalready. I don’t care that people have been doing it for so long that now some dictionaries consider it acceptable — it’s still wrong. This argument is not going to be one of your success-eez. See? It does sound retarded.

4) “Laissez-faire” being pronounced “lay-zay faire”: Look, I know that words like “Missouri” and “dessert” screw up the whole rulebook and turn a double-S, which should be even more S than a single S, into a Z. But you know what? That never happens in the original Frenchish. So laissez-faire is pronounced “lay say fair”, always, and if you continue to disagree, you’re azzazzinating two languages, not just one, and being just plain lay-zay.

5) “Relative” vs “relevant”: If you think that this error is not relevant to you, then I really hope we’re not relatives.

Oh, we’re just getting started here…

Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

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A fabulous blogger whom I hold in great respect turned me on to Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. And who was I to resist eleven walks with expert eyes? If the whole point of life is to see a little better, then I’m all for a book that can expand my vision.

Here’s some of what I really liked about the book:
• The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
• The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you’re moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention’s surface in 3-D relief.
• The book is a bounty of

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“Days of God”: A thrilling firsthand account of the Iranian Revolution

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“Is that the sound of firecrackers, Mom?”

“No. That’s the sound of bullets, Ali. You should stay inside.”

That was my first revolution, in January 1979. We lived in the upper-middle class North Tehran neighborhood of Saltanat Abad (“Monarchyville”), but I could still hear the report of gunshots from Jaleh Square far south. What were people fighting over? To a six year old, it didn’t make any sense.

The standard narrative of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 reads something like this: The Shah was a dictator who did a fair amount to build up and reform the country but was also profligate and repressive. He used the Savak, his secret Police, to silence and torture dissenters. Eventually, his time came up, and a monolithic popular uprising brought Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, a.k.a the Ayatollah, to power.

That’s not even close to the whole murky, thrilling and heartbreaking story.

James Buchan, the author of Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, was a student in Tehran in 1973. From that vantage point,

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On pain and how to handle it

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On the morning of Saturday, March 15, I woke up to shooting and stabbing pain down the right side of my neck, upper back and right arm. The pain encircled my ribs and was literally breathtaking.

I figured I must have slept with my neck in a funny position and a little massage would relieve it. But there was no part of my neck and back that my visiting friend could touch without eliciting a howl from yours truly. So I called my acupuncturist and bodywork specialist Steve, who was kind enough to accommodate me on short notice. Although the session gave me some relief, I realized that this was a different beast than a simple stiff neck.

Eventually, I found an experienced physical therapist/bodyworker based in San Rafael named Al Chan, whose deep knowledge of anatomy combined with his iron paws (I call his technique “Ow now, wow later”) helped put me on the mend.

This article is not about the clinical course of my ailment, though. This is aboutpain – where it

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Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

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One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to

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How to Write and Publish Your Book in 30 Days: A Guide for Busy People

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Lately, I’ve been talking to many of my friends about getting their books published. Not that they have big, fat manuscripts lying around just waiting to be published. No, no — most of these people aren’t even thinking about writing a book. I’m the one who says they have a book in them that’s itching to come out. They were just minding their business, perfectly happy with their non-authorial existence, until I waltzed along and persuaded them that their lives were empty and meaningless without getting their noble thoughts down in book form for posterity to enjoy.

I’m exaggerating here, but only a little: I do believe that most people have a book in them. I’ve self-published all of my books so far: The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely IrresistibleThe Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Enlightened Guide to Success With Women, and Best Dating Advice I Ever Got: 3000 Women Pick Their Favorite Love Tips.* And as an independent author and publisher, it’s my goal to help as many people fulfill their authorial ambitions as possible. Because it has never been easier in the history of mankind to write a book, publish it, and make it available to millions of potential readers — and to even make a buck doing it all.

In this article, I’ll endeavor to tell you about the steps you need to take to write a book and publish it, fast, even ifyou believe you have no

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Dr Obama, Vaccination, and the Health of a Nation

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Recently I read about a new movie about a person with polio. “Wow. I’m really lucky not to have gotten polio,” I thought, for the first time ever. A tingly wave of gratitude washed over me for functioning limbs that can run, dance and kick a football.

Come to think of it, nobody in the U.S. has polio these days. And the disease has been nearly eradicated worldwide. Why?

Because of vaccination, that’s why.

In fact, as you are sitting there, reading this, chances are you don’t have measles, mumps, pertussis, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or TB. It’s no exaggeration to say that vaccines are the single advance most responsible for the elevated standard of living in industrialized nations today.

At the same time, it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re not sitting there thinking, “Omigod! I just noticed that

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‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book

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A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this:

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Impressions: Amsterdam

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  1. Included with your admission ticket to the Concertgebouw is free coffee and tea before the concert, and wine at intermission.
  2. Sandwiches come with knife and fork.
  3. The biggest hills in town are bridges.
  4. An intersection can have separate traffic lights for pedestrians, bikes, cars and trams. They are not necessarily synchronized with each other. Each segment of the street has separate lights (i.e. there’s a light to the first traffic island, then another).
  5. The fanciest cars on the road are taxis – late-model Mercedes E-Class.
  6. Trash is deposited in huge subterranean bins which are picked up and emptied by giant cranes.
  7. At an intersection, both cars and pedestrians yield to bikes. Cars are especially careful, since they’re liable for all damages from collision with a bike.
  8. People are not big on curtains. Half the homes don’t even have them, and the other half are cavalier about pulling them shut.
  9. There are no Dutch restaurants outside of Holland.
  10. In the same way that London has lots of

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Taoism in Three Easy Pieces

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It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:

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Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?

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I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of

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What I learned at SXSW 2012

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I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below).

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Notes from a great conference

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I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order:

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Why I can’t stand the freakin’ holidays

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There used to be a time when I really liked the holidays.  Heck, it was vacation!  Any excuse for no school was a good excuse for no school.  It was actually called Christmas vacation then, until it was politically corrected so it would both include all the bellyaching factions who wanted to be included and not offend the atheists, agnostics, and Flyingspaghettimonsterites.

