The function of John le Carre’s novels

John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Mystery novels—according to a widely held theory—attract readers because the detective brings an off-kilter world into concordance.

John le Carré, whose espionage novels I admire, almost always brings the reader to the opposite end of the spectrum. The off-kilter world becomes even more discordant as suspense rises to its climax.

The function of his novels is revealing the discordant undertow of secret worlds. Instead of feeling better because order has been restored to the universe, I usually feel grateful that my life has nowhere near that level of complexity, intrigue, moral compromise, etc. They put life in perspective by presenting suffering best avoided.

For this reason I don’t think I could read a stack of le Carré books back to back, but every once in a while one of them hits the spot. Currently I’m reading The Tailor of Panama, which I’m enjoying. Beyond that there are five or six of his titles on my shelf that I haven’t read like The Russia House. I guess it will take some time to go through them. That way I can emerge for air, read something simpler, more conducive to everyday ethics.

One more thing about le Carré—I believe that reading his masterfully rendered dialogues makes me a better writer. Few turn a better, or more wickedly humorous, spoken phrase.

Bogle is the Best

This interview with Jack Bogle, produced by the Motely Fool, is a good introduction to one of America’s greatest citizens. Bogle created the first index fund  on New Year’s Eve, 1975. Since then the company he founded, Vanguard, has lived up to its moniker by proving that ultra-low-cost passive investing wins the loser’s game being played in the Wall Street casinos. I just finished reading Bogle’s Little Book of Common Sense Investing, which backs up his simple investing philosophy.

What I respect about Bogle is that he calls out the greed that robs average investors. He set up his company to be investor-oriented rather than profit oriented. The result is that everyone can be rewarded. The interview is great because it’s being conducted by a stock picker, Tom Gardner, who nonetheless lionizes Bogle the anti-stock-picker.

Watch the video, then read the book. You too will become a Boglehead.

The Mother of All Goals – Dropping to “Normal” Weight with StickK

 

By Dan Wilcock

Weight loss is a great American pastime, or perhaps a great American folly. Oceans of money are spent on it. Entire forests are cut down to publish guidebooks. The only times I’ve been fairly successful at it have been when I’m not particularly paying attention to it.

I set a goal for myself this week: drop enough weight to achieve normal BMI. I’m a 5’10” male, so that means 172 pounds. Right now I’m around 200, of which I’m not particularly proud. But there it is.

What makes me think I have a chance in hell of reaching weighing what I did when I entered college?

I’m going to nudge myself my using StickK, where I’ve created a commitment page and pledged to contribute $5 to charity each week I don’t meet my weight goal. The first few months of .5 pounds/week reduction targets probably won’t be that tough. I imagine that toward the end it will be a lot harder and I may need to cough up the cash.

Why aim at so-called “normal” weight when there are good reasons to be skeptical of BMI in the first place? Why try to be what Americans perceive as skinny when some studies suggest that being a little overweight is healthier over a lifetime? I agree with this skepticism. Muscle-bound people are sometimes considered obese using BMI since it’s such a crude measurement. Being a little overweight may be just the margin we need against wear and tear and the ravages of time.

All that being said, the goal and its attainment matter to me. Dropping to 172 would provide a lifetime benefit. Getting there will require setting a lot of new baselines from which to live—in terms of daily exercise (I love to run), nutrition, and sleep. I’m also fond of StickK’s methodology—setting up iterative real consequences over time for success or failure (your get to keep your money or fork it)—such that progress occurs in dripping drops. There’s a very popular social science book behind ideas like this called Nudge, which I recommend.

Failure is a real possibility, and I’m happy to pay for it. But, as I’ve written before here, archers aim high to hit distant targets. I’ll let you know how proximate to the mark I am as I go.

Have you tried using StickK or similar programs to meet a goal? Have you succeeded or failed? Drop a comment if you’d like.

Nice 4.5-mile Running Route in Rockville, MD

By Dan Wilcock

Anyone interested in finding a peaceful, woodsy running route with few course interruptions in Rockville, MD, should check out

this route

(link will open a map of the route in MapMyRun).

It’s a good training run because it balances inclines (there are four good hills long enough to feel a bit of burn), descents, and flatter areas, and because there are only three intersections where cars can cross the route. I run it all the time, and love it.

If Rockville Town Square is your point of reference, warm up from there by walking north on Washington Street (walk past Dawson’s Market from the square and turn right on Washington). When you get to the post office on the corner of Washington and Martins Lane, you are at the start point.

