Reading notes (2020, week 48) — On philosophy as ‘medicine for the soul’, what we can learn from Africa’s great thinkers, and how venture capitalists are deforming capitalism
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 edition: Uplifting and “delightfully concrete” advice on how to cope with a dark Corona winter; what we miss when we forget Africa’s great thinkers; how in the new capitalist model, the company with the most funding wins; the enduring timelessness of Japanese aesthetics; how close is too close in a time of social distancing?; the 15-minute city; there are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness; Yo-Yo Ma on Bach and whether music is fundamentally good; and, finally, Mary Beard and what we need to know about the bodies from Pompeii.
Philosophy as ‘medicine for the soul’
In How do I cope with a dark corona winter?, Hakon Mosbech, an editor and cofounder of Zetland, shares uplifting and “delightfully concrete” advice from some of the great philosophers. (The original article is only available in Danish. What follows is a free, partial translation.)
“For thousands of years, philosophers have been thinking about exactly the issues we are facing right now. From ancient Greeks to cigarette-smoking Frenchmen — from the Stoics to Schopenhauer — they have all hunted for answers to what to do when life is full of insecurity, pain and pandemic crises.
Philosophy was called ‘medicine for the soul’ in antiquity for a reason: it abounds with uplifting wisdom and surprisingly concrete advice from many philosophers. It’s about the power of music, yellow autumn leaves and ingenious teenage questions. It’s about eating with your friend and becoming friends with death. It’s about dancing with the absurdity of life. It’s about you and your life in a difficult time,” Mosbech writes.
Since it is impossible to interview the greatest philosophers in world history, Mosbech settled for the next best thing: talking to Eric Weiner and reading his books. In his recent book The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Weiner follows in the footsteps of history’s greatest thinkers and shows how each offers practical and spiritual lessons for today’s unsettled times.
“If you look, you will find possible answers to many potential ‘Corona feelings’ in the philosophers. Do you feel like screaming? ‘Do not lose your temper with anybody, not even with yourself,’ Gandhi says. Whether you are dealing with civil disobedience or helping your children do their homework, this advice is of equal value.
Are you depressed? Try to ‘paint’ yourself happy, the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would say. ‘We are that portrait and nothing but that portrait,’ Sartre said. So stop trying to find yourself. You need to start painting yourself instead. We all choose the role we want to play, whether it’s that of the corona-depressed or precisely the opposite.
Are you affected by the constant uncertainty? Well, many philosophers would argue, life has never been safe. The pandemic has just removed the illusion of security. And, as Weiner points out, uncertainty also holds potential. Many breakthroughs in science or art occur in a state of uncertainty. Japanese philosophers talk about the cherry trees that bloom for two or three days and then are gone. ‘Other flowers […] last considerably longer. Why go to such great lengths to cultivate something so fragile? The Buddhist concept of mujō, or impermanence, holds clues. Life is ephemeral. Everything we know and love will one day cease to exist, ourselves included. Most cultures fear this fact. A few tolerate it. The Japanese celebrate it,’ Weiner writes in The Socrates Express. [The German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche and the Stoics would probably say that it is better to accept the inherent uncertainty of the pandemic and life in general than to constantly fight against it. For you will lose that fight. Accept that homeschooling and closed restaurants are only a press conference away. Or, if it’s too much, then tolerate that it’s so.
And then there is death, which the pandemic has made more present in the lives of many. In a way, death is the most philosophical subject that exists, Weiner says. Even the most superficial person questions life when time breathes into his neck. The Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne believed that we should become friends with death. Death, he pointed out, is not separate from life. On the contrary, the awareness of death can make you live more completely. You do not have to worry about death, he thought. Nature will take care of you.
The Stoics also had a lot to say about death and pain. [The Roman statesman and philosopher] Seneca developed a mental exercise [premeditatio malorum or premeditation of adversity] in which he imagined terrible things that could happen to him. That exercise, he thought, prepares you for the hardships that may come because it won’t be so bad when it does happen. And also, you will appreciate more what you have now. Maybe corona-relevant?
The Stoics also had another mental trick: the ‘view from above’ meditation exercise. Imagine you see yourself from somewhere high up in the universe — you are infinitely small. So yes, it’s annoying with the dishes that need doing or the cancelled party, or that you have to die one day. But in the big picture, these are small things, the Stoics thought. This insight can help you accept that you are going to die. And that can — hopefully — give you perspective and freedom to live more.”
If this sounds a little too much to ask for, it is fortunate that the philosophers also give us wonderfully concrete, easy and truly Corona-appropriate advice.
Philosophical everyday advice 1: Take a walk
Walking is not just a pandemic-friendly activity, it is also a philosophy-friendly activity. Socrates, Hobbes, Kant, Thoreau and many other philosophers went for walks. In one of his many essays, Montaigne wrote, “My thoughts sleep if I sit still: my mind does not work unless my legs move it.”