But I digress.  Let’s get to the heart of the matter: why Christmas vacation sucks.  I know my fellow curmudgeons are out there, and thanks to the internet, they too can find a few words to warm their shriveled little Scrooge hearts.  Read on:

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The best languages to learn in college and beyond

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One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

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The Fatal Flaws of Traditional Publishing (or: Why You Should Self-Publish)

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In 2005, I left my job at a fancy consulting firm to start an online publishing business.  That’s when I started to go to publishing conferences, just to see how the industry worked (and to wander like a crackhead at a dealer’s convention, but that’s a separate story or two).

Trained as a physician and business consultant, my mind has a tendency to spontaneously diagnose problems and notice what’s weird.  For an industry that is presumably invested in its own perpetuation and success, the counterproductive practices I noticed about the publishing industry were very strange indeed. Some practices (like

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Why really smart people have a tough time dating

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I have a mini-confession to make: I wrote the Tao of Dating books specifically for really smart people (both women and men).  The writing of the books was precipitated by the endemic dating woes on the Harvard campus, as I observed them as an advisor and, earlier, wallowed in them as a student.

Those kids graduate and pretty much continue to have the same dating woes — only now with fewer single people around living in the same building and sharing meals with them every day.  So if they had challenges then, it gets about 1000 times worse once they’re expelled from the warm womb of alma mater.

From my observations, the following dating challenges are common to most smart people.  In fact, the smarter you are, the more

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What are the chances of your coming into being?

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A little while ago I had the privilege of attending TEDx San Francisco, organized by the incomparable Christine Mason McCaull.  One of the talks was by Mel Robbins, a riotously funny self-help author and life coach with a syndicated radio show.  In it, she mentioned that scientists calculate the probability of your existing as you, today, at about one in 400 trillion (4×1014).

“That’s a pretty big number,” I thought to myself.  If I had 400 trillion pennies to my name, I could probably retire.

Previously, I had heard the Buddhist version of the probability of ‘this precious incarnation’.  Imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere.  The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water — in the middle of that life preserver.  On one try.

So I got curious: are either of these numbers correct?  Which one’s bigger?  Are they gross exaggerations?  Or is it possible that they underestimate the true number?

First, let us figure out the probability of one turtle sticking its head out of the one life preserver we toss out somewhere in the ocean.  That’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

According to WolframAlpha, the total area of oceans in the world is 3.409×108 square kilometers, or 340,900,000 km2 (131.6 million square miles, for those benighted souls who still cling to user-hostile British measures).  Let’s say a life preserver’s hole is about 80cm in diameter, which would make

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‘Tous les Matins du Monde’: a great movie

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Last night I finally had the chance to watch a movie that I had on my ‘must see’ list for a couple of centuries — Tous Les Matins du Monde (1991), directed by Alain Corneau, after a novel by Pascal Quignard.  It’s a fictional story based on historical characters.  Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais, a viola da gamba player and court musician to Louis XIV.  As a young man (played by Depardieu’s son Guillaume), Marais was a student of M. Sainte-Colombe, a recluse after the death of his young wife.

The movie is about music, love, betrayal, regret, longing, and the meaning of true art.  It has a largo pace, with long takes allowing you to imbibe scene and nuance.  It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood movie allowing any one character to speak as long as the young Marais in his first visit to Sainte-Colombe, where, in an incredibly discursive and ballsy monologue, he makes his case for being taken on as the maestro’s student; or to have so many scenes of uninterrupted bucolic beauty; or to dare to dwell on close-ups conveying worlds of meaning with the subtlest of facial gestures.  Although the score is ravishing — put together by Jordi Savall from his own and the protagonists’ compositions — in a movie about music, the silences sometimes speak the loudest.

In my research into the movie, I made a heartbreaking discovery: Guillaume, who plays the preposterously handsome young Marais, died of a freak lung infection in 2008 at only 37.  That this eerily paralleled some of the fictional action underscored the film’s pathos.

In the end, if the best art compels us to nobler thought and deed, Tous les Matins du Monde certainly qualifies.  Should you watch the movie — to paraphrase Coleridge from the closing lines of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — a sadder and a wiser man (or woman) you shall rise the morrow morn, and more human.

The Persian Primer: How to Understand and Properly Make Fun of Iranian-Americans

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Everywhere I turn these days, Iranians seem to be in the news. Back in the home country, the women are causing tremors through sheer power of thought and implied hotness under the tents they wear. Both the women and men are causing minor tremors in the US, becoming culturally prominent in ways that I can no longer ignore. And it’s not just here in Los Angeles – they’re everywhere!

Iranian authors are all over the bookstore: Marjane Satrapi with Persepolis; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; Roxana Saberi’s just released Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran; Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi. Shirin Ebadi took the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Nasim Pedrad is our very own Saturday Night Live cast member. The founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, is Iranian. So is Firouz Naderi, the head of NASA’s Mars Exploration; Omid Kordestani, Senior VP at Google; hundreds of super-genius university professors; and about 12 million doctors and dentists, one of which has made you say ‘aaah’ in the past week.

Unfortunately, there has not been a commensurate rise in Iranian-American jokes. There are jokes about Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. (To be fair, there are also no German-American jokes, but what is there to make fun of? Punctuality? Good hair? Superior engineering? But I digress.) Heck, there are even jokes making fun of Southeast Asian drivers.

But who’s making fun of Iranians? Nobody. Except for Iranians themselves, like Maz Jobrani and his riotous US Census videos. Most likely, this shortcoming stems from

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Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

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I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama. He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius. For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things. Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things. I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive. He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person. In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction. The conversation started civilly enough. Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism:

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Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

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Around January of this year, my friend Randall and I started to discuss the possibility of visiting China for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Randall had been taking Chinese lessons for some time, and I was itching for an excuse to start them myself. After some back-and-forthing over phone and email, we carpe’d the diem on February 27, when Randall purchased a brace of plane tickets to the Imperial City. Alea iacta est — the die is cast; can’t go back.We would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, August 3, five days before the opening ceremonies of the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Before I launch into the story, you should recognize that neither Randall nor I is a rabid sports fan. In fact, we couldn’t be bothered about organized sports at all. Our interest was in seeing China, breathing its air (but not too much), eating its food (way too much), practicing its language, and witnessing the spectacle of the games up close. And if we caught an event or two, even better.

