Reading notes (2020, week 37) — On minimalism’s less is always more, how philanthropy benefits the super-rich, and seeing human society as a complex system

Library Kressbronn in Kressbronn am Bodensee, Germany, by Steimle Architekten is shortlisted for rebirth project of the year at Dezeen Awards 2020. (Photograph by Brigida González)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s ‘thieved’ ‡ edition: Where the minimalism of ideas meets the minimalism of things; why the common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong; seeing human society for what it really is; the tyranny of merit; facts vs. feelings; eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life; beginning with the end; a renovated Japanese public bathhouse; and, finally, Richard Powers on kinship, community and consciousness.

‡ Meant (and also taken) as a compliment, Bruce McTague recently called me a “gentleman thief.”

Minimalism’s less is always more

“The new literature of minimalism is full of stressful advice,” Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes in The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism. Ranging from Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidy your space, transform your life’ philosophy to The Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, according to whom “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which aren’t things at all,” and the author of the bestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown, for whom minimalism is a habit of highly effective people. And let’s not forget Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki, “a writer in his thirties who lives in a tiny studio in Tokyo with three shirts, four pairs of trousers, four pairs of socks and not much else.” According to Sasaki, “Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the least possible. Living with only the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits such as the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (The recent interest in Stoicism, and ancient philosophy in general, might also be seen in this light, but let’s park that thought for now.)

“But, at the same time that Kondo and her cohort have popularized a form of material humility, minimalism has become an increasingly aspirational and deluxe way of life. The hashtag #minimalism pulls up more than seventeen million photos on Instagram,” Tolentino notes. Many on which depict high-end interior spaces. Also, today’s minimalism feels oddly dominated by a logic of accumulation, Tolentino observes. Less is always more, or, as Millburn and Nicodemus write, “Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less. We focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps make that room.”

“Less is more attractive when you’ve got a lot of money, and minimalism is easily transformed from a philosophy of intentional restraint into an aesthetic language through which to assert a form of walled-off luxury — a self-centered and competitive impulse that is not so different from the acquisitive attitude that minimalism purports to reject,” Jia Tolentino writes in The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism. (Photography by Six. N. Five Studio, from their series The Japanese Garden, which combines classical elements of Japanese architecture with stylized flora to create scenes that perfectly capture the culture’s desire for simplicity.)

In his new book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, culture critic Kyle Chayka ‡ investigates how we have veered away from minimalism’s true origins, and converted it into a visual manifestation of ‘wellness’ — a lifestyle trend rooted in conspicuous consumption.

“Writing in search of the things that popular minimalism sweeps out of the frame — the void, transience, messiness, uncertainty — he surveys minimalist figures in art, music, and philosophy, searching for a ‘minimalism of ideas rather than things,’” Tolentino writes. But Chayka also offers sharp critiques of thing-oriented minimalism. Apple’s devices, for example, are often seen as the epitome of minimalism. At the same time, however, they rely on a hidden, what Chayka calls, ‘maximalist assemblage’ — server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, and the devastating mud pit mines that produce tin.

“More beguiling to Chayka are artists who have no interest in directing the lives of others,” such as Agnes Martin, whose poised, transcendent paintings have been claimed for minimalism, Walter De Maria, whose installation The New York Earth Room has been quietly confounding people in SoHo since 1977, and Donald Judd. The aluminium boxes that make up his monumental installation titled 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum are “just there, empty of content except for the sheer fact of their physical presence, obdurate and silent, explaining nothing and with nothing to explain.”

Chayka believes that these, and also the Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who described the Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana (‘making flowers alive’), as a practice that links beauty to ephemerality and death, are models for a deeper, more honest, less self-centered minimalism — a way of living that makes “simple things more complicated, not the other way around.”

Chayka is, however, not immune to shallower forms of the aesthetic and “his attraction to superficial minimalism […] pulses throughout the book,” notes Tolentino. “In a way, Chayka’s book replicates the conflict he’s attempting to uncover — between the security and cleanliness of a frictionless affect and the necessity of friction for uncovering truth.”