“When you go, you forget the others and maybe yourself, you become pure verb, no subject,” Mosbech writes. “You move away from the pettiness of the office, from the tyranny of expectations. Your mind wanders. You think better, says Henry David Thoreau — and several recent studies back him up: We get creative by walking. But, Weiner adds, it should not entice you to go that you want something out of it — because you have to convulsively get a good idea. You must, say several philosophers, go without an agenda. Go without a goal. Go as if you have all the time in the world. Take your mind under your arm — and go.”
Philosophical everyday advice 2: Listen to music
The second low-key, corona-friendly piece of advice comes form the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
“Listening is essential, he thought. Listening is the act of compassion. You need to listen to yourself, to others and to the music. Schopenhauer hated noise and speed. ‘No greater mistake can be made than to think that what has been written most recently is the most important thing,’ he said. Schopenhauer talked about the information tsunami that stole people’s attention at the time: the encyclopedia. Today, Weiner says, the Internet would be his enemy. He would hate breaking news and social media, for they are making noise with all their enticing live updates with latest corona news. ‘Information is not knowledge,’ Schopenhauer wrote. It’s distracting noise. We do not hear the music. So shut down a little, he would say. Listen a little more, for amid all the suffering there is beauty. It requires us to listen.”
Philosophical everyday advice 3: Lists of beautiful things — plus the loose
“The Japanese philosopher Sei Shōnagon had an even more ultra-concrete corona piece of advice: Make lists of small, beautiful things.” But for lists to work, they should “hit the perfect level of specificity,” Mosbech writes.
Shōnagon “made lists of things she liked and things she did not like. She did not like flies and fleas and a guest coming just when you are going to do something important. She liked the feeling of snow in the air. A nap in a kimono. Ice cream in a bowl. A child eating strawberries. ‘Life is nothing but a million little joys,’ Shōnagon wrote. So she developed the philosophy of the small, beautiful things.
We are all that we surround ourselves with. So make a list, her Corona advice would sound, of the little things you like and dislike. Do you remember having the little things you love, in your life, on your desk, on your wall?”
And finally: New perspectives — seeing the world through the legs
It was a typical Corona experience, a firing, that made Henry David Thoreau rethink his life. “You have to live differently to look different, he thought. Thoreau built his own cabin out in the woods, at Walden Pond, and there he began to develop a philosophical method: the constant shift of perspective.
Thoreau looked at a pond from above, he looked at it from below, underwater, he looked at it up close and far away, he looked through his legs, so that everything turned upside down. See the world from slightly different angles and you will find beauty in the most overlooked or ugly places, sounded the idea. ‘A hair’s breadth from our usual path and routine’ exposes new worlds, Thoreau wrote. Seen from the right angle ‘each holds a storm and each drop in it a rainbow.’
Thoreau would say that Corona gives a chance to shift our perspective. It is an opportunity to see the world upside down, through your legs. From that angle, there is, perhaps, a rainbow tucked away in the bottle you hold in your hands. And if you do not see any beauty, then create it. Sharpen your senses. If you see a yellow leaf that has fallen on the sidewalk, pick it up. Feel it. Look at the lines and the colours.” Thoreau knew it that takes time and distance to truly see things. But if we have anything right now, it is time and distance.
“Corona makes us shake up our assumptions — to see the world again. We are reconsidering our priorities. Is your life worthy of eternity, German Friedrich Nietzsche would ask. Is your home, your job, your relationship something you would live forever and ever if you had to?”
All in all, Nietzsche understood something about repetition — the feeling of a life running around and around, a routine that feels eternal and very pandemic-defining. Nietzsche developed an idea of repetition — one of his greatest — somewhat reminiscent of the film Groundhog Day. Imagine that your life will repeat itself forever. When it’s over, you’ll live it again. But you can not, like Bill Murray in the romantic 1990s comedy, do anything about it. You must live life exactly as you have done all the other times. Repeatedly.
This idea of perpetual return is a kind of existential stress test, says Weiner. Do you want to live every day, not as if it were the last, but as if it were eternal? Do you want to live your life again, including all the pain and suffering, the stupidity and mistakes? Do you want to live 2020 again?
That is the ordeal itself, Nietzsche thought. Can you accept your life with its inherent pain for all eternity? Can you love it? Success, he believed, is to love life and the pain. A radical acceptance of fate. The laughter of repetition, he would say. And dance! (After all, it was Nietzsche who created the dancing prophet Zarathustra.) Dance when life is good and bad. Dance when you have to live it all forever, including 2020. Dance!
The French existentialist Albert Camus is not far away. Camus wrote about the Greek legendary king Sisyphus, who again and again had to push a stone up a hill. But every time he reached the top, the stone rolled down and so Sisyphus had to start all over again.”
When Mosbech recently asked Zetland subscribers how they are affected by Corona, this was perhaps the feeling that resonated the most. “[The] feeling of not being able to plan one’s life, of experiencing what one thought would happen, disappears into thin air. Then you try again, and then an infected close contact gets in the way again. Camus would say that this is exactly what opens our eyes to the absurdity of life, and that is good. Sisyphus ends up being happy pushing the stone up, over and over again — not in spite of the futility of the task, but because of it. ‘His stone is his own,’ Camus writes.