Having attended the Games in Athens in 2004, I just wanted to marinate in the unique atmosphere the Olympics create: revelry and friendly competition between all nations; being amidst some of the most talented, hard-working, accomplished young folks on the planet; witnessing the spectacle of human achievement; seeing which country’s fans got wasted the most. Athens was an amazing experience, and I was eager to repeat it Beijing-style. As it turns out, Athens also became the touchstone by which Beijing would be judged, as Greece and China went about hosting the world’s biggest party in dramatically different ways.

Incheon our way to Beijing

If for some reason the story of our trip were to be read in Mrs Golding’s English class, she’d say that our stopover at Seoul/Incheon International Airport was an example of foreshadowing. Why? Seoul was awarded the hosting of the 1988 Olympics. At the time, Korea was at best a developing nation, their most visible product being

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The New Yorker Conference 2008: A Hail of Big Ideas

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Last year was the first time The New Yorker magazine organized a conference around innovators. At first, I was a bit skeptical, especially since the whole affair lasted just a day and cost a pretty penny and a half. But over the weeks, as every issue of the magazine teased me with yet another brilliant speaker eager to share presto-neato ideas with the world, I decided to plunk down — to find that it was sold out. I had already bought my plane ticket to New York City, so I flew in anyway and spent some quality time with friends. Of course, not before making a quasi-valiant effort at socially engineering my way into the conference — le système D, as the wily French put it.  But pan out it did not, leaving me resolved that this business of being shut out of overpriced conferences will never happen again.

So when the 2008 edition of the conference was announced, I made a big sticky note of the date and time online registration opened, and hopped on it mere seconds after the e-doors opened at 9.00am PST on February 6, 2008. This time the conference cost two pretty pennies, but clearly that was not going to deter this here man on a mission. I was in, baby, in. Later I was informed by one of the kind organizers that I was the very first registrant. Zealotry = results.

Fast forward to the morning of Thursday, May 8. I arrived by cab on a rainy New York morning before the whimsically imposing InterActive Corp (IAC) Headquarters building by the Chelsea Piers. The first impression I got of this building was of a giant wedding cake, with a lot of reflective meringue frosting, if that makes any sense. The swoopy lines and curvilinear facade practically scream “Frank Gehry was here.” And the frosted glass with the transparent bands makes it look like the entire building is

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Rio de Janeiro

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When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (confusing three-letter symbol: GIG), it had more of the feel of the tiny Treviso airport (trip to Croatia, Summer 2003) than one serving a city of 8 million. João was holding up a card with my name in the small receiving area — let the royal treatment begin! — and directed me towards my cab. I found it heartening that a country would name one of its biggest airports after a composer — namely, “Tom” Jobim, the man who wrote the lilting tones of The Girl from Ipanema (in Portuguese: A Garota de Ipanema). Can you imagine an American airport being named after Irving Berlin or Aaron Copland instead of some dead president? Ladies and gentlemen — I had officially arrived in a place that was Different.

There are shiny airports, and then there are not-so-shiny airports. Airports tend to reflect the rest of the city. JFK is marginally shiny. LAX is shiny. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is way shiny. Heathrow is gleaming. GIG is not shiny. And Rio itself is great, but shiny it is not. In fact, it may even disdain shininess.

The drive through Rio immediately reminded me of Tehran, another vast metropolis with upwards of 8 million people, lots of culture, and great disparities in wealth. As we drove towards our condominium in Ipanema — about as far from the airport and downtown area as you can get — we went through the favelas, the slums made famous by movies like City of God (Cidade de Deus). I had imagined these shantytowns to

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Penguins and the Meaning of Life

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A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The March of the Penguins, the acclaimed Luc Jacquet documentary.  The screening room at the William Morris agency did the sweeping Antarctic vistas and majestic aerial shots of the movie justice, and some friends were on hand to
share the experience.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the breeding ritual of the emperor penguin, one of the few animals that
makes its home on Antarctica (where I hear beachfront real estate is still eminently affordable — buy before everyone else catches on to
this whole global warming thing).

The story goes something like this.  Towards the end of the Antarctic summer, penguins rocket out of the water and start a
migration en masse to the breeding grounds where they were born. Now penguins are pretty picky about their real estate.  Because
they will be particularly vulnerable during this time, they need to be far away from predators.  They also need to be in a place where

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Costa Rica

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As with all trips, there was some pre-departure hesitation before leaving for my cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica last week.  Right at that metaphorical threshold which has “Go” on one side and “Stay” on the other, all the demons of habitude and hebetude rise from the nether regions of the psyche and insinuate themselves into your internal dialogue with such profound pronouncements as “Dude, it’s gonna cost you money”, or “It’s going to be so different — you sure you want that?”  The tautological reasons, even though they generally come under the “It’s a feature, silly, not a bug” heading, seem strangely compelling at the moment you’re about to plunk down hundreds of hard-loaned bucks and several days of life for what is basically a deliberate venture into the unknown.  For such occasions, it’s handy to have a rule to live by (rules being, in my book, what you use only when common sense fails).  My rule is simple: When in doubt, go.  So go I did. 

The 1.05am departure from LAX arrived in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to a blazing 8am sunshine through crisp skies, resulting in an industrial-strength reset of my circadian clock by a solid 2 hours.  The airport is named after the wily drummer boy who torched the wooden fort where the crazed invader William Walker had taken refuge in February 1856. Walker fled as a result, Costa Rica was

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Confessions of a bookaholic

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It all started innocently enough.  I was having a little promenade on the Promenade here in Santa Monica when I saw the shop window.  At first I tried to ignore it, but resistance was futile.  Slowly, the decidedly straight path my feet were on turned into an arc, like an electron deflected by a magnetic field, as some mysterious force drew me towards the front entrance.  Oh no, not again — I had just promised myself last week that I was going to lay off for a spell.  Go cold turkey.  Force of will.  And I had been doing so well.  But I saw the wares in the shopfront, in all their seductive shapes and colors, and before I could muster up some resistance,

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Why you should not go to medical school — a gleefully biased rant

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In the few years since I’ve graduated from medical school, there has been enough time to go back to medical practice in some form, but I haven’t and don’t intend to, so quit yer askin’ already.  But of course, people keep on asking.  Their comments range from the curious — “Why don’t you practice?” — to the idealistic — “But medicine is such a wonderful profession!” — to the almost hostile — “Don’t you like helping people, you heartless ogre you?”

