Matt’s Essential Reading List #7

Continuing my short break from political posts… here is my seventh installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books to read.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

  • Prestige of the author and/or book
  • Readability/Approachability
  • Subject Matter
  • Quality
  • Perspective

Another reminder: a * denotes that the book is also on Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Meditations (Penguin Classics) by [Marcus  Aurelius, Diskin  Clay, Martin Hammond Albert Wittstock ]

Self-Improvement/Philosophical

Marcus Aurelius is considered to be one of if not the greatest of the Roman emperors, and is also sometimes considered to be the quintessential “philosopher-king”, a follower of stoicism: a philosophy based on strong and just ethics, focusing on and accepting the present moment, and controlling yourself with logic and reason rather than allowing yourself to be controlled by desire or fear.

He wrote his Meditations for his own reflection, not in order to be published.  Therefore, they give true insight into the thoughts and musings of one of history’s greatest men. The individual meditations are usually rather short and easy to digest, so this book is good for both someone new to philosophy and the lifelong student.

Meditations is on the reading list for some of history’s most influential people, and therefore should be on yours as well.


Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America by John Avlon 

Wingnuts: Extremism in the Age of Obama by [Perseus]

Academic/Expository/Analysis

This book was written in 2010 by a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, long before the current epidemic of fake news and conspiracy theories.  It is scary to think about how comparitavely enlightened the world was a decade ago when Avlon wrote this book

He goes over the history of eccentric kooks long ago and how they were always there in the background.  But he spells out how talk radio and the internet were able to empower these crazies.  It was scary and frustrating when I read it seven years ago. In today’s world, it’s borderline nihilistic.

The book was updated about halfway through the Obama presidency, hence the different title.


*Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 

Novel

One of the classics of dystopian literature, it goes beyond the standard topics of totalitarianism and is more of an insight into the masses and the willingness to gladly accept mindless and ignorant entertainment.

In later years, Bradbury stated that the main theme of the book was more about society turning to television and shortened attention spans and rejecting the written word, rather than a political treatise about powerful governments.

The story itself has entertainment value with both subtle domestic drama and more intense scenes of conflict.  It is yet another of those books that make the reader look at the current world of instant gratification with new concern.


All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot 

Memoir/Biography

All Creatures Great and Small by [James Herriot]

Not so much a true autobiography, but more of a collection of “inspired by true events’ stories from the experiences of James Alfred Wight (pen name of James Herriot) as a new country veterinarian in northern England during the 1930s.

As a farm kid who grew up working with cattle, and loves dogs, this is a wonderful “good old days” type of book, that you just read and imagine yourself there alongside the vet on his calls.  The simple pastoral life in Yorkshire farm country is lovingly detailed by Herriot.  The vignettes of his experiences are often humorous, sometimes insightful, and always entertaining.  It is the perfect book to read before bedtime as the chapters are short, self-contained stories that will leave you smiling before going to sleep.


Any Collection of Poetry EXCLUSIVE: The 2019 National Book Awards Finalists | Vanity Fair

Other

I readily admit that I struggle with poetry.  But I still appreciate the artistry of the form.  I wish I were more able to read poetry in the rhythm that it is meant to be.  And on those rare times that I do find myself in that rhythm, I can fully enjoy it.

Just for the sake of challenging oneself to ready something that takes more effort than a standard narrative style, I think it is important to read through different poems.  Occasionally, you may find one that speaks to you.  It isn’t important to analyze the poem in some pretentious manner, just enjoy the written art form.  I couldn’t begin to recommend a good poetry collection, so just find something that appeals to you personally.

 

Planning a Trip Around the World – Part 3 – What to Expect

Taking a break from the political posts that have been my focus the past couple of months, I wanted to finally finish my 3-part series for those interested in a trip around the world, or at least a long-term trip abroad.

To recap the first two installments:

Part 1: The First Steps (Start research; Formulate the big picture of the trip; Look for specific opportunities; Begin making necessary arrangements)

Part 2: What to Bring (including tech items, non-tech items, and clothing)

This installment is focused on what to expect when you actually prepare to leave and then during and after the trip.