Throw yourself into the useless, the crumbling plans and projects, he would say. Embrace the absurd, for Corona is life. Sisyphus was happy by focusing on the process, not the goal, a management consultant would say. Do not fight to win, but to fight the best fight you can ever, Gandhi would say. Smile into the cannon. Sing as you roll the stone up.
So what to choose? The resilience of the Stoics or Schopenhauer’s listening? Thoreau’s new perspective? Or Shōnagon’s philosophy of the small, beautiful things?
“You do not have to choose at all. That’s the beauty of philosophy, Weiner says. Other than religion or politics or ideology, where you can only vote for one party, where it is difficult to be a hardcore socialist and liberal at the same time, and where some either go to church or mosque or synagogue, contrary to all this, philosophy can be pieced together from many different things. You do not have to choose one philosopher, he explains.
He talks about ‘Ikea philosophy.’ A philosophy you build yourself, maybe even for this particular occasion, designed for your Corona needs. You can take a little Gandhi, a pinch of Socrates, a touch of Camus. Try it out. Some things might not work together, but a lot of their ideas overlap. ‘You can build your personal philosophy,’ Weiner says. ‘And that’s the whole point. It has to be yours. If not that, what are we to use philosophy for?’
So look at this as a first small step; an inspiration to build your own Corona-resistant philosophy. Go to the Ikea of philosophy and start pulling ideas from its shelves. A free walk from Rousseau. Nietzsche’s existential stress test. A different look at the world through the legs of Thoreau. A list of beautiful things from Shonagon. A brave question from Socrates.
Then you can start building your personal, Corona-fit philosophy. And maybe it will carry you through the winter.”
What we can learn from African philosophy
The Dutch philosopher and teacher Sanne ten Wolde asked her students to immerse themselves in a philosopher and create a social media account for him or her, Valentijn De Hingh writes in The stars of philosophy are mainly white and western. (The original article is only available in Dutch. What follows is a free, integral translation.)
“The fantasy profiles are a striking selection from more than two thousand years of philosophy. But taken together, the fictitious social media accounts are not only hilarious, but also shocking. For although one student chose the Egyptian revolutionary and controversial Islam scholar, Sayyid Qutb, all the other chosen philosophers are Western. And above all: white.”
Although you can hardly blame the students — after all, the perspectives of non-Western thinkers remain seriously underexposed within contemporary philosophy education — De Hingh was nevertheless struck by the lack of non-Western perspectives in the choices of Ten Wolde’s students. In particular because, that week, she was reading the Dutch edition (Ten Have, 2020) of Socrates and Òrúnmìlà: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy, by the late Nigerian philosopher Sophie Bosede Oluwole (1935–2018).
In this, her final book (Ark Publishers, 2015), Oluwole puts both men into a dialogue, thus reclaiming an impressive African knowledge system. In doing so she also deals with the mistaken portrayal of Orunmila as a mythological figure whose wisdoms should only be understood in a religious sense.
Sub-Saharan Africa has many rich traditions of ancient orally transmitted stories and folk tales. But according to the academic consensus, calling this folklore ‘philosophy’ goes too far. It cannot be equated with philosophical traditions such as those of the Ancient Greeks.
“‘Bullshit,’ says Oluwole [in an interview from 2017 with the Dutch newspaper Trouw]. For years, she has immersed herself in the Ifá corpus, a collection of thousands of verses that were passed on orally from generation to generation. Ifá practitioners memorised the texts and passed them on to the students who came after them. The founder of Ifá — the one to whom the many verses in the Ifá corpus are attributed — is Orunmila,” De Hingh writes.
Today, Ifá is mainly known as a religious practice, but according to Oluwole, it is much more than that. She regards Orunmila’s texts as a full philosophical tradition — the beginning of classical African philosophy. To demonstrate this, Oluwole compares Orunmila with another founder of classical philosophy and his contemporary: Socrates.
In Socrates and Orunmila, Oluwole shows how much both thinkers actually have in common. Apart from their physique and background, their thinking, too, has many similarities: “both preached virtue as the principal trait of a good life, recognised the limitations of their own knowledge, and prescribed dialogue as the principal form of testing philosophical knowledge.
Yet their philosophy also has many differences. The main difference is the way both sages view the world. According to Oluwole, Socrates thinks mainly in contradictions: according to him, there is a sharp division between matter and idea, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil.
Òrúnmìlà sees it differently: he also distinguishes opposites but thinks from the relationships of these opposites to each other. Good and evil, for example, are an inseparable pair, according to Orunmila, two sides of the same coin that cannot exist without each other.”
Despite their similarities and differences, one question remains: why did one, Socrates, become a world-famous philosopher, while his African counterpart, Orunmila, remained virtually unknown?