Since it’s certain that folks will continue to pose me this question for the rest of my natural existence, I figured that instead of launching into my 15-minute polemic on the State of Medicine each time and interrupting the flow of my Hefeweizen on a fine Friday eve, I could just write it up and give them the URL.  So that’s what I did.

Now, unfettered by my prior obligations as an unbiased pre-med advisor, here are the myriad reasons why you should not enter the medical profession and the one (count ’em — one) reason you should.  I have assiduously gone through these arguments and expunged any hint of evenhandedness, saving time for all of you who are hunting for balance.  And here are the reasons:

1) You will lose all the friends you had before medicine.
You think I’m kidding here.  No, I’m not: I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I had a friend in UCLA Med School who lived 12min away, and I saw her once — in three years (UPDATE: twice in 4 years). I saw her more often when she lived in Boston and I was in LA, no foolin’.

Here’s the deal: you’ll be so caught up with taking classes, studying for exams, doing ward rotations, taking care of

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“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

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A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that “There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5”, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced “keys”) dining hall, which comprised two fried eggs, a croissant, a bowl of yoghurt, a glass of Minute Maid orange juice, canned pear tomatoes and beans, and a raft of bacon and sausage and hash browns which I dodged — all notable because they form the essence of the Full English Breakfast experience.

I’m sitting here in the computer room, in the basement of the Caius College Library, right next to the Senate House. The latter is a rectangular building in the grand neoclassical style, where the Praelectors of the various colleges lead their graduating gowned flocks to receive their degrees, each college marching in the order of their founding (Caius is fourth, after Peterhouse, Clare College and Pembroke College). But, pray tell, where is the Senate House — or, more specifically, what street is it on? The answer can initiate you into the some of the folly and madness that is Cambridge (and, ultimately, England).

You see, the Senate House is technically on King’s Parade (not King’s Parade Street — just King’s Parade), on what I consider as the main Cambridge U drag. Except that the northern edge of it starts being called Trinity St. But the southern edge becomes Trumpington St. What you start to notice is that over the course of 500 yards, this street changes names 4 times: St John’s St, Trinity St, King’s Parade, Trumpington St, Trumpington Rd (see http://www.cam.ac.uk/map/v3/drawmap.cgi?…), and it’s not the only street that does this. So, even armed with an address such as ‘6 Trumpington St’, you can have a hell of a time finding a place, because you are never really sure which street you’re standing on unless you already know the town well. Add to that the capricious nature of numbering houses (sometimes alternating even and odd on opposite street sides, sometimes not) and the sporadic presence of street signs, and every new address becomes a new adventure.

But these names are old, old, and going against 750 years of history remains a losing proposition around these parts. And, until the 19th century, the Colleges had hegemony over the town, to the extent of setting prices for such things as bread and ale. So the little stretch of street in front of Trinity College will be called Trinity Street, and 50 meters up, in front of St John’s College it’s St John’s St, hallelujah and amen.
And to put in perspective how old Cambridge is, just think of this: when Sir Isaac Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, was writing his Principia Mathematica, Cambridge was already older than Harvard is now.

Keep that bike off the pavement, mate

In the battle against archaic addressing, your best weapon (save memorizing the damn map — oops, I mean memorising) is speed. And that is achieved through the humble bicycle. Even beyond the spire- and cornice-lined streets, it’s the preponderance of bicycles that struck me most upon first arriving here. Every bicycle rack, street sign, and building wall is festooned with metal and rubber, spoke and mudguard, three or four deep. There being at least three times as many cycles here as there are things to fasten them to, most of the two-wheeled conveyances are freestanding, leaning against a wall (which, by the way, would NEVER happen in Boston — the bikes would simply vanish).

Almost all streets are marked with cycle paths, even one-way ones having a little bike lane going the opposite way. And, at the top of every hour, as lectures let out, a stream of pedalers floods every street even more than before. Students, professors, fellows, rich people, poor people — everyone cycles. Those who have children of their own wear helmets; the rest (85+%) meander blissfully bareheaded. In sheer volume, Amsterdam ain’t got nothin’ on this town when it comes to bikes (NB: I have since been to Amsterdam, and I sit corrected. Still — whole lotta bikes.)

And so, wishing to be part of the wheeled and mobile masses, on my second day here, I set out on a bike hunt. You will be shocked to find that I
bought the first bike that I found at the first bike shop that I visited (those who know me well realize the improbability of such an event). There
it was: a Trek 700 hybrid, fully tricked out in the Cambridge Urban Geriatric package — mud guards front and back, front and back lights (required), rear rack (for passengers), chain guard (to save your trouser cuffs — key!) and the all-important front basket. An older gentleman had customized his bike for commuting, found that his knees couldn’t take the strain, and returned it less than a week after its purchase.

I immediately recognized how much time and money I’d have to spend to get a bare-bones bike to have all these accoutrements, and how I could never get them for a mere £150 ($230 or so, and rising). So, relinquishing my penchant for rock-devouring aluminum moutain bikes or speedy racing bikes, I plunked down on the spot for this incredibly practical instrument, and have enjoyed many a ride with nary a pant rip, chain-oil smudge or a wet rear, even in driving rain.