“True minimalism, Chayka insists, is ‘not about consuming the right things or throwing out the wrong; it’s about challenging your deepest beliefs in an attempt to engage with things as they are, to not shy away from reality or its lack of answers.’” Tolentino suspects that some recent converts to minimalism have already come to this conclusion. “Underneath the vision of ‘less’ as an optimized life style lies the path to something stranger and more profound: a mode of living that strips away protective barriers and heightens the miracle of human presence, and the urgency, today, of what that miracle entails.”

The idea that keeping expenses low and purchases to a minimum to create a life that is clear and streamlined, can also lead the conclusion that there is too much stuff in the world, Tolentino argues. “If you did say this, you would be quoting Karl Marx, who declared that this was the case in 1848, when he and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto.” But “most popular minimalists do not mention Marx. […] Even [the] sincere prophets of anti-consumerism are hesitant to conclude that the excessive purchasing of stuff may be a symptom of larger structural problems, or that a life built around maximum accumulation may be not only insufficiently conducive to happiness but actually, morally bad.”

According to Tolentino, “[the] worst versions of life-style minimalism frame simplicity not as a worthy end in itself but as an instrument — a tool of self-improvement, or of high-end consumption, or of self-improvement through high-end consumption. It is a vision shaped by the logic of the market: the self is perpetually being improved; its environment is ready for public display and admiration; it methodically sheds all inefficiencies and flaws. This vision also forgoes any recognition that the kind of salvation so many people are seeking can happen only at the level of the system rather than at that of the individual. (As Chayka puts it, ‘Your bedroom might be cleaner, but the world stays bad.’) The difference between profound and superficial minimalism may be a matter of conceptual inversion: the question is whether you accept diminishment in order to more efficiently assert your will or whether you assert your will in order to accept the unseen bounty of self-diminishment. This is also where the minimalism of ideas meets the minimalism of things — the latter argues that ridding yourself of possessions means ridding yourself of trouble and difficulty; the former suggests that the end point of stripping away excess is the realization that the world is more troubled, more difficult, more discomforting, and also more wondrous and full of possibility than it seems.”

The most convincing argument for minimalism comes from Duane Elgin, who uses the term ‘voluntary simplicity’; a term coined by the social philosopher Richard Gregg, the author of The Power of Nonviolence (1934), which greatly influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (1936), in which Gregg describes capitalism as a “gravely defective” system that ought to be “reformed or ended.”

According to Duane Elgin, we can “continue along our current path of denial and bargaining” until we drain our natural resources and our capacity to relate to one another as humans or we can “awaken ourselves from the dream of limitless material growth and actively invent new ways to live within the material limits of the Earth.”

“This is, in the end,” Tolentino concludes, “the most convincing argument for minimalism: with less noise in our heads, we might hear the emergency sirens more clearly. If we put down some baggage, we might move more swiftly. We might address the frantic, frightening, intensifying conditions that have prompted us to think of minimalism as an attractive escape.”

“‘Emptiness is a creative receptacle,’ [according to Kenya Hara, MUJI’s preeminent art director], making a point of distinguishing it from simplicity or minimalism. Instead of a system for shedding elements or clearing up spaces, like the one advocated by another Japanese sage, Marie Kondo, emptiness or ‘ku’ is a more fundamental state of being.” — Anne Quito in Emptiness — not minimalism — is the path to creativity, explains MUJI’s design philosopher.

‡ In 2016, Kyle Chayka published an essay in The Verge, entitled Welcome to Airspace: How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world. In this essay, Chayka explored why many urban areas around the world increasingly resemble each other and have become interchangeble. He writes: “As the geography of AirSpace spreads, so does a certain sameness. [It] recalls what the architect Rem Koolhaas noticed in his prophetic essay The Generic City, from the 1995 book S,M,L,XL: ‘Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport — all the same? […] What if this seemingly accidental — and usually regretted — homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?’”