“Within the Western philosophical tradition, the written word is ascribed a higher scientificity than oral tradition, says Oluwole. The oral tradition would not be a solid philosophical method of research. The lack of writings, therefore, meant that the African philosophical tradition was not recognized as such. But there is also something more fundamental going on, according to Oluwole: racism.
When Western missionaries first encountered the Ifá corpus at the beginning of the colonial era, extensive racial doctrine already existed: the white man was at the top of the ladder of mind and civilization, the black man dangled somewhere at the bottom. Black Africans’ thinking would be unscientific, intuitive, and irrational. [Several Western philosophers defended these ideas. Kant and Hegel, for example, wrote that black people were wild, inferior and incapable of critical thinking.]
The lack of the written word in West Africa thus confirmed the prejudices of the colonial rulers: the tradition of oral knowledge transfer pointed to what they believed was the non-scientific character of African thought. Oluwole shows how shortsighted that is. Orunmila’s teaching is just as rational, critical and investigative as the written texts of Western philosophy. She believes we miss an important perspective if we continue to exclude African philosophy.
For her, Socrates and Orunmila symbolize different conceptual frameworks, one of which she calls ‘Western’ and the other ‘African.’ You can compare it with glasses. The frame consists of the rational, critical and scientific way of thinking that we call ‘philosophy.’ The coloured glasses, that is the frame of mind, a perceptible perspective that permeates all rational activities.
Western and African philosophers, therefore, wear the same frame but have different coloured lenses. And although the discoveries of individual philosophers within the two thinking traditions differ greatly from each other, the view with which they looked at reality is comparable and depends on their Western or African frame of mind.
The Western framework, Oluwole writes, is oppositional: it looks at the world in irreconcilable contradictions, and is characterized by an ‘either/or logic.’ The African framework, on the other hand, is complementary: it looks at the world from the relations between opposites, and follows an ‘and/or logic.’”
“This complementary ‘and/or’ framework could provide an answer to many contemporary issues, Oluwole argues. If your worldview consists not of opposites, but of relationships between opposites, then the good results from a found balance between sentiment and reason, self-interest and general interest, rights and obligations, residents and newcomers. In a world that seems to be increasingly polarizing, seems to get bogged down in we/they thinking, it would be good to have an eye for that balance.
An example: within the African framework, Oluwole says, it is unthinkable to deprive migrants of their voice or their rights. Resident or newcomer, everyone is part of the community, of our shared reality, and therefore has the right to participate and to think along. ‘Anyone who denies the existence of others, in the same breath denies his own existence,’ Orunmila teaches us.
Socrates and Orunmila is not a plea for the superiority of African thought. Both Orunmila and Socrates were great thinkers, Oluwole writes, who proved their worth. What her book does show is that excluding certain perspectives can deny us important insights — insights that allow us to understand the world and the other better.”
How venture capitalists are deforming capitalism
In this excellent and highly recommended long read, Duhigg weaves in the stories of NextSpace, founded in 2008 by Jeremy Neuner and Ryan Coonerty, and Adam Neumann’s WeWork. Here are a few paragraphs about the current status of the V.C. industry.
“From the start, venture capitalists have presented their profession as an elevated calling. They weren’t mere speculators — they were midwives to innovation. The first V.C. firms were designed to make money by identifying and supporting the most brilliant startup ideas, providing the funds and the strategic advice that daring entrepreneurs needed in order to prosper. For decades, such boasts were merited. Genentech, which helped invent synthetic insulin, in the nineteen-seventies, succeeded in large part because of the stewardship of the venture capitalist Tom Perkins, whose company, Kleiner Perkins, made an initial hundred-thousand-dollar investment. Perkins demanded a seat on Genentech’s board of directors, and then began spending one afternoon a week in the startup’s offices, scrutinizing spending reports and browbeating inexperienced executives. In subsequent years, Kleiner Perkins nurtured such tech startups as Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems, and Compaq. When Perkins died, in 2016, at the age of eighty-four, an obituary in the Financial Times remembered him as ‘part of a new movement in finance that saw investors roll up their sleeves and play an active role in management.’
The V.C. industry has grown exponentially since Perkins’s heyday, but it has also become increasingly avaricious and cynical. It is now dominated by a few dozen firms, which, collectively, control hundreds of billions of dollars. Most professional V.C.s fit a narrow mold: according to surveys, just under half of them attended either Harvard or Stanford, and eighty per cent are male. Although V.C.s depict themselves as perpetually on the hunt for radical business ideas, they often seem to be hyping the same Silicon Valley trends — and their managerial oversight has dwindled, making their investments look more like trading-floor bets. Steve Blank, an entrepreneur who currently teaches at Stanford’s engineering school, said, I’ve watched the industry become a money-hungry mob. V.C.s today aren’t interested in the public good. They’re not interested in anything except optimizing their own profits and chasing the herd, and so they waste billions of dollars that could have gone to innovation that actually helps people.’”