Now you would certainly be looked at askance if you were to tell an English person that your last bike used to rip into your pants. Or that you like to ride on the pavement. Because ‘pants’ around these parts means ‘underwear’, and ‘pavement’ means sidewalk. So you can imagine my mild bewilderment when, on my first day on my trusty steel steed, I was told that riding on the pavement was strictly forbidden. And when you say something is ‘pants’, that means it’s no good. (On the other hand, if something is ‘the dog’s bollocks’, then it’s grrreat — ‘brilliant’, in
fact.)

Now some of these differences aren’t strictly deadly, e.g. ‘tap’ for faucet and ‘post’ for ‘mail’, ‘lorry’ and ‘lift’ for truck and elevator. But, as a driver and cyclist, you can get into real trouble if you don’t know ‘give way’ means ‘yield’ and if you have no idea what a ‘rising bollard’ is.

Ahh, the rising bollard. See, there are certain zones of the city which are closed to all traffic, except for buses and taxis, at certain times of day. The borders to these zones are marked by ‘Caution: rising bollards’ signs, and woe betide he who obliviously or willfully drives onto the division zone, because from the very heart of Mother Earth majestically rises a ‘bollard’ — a metal column or pylon 3 feet high – impaling the car smack on its engine or transmission, instantly destroying it. Now the car-cass (ha) has to be towed, and the shame-faced driver has no choice but to pay something like a £1000 fine. Wild stuff.

And so the real shock of the new hit me as soon as I started cycling. ‘Stay on the left side, because it’s the right side’, my initial mantra, proved less helpful than it sounded. So I just decided to follow the direction cars were parked. That was a bad idea, because cars park facing either direction, on both sides of the road. OK, follow other cyclists and drivers then. Turnabouts (rotaries) go clockwise, not anticlockwise (counterclockwise) as I learned the hard way, and right turns are the dangerous ones, as oncoming headlights remind me time and time again which country I’m in.

One thing that I have yet to get over is the momentary horror of passing a car on the left, looking inside and seeing a small child in the driver’s seat (eek!) or, even worse, NOBODY in the driver’s seat (double eek!). Two and some decades of conditioning is hard to live down in two and some weeks.

Gonville and Caius is the baius knaius

Let’s get back to the initial story of my arrival here. Now, on that very Monday, I actually did not have a full acceptance from Cambridge University — or, more specifically, the Board of Graduate Studies. This latter institution is responsible for handling the affairs of graduate students here, and they do a magnificent job of devouring, swamp-like, any correspondence, email or phone call that comes their way without actually responding, and of generally doing business at the speed of a rapidly advancing glacier. Hence, my affectionate title for them, ‘The BoGS’ (which, in local parlance means, perhaps even more appropriately, ‘the toilets’).

Anyway — for whatever reason, even though the Bioscience Enterprise Programme, my course of study, had accepted me in early June, these swamp dwellers had not (long and complicated story which I hope you will never hear), so on Monday morning, I was homeless and addressless. Luckily, through the intercession of Dr Joe Herbert, the course director, on Tuesday evening I had been accepted at Gonville & Caius College, one of my top 3 choices, and the next week received an actual letter from the BoGS welcoming me to Cambridge. The amusing part of the story is how, fast on the heels of my acceptance to Caius College, I received my first letter from them the next day (even though I had no address) — the bill for the term’s charges. They can be on the ball when they really want to, you see.

Gonville & Caius was founded twice — once by Mr Gonville in 1348, and the second time by (you guessed it) Dr Caius. Now, for whatever reason, his name is pronounced ‘keys’ — some latinization of ‘Keyes’, which was fashionable in his day. But this gives our college double Cambridge snob status. First, because only yahoos from the outside even mention the ‘Gonville’ part; and second, because of the way ‘Caius’ is pronounced. Magdalene College has the trick pronunciation (’maudlin’) and Peterhouse the trick name (not ‘Peterhouse College’; just Peterhouse), but Caius got both. Of course this is also great fun to play with, as you can send a message to your fellow Caian (’kee-an’) saying ‘plaius excuse my snaius’ with a knowing chortle, har.

Since the original Dr Caius, this place has been a haven for medical students (aka ‘medics’) and natural scientists (’natskis’). Lots of the streets and buildings are named after famous alumni: Harvey Court and Harvey Road are tributes to old William, the Western discoverer of pulmonary circulation c. 1628 (Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physiologist, did it first c. 1250). Glisson Road, where I live, is named after Dr Glisson, discoverer of the eponymous capsule of fibrous tissue encasing the plumbing that goes into the liver.

On my second day in Cambridge, as I was exiting the College one evening, I had a near run-in with one of the more famous living Caians. First I thought it was a handicapped student, but then I realized that I had narrowly avoided collision with none other than the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, Stephen Hawking.

When Jesus, Christ, Corpus Christi and Trinity sit to dine

There are 32 Colleges at Cambridge, and the students harbor the same fierce and irrational loyalties towards them as we all do to arbitrary elements of identity like country, religion and name. Some are more hoity-toity than others (Trinity being the ne plus ultra); some are more liberal (Kings). All are absolutely enamored of their rules and traditions. One of the surviving traditions is that of Formal Hall.

Dinner is served in two seatings: 6.20 and 7.15. At the second seating, all students are required to wear their academic gowns before sitting down at the long benches of Caius Dining Hall, listening to a Latin benediction, and sharing a three-course meal which ranges between being repulsive to marginally edible. The ploy for getting the students to show up in spite of the shoddy cuisine is to mandate the pre-purchase of 16 meal tickets, at £4.50 each (about $7), which is certainly much easier than providing good food. One saving grace is that we are allowed to bring our own wine to the table and share with whomever we want, with a loosely enforced limit of one bottle per person. If you just asked yourself, “Wait a second there — shouldn’t one bottle per Homo sapiens be enough?”, read on.

As it turns out, drinking in general and wine in particular provide a cornerstone — nay, THE cornerstone of Cambridge life. When I first read The Double Helix at the tender age of 15, what struck me most was how much of business, even of Watson & Crick magnitude, was conducted at pubs, over beer. Every College has its own pub, open to everyone, with absurdly cut-rate drink prices (pint of cider £1; pint of beer £1.50; shot of tequila £1.40 — dangerous!). Every Wednesday we have after-dinner port at 8pm, which goes on and on and on. And regularly there are fancy dinners (the last of which was the Graduate Matriculation Dinner) where we sit with the Fellows of the College, eat from a menu written entirely in French (of course ‘pommes de terre’ taste better than potatoes!) and have 4 different courses of wine, capped off by your choice of port or claret, passed around in a crystal decanter, around in a crystal decanter, around in a (burp) crysal descanter, roight.