Further reading
What Minimalism Means to Me, by Michael Palin (Idler Magazine, January 2018)
The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism, by Kyle Chayka (The Guardian, January 2020)
Everything you think you know about minimalism is wrong, by Evan Nicole Brown (Fast Company, January 2020)

How philanthropy benefits the super-rich

There are more philanthropists than ever before. Each year they give tens of billions to charitable causes. Nontheless, inequality keeps rising. In an extract from his new book Philanthropy — from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, Paul Vallely wonders why.

According to Vallely, the common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong. “A lot of elite philanthropy is about elite causes,” he writes. “Rather than making the world a better place, it largely reinforces the world as it is. Philanthropy very often favours the rich — and no one holds philanthropists to account for it.”

Since the beginning of the 20th-century, the role of private philanthropy has increased dramatically. There are, according to a 2018 study by the Hauser Institute for Civil Society, some 260,000 philanthropy foundations. Between them, these foundations control more than $1.5 trillion — slightly more than the U.S. federal government’s 2018 budget.

“Philanthropy is always an expression of power. Giving often depends on the personal whims of super-rich individuals. Sometimes these coincide with the priorities of society, but at other times they contradict or undermine them. Increasingly, questions have begun to be raised about the impact these mega-donations are having upon the priorities of society,” Vallely writes. “Some of this influence is indirect.” Take, for example, the Gates Foundation. Since it begin in 2000, it has given away more than $45 billion and saved millions of lives. “Yet this approach can be problematic,” says Villaly. “Gates can become fixed on addressing a problem which is not seen as a priority by local people, in an area, for example, where polio is far from the biggest problem. He did something similar in his education philanthropy in the US where his fixation on class size diverted public spending away from the actual priorities of the local community.”

In an interview with Der Spiegel, the late billionaire shipping magnate and philanthropist Peter Kramer said, “It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it’s not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That’s a development that I find bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massime sums of money will flow?”

“Some kinds of philanthropy may have become not just non-democratic, but anti-democratic. Charles Koch and his late brother, David, are undoubtedly the most prominent example of rightwing philanthropy at work.” (Photograph: David Koch at an Americans for Prosperity summit in Washington DC, 2011, by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“The idea that a philanthropist’s money is their own to do with as they please is deep-rooted. […] But what the rich are giving away in their philanthropy is not entirely their own money,” Vallely writes. “Most western governments offer generous tax incentives to encourage charitable giving [and] super-rich philanthropists find themselves in a position where a large percentage of their gift is funded by the taxpayer.” Some countries, such as the UK and US, also “offer additional incentives where donations are made to endow a charitable foundation. This enables a philanthropist to escape liability for tax on the donation, yet also retain control over how the money is spent, within the constraints of charity law.”

The effect is, what Kramer called, “a bad transfer of power,” giving wealthy philanthropists control in matters that would otherwise be determined by the state. Besides, “the priorities of plutocracy, rule by the rich, and democracy, rule by the people, often differ [research].” This means, Vallely argues, that there is “a strong argument that the money donated by philanthropists might be put to better use if it were collected as taxes and spent according to the priorities of a democratically elected government. In which case, should the state be giving tax relief to philanthropists at all?”

The case for tax reform — to abolish these subsidies entirely, or ensure the rich can claim no more than basic tax payers can — has, however, met with public disapproval, according to Vallely. An alternative solution might be to impose restrictions on the kind of causes for which tax exemptions can be claimed. But who decides which causes will be eligible?

“Of course, it could be left to the state. But as Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, told [Valely]: ‘That’s giving the state a dangerously high level of discretion. The more the state takes on a role of moral scrutiny, the more I worry … and the history of the last 100 years ought to tell us that a hyper-activist state with lots of moral convictions is pretty bad for everybody.’