“Critics of the venture-capital industry have observed that, lately, it has given one dubious startup after another gigantic infusions of money. The blood-testing company Theranos received seven hundred million dollars from a number of investors, including Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos, before it was revealed as a fraud; in 2018, its founders were indicted. Juicero, which sold a Wi-Fi-enabled juice press for seven hundred dollars, raised more than a hundred million dollars from such sources as Google’s investment arm, but shut down after only four years. (Consumers posted videos demonstrating that they could press juice just as efficiently with their own hands.) Two years ago, when Wag!, an Uber-like service for dog walking, went looking for seventy-five million dollars in venture capital, its founders — among them, a pair of brothers in their twenties, with little business experience — discovered that investors were interested, as long as Wag! agreed to accept three hundred million dollars. [Wag!] planned to use those funds to expand internationally, but it was too poorly run to flourish. It began shedding its employees after, among other things, the New York City Council accused the firm of losing dogs.
Increasingly, the venture-capital industry has become fixated on creating ‘unicorns’: startups whose valuations exceed a billion dollars. Some of these companies become lasting successes, but many of them — such as Uber, the data-mining giant Palantir, and the scandal-plagued software firm Zenefits never seemed to have a realistic plan for turning a profit. A 2018 paper co-written by Martin Kenney, a professor at the University of California, Davis, argued that, thanks to the prodigious bets made by today’s V.C.s, ‘money-losing firms can continue operating and undercutting incumbents for far longer than previously.’ In the traditional capitalist model, the most efficient and capable company succeeds; in the new model, the company with the most funding wins. Such firms are often ‘destroying economic value’ — that is, undermining sound rivals — and creating ‘disruption without social benefit.’
Many venture capitalists say that they have no choice but to flood startups with cash. In order for a Silicon Valley startup to become a true unicorn, it typically must wipe out its competitors and emerge as the dominant brand. Jeff Housenbold, a managing partner at SoftBank, told me, ‘Once Uber is founded, within a year you suddenly have three hundred copycats. The only way to protect your company is to get big fast by investing hundreds of millions.’ What’s more, V.C.s say, the big venture firms are all looking at the same deals, and trying to persuade the same coveted entrepreneurs to accept their investment dollars. To win, V.C.s must give entrepreneurs what they demand.
Particularly in Silicon Valley, founders often want venture capitalists who promise not to interfere or to ask too many questions. V.C.s have started boasting that they are ‘founder-friendly’ and uninterested in, say, spending an afternoon a week at a company’s offices or second-guessing a young C.E.O. Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me, ‘Proclaiming founder loyalty is kind of expected now.’ One of the bigger V.C. firms, the Founders Fund, which has more than six billion dollars under management, declares on its Web site that it ‘has never removed a single founder’ and that, when it finds entrepreneurs with ‘audacious vision,’ ‘a near-messianic attitude,’ and ‘wild-eyed passion,’ it essentially seeks to give them veto-proof authority over the board of directors, so that an entrepreneur need never worry about being reined in, let alone fired.”
“As the venture-capital industry has become specialized and concentrated — last year, the ten largest firms raised sixteen billion dollars, nearly a third of all new V.C. fund-raising — it has become even more cliquish. Today, most major V.C. deals are ‘syndicated,’ or divvied up, among the big firms. This cartel-like atmosphere has encouraged V.C.s to remain silent when confronted with unethical behavior. [Steve Kraus of Bessemer Venture Partners], who has been critical of the industry’s myopia, told me, ‘If you’re on a board that empowered some wacky founder, or you didn’t pay attention to governance — or something happened that, in retrospect, sort of skirted the law, like at Uber — you’re fine, as long as you post decent returns.’ He added, ‘You’re remembered for your winners, not your losers. In ten years, no one is going to remember all the bad stuff at WeWork. All they’ll remember is who made money.’
Politicians have generally been reluctant to criticize the venture-capital industry, in part because it has successfully portrayed itself as crucial to innovation. [Martin Kenney] said, ‘Obama loved Silicon Valley and V.C.s, and Trump craved their approval.’ He went on, ‘Regulators have been totally defanged from doing real investigations of venture-capital firms. I think people are finally waking up to the damage the tech industry and V.C.s can do, but it’s slow going.’ Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed reforms that would make it easier for shareholders to sue directors who fail to report unethical behavior. Other Democrats have proposed laws that would force venture capitalists to pay higher taxes. President-elect Joe Biden supports greater protections for stockholding employees. While campaigning in Pennsylvania, he promised, ‘’I’ll be laser-focussed on working families, the middle-class families I came from here in Scranton, not the wealthy investor class — they don’t need me.’
Even as many Silicon Valley founders, from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Uber’s Travis Kalanick, have become public villains, the venture capitalists who have funded and enabled them have escaped scrutiny. Steve Blank […] said, ‘The first time you see a venture capitalist prosecuted for failing to uphold their duty as a board member, you’re going to see Silicon Valley transform overnight. All it takes is one V.C. doing a perp walk and everyone gets the message — you’re responsible, you have a legal duty, and if you do things that are bad for society you’ll be called to account.’”