Unfortunately, these occasions are the only time when we dine with the Fellows. The professors and such always eat at the High Table, which is not open to students, graduate or non, and this hierarchical arrangement echoes itself throughout English social structure. My hopes for having regular chats with Prof Hawking have thus been temporarily dashed.

Of course, no account of a sojourn in England is complete without some mention of how unlike (and, by implication, inferior to) America it is. None of you know me as a cheerleader of things American, but I cannot help but notice some peculiarities of life here. The most amusing is easily the hot & cold faucet arrangement: in every sink, they are separated by 2 feet of space, such that thou shalt scald thine hands or
freeze them, but though shalt never wash them under a temperate stream of water. Seeing as how some of the tubs and showers actually have the technological wonder of the mixer tap incorporated, I am dumbfounded as to why sinks should be so deprived.

There is also a strange fondness for rules and an unabashed willingness to enforce them, even to perfect strangers. In my 12 years of cycling nearly every day in the States, people reminded or reprimanded me only a handful of times for my kamikaze tendencies, even in the most flagrant case. But here, somebody says something nearly every time. The most surreal incident was when I was locking my bike, and a friend that I had not seen in 3yrs called my name, prompting me to exclaim ‘Holy fucking cow!’, to which a grey head stuck itself out of a Caius College office window and said, emphatically, ‘No. NO.’ This lifetime had not prepared me for that.

At risk of flagrant generalization, what epitomizes my experience here is the phrase with which shopkeepers greet you: “May I help?” For some time, I have found the absence of ‘you’ at the end of that query to be particularly jarring, and my over-philosophized explanation is thus: they don’t really much care about ‘you’ here, as evidenced by the absence of customer service and the presence of the National Health Service. Collectively, people matter (hence, rules and the penchant for them); individually, not so much. Here, rules are rigid physical things that you run into, as if hitting a wall; not at all nice and bendy like back there, and not at all guidelines for when common sense fails. And saying ‘Can I help’ instead of ‘Can I help you’ conveys the same amount of warmth and sincerity as saying ‘I love’ instead of ‘I love you’.

Hey, America may not be so great, but at least sometimes they fake it well when it counts. (NB: My English friends have since brought to my attention that they feel exactly the same way about American rules, especially when it comes to bars and carrying ID. Acknowledged.)

Of course, you’re all more than welcome — nay, encouraged — to visit. There’s really no place like Cambridge (except for Oxford), and it’s quite fun for a quick swing-through.

 

Travels in Red America

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About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit parts of the US that I had not seen before. Having lived mostly in Boston and Southern California, I had left the vast middle portion of the country unexplored. So I welcomed the mission to get some work done in San Antonio, Dallas, Ft Worth, St Louis and Cleveland. The cities were lovely: San Antonio’s Riverfront eating/shopping district was quite charming even late on a sleepy Monday night; Dallas had an upstart, upwardly mobile feel to it with a very lively youth culture (and exceptionally welcoming people); and St Louis seemed to have much more to commend it than just a big ol’ arch. I was particularly gratified that in my 24-hr sojourn in St Louis, I very nearly got caught in a hailstorm of 2-inch ice pellets and a tornado. To this here left- and right-coaster, that was as quintessentially Midwestern an experience as having an earthquake and brushfire would be to Joe Sixpack visiting LA for a day from Kansas City.
Although my time to roam amongst the natives was limited, I thought that a scan of the area radio stations from the comfort of my rental car would be a step towards capturing the local zeitgeist. And so, armed with the craftily-named ‘Scan’ button of the radio, I listened. The very first station that tuned in caught a female voice singing the chorus of a song: ‘God is with us.’ The second station was talk, not music, and sounded like a speech or a sermon — something about Michael looking across the water to see Jesus walking on it. The next one was a Christian rock station. Of the seven or so stations that I scanned before settling on some classical music, four were broadcasting either Christian music or preaching. Now an evangelical radio station per se is not anomalous, but what struck me was the preponderance of such formats in these markets. Clearly all these stations have an audience to make them economically sustainable. Although my survey was informal, you would never get such a high percentage of Christian stations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston or San Francisco. I’d even argue that there isn’t a total of 4 such stations on the FM dial in any one of those markets.
OK, so what? In my last blog entry, I talked about my surprise at finding out about the vastness of the evangelical book market. And these travels along the highways of Middle America, where billboards urge passersby to accept Christ as their savior at a weekend-long revivalist retreat, confirmed my suspicion of the existence of an America with which I am less familiar: what the journalists have been calling ‘Red America’, after the infamous map of the 2000 Presidential election showing the states voting for Gore in blue (mostly seaboard states) and those voting for Bush in red (the inland states). The designation ‘Red America’ is particularly ironic, since the color red has historically carried strong anti-American connotations: first symbolizing the perceived Native American threat (the ‘red man’) to homesteaders in the nation’s earlier years; and then standing in for Communism (the ‘Red Menace’) from the early twentieth century till 1989 (and today to some extent).
This evening I had the privilege of seeing Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, give a speech at the United Methodist Church in Venice, CA. He was his usual self-deprecatingly funny self, opening with: “All these years in public service have worn me down. I started out being 6’2″, and now look where I am.” Although me may stand a mere 5 feet tall, his persona and charisma more than filled the room. He talked about many subjects, including his forays into Red America along his cross-country drive from Cambridge, MA to Berkeley, CA with his eldest son. At the roadside diners, he would sometimes be approached by locals (“because I looked peculiar”), who would engage him in discussion with a “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?,” to which he would respond, “Yes, and I’m proud to be one.” After the native would proclaim himself/herself a Republican, Reich would ask why he/she would vote for Bush. According to Reich, the near-unanimous response in all of these states was “because he’s honest” (which elicited audible groans from the Venice audience). After Reich presents his interlocutor with a few incontrovertible counterexamples to this trope, the native changes his tune and says, “Well, it’s really because he’s so folksy.” Aaaah. So that’s it — somehow W’s good ol’ boy talk and broken English conveys to these Reds that he’s one of them, in spite of his blue-blood pedigree and life of perpetual privilege. The surprising and even encouraging part of Reich’s report was that, after only 3 or 4 minutes of presenting some simple facts about the current administration’s record, many of those he spoke to were quite willing to admit, “Well, y’know, maybe I won’t be voting for him after all.”
All of this brings me to this question: Is America really as divided as the red-blue map would make us think it is? Reich would have us reconsider that, and there’s evidence to support that. You can see the red-blue map from the 2000 election at this site  http://www.makethemaccountable.com/misc/…). If you scroll down further, you will see another quite ingenious (and utterly logical) map that colors each state in a blend of blue and red in its proportion of Democratic and Republican votes cast in the 2000 elections. What this map shows is that almost all of America, with the exception of a handful of stronghold states (CA, IL, NY, MA, RI, HI for the blues; ID, NB, WY, UT for the reds) is more or less the same shade of purple. So perhaps there are more of the 40% self-identified evangelical Christians in those red states, who may identify with the Bush born-again persona and some its attendant dogmatism, and maybe they did vote for him in the 2000 elections in greater proportion. But in the end, we all want to be able to stand tall as Americans and be proud of the values of freedom, tolerance and high-mindedness that has made this country great, prosperous and a model of hope. And all Americans are smart enough to know that no amount of folksiness can ever make up for a compromise of those values, or being worse off then they were four years ago, or the threat of being drafted to an unjustified war, or having their sons and daughters come back from halfway across the globe in a body bag. Reich’s note of pragmatic optimism, echoing that of Clinton in his BEA speech three weeks ago, resonates with me. The American people have consistently chosen and will choose unity, democracy still works, and we’re gonna be alright. Now get out there and get the word out.

