Subverting America

“What would constitute tyranny in the United States? It would involve reducing Congress to a peripheral role in making Government policy, discrediting the political opposition, suppressing the more aggressive forms dissent, intimidating television, radio and the press, staffing the courts with one’s own supporters, and centralizing all of the executive power in the hands of the President and his totally dependent aides.”

New York Times editorial, June 17, 1973

Podcast listening

I’ve recently returned from a week of vacation in the U.S., which involved 10 hours of free time on a roundtrip trans-Atlantic flight. I won’t say I “caught up” on podcasts, but I made a very small dent in my backlog. My current rotation, which, as ever, features a heavy dose of tech, self-improvement and pop culture:

  • Art of Manliness: A goofy title but some useful advice. Specifically, I recommend this episode about decluttering your digital life.

  • Automators: As someone who spends a fair amount of time at a computer, I’m interested in off-loading repetitive tasks to the machine. Nevertheless, I’m a novice, and this podcast offers a good introduction with practical tips.

  • Conversations With Tyler: I’ve been a fan of Tyler Cowen’s since discovering his guide to ethnic restaurants in the D.C. area years ago. He’s an economist with wide-ranging interests whose interviews with similarly smart people rarely disappoint.

  • The Ezra Klein Show: Another podcast in the category of “smart people discuss the things they know about.” I’ve admired Ezra since his time at the Washington Post, where we overlapped but didn’t meet.

  • The Incomparable: I’m a nerd/geek who enjoys pop culture, and this is a podcast by nerds/geeks who enjoy pop culture.

  • Literary Friction: Book talk and recommendations. Good for getting me out of my comfort zone and introducing me to the unfamiliar.

  • Reply All: The popular celebration of all that’s wacky, weird and wonderful on the internet, with a human heart.

Washed Up

The drying of laundry “highlights a fundamental cultural [difference] between the US and UK that I’d characterize, broadly, as a British inclination to accept things as they are, versus an American inclination to alter and change them.

“ . . . In the face of illness, loss, or heartbreak, the American insistence on looking on the bright side and fixing the problem can feel heartlessly clueless. Some things cannot be fixed.

“But some things absolutely can.”

— Corinne Purtill, Quartz, July 21, 2017

(For the record, we don't have a combination washer-dryer and have heard enough criticism to never buy one.)

Buddhism 102

There were two metaphors that stuck with me after this week's class. 

First, when discussing the concept of enlightenment, the instructor advised, “Don’t focus on the finger. Focus on what the finger is pointing toward.”

Secondly, there was a discussion of Buddhism as a religion, and the things that separate it from other religions. (Those things are part of what has drawn me to study Buddhism.) One of my fellow students — clearly not as much a novice as me — suggested that, because Buddhism doesn't have a creator a la Christianity or Islam, it’s less concerned with questions of how we got here. He related what may be a common story in the teaching of Buddhism: “It’s like getting shot in the arm with an arrow. You think less about who shot the arrow and more about getting it out of your arm and healing your arm.”     

Buddhism 101

I’ve started an introductory course at the London Buddhist Centre; last night’s was the first of six meetings. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a while, and became more serious about studying it after reading a book while on vacation last year. Its values -- rationality, compassion, peace -- appeal.

At one point last night, the instructor was asked, “How do you know you're making progress?” She explained that, first of all, it’s generally frowned upon among practitioners of Buddhism to discuss the spiritual advances one makes. But if she had to articulate it -- which she seemed at pains to do -- she said that progress meant having a better understanding of what one doesn’t understand.

Daring to Be Dull

“Straight as an arrow, exasperatingly thorough, extremely earnest, smart, plain, pragmatic, wonkish. He was a stickler, a self-described curmudgeon.”

David Butler, an editor for Stars and Stripes, was beaten to death almost 17 years ago in Arlington, Va., on his way home after a night shift.

I was in D.C. at the time, and although I never met him, this remembrance has stuck with me, partly because of the horrific nature of the crime, which appears to remain unsolved. But in him I also saw -- perhaps with some self-flattery and a touch of embarrassment -- myself.

His work mirrored my own, hanging around “in case you have to tear up the front page for a nuclear explosion or the death of a princess.”

(Like him, I was in the newsroom on my 30th birthday, which was an election night. Like him, I was surrounded by pizza boxes. Unlike him, I was not in the company of a stripper.)

I was also well familiar with “those strange small hours, our 5 p.m., our quitting time, the world’s middle of the night” and could easily envision the circumstances in which he was killed.

I’ve recently been thinking about David because he sounded like most of the journalists I’ve worked with over a 22-year career in newspapers: dedicated, careful but human, and honestly trying to provide a fair and accurate account of the facts in an often messy world.

“He was, in short, everything you want in the guy who edits your newspaper.”

Cuba 2016

Carrie and I awoke on the morning of Saturday, 26 November, to the news that Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader of nearly 60 years, had died at the age of 90. Later that day, we flew to Havana for a pre-planned vacation.

“The British like to see their military history as a succession of scrapes — the Armada or the Battle of Britain, for example — in which they are outnumbered and outgunned and survive by guts and ingenuity. It seems to demonstrate a higher moral purpose. But much of the story of their empire is testament not to moral but to technological superiority. . . . As Hilaire Belloc put it in The Modern Traveller, published that year:

Whatever happens, we have got // The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

— Jeremy Paxman, Empire