Let’s be honest.  The most exciting part of any big vacation or adventure is the anticipation leading up to it. Once you’ve made all the necessary arrangements, and you have all your gear ready, those last few days and weeks, you will likely be a bundle of different emotions, both positive, such as enthusiasm and hope, and negative such as anxiety and nervousness.  Perhaps you might want to schedule some fun events and activities with your friends and families that you won’t be seeing for a long time.

Obviously, the specific mental, physical, and emotional aspects that you will encounter will depend upon the circumstances of your trip.  There will be vast differences between if you are doing this trip alone or with a friend, a significant other, or a group for the majority of the time.  Your goals on the trip will have an impact.  Depending on the places you visit, your language, culture, religion, gender, sexual identity, and race can all have an impact on your mental, physical, and emotional welfare during this adventure.  I will be writing from my perspective of a long term trip as a white, straight, American male going through many different countries and cultures on my own through the majority of the journey.

In those last few weeks and days before you leave, try to get yourself in as good health as possible.  Get plenty of rest and take care of yourself, you don’t want to spend the first couple of weeks struggling with jet lag, exhaustion, and/or an illness.  I actually ended up with bad cold & flu symptoms only a few weeks before my trip, and it caused additional stress while I was trying to take care of those final preparations.

Before and throughout the trip, getting as much rest is going to be critical for a few reasons.  Depending on your travel budget, lodgings, and transportation plans, sleep can be a precious commodity.  The only time in my life I have ever thoroughly fantasized about murder was a snorer with horrible sleep apnea in a hostel dorm room; the thought of smothering him with a pillow was a consistent companion throughout the sleepless night. Taking advantage of overnight busses and trains can be wonderfully efficient, giving you a chance to sleep while you travel to your next destination.  However, be aware that it will not be quality sleep.  So prepare yourself for the fact that you might need to take it easy when you first arrive at that destination, and might need a good night’s rest in a real bed before doing major activities there.

Here is one such example from my trip. I started out leaving the small Moroccan city I was staying at late one night to go to the airport in Agadir, to catch an early morning flight to Munich. I then spent the day walking around Munich.  That evening, I had a short flight to Amsterdam, and then went out on the town that night into the early morning.  Then had another early flight from Amsterdam, through Kiev, to Beijing, arriving at 2 AM local time.  I then went through customs and arrived at my hotel at around 5 AM, and had scheduled a full day tour of Beijing, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, starting at about 8 AM.  (I was only in Beijing for one day and was going to be heading to Zhengzhou the next day.) When I got back to the hotel that evening, I had every intention of going out somewhere in Beijing that night, but my body had had enough. It had been more than 72 hours since I had slept in a bed, and I was feeling pretty rough.  It wasn’t just tiredness, I was worried I might be getting a little sick.  The comfortable king-sized bed had me in a tight grasp from early evening through the morning.

As part of the packing list in my last post, I mentioned a travel first aid kit.  You should make sure this includes some basic medications for colds, headaches, and stomach bugs.  Given the constantly changing climates you’ll be passing through, sitting in cramped quarters on planes and busses, eating different foods, and possible differences in hygiene where you are, it is almost a certainty that you will get sick in one way or another during your trip.  Consider yourself lucky if it’s only a minor cold or food poisoning that only lasts a few days.  When this happens, just accept it and get as much rest as possible to recover.  Don’t try to force yourself to do something you’re not actually up to doing, just because you want to do as much as possible.  Unless it’s an absolute can’t miss, like your assigned time to go up to Machu Picchu or something like that, you should just skip it and try to do it another day.  There will be other times to check out that market or take that day trip. If you don’t rest, it will take you even longer to recover, ruining even more of your travels and that’s assuming the illness doesn’t turn into something worse.  It’s best just to let it run its course, and then get on with your adventure.

As I said, for the vast majority of my trip I was on my own.  I am sure there are going to be some different stressors if you are traveling with one or more other people.  Personality quirks, different ideas for plans and activities, and general disagreements always come up in personal relationships.  In a travelling situation, with additional influences and being less likely to have a comfortable area to retreat to and calm down, these can become more intense.  Therefore, it is important to make sure you and your travelling companion(s) have already done some fairly long trips together and have good conflict-resolution skills.

One situation to be aware of that is probably more applicable to solo travelers, but can still affect someone with travelling companion(s), is a lot of short-term intense-feeling friendships.  Perhaps when you stay in a place for an extended time or go on a multi-day activity with a group of new people, at times you will make strong connections with some people.  This is similar to when you were a kid and would go to a sleepaway camp or something similar for a few days or maybe longer.  Often, you would connect with one or more of the other children and form a fast friendship.  Then at the end of your time together, it would feel like you have known each other for a long time and spent so much time together, but it also went by way too fast, and now you have to say goodbye.  Throughout a long journey like this, it is likely you find yourself in those positions fairly regularly.  The intensity of those emotions can take a toll, and there were definitely a few times during my travels where I would become melancholy for a couple of days after having to say farewell to a kindred spirit that shared part of this journey with me.

Relatedly, for solo travelers, loneliness can be an issue.  If you are considering doing this trip solo, you better have already done some solo travel of shorter duration.  For many years, I have often gone out camping by myself.  I remember once telling someone about doing so, and she replied that she felt she would go crazy if she had to be almost completely alone like that for an extended period of time.  Therefore, if you would like to do such a journey solo, work yourself up to it with short excursions of a few days completely by yourself.  Just like so much else, mental preparation will be key.

Throughout the trip, there will be numerous setbacks and things that don’t go according to plan.  It is critical that you learn to roll with it, even if you need a few minutes, hours, or a day to have a slight melt-down first.  One of the critical steps to helping with this is having a backup plan in mind. This includes, having critical spare items, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  That way if your phone or wallet is lost or stolen (or an ATM eats your debit card) while you are in transit, you won’t be completely in a lurch, and can still function with your spares while taking care of getting replacements.  Bad things are going to happen, accept that and prepare yourself.  That way, when they do happen, they are easier to bounce back from.  And remember, many of those setbacks and inconveniences, end up becoming fun travel stories eventually, like not being able to board a plane because you misread the visa requirements and need to spend 18 hours in the airport for the next flight or losing a sandal in Antarctica while doing a polar plunge or having to rearrange your travel to stay in Kenya for two additional weeks while getting a new passport.

As I mentioned earlier, the most exciting and happiest part of a trip is before you even leave.  And this will be true for each new destination along your continuing journey.  Each new city or country will have it’s own pleasures that you can’t wait to discover.

However, reality rarely measures up to what we’ve built up in our hands.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes the experience even surpasses the expectations.  But in all honesty, we usually don’t even realize that until after the fact.  It is easy to be a little disappointed and become bogged down in the frustration of mundane struggles, losing sight of the adventure you are having.  There isn’t much you can do to prevent this, it is just part of human nature.  The best you can do is be aware of it and try to enjoy the moment as best you can.

Ideally, as you go through an experience like this, it will broaden your experiences and perspectives.  Engage with locals and try to learn from them.  Accept the fact that you might discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself or your prior worldview.  It is all part of growth.  These different perspectives, along with the flexibility and problem-solving skills you will need to utilize through the struggles of travelling, will serve you well in future endeavors.  So try to view all positive and negative interactions and all successes and setbacks as unique learning experiences that you can benefit from for the rest of your life.

I was fortunate in that due to my reading up on long-term travel before my trip, I was already somewhat prepared for this next part.

At the end of the trip, whether it be as it is nearing the end or after it is complete and you are back home, it is very common to experience some emotional turmoil. It might be a bit of depression or just a wistful melancholy.  This can happen for a few different reasons.  It is likely that throughout the trip, the next step of the trip was your primary focus in life.  Now, suddenly, that’s over and you have to find a new focus.  It could be because you’ve just gone through an intense experience that probably few of your family and friends every have, so you’re trying to process what you did and you’re doing that alone.  It might simply be a matter of all good things come to an end.  My tumult hit me about a week or so after I finished my trip, and it lasted about two or three days where I really didn’t want to get out of bed.  I think my feelings were mostly because of the first reason I mentioned, needing to find a new focus.

This is yet another part of the adventure that you should just accept and be ready to deal with.  It would be good to perhaps identify some kind of a support network, maybe some friends and family have done something similar, and you can talk about the struggle of reacclimating with them.  Or else, since it is common and temporary, just give yourself some time to feel these emotions and let them run their course while you readjust.

At the end of the day, a long-term adventure like this, whether it be around the world, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, or backpacking through Europe, is going to be a life shaping experience.  As such, there are going to be many different impacts on you, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Know they are coming, and just like the rest of your journey, enjoy the ride!

 

Science is Losing the War on Science

In the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years, one thing has become absolutely clear, the fact that far too many people do not trust science.  This is not surprising as distrust in science has been growing for years.

This unfortunate turn to the dark ages forced scientists in 2017 to get off the sidelines and into the political arena, famously with the March for Science, and then more directly with groups like 314 Action, which recruits and supports STEM professionals for political campaigns.

While noble in purpose, this has been disastrous in practice.

The reason is because instead of being a nonpartisan movement to promote scientific expertise and inquiry in politics, the movement has made the lazy decision to simply align with the left; the political wing that already was mostly in agreement with the scientific community.

Therefore, it has resulted in no real benefit for science or for society, and at exorbitant cost to both.

Let’s focus on the single biggest scientific issue prior to the pandemic (and what will again become the biggest issue after): climate change.

The Democratic party already has accepted the realities of climate change and promotes policies to address it.  On the other hand, the Republican party has moved away from the science of climate change towards denialism.  In 1997, about equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats thought climate change had begun.  Over the next decade, the percentage of Republicans believing in climate change began to decrease while among the Democrats, it increased. 

If you were a scientist who wanted to build a consensus to address climate change, you should work on changing the minds of those Republican voters.

But instead, the science activists have decided to focus on running STEM professionals in races as Democrats. This serves no purpose.  They are preaching to the choir.  It doesn’t even really help if you are a liberal, because while STEM professionals would be good voices on science debates like climate change, you are taking out other candidates that already agree with you on science, and might actually be of more use for you for other liberal causes.  I don’t get it, but if liberals want to cut themselves at the knees, so be it; that’s on them.

Where it does bother me though is that it injects partisanship into science.  The right wing misinformation ecosystem sees the scientific community in league with the Democratic party and it makes it easier for them to dismiss science as having a political agenda.  People rarely vote based on scientific issues anyway, so it is not like right-leaning voters are going to change their support because of a group of scientists are running on the left.  Consequently, most people who normally vote Republican will still vote Republican anyway, but now they will be even more suspicious of scientists and their “liberal agenda.”

When Joshua Morrow, the Executive Director of 314 Action, was asked if the group would support a physicist running as a Republican, his response was: “Find that person, and we’ll have that discussion. Find that unicorn.”

That condescending attitude has been on display for decades by the academic left, and it has pushed right-leaning voters into the arms of charlatans that bring snowballs onto the floor of the Senate as “evidence” against climate change or that claim certain physical ailments are caused by dream sex with demons.

If Joshua Morrow and the 314 Action group really want to change the direction of this country regarding science, instead of virtue signaling and pushing a liberal agenda, they should be scouring the land for those “unicorns.”  Because that’s how things will change.

They need to find any right-leaning scientists they can and help them run in Republican primaries.  Even if those primary candidacies are Quixotic endeavors, they will at least add a scientific voice to those primary debates and hopefully begin to gradually enlighten some voters on the right.

They should be partnering with groups like RepublicEN and the American Conservative Coalition.  These are right-leaning groups that accept the realities of climate change and are trying to pull conservatives in that direction.

Because if and when these groups and actions can convince more and more Republican voters of these realities, then we can begin to have actual reasoned debates on how to address climate change (left-leaning government interventions vs. right-leaning market-based solutions) rather than the surreal and farcical debate on whether or not man-made climate change is even real.

For being supposed scientists, these activists don’t seem to understand basic psychology.  People are hesitant to believe outsiders over their in-group.  If you want to convince them, you need to ally with and become part of their in-group.

I readily (and with shame) admit that the Republican party is the anti-intellectual and anti-science party, and will be resistant to pro-science voices for a while. This will not be easy.  But simply allowing science to ally with the left, while seemingly easier, will not work and will only hurt in the long run.

We need to do the hard work of partnering activist science groups with willing Republican groups and candidates, not opposing them just because they are Republicans.   As those voices become more established in the Republican party, then they can hopefully counteract the voices of ignorance on the right and start pulling the party and its voters back towards science and reason.

Because if science chooses sides in politics, it’s going to lose.  And if science loses, we all lose.