Duhigg’s concludes his insightful article by saying that, “For decades, venture capitalists have succeeded in defining themselves as judicious meritocrats who direct money to those who will use it best. But examples like WeWork make it harder to believe that V.C.s help balance greedy impulses with enlightened innovation. Rather, V.C.s seem to embody the cynical shape of modern capitalism, which too often rewards crafty middlemen and bombastic charlatans rather than hardworking employees and creative businesspeople. Jeremy Neuner, the NextSpace co-founder, said, ‘You can’t blame Adam Neumann for being Adam Neumann. It was clear to everyone he was selling something too good to be true. He never pretended to be sensible, or down to earth, or anything besides a crazy optimist. But you can blame the venture capitalists.’ Neuner went on, ‘When you get involved in the startup world, you meet all these amazing entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas, and, over time, you watch them get pushed by V.C.s to take too much money, and make bad choices, and grow as fast as possible. And then they blow up. And, eventually, you start to realize: no matter what happens, the V.C.s still end up rich.’”
And also this…
“First published in Japanese in 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows is a testimony to the enduring timelessness of Japanese aesthetics,” Jessica Saxby writes in The Must-Read Text on Japanese Aesthetics, ‘In Praise of Shadows.’
“By juxtaposing Eastern and Western modes of perspective and of creating, Tanizaki develops an undulating methodology which allows for a profound scrutiny of modernity and culture in both spheres. With personal reflections on themes of architecture, design, interior furnishings, jade, food, lighting and craft, the text ossifies the key tenets of Japanese tradition in the face of an approaching global modernity.
[In Praise of Shadows] is an essential reading for anyone with an interest in culturally specific aesthetics and the quiet calm of Japanese design and lifestyle. With growing global discontent in the face of a homogenised global culture, built-in obsolescence and disposability, reading Tanizaki is to take pleasure in permanence, sustainability and the natural world.”
“In a time of social distancing, it can be easy to think of ourselves as little social atoms, with clear-cut boundaries,” Frédérique de Vignemont and Colin Klein write in How close is too close?, in which they explore how we create, defend or relax the buffer zone between us and the world.
“But the research on ‘peripersonal space’ [this is the mechanism in our brains that helps us acknowledge and track the importance of our immediate surroundings; peri comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘about,’ ‘around,’ ‘enclosing’ or ‘near’] suggests quite the opposite. Our peripersonal space grows and shrinks depending on how we feel, and who we’re around; you can think of it like a balloon, expanding or deflating depending on your mood and your temperament.
The year 2020 was a worldwide social experiment in keeping our distance. Even in groups trying to adhere to the rules, you couldn’t help noticing that people didn’t neatly space themselves out on a two-metre grid. Nor did everyone feel the same way about how they maintained distance from others. Anxious people tend to find more of significance (and danger) around them, and studies show that anxiety can be measured by a corresponding expansion of peripersonal space. It’s also clear that individuals differ in their tolerance for physical and emotional closeness. Some look terrified if you’re a centimetre too close. Others crowd in queues as if nothing had changed.
Nor is people’s sense of appropriate distance evenly distributed in all directions. The early days of social distancing found people queuing in ways that left careful distance front-to-back and virtually nothing side-to-side. The animal welfare proponent Temple Grandin’s work with cattle showed that flight zones are often asymmetric: an animal needs more time to turn if it is to bolt from a threat from the side. Could a focus on airborne contagion — coughs, sniffles, sneezes — have made people especially focused on the distance from their face?
What’s clear is that peripersonal space doesn’t correspond to an objective region of space with a stable, well-defined border. Rather, peripersonal space is a subjective region that you represent as being directly relevant for you. It bears the traces of what — and whom — you have encountered. Closeness requires trust: it’s been shown that you tolerate the proximity of people whom you judge as decent more than those you think of as immoral. The invisible bounds of peripersonal space thus trace a delicate balance between trust and caution.”
“People who spend time near you also shape your peripersonal space in return. This isn’t merely a matter of protection, since social interactions require us to be able to work together, collaborate and delegate effectively. A study by the cognitive scientist Natalie Sebanz and her group, for example, shows the difference that working with a partner makes to the way you represent your surroundings. If you’re working alone or with someone unreliable, objects you’re working on that are close to you will feel like they’re in your peripersonal space. But if you work with someone next to you, who is paying attention to all the visual stimuli, the objects no longer feel like they’re in that buffer zone.
This result reveals how human evolution has been shaped by cooperation, both bodily and mental. Hunting large game with stone tools is a demanding endeavour: it requires constantly monitoring both prey and compatriot, with pointy bits flying between. Crafting stone tools is also surprisingly dangerous, and modern flintknappers who replicate palaeolithic techniques all bear the scars of their mistakes. The need to pass on this technology is one factor that probably drove the development of apprentice learning. The social aspect of learning embodied skills further underscores the importance of having a finely tuned sense of peripersonal space: imagine the challenges of sitting next to someone, holding a half-sharp flint core, trying to emulate what they’re doing while keeping your delicate fingertips away from the sharp edges.
