A part of the week that I really look forward to is the weekend afternoon I spend cleaning my place. It isn’t because I have a cleaning fetish (ok, maybe a little) but it is because this is the time I get my best reading done, especially what I would consider difficult books. By difficult books I mean the ones that are hard to get into and/or the topic is dull but educational.
I think it was a couple of years ago, a friend shared with me a long Youtube video on the Bronze Age. I wasn’t particularly interested in the topic but my friend thought I should see it. I thought I could just listen to the video as background noise while I did the important job of cleaning, and I would hear enough bits and pieces to be able to follow up with my friend. However, I was astonished to see that cleaning faded into the background while the history of Anatolia, the Hittites, etc. took centre stage. The two hours or so spent cleaning was the most focused I had been the whole week. I was so engaged that I was inspired to read more about the topic afterwards. When it was time for the next weekend clean, I thought I’d try again to see if what had happened the previous weekend was just a fluke. Again I picked a topic of little interest, another Youtube clip on the history of Russia, that the algorithm had recommended I see and that had been in my “watch later” list for ages. That particular day Russian history sounded way more engrossing than when I studied it at university. I was convinced I had made a new and exciting discovery! I could combine cleaning with learning! How delightful! And from then I’ve saved serious but useful subject matter that I ordinarily wouldn’t want to tackle for my weekend cleaning.
One of my most prized possessions is my cordless vacuum cleaner. I use it daily because I love a clean floor (and I also like to procrastinate from work). I recently upgraded to the latest model, after 8 years of owning my previous one. I didn’t do it sooner because I told myself I had to use it until it was on its last leg, not to be wasteful. I was so excited for the arrival of the new one that I didn’t vacuum the floor for a couple of days because I wanted to see just how much better the new model was going to be. This was really hard to do as seeing bits of debris on the floor always makes me anxious. Once the package arrived, I tore through the layers of packaging to start what I hoped would be a major upgrade to my cleaning experience. Alas, the elevation I was looking for didn’t come! My new vacuum only delivered a marginal improvement. In one aspect, it delivered a worse experience, the handheld head is much heavier and longer. I guessed this was how they could extend the battery life, which has tripled in time (depending on the mode of use). As to the cleaning there is a noticeable improvement on carpets, no odd hairs left on the floor. On hard floors there is a new illuminated roller head that highlights particles you can’t easily see. This last feature I really don’t need because I have razor sharp eyes for detecting dirt on surfaces, hence my vacuum mania. I expected more! Not sure exactly what, but certainly not a heavier machine. It got me thinking, is this the best technical improvements they could come up with in 8 years? If so, why is this?
I’m married to a passionate democrat. Prior to every election, be it presidential or midterm, she will dedicate a big chunk of time to research all proposed ballot initiatives, candidates and their policies to determine what and who deserves her vote. Me, I don’t vote. Whenever I’m encouraged to vote, that it is my civic duty, blah, blah, blah, most times I reply “vote for who?” and at times I say “I will start voting when I can afford to buy my own politician”. So you can imagine we have fervent debates in my household about democracy and whether it exists in our respective countries. I don’t think a country can be called democratic when millions of dollars (a big portion from corporate entities and moguls) are required to run for office as in the US. Nor is a country democratic when the last three Prime Ministers were not elected by public ballot as in the UK. Boris Johnson came into power because Theresa May resigned. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were elected by the Conservative party members. My beloved democrat tells me that I feel this way because I don’t get the results I want. She has a point. But the outcome I want has little to do with the electoral system, and more with civil liberties and justice for all that are the core tenets of democracy.
For the end of the year holiday period I decided I was going to embrace my lazy side, let her be in charge. The first thing she did was get rid of all those routines that had kept her repressed most of the year. I went to sleep and woke up without the nagging of my alarm clock. I gave in to any urge I had first thing in the morning. Watch an episode or two of a TV show? Yes! Stay lying in bed for hours? Absolutely! Any thought I had to be productive was quickly overtaken by the compulsion to watch just one more episode of whatever show I was watching. It went on like this until the tingling, throbbing and numbing of my limbs ( I suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)) would force me to get up and move. I would then very reluctantly go and exercise, for there would be no further rest and comfort without it–rigorous and generous amounts of daily exercise is one of the ways to manage RLS. This is a mixed blessing because I could later on munch my way through an entire packet of twice-fried (nope, once isn’t good enough) plantain chips guilt free. It was AMAZING! I wanted it to go on forever. Alas the arrival of the 3rd of January put an end to all that and I had to go back to reality.
When 2022 started I only had one goal for the year–to find and cultivate joy. To help me achieve this I read The Book Of Joy. I was motivated and determined even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy with the presence of wars (e.g. Yemen and Ukraine), humanitarian conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan and Ethiopia), the Covid-19 pandemic and a looming global economic crisis. As we are coming to the end of the year I’ve been reflecting. Remarkably, I can say that I did manage to find plenty of joy this year. I’ve realized that the most joy I’ve gotten has come from learning.