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

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People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my

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Castes in the Bhagavad Gita

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Friday night I attended a talk by Chris Chapple (pronounced like ‘chapel’), professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, on the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve just started reading the Bhagavad Gita, half out of pique, since TS Eliot has this habit of referencing it gratuitously in his work and I’ve been re-reading some of his stuff lately, half out of complementarity, since along with the Tao Te Ching it is one of the main texts of Eastern philosophy, and half out of morbid curiosity since I’d never gotten around to reading it. And yes, Mr or Ms Smartypants, I’m fully aware that three halves make for one and a half, and one and a half of everything makes for a fuller life, and I like it better that way; thanks for noticing. Anyway. One cool thing about the Gita — basically a conversation between Arjuna, the super-warrior wracked by guilt and indecision before the imminent bloodshed of his kinsmen, and Krishna, his charioteer/advisor, who is really an avatar (earthly incarnation) of the powerful god Vishnu — is that it makes for a powerfully dramatic story. And, in the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna/Vishnu, a great deal of wisdom is passed along, much of it in the vein of Lao-Tse and the Tao. But every once in a while, something like this creeps in:

Krishna: If I did not continue to work untiringly as I did, mankind would still follow me, no matter where I led them. Suppose I were to stop? They would all be lost. The result would be caste-mixture and universal destruction (italics mine). Bhagavad Gita, Ch 3

So ‘universal destruction’ and ‘caste mixture’ are uttered in the same breath here. OK, so maybe this is just an aberration, they’re not really serious, right?

We know what fate falls/ On families broken:/ The rites are forgotten,/ Vice rots the remnant/ Defiling their women,/ And from their corruption/ Comes mixing of castes:/ The curse of confusion/ Degrades the victims/ And damns the destroyers. (Ch 1)

Well. Glad we made that one clear. I’m only up to Chapter 4, and there have already been 4-5 mentions of how caste-mixing is the ultimate evil, almost as bad as deep-fried chocolate bars or voting Republican. Could it be that this book of scripture — as influential in India as the gospel of Hinduism as the Bible is to an American audience — could have perpetuated the hereditary Indian caste system for centuries while holding back the development of egalitarianism even to this day? Could it be that the priesthood, the Brahmins, the members of the highest caste and the only ones capable of writing, conveniently slipped in these oppressive clauses in the otherwise transcendent, timeless narrative of the Gita? I’ll read more before I decide, but in the meantime I refer you to my particular translation, published by Barnes & Noble, which is not only quite easy to read but also has a magnificent introduction by Aldous Huxley, who not coincidentally, names the escapist drug in the epochal Brave New World after Indra the thunder-god’s favorite hallucinogen — soma.

Affluence as blessing and disease; tipping in the USA

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Recently I spent a weekend in Las Vegas, and before I go on any further, let’s go through all the possible nicknames for that town and get it out of our system: Lost Wages, Sin City, Lust Vegas, The Meadows (you’d think ‘vegas’ would be Spanish for ‘arid lifeless desert’, but it’s not), insert your favorite nickname here. Now every time I go there I have a blast, as long as I limit my sojourn to 48hrs or less (and even then, I need to undergo a full mind-and-body disinfectant scrubbing before I’m fit to re-enter proper society, but that’s a story for a different late Sunday night). A particularly surreal moment occurred when I was in the poker room of the Mandalay Bay casino, overlooking the sports book. There, amidst the solid burghers and dedicated hedonists betting on ace-king or Dudley’s Dignity the harness-racing horse, two monitors were turned to CNN, which just happened to be showing an undercover special on trafficking and prostitution of minors in Romania. The contrast between this industrial-strength dose of reality and the foam upon the foam that Vegas rests on was sobering. Of course, both scenarios are real, in the sense that they are both occurring and constitute economic activity. However, I will hazard to say that the Americans in that poker room were experiencing a higher standard of living than the hapless Romanian abductees. The US is a remarkably affluent society, as even its poorest members enjoy a remarkable degree of abundance. Merriam-Webster online weighs in on the word thus  www.m-w.com):

affluence, n. 1 a : an abundant flow or supply : PROFUSION b : abundance of property : WEALTH