In telling the story of peripersonal space, it seems reasonably simple to separate out the effect of people and objects, attraction and repulsion, physical danger and social threat. In the full story, however, all of these assessments are bound together, just as people and places and things are bundled up together in our emotional lives. Once we understand it more fully, the deeper story of the limits of our peripersonal space might reveal that it’s less like a balloon or bubble, and more like the tassels or fringes on a scarf — loose and sculpted by the changing breeze, adapting itself to a world of threats and opportunities.”
From Paris to Portland, cities are attempting to give residents everything they need within a few minutes of their front doors. Can this so-called ‘15-minute city’ work — without leaving anyone out?
“Dreams of breaking down the segmented urban planning that dominated the 20th century — with industry on the outskirts, residential areas ringing the city, commerce in the core, and auto networks connecting long distances — of course aren’t new. Urban thinkers have been advocating for the preservation or return of walkable, socially mixed neighborhoods at least since the 1961 publication of Jane Jacobs’s paean to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This advocacy has slowly filtered into mainstream planning orthodoxy,” Feargus O’Sullivan and Laura Bliss write in The 15-Minute City — No Cars Required — Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia.
Paris has been moving in this direction for some time. According to Carlos Moreno, a scientific director and professor specialising in complex systems and innovation at Université Paris 1, “The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity” — replicated, like fractals, across an entire urban expanse. Since named Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s special envoy for smart cities, Moreno has become a kind of deputy philosopher at City Hall as it endeavors to turn the French capital into, what he calls, a “city of proximities.”
Paris is far from alone in attempting this sort of transformation. But it is one thing to turn European cities that were almost completely shaped before the automobile was invented into a neighborhood-centric utopia. The challenge is far greater in the kinds of younger, sprawling cities found in North America or Australia, where cars remain the dominant form of transit.
“Moreno recognizes that large segments of the population might never enjoy the slower-paced, localized life he envisions. ‘Of course we need to adapt this concept for different realities,’ he says. ‘Not all people have the possibility of having jobs within 15 minutes.’ But he emphasizes that many people’s circumstances could be profoundly changed — something he believes we’re already seeing because of the pandemic’s canceled commutes. In his view, centralized corporate offices are a thing of the past; [working from home] and constellations of coworking hubs are the future.
The 15-minute city could also be seen as what writer Dan Hill identified as a form of ‘post-traumatic urbanism’ — a way to recover from the onslaughts of such things as property speculation, overtourism, and now the pandemic. Already it’s become clear in Paris, [Carine Rolland, Commissioner for the 15-minute city,] says, that the city needs a more localized medical network, ‘so people don’t feel they have to go straight to the emergency room.’
Following the unending traumas of 2020, there’s an appealing nostalgia to a renewed emphasis on neighborhoods, even if it addresses only some of the city’s modern challenges. This, too, Moreno acknowledges, pointing yet again to his idea’s recuperative possibilities above all. ‘The 15-minute city is a journey, a guideline, a possibility for transforming the paradigm for how we live over the next many decades,’ he says. ‘Before, people were losing useful time. With the 15-minute city, we want them to regain it.’”
“Philosophers and historians of science such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, who have had a strong influence on contemporary thought, have emphasized the importance of points of rupture in the course of the development of knowledge. Examples of such ‘scientific revolutions,’ where an old theory is abandoned, include the move from Aristotle to Newton, and from Newton to Einstein. According to Kuhn, in the course of such passages a radical restructuring of thought takes place, to such a degree that the preceding ideas become irrelevant, incomprehensible even. They are ‘incommensurable’ with the subsequent theory, according to Kuhn. Popper and Kuhn deserve credit for having focused on this evolutive aspect of science and the importance of breaks, but their influence has also led to an absurd devaluation of the cumulative aspects of knowledge. Worse still is the failure to recognize the logical and historical relations between theories prior to and after every significant step forward. Newton’s physics is perfectly recognizable as an approximation of Einstein’s general relativity; Aristotle’s theory is perfectly recognizable as an approximation contained within the theory of Newton.
This is not all, for within Newton’s theory it is possible to recognize features of Aristotelian physics. For instance, the great idea of distinguishing the ‘natural’ motion of a body from that which has been ‘forced’ remains intact in Newtonian physics, as it does later in Einstein’s theory. What changes is the role of gravity: it is the cause of forced motion in Newton (where natural motion is uniformly rectilinear), while it is an aspect of natural motion in Aristotle as well as, curiously, in Einstein (where natural motion, termed ‘geodesic’, returns to being that of an object in free fall, as in Aristotle). Scientists do not advance either as a result of mere accumulation of knowledge, or by means of absolute revolutions in which everything is thrown out and we begin again from zero. They advance instead, as in a wonderful analogy first made by Otto Neurath and frequently cited by Quine, ‘like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.’ In the great ship of modern physics we can still recognize its ancient structures — such as the distinction between natural and forced motion — as first laid out in the old ship of Aristotelian thought.”