Others have seen the solution as simply increasing taxes on the mega-rich. When the Dutch economic historian Rutger Bregman was asked at Davos in 2019 how the world could prevent a social backlash rising from the growth of inequality, he replied: ‘The answer is very simple. Just stop talking about philanthropy. And start talking about taxes … Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.’”

“I’ve paid more taxes than any individual ever, and gladly so. I should pay more,” Bill Gates has said. Warren Buffett says “society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned”, so he has an obligation to give back to society. (Photograph: Bill and Melinda Gates, together with Warren Buffett, New York, 2006, by Nicholas Roberts/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, “the collective actions of 90,000+ foundations … after decades of work … have failed to alter the most basic conditions of the poor in the US.”

The reason for this can be found in “the template that was established by the men who transformed modern philanthropy through the sheer scale of their giving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and his fellow philanthropists neglected the great ethical question of the day, which centred on the distribution rather than the redistribution of wealth. “Carnegie, then the richest man in the world, was criticised in his day for distributing his unprecedented largesse because his fortune was built on ruthless tactics such as cutting the wages of his steel-workers. Carnegie’s greatest contemporary critic, William Jewett Tucker, concluded there is ‘no greater mistake … than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice.’”

“Philanthropy can be compatible with justice,” Vallely notes. “But it requires a conscious effort on behalf of philanthropists to make it so. The default inclines in the opposite direction. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, suggests why: ‘Philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power [which] explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.’”

Teddy Roosevelt’s judgement on John D Rockefeller was that ‘no amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.’” This judgment on reputation-laundering through philanthropy is gaining new currency, as was shown by the ostracism of the Sackler family and the boycotting of BP’s sponsorship by cultural leaders. (Painting: Portrait of John D Rockefeller, 1917, by John Singer Sargent; oil on canvas. Private collection)

Philanthropists can break away from this default position by nurturing the plurality of voices that are essential to hold both government and the free market to account, says Vallely.

“Philanthropy can recover a genuine sense of altruism only by understanding that it cannot do the job of either government or business. For it belongs not to the political or commercial realm, but to civil society and the world of social institutions that mediate between individuals, the market and the state.”

When it comes to addressing inequality, well-intentioned philanthropists tend to focus on alleviating symptoms rather than addressing root causes. Besides, all their good work can easily be wiped out by exploitative low levels of pay or public spending cuts.

Conservative philanthropists, however, have operated at a different level. “Their agenda has been to change public debate [in accordance with] their neoliberal worldview. […] They fund climate-change-denying academics, support free-market thinktanks, strike alliances with conservative religious groups, create populist TV and radio stations, and set up ‘enterprise institutes’ inside universities, which allows them, not the universities, to select the academics.” At the same time, “[many] of the new generation of big givers come out of a highly entrepreneurial business world, and are disinclined to back groups that challenge how capitalism operates,” Valelly writes.

“Rightwing philanthropists have, for more than two decades, understood the need to work for social and political change. Mainstream philanthropists now need to awaken to this reality. Philanthropy need not be incompatible with democracy, but it takes work to ensure that is the case.”

Further reading
The Givers: How modern philanthropy creates challenges to democracy, by Alana Semuels (The Atlantic, March 2018)
The Problem With Capitalist Philanthropy, by Zahra Moloo (Jacobin, June 2018)
If Jeff Bezos wants to help low-income people why not just pay them better?, by Marina Hyde (The Guardian, September 2018)
The Problem With Philanthro-Capitalism, by Richard Florida ‡ (Bloomberg CityLab, September 2019)
Philanthropy Serves the Status Quo, by Annika Neklason (The Atlantic, July 2019)
Philanthropy in the End Times, by Curtis White (Lapham’s Quarterly)

‡ A review of Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018), described by Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian’s senior economics commentator, as “superb hate-reading.”