But let us abstain from conjecture and refer to the facts instead: per annum, the average American consumes 7960 kg of oil equivalent and 730 pounds of paper; use 484,000 gallons of water; own 844 TV sets and 774 vehicles per 1000 people; and consumes 269 pounds of meat (compare these figures to those for China: 880, 73, 116,000, 292, 16 and 104, respectively). (Source: National Geographic, 3/04, p 91). From this and anecdotal evidence (I’m living in Santa Monica, CA now — enough said), we will conclude that there is much abbondanza in our fine country. But abundance, a complicated boon like all others, has its side effects. Too much of it can make you ill or just plain kill you. Back to Merriam-Webster:

disease, n. : 1 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning : SICKNESS, MALADY
2 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)

To me, ‘dis-ease’ implies an absence of ease — something absolutely ubiquitous in our hyper-affluent society even under the most cursory scrutiny. Too much food and leisure results in large paunches, sluggish bodies and clogged arteries, antitheses of ease if they ever existed. Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, time pressure, and covetousness compromise mental ease. Affluence means distancing oneself from the ‘real’ preoccupations of sustenance (finding food, shelter, clothing) and instead getting embroiled in monitoring our body fat percentage, following fashion, and losing a month’s salary at the roulette table. It means affliction with diseases like depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and fibromyalgia which did not exist for 99.8% of recorded human history.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating some kind of atavism (although in the old days, the physical requirements of daily sustenance had some stress-relieving effects that desk jobs don’t provide), and Hobbes’ point about ancient man’s life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is probably true. Nor am I a fan of austerity — the greatest act of worship is in acknowledging and celebrating the bounty of the earth. However, it would seem that too much of a good thing ceases being a good thing. Affluence can make you sick. Yet, perversely, that same affluence has managed to procure the salves against these maladies — bypass surgery and simvastatin, credit cards and equity loans, psychiatrists and Zoloft — such that we can mollify their symptoms for three quarters of a century before succumbing to the cumulus of decay.

But fret not, my dear readers, for there is a solution. It’s called yoga.

The Dream Factory (or: Walking Sunset Boulevard on a Thursday night)

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Last night I attended a reading of an avant garde-ish book called Pills, Chills, Thrills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person at Book Soup, the rather eclectic bookstore on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, right across from Tower Records. After the event, which primarily made me wonder whether terminal hipness can only be achieved through large-scale consumption of drugs, I took a walk on Sunset, just to observe, and perhaps to see. In the unwritten code of LA cool, it is clearly not permissible to

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What is cool?

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For some reason this popped into my head while dining on pansit, a filipino dish. Perhaps it was something in a Time magazine article on John Kerry, which made me wonder. Now normally these thoughts go unacknowledged and experience their own exponential decay, with no herald of their birth nor record of their demise. But now I have a blog, which is precisely for this kind of fleeting thought-form to have its moment of exposure to retinas not my own. Of course, dear reader, now you get impatient — ‘Which thought, for godssakes?’ Ah yes. I was thinking what constitutes ‘cool’ and ‘coolness’. Such a bandied-about term, and one that at best has a Justice Felix Frankfurter definition to it (“I know it when I see it”). In fact there was a good part of one Simpsons episode devoted to deftly defining ‘cool’ (or at least demonstrating its undefinability). So, in the fine tradition of the reductionist, I will say that coolness is a mix of several components. Tolerance is one of them — to ‘be cool about something’ means that you do not bludgeon it with your judgment. A corollary to that is imperturbability — if you are cool, you tend not to get too riled up, emotional, defensive about things. But the mix of imperturbable and tolerant merely makes for mellow; there must be other factors involved. Edginess and an independent spirit certainly qualify, as does a tendency to care for others (although I would argue altruism is not a requirement of cool, but an adjunct). Talent is good. Egolessness is good, although there are some industrial-strength braggarts out there who love themselves so much, we sometimes find ourselves swept into their world and find them undeniably cool (e.g. Muhammad Ali). I think if I were to pick one characteristic to round out what makes cool, it would be competence. Without manifestation, talent means little and fails to communicate itself. So, until the next revision, here are the x-y-z axes of cool, the Holy Trinity of Tolerance, Imperturbability, and Competence.
Question for follow-up: Which other countries and linguistic traditions have an equivalent word for ‘cool’? How many of them have appropriated it from America? Is ‘cool’ an American concept at its heart?

Masses rejoice: my first blog!

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Hey there, boys and girls. I suppose you can now welcome me to the digital age, and to this populist phenomenon called the blog. I’m not quite sure what its purpose is, and I’m even less sure why I signed up for it. But I suppose the self-aggrandizement associated with having a law.harvard.edu blog is just too juicy to resist. I’ve just returned from a class at Yoga Works (led by the infamous Vinnie Marino), and I feel as if my whole body has been pulled through the eye of a needle. Now does that tentatively qualify me for admission to heaven, or do I have to do it all again when I’m rich while riding a camel? All you New Testament scholars out there kindly clarify.

So I would surmise that part of the function of this whole blog thing, besides self-indulgence (duh), is to provide a forum for all the heretofore voiceless individuals to express themselves publicly, sans censorship or fear of reprisal. That’s nice, but taken to its theoretical limit, reading other people’s blogs would require several lifetimes, and so if enough people blog, blogs simply become reduced to fancy electronic diaries that can vanish in the blink of a server that the world can peek into if it had time. It follows that some blogs are more equal than others, and some convergence has to occur as certain prominent blogs get more readership than others (the 80/20 rule again, manifesting itself once again in the context of a network). So, with any luck, my blog will be one of the ignored ones, and my miscellaneous incendiary ramblings will go unnoticed by the objects of my disaffection, and I will have an excuse to exercise the writing muscle, which shall soon become the source of my vast income and impending immortality, hallelujah and amen.

This is already more fun than I thought.
Cheers for now
AB

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