From Aristotle the Scientist, an essay from Carlo Rovelli’s new book, There Are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important than Kindness (Allen Lane, 2020). The book contains 48 essays, spanning subjects suc as physics, philosophy, religion, and politics. The collection is loosely based around the concept that science and humanistic achievements are complementary and in continuous dialogue: “The culture of today that keeps science and poetry so far apart is essentially foolish, to my way of thinking, because it makes us less able to see the complexity and the beauty as revealed by both,” Rovelli writes.
“The immensity of Yo-Yo Ma’s talent is such that he would be globally admired if all he ever did was appear onstage or in a recording studio and then vanish after the last notes faded from his cello. That Ma has instead used his gifts in the service of spreading humanistic values — via cross-cultural musical collaboration, civic engagement and huge amounts of heart — means that his connection with the public goes far deeper than mere admiration,” David Marchese writes in Yo-Yo Ma and the Meaning of Life.
“Ma’s compelling instinct for compassion has been on much-needed display during this pandemic year. In the spring, he streamed a performance series, Songs of Comfort, on YouTube and social media. During the summer, he broadcast a performance of Bach’s Cello Suites in honor of those lost to Covid-19. And on Dec. 11, he will release Songs of Comfort and Hope, an album recorded with the pianist Kathryn Stott. ‘People need each other for support beyond the immediate staples of life,’ Ma says. ‘They need music.’”
[DM] Do you think music is fundamentally good?
“That’s a good question to ask and very hard to answer. It’s as if you’re asking me ‘Are people fundamentally good?’ I don’t think people are fundamentally bad. But in the interaction of figuring things out or wanting more of something or less of something, then complex things come into play.
Music connects human beings. It brings people together. You can also describe it as energy: sound that moves air molecules. So a marching band will energize an athletic game or bring people to war. The bagpipe is used for war, for entertainment, for funerals, for weddings. Music is not one thing. It’s something that people react to. But your question — ‘Is that good or bad?’ — it depends on circumstances and individuals and timing. The invention of something starts out being more or less value-neutral. Agriculture: Nothing bad about it. But if you’re able to grow a lot of vegetables and I can’t grow any on my land, I might want to get some of your vegetables.”
[DM] People have drawn so much from this year. Those pieces were originally composed as study exercises, and yet they’ve become these icons of catharsis. What’s their magic?
“A couple of things. Bach wrote the Cello Suites in the only time that he was not in the service of the church. It’s something like 1720 to ’22. This was a time when he didn’t have to write cantatas for Sundays. He could experiment further. So the way I look at the Suites — and this is a roundabout way of getting to your question — is that I imagine Bach saying to himself: ‘Hey, I play a lot of instruments. I play the organ, I play the piano, I play the oboe, and there’s the cello. I’m going to figure out what I can do with the cello.’ He says, ‘I’m going to learn everything about the instrument.’ He writes the first suite, second, third suites. What does he discover? ‘Wow, I now know exactly how the cello functions.’ Then he says, ‘Now, because I have an experimental nature, I want to figure out what the cello can’t do.’ One thing the cello can’t do is hold many notes at once. So he says: ‘OK, how am I going to do that? Maybe I can figure out a way to invent something. Aha! How about if I use the listener’s ear to fill in what I can’t do polyphonically? I give you one note so it’s in your memory, then maybe I leave it, but do it in such a way that in about seven seconds I have the following note but you still remember the first note.’ He does that with different voices, and especially with the bass line. And starting with the fourth suite, he gets more and more inventive in creating larger structures — sort of like a universe filled with neutron stars and galaxy black matter. Sort of like saying, ‘I can get you into a different world by fiddling with my permutations and your subconscious reception of them.’ The fourth, fifth and sixth become more experimental. The fifth one, he tunes down the cello by a note, so he gets richer chords. The sixth one, he actually writes for a five-stringed instrument instead of a four-stringed instrument, the He’s expanding the range of the instrument and literally changing it.”
[DM] Where does emotion come into this? What does this have to do with healing or solace?
“Let’s say if you’re depressed and you’re stuck, you’re essentially kind of paralyzed. Your neurons are operating at low level and low capacity. Music is a stimulus. You respond to it, but you’re responding subconsciously to something that makes your brain active.”
[DM] So the ingenuity of Bach’s music fires the neurons, which causes positive feelings?
“Exactly. In a way, it’s the Socratic method: Musically, the Suites are asking, ‘How would you find an answer?’ Maybe that’s all a fantasy of mine, but the evidence is that people find something in this music. I know I do.”
“There is also an issue about their clothing. It looks like they were both wearing woolly tunics etc, and this (so the argument goes) tends to confirm that the eruption took place in October rather than as previously thought in August. Hang on, hang on. […] Can I point out for the umpteenth time that what people choose to wear in the middle of a volcanic eruption is no guide at all to the season of the year!” — Mary Beard in What you need to know about the bodies from Pompeii