Seeing human society as a complex system

“The pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity,” Jessica Flack and Melanie Mitchell, both from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, write in Uncertain times. “At this historical juncture, we should acknowledge and exploit the fact we live in a complex system — a system with many interacting agents, whose collective behaviour is usually hard to predict.”

“In complex systems, the last thing that happened is almost never informative about what’s coming next. The world is always changing — partly due to factors outside our control and partly due to our own interventions. In the final pages of his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Gabriel García Márquez highlights the paradox of how human agency at once enables and interferes with our capacity to predict the future, when he describes one of the characters translating a significant manuscript:

‘Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments.’

Our world is not so different from the vertiginous fantasies of Márquez — and the linear thinking of simple cause-effect reasoning, to which the human mind can default, is not a good policy tool. Instead, living in a complex system requires us to embrace and even harness uncertainty. Instead of attempting to narrowly forecast and control outcomes, we need to design systems that are robust and adaptable enough to weather a wide range of possible futures.”

“Like swarms of fireflies, all human societies are ‘collective’ and ‘coupled,’” Jessica Flack and Melanie Mitchell write in Uncertain times. It is our combined behaviour that gives rise to society-wide effects, while our individual perceptions and behaviour depend on those of others and on the social and economic structures we collectively build. The collective results of our actions feed back, both in virtuous and vicious circles, to affect the system in its entirety — reinforcing or changing the patterns we initially perceived, often in nonobvious ways. (Photograph: You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama; mixed media installation, 2005. Collection of the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona.)

“The properties of complex systems make prediction hard,” Flack and Mitchell write, “[but this] doesn’t preclude the possibility of security and quality of life. Nature, after all, is full of collective, coupled systems [see caption above] with the same properties of nonlinearity and nonstationarity.”

So instead of “prioritising outcomes based on the last bad thing that happened […], we might take inspiration from complex systems in nature and design processes that foster adaptability and robustness for a range of scenarios that could come to pass.” This approach, called ‘emergent engineering,’ embraces uncertainty as a fact of life that is potentially constructive.

“When applied to society-wide challenges, emergent engineering yields a different kind of problem-solving. Under a policy of constructive uncertainty, for example, individuals might be guaranteed a high minimum quality of life, but wouldn’t be guaranteed social structures or institutions in any particular form. Instead, economic, social and other systems would be designed so that they can switch states fluidly, as context demands,” Flack and Mitchell argue. “This would require a careful balancing act between questions of what’s good and right on the one hand — fairness, equality, equal opportunity — and a commitment to robustness and adaptability on the other. It is a provocative proposal, and experimenting with it, even on a relatively small scale […], will require wading through a quagmire of philosophical, ethical and technical issues. Yet nature’s success suggests it has potential.”

Further reading
Radical Uncertainty: Why accepting the unknown can be a radical proposition, by Kuper Simon (NewStatesman, April 2020)
How Practical Wisdom Helps Us Cope with Radical Uncertainty, by Yael Schonbrun and Barry Schwartz (Behavioral Scientist, August 2020)

And watching
The Trouble With Being Human These Days, a film essay through the life and work of Zygmunt Bauman, proposing a radical, and yet informed diagnosis of modern uncertainty (directed by Bartek Dziadosz, 2013)

And also this…

The only way out of the crisis, the philosopher Michael Sandel believes, is to dismantle the meritocratic assumptions that have morally rubber-stamped a society of winners and losers, Julian Coman writes in Michael Sandel: ‘The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit,’ an article for The Observer based on his interview with Sandel.

Sandel:“This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem. We now realise how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy. We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers.”

Michael Sandel believes the liberal left’s pursuit of meritocracy has betrayed the working classes. In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Allen Lane, September 2020), he argues for a politics centred on dignity.