Leave your ego outside
One day at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) school, I noticed that Prof (the term used in BJJ for sensei) Pedro bows at the entrance before entering the training studio. I asked him why he does that. He replied it was a reminder to leave his ego and any baggage outside and enter with an open mind. He said it is from his Judo training (he also has black belt in Judo). But for the rest of us mere mortals without Judo training, if the BJJ warm up session doesn’t take us down a few pegs, the moves drills that follow will. And by the time you get to sparring you are the epitome of humbleness.
By the time I finished the introduction to How The World Really Works I was completely sold that THIS is the book I’ve been waiting for. Prof. Smil promises “to reduce the comprehension deficit, to explain some of the most fundamental ruling realities governing our survival and our prosperity.” Boy did he live up to his promise! The first revelation for me was how he described energy. He writes: “energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing (from galactic rotations to ephemeral insect lives) can take place without its transformations (How the World Really Works (p. 21)).” I had always thought that the universal currency was money. I realized that before this thing called money there was energy be it from our bodies or stones and wood or the sun. I ( and I’m sure the vast majority of people ) missed this fundamental point about the world because as Prof. Smil points out, economists whose explanations and precepts exercise more influence on public policy than any other experts, have largely ignored energy. Economists tend to focus on energy when there is a supply crisis and prices skyrocket. Another reason to be wary of economists, I thought! I’ve long been skeptical of how economists assess value.
I’ve been thinking a lot about energy, and not just because of the current energy crisis Europe is experiencing. In fact, I started mulling over it back at the end of January of this year when I read an article in the New Yorker titled: Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind? I was drawn to the title because I imagined that the answer would be yes, that there would be much to learn from Germany, a paragon of innovation and industrialisation, and I remembered its highly publicized Energiewende policy of transitioning to renewable energy. I was wrong! Germany’s main home-grown (it mostly imports its energy sources) type of fossil fuel is still coal, and the most polluting kind–lignite. As of 2021 lignite contributed to 19% of Germany’s gross electricity production. I was shocked. I wondered if this is the norm, and how much coal is still used to generate energy globally.
On Saturday mornings I like to peruse FT’s How To Spend It (recently rebranded to HTSI to reflect the current cost of living crisis, and “to make everyone feel that the magazine offers something life-affirming, enriching and diverting” announced its editor). I find it affirming to know where to buy $400 cashmere socks, and that the world’s greatest food stores can ONLY be found in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. It is certainly enriching to learn that a well styled home fridge should contain essentials such as white truffle sea salt, bottles of Dom Perignon champagne and carefully selected water in glass bottles (preferably St. Georges, the purest there is). Occasionally I see something in HTSI that inspires, like the article from October 2021 about the world famous Ballymaloe cookery school that I had never heard of. I was surprised to know that there was such a renowned cookery school set on an organic farm in East Cork, which was only two and half hours away from me in Dublin, where I had recently decamped! I thought why not go back to school and learn to cook from professional chefs like the ones on TV and in the cookery books I’m fond of reading.
Of the five books I read in July, unusually three were novels. I tend to reserve reading for learning and not for entertainment so I read mostly non-fiction. I regard reading fiction as play with the exception of short stories from the New Yorker magazine. Since I usually read them after I’ve read one or two of their highbrow, esoteric, long form articles on topics such as timber skyscrapers, state surveillance and how animals see the world, all in paper form with tightly packed small text, I figure it counts as work. But seriously, I actually learn a lot about writing and the power of imagination from reading their short stories . However, it had been so long since I read a novel that I had forgotten the power of novels to educate us on the human condition—if the writing is good.
The first of the two novels I read that left a lasting impact (I ditched the third novel half way through) is Donde mueren las nubes by Oscar Tejero Tojo. The novel is about Lucia, a young woman determined to make it as a top ranking executive in the pharmaceutical industry in Spain. At the start of the book she was a junior executive with just two years working experience, going for her first senior role as product manager. She got the job and within a short few years she became the country head of a major multinational pharmaceutical company.
I mentioned in the last edition of this newsletter my objective to focus more on the good news as opposed to the gloom and doom of the headlines. In that spirit, I picked up Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker wrote this book with the intent to show that overall as a society we are making progress, and that contrary to popular opinion things are actually getting better and not worse. He asserts that further progress will materialize so long as we continue to embrace the ideals–reason, science, humanism, and progress–of the Enlightenment. He believes these ideals are the impetus for the social betterment we currently enjoy. And he fears we are in danger of forgetting them, which would be detrimental. Thus, he took it upon himself to revisit these ideals to showcase their value and to preserve them. Hence the book’s subtitle The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I vaguely recall the works of eminent Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant from my university days. I was intrigued to revisit them.