There are just a few turns on this 4.6ish-mile loop.

  1. From the start, run up and down the hill on Martins (which eventually turns into Nelson).
  2. Turn right on College Parkway (the beauty of this run is that it skirts a large wooded area, so it’s more peaceful than some other parts of Rockville. This turn is where you start running around the woods).
  3. Turn left on Yale and go all the way to the end. Just as you reach a wall of trees, you will see a trail heading to the right. Take this trail up to the Millennium Trail.
  4. Turn left on the Millennium Trail. There is a nice long downhill stretch here for cooling down. Then the trail begins to climb.
  5. Just before you get to a big bridge spanning I-270 (if you get to the bridge, you’ve gone too far), turn left where the trail forks into the Rockville Senior Center campus. You’ll see the Senior Center and a playground. There’s also a funky statue made of boulders and branches right where you turn.
  6. Turn left when you get to the Senior Center can run in front of it onto Carnation.
  7. Turn right on Aster Boulevard, one of the nicest residential streets in Rockville.
  8. At the end of Aster, turn left on Nelson, which will take you back to the start/finish.
  9. The end of the race has three good hills in succession. By now you are warmed up for them, and they are a great way to finish your workout.

Hope you enjoy it. Leave a comment if you do. If you know of an even better route, send me a link.

Be the change you’d like to see in the world

A simple aphorism sums up much of human wisdom from antiquity to today: Be the change you’d like to see in the world.

This encompasses the Golden Rule, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, and countless other traditions.

Like many simple things, achieving it requires  a great deal of refinement and practice.

I’m far from the mark myself.

Recently a combination of readings made this idea resonate more strongly than usual for me.

First, I’ve been working through a stack of books on the Roman Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and their philosophic ancestors in Greece, primarily Plato. These schools of thought encourage scrutiny of the things before us, which allow a more objective perspective on justice or the moral good.

Second, I’ve been reading contemporary thinkers on sustainable, community-based, environmentally friendly life. I’m currently making my way through Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. Next up will be Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher.

The confluence of these thinkers is rather striking. Once we scrutinize the things around us, we realize that, while we can’t choose the reality around us (the Stoics in particular believed in destiny), we can scrutinize that reality and choose how we act. The question is, what kinds of choices?

That’s what brought me to ‘be the change you’d like to see in the world.’

I think that Schumacher and McKibben point to some better alternatives than the default settings in America’s society, which currently sends most of its resources to hedge fund managers and corporate executives whose relationships with our  communities are mostly abstract and involve maintaining profit margins.

I’ll write again after reading Schumacher, and perhaps a bit more of the ancients.

Reading the Stoics

Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Reading ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius does not require a classroom setting, nor a professor with proper academic credentials. Those elements add value, but the Stoics’ ideas can grab us immediately. I think three Stoic classics in particular are worth reading:

  1. Seneca’s letters, collected by Penguin Books as Letters from a Stoic and filled with advice on the good life, are marvels of clarity and humor. I’d recommend them to anyone.
  2. Epictetus’s manual on the art of living is as simple as it is powerful.
  3. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations record Stoic advice he gives to himself as emperor of Rome.

Anyone with the slightest amount of responsibility in life would benefit immediately from the elegant but stern challenges and goals Aurelius sets for himself. Just one example:

“Stop letting the guiding principle within you be tugged around like a marionette by the strings of selfish impulses,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

When I read passages like the one above–and the three famous Stoics’ works are full of such gems–I’m struck by how they apply to life here and now. We are marionettes tugged around by marketers, forces indifferent to us as moral beings. Our selfish desires are inflamed by well-paid experts in the arts of persuasion. We have the chance to do what’s good, and in stoicism the moral good consists in helping others, but we squander our opportunities on destructive trifles.

One passage doesn’t do justice to the wealth that can be found in these old classics. They are all worth reading in translations of the original Greek (Epictetus, Aurelius–both Romans who wrote in Greek) and Latin (Seneca). Reading them in the original would no doubt be fascinating, but I have no intention of putting in the requisite years of study. As the Stoics would advise, and Socrates and Plato would likely concur, I’ll take the shortest route to the goal. Marcus Aurelius puts it emphatically and eloquently:

“Don’t live as if you were going to live for ten thousand years. The inevitable is hanging over you. As long as you are still alive, and as long as it is still possible, become a good man,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

Not everything by these three writers can be digested by readers who don’t know much about the ancient world and its philosophical context. So while I think that all three are powerful and comprehensible enough for any reader to start reading them directly, some things require expert untangling. A good framework for understanding the more enigmatic passages of the Meditations is Pierre Hadot’s classic book The Inner Citadel, which cleared up some things I found confusing.

Hadot is adept at identifying the framework of Stoic thinking: their way of viewing life (destiny and accepting what life presents with serenity), its purpose (serving others and the moral good), and the need for each person to exercise a cohesive guiding intelligence (stripping away the noise of life to find the objective signal).

I hope to write more about the Stoics as I read more from them, and compare them to the Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who formed much of the basis for their worldview (and that of Western civilization). Thus this blog post is just a point of departure.

Bye Bye Twitter

By Daniel Wilcock

 

I quit Twitter this month for the following reasons:

 

  1. Using Twitter is playing with fire when it comes to your life and your reputation. You can lose your job or suffer other similar losses for momentary stupidity or carelessness—or even just for writing something that can be misinterpreted. There’s so much questionable content on Twitter that it’s also easy to embroil yourself by accidentally retweeting it. In the analog world, statements can usually be clarified in the moment. “Did you mean what I think you just said?” That doesn’t always happen, but it’s more likely than on Twitter. Our statements also tend to expire with the air that carries them. This freedom may start to disappear with the possibility of Google Glasses recording all speech. Europeans won the right for their online lives to be forgotten by Google. One day we may cloak our speech in scrambling technology, which we turn off only when we give explicit permission to be recorded. Until then, I’m going to reserve my online expressions to carefully considered media such as this blog. There wasn’t any specific incident that pushed me over the edge. I just sense the potential for one in the future.

     

  2. I’m not a politician, and I don’t have products to sell, so why am I constantly marketing myself? You may be different from me. You may have a job that requires you to market certain wares, including yourself. I feel fortunate that I’m not in that position except for when I’m job hunting, which I’m not right now. So much of Twitter is pure marketing. Why subject myself to it? Why not choose the ability to discern and think for myself? Why not seek out the voices I find wise, rather than what I’m exposed to by marketers? I’ve used Twitter to market this blog, but I realized that I’m mostly writing this blog to record my own thoughts. If people tune in, cool, but I’ve stopped marketing it.

     

  3. Twitter is just about as bad as Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are seemingly very different. I used to think Twitter was better because it tends to shoot you into other websites suggested by the people you follow rather than try to hold you in place like Facebook does. It also makes it easier to interact directly with just about anyone, unlike Facebook where public figures are a few steps removed. You can “like” celebrities on Facebook and leave comments for them, but it’s harder to rouse them directly the way a direct tweet can. Despite the differences, the two companies are in the very same business, selling you to corporations. When I quit Facebook more than a year ago, Twitter became its replacement for me to the tune of 1000 tweets. I think I always knew that it was kind of a false choice—like thinking Coke is any better than Pepsi. They both are corrosive to health, at least for me.

     

  4. It changes people. I’m a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings, but I can hardly stand his persona on Twitter where he gets into quarrels, spouts off rather randomly (pun only somewhat intended), and generally goes against his stated desire to be a private person and not a public intellectual. I think he’d be better off quitting too, especially since he writes in his books about via negativa, removing things that undermine our ability to live well and trusting negative rather than positive advice.

     

  5. It involves spending time writing to strangers rather than my family and friends. Think about it. I do realize that you can only allow your family and friends to follow you on Twitter. Maybe that’s a good option. Luckily, most of my family and friends are too sensible to be on Twitter. I’m certain I’m missing many family photo albums on Facebook. That is lamentable, but not worth signing back up for an account. Perhaps it will give me an excuse to start calling family members. “Hey, I haven’t seen you guys in forever, especially since I’m not on social media. Could we visit sometime?”

     

  6. Community is centered on my doorstep, not in cyberspace. I think I’ll let this one stand without further comment.

     

  7. It’s just not for me. If you use Twitter daily and love it, that’s your right. I’m judging it, but by my own lights. If you love it and see no reason to stop, tweet on my friend.

     

  8. Last but not least, the way reciprocity works on Twitter bugs me. Follow me and I’ll follow you back. Coded hashtags designed to signal readiness to play this game of stranger accumulation. Drop these same strangers, and they’ll drop you. And then there are a few people I know who didn’t follow me back. Is this because they don’t reciprocate, or because they simply don’t notice in the avalanche of their Twitter feeds? These kinds of questions could drive me crazy with a kind of internet-based palace intrigue. Forget about it! Life is complex enough without needless head games.