“There must be a radical re-evaluation of how contributions to the common good are judged and rewarded,” Julian Coman writes. “The money to be earned in the City or on Wall Street, for example, is out of all proportion with the contribution of speculative finance to the real economy. A financial transactions tax would allow funds to be channelled more equably. But for Sandel, the word ‘honour’ is as important as the question of pay. There needs to be a redistribution of esteem as well as money, and more of it needs to go to the millions doing work that does not require a college degree.”

Sandel: “We need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity, which is something we have come to take for granted. Credentialism has become the last acceptable prejudice. It would be a serious mistake to leave the issue of investment in vocational training and apprenticeships to the right. Greater investment is important not only to support the ability of people without an advanced degree to make a living. The public recognition it conveys can help shift attitudes towards a better appreciation of the contribution to the common good made by people who haven’t been to university.”

“A new respect and status for the non-credentialed, should be accompanied by a belated humility on the part of the winners in the supposedly meritocratic race. To those who, like many of [Sandel’s] Harvard students, believe that they are simply the deserving recipients of their own success, he offers the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: ‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding… but time and chance happeneth to them all.’

‘Humility is a civic virtue essential to this moment,” [Sandel] says, ‘because it’s a necessary antidote to the meritocratic hubris that has driven us apart.’”

“The pandemic has shown how a lack of solid statistics can be dangerous. But even with the firmest of evidence, we often end up ignoring the facts we don’t like,” the ‘Undercover Economist’ Tim Harford writes in Facts v feelings: how to stop our emotions misleading us.

“When it comes to interpreting the world around us, we need to realise that our feelings can trump our expertise. This explains why we buy things we don’t need, fall for the wrong kind of romantic partner, or vote for politicians who betray our trust. In particular, it explains why we so often buy into statistical claims that even a moment’s thought would tell us cannot be true. Sometimes, we want to be fooled.

Psychologist Ziva Kunda found this effect in the lab, when she showed experimental subjects an article laying out the evidence that coffee or other sources of caffeine could increase the risk to women of developing breast cysts. Most people found the article pretty convincing. Women who drank a lot of coffee did not.”

“In the case of climate change, there is an objective truth, even if we are unable to discern it with perfect certainty. But as you are one individual among nearly 8 billion on the planet, the environmental consequences of what you happen to think are irrelevant. With a handful of exceptions — say, if you’re the president of China — climate change is going to take its course regardless of what you say or do. From a self-centred point of view, the practical cost of being wrong is close to zero. The social consequences of your beliefs, however, are real and immediate” — Tim Harford in Facts v feelings: how to stop our emotions misleading us (Photograph: Anti-carbon tax protesters in Australia, 2011, by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

“We often find ways to dismiss evidence that we don’t like. And the opposite is true, too: when evidence seems to support our preconceptions, we are less likely to look too closely for flaws. It is not easy to master our emotions while assessing information that matters to us, not least because our emotions can lead us astray in different directions.

We don’t need to become emotionless processors of numerical information — just noticing our emotions and taking them into account may often be enough to improve our judgment. Rather than requiring superhuman control of our emotions, we need simply to develop good habits. Ask yourself: how does this information make me feel? Do I feel vindicated or smug? Anxious, angry or afraid? Am I in denial, scrambling to find a reason to dismiss the claim?”

After more than a decade of writing life-changing advice, Oliver Burkeman shares the “eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life.” Here is one from his final column for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine:

“The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it. As the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics understood, much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control. And the main thing we try but fail to control — the seasoned worriers among us, anyway — is the future. We want to know, from our vantage point in the present, that things will be OK later on. But we never can. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)

It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control. The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret was simple: ‘I don’t mind what happens.’ That needn’t mean not trying to make life better, for yourself or others. It just means not living each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped.”

In an essay for Emergence Magazine, entitled Beginning with the End, Roy Scranton asks what we mean when we say “the world is ending.” Examining the nature of the narratives we tell ourselves about the future, he explores what revelation may be before us. “The end of the world,” Scranton writes, “could mean merely that ‘the world’ — our mutually constituted sense of the collective now — is changing into something else.”

“We do not know the future. We do not know what the world will be like in a hundred years, or fifty, or ten. We do not know how our descendants will survive, and we do not know what fictions they will need to make their lives bearable. The future, like the past, is a foreign country, but one whose borders are forever closed to the present. What we do know is that all living things suffer and all living things die, and that so long as humans exist on earth, there will be a world in which they live — a subjective imagination of the sum total of contemporary human existence. The world of the future will likely be unrecognizable to those of us alive today, just as the world we live in today would be unrecognizable to Homer or Laozi or even Frank Kermode: human worlds survive for generations, but not forever. Like everything else, this too shall pass. The truly revelatory content of our apocalyptic fictions is that the world is always ending, has always been ending, just as we are always dying — we spend our lives caught in the doorway between death and birth. There is no solution to the riddle of existence, nor to the inevitable fact of extinction: no amount of sophistication can ultimately justify the suffering that is being. All we have is compassion, patience, and the recognition that every possible human future begins with the end of what came before.”

Sentō (銭湯), or Japanese public bathhouses, have been a long-time favorite communal gathering place where people feel a sense of connection to their communities. Now that 95% of households in Japan own private bathrooms, many sentō have been forced to close due to a shrinking customer base, even though there are a certain number of long-time fans.

Despite this trend, Koganeyu in Tokyo commissioned Schemata Architects / Jo Nagasaka to renovate the public bathhouse, which was built in 1985. The architects kept traditional elements while transforming unused spaces to add new functions, including a beer bar, sauna and air bath. This way they hope to keep the sentō culture for the the next generation.

Founded in 1998 by Jo Nagasaka, projects by Schemata Architects include the renovation of a capsule hotel in Tokyo and a skinny red tower with a grocery shop at the base.

Source: ArchDaily and dezeen

Koganeyu by Schemata Architects / Jo Nagasaka — “Sentō, or Japanese public bathhouses, have been a long-time favorite communal gathering place where people feel a sense of connection to their communities.” (All photographs by Yurika Kono)

Schemata Architects / Jo Nagasaka asked Yoriko Hoshi to paint a mural of Mount Fuji spanning the entire width of both bath areas, which is another traditional element of Japanese sentō. She painted various scenes of a story transcending boundaries between males and females, set against a backdrop of Mount Fuji in the style of a picture scroll.

Iichiro Tanaka designed the ‘noren,’ the traditional fabric split curtains that devide the male and female changing rooms. Tanaka used the expression ‘Oi!’ (Hey!) that has been exchanged between men and women over the separating wall for a long time, to convey the feeling of sending one’s heart to someone on the other side of the wall.

The overall branding and signage are by Takahashi Hiroko.

“I feel like I don’t know a great deal about anything, but the books become the way of getting that first orientation into a way of seeing the world, a way of knowing the world that would otherwise have remained alien to me without making that narrative journey.” — Richard Powers in Richard Powers: ‘I’ve read more than 120 books about trees’ (Photograph by Jimmy Kets for The Telegraph)

“Part of the technological myth — part of this seduction of the huge leverage that our prosthetic tools have given us — is that we can globalize and become a kind of single culture, independent of where we live. So much of the push of post-industrial North America has been toward homogenizing place. You can think about this as you travel, how much of the world that you’re traveling through has been redesigned in order to comfort you with this illusion of familiarity and continuity. To sit in a Comfort Inn, or a La Quinta — or in some interchangeable place on some interchangeable interstate, watching some interchangeable cable program in this interchangeable culture that we’ve created — and then, to look out the window and see that remnant of native life that reminds you, oh wait a minute, I’m not in Kansas anymore, or California, or Tennessee. It is quite a remarkable moment to remember just how badly deformed we’ve come to think about place and how amnesiac we’ve become about the power of place to be something different, everywhere.” — Richard Powers, the author of Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory, in Kinship, Community, and Consciousness

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings.

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought