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52 Things I learned in 2021

2021-12-14

Luzern, Switzerland, my favorite place I visited in 2021

Last year, I was reading Tom Whitehall's 52 things I learned in 2020 and thought “what a clever way to build the habit of curiosity,” so I decided to copy it (here is his 2021 version , if you're interested). With that background, here are 52 things that were new to me or caused me to think differently in 2021, loosely organized by category.

Nature

1) Greenland sharks commonly live 200+ years. Some are likely still swimming from before Shakespeare was born. They don't reach sexual maturity until 150 years of age and their normal pregnancy is 12 years long. Source .

2) You can walk from Norway to Canada. Or at least you can if you're an arctic fox. Source .

3) Human made stuff weighs more than all life on Earth , by one measurement at least. Source .

4) The importance of clean air: $ 700 air purifiers in Los Angeles improved test scores by almost as much as if almost as much as it would if class sizes were reduced by a third, according to David Wallace Wells , who estimates that 10M lives a year are lost due to air pollution.

5) Many countries in the world are transitioning towards reforesting . Scotland is the best example, after bottoming out around 4% of land area with forests in 1759, it's at 18%, close to where it is estimated to have been in the year 1000 AD, when it was 20%. From Our World in Data .

6) You can use sound to put out fires. Via Ted Goia .

7) 18 of the 20 horses that raced in this year's Kentucky Derby were descended from Secretariat . Juliette Kayyem

Switzerland

8) The Swiss constitution regulates the number of second homes in various communities, capping it at 20%. This is just one example of the way that the Swiss constitution is different than the American one - it can be (and is) frequently amended by referendums that get incredibly specific. From Why Switzerland.

9) From 1872 through 2003, no sitting member of the Bundesrat (Swiss Federal Council) was not re-elected. From Why Switzerland.

10) LSD was first synthesized in Basel, Switzerland. Via Crooked Timber.

11) The concept of concordance, the Swiss political model of seeking mutually acceptable compromises between competing political factions or between management and labor. From Why Switzerland and my friend Lovro.

California

12) The bear used as the model for the California state flag was the pet bear of William Randolph Hearst . The bear's name was Monarch. Via the Voice of San Diego podcast .

13) Palm trees are not native to California. They were imported to make it look more like the holy land. Via Justin EH Smith ; special shoutout to Scott Lewis who also regularly points this out.

14) In California, any item can use the recycling symbol , regardless of whether or not it can actually be recycled. California is seeking to change this. I can't believe this needs to be legislated. Via the NYT

15) The city of San Diego uses 30% less water than it did in 1990. That is an overall reduction, not per capita. This happened despite the city growing by about one third during that time. Via the Voice of San Diego podcast .

16) Joshua Tree National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island . I hope to visit at least a corner of it in 2022. Via Wikipedia

17) The original name of Bank of America was Bank of Italy. It was founded in San Francisco. Via California: A History

18) The Los Angeles Clippers have never retired a number. Via Bill Simmons

19) The most decorated American unit in WW2 were Japanese Americans serving in Italy. From California: A History : “Four months later, some 110,000 Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans were behind barbed wire, where they would remain for the next three years and more, except for those young nisei who volunteered for the draft in 1943 and, assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, fought their way up the Italian peninsula in 1944 and early 1945, emerging as the most decorated combat units of the war. "

Governance

20) The US Military is the one US institution that has gained trust since the 1970s . Improvements in diversity of hiring, reducing the gap between stated and actual values, the volunteer army, and the Gulf War success are credited with improving their standing. Via Amanda Ripley . I love this framing of the origins of trust, from the same article:
Typically, trust gets traced back to three central ingredients: ability, benevolence, and integrity. Ability captures the obvious, rational reason to trust something or someone: they seem to know what they are doing. Benevolence reflects the sense that an organization has our best interests at heart, that they are motivated by the forces of good. And integrity means that the institution has strong, admirable values to which it adheres, even under pressure to do otherwise.

21) When median rent starts to exceed one third of median income, homelessness starts to rise rapidly . You could argue that I should have put this in the California section. Via Chris Glynn and Alexander Casey .

22) Zoning reform by itself doesn't lead to development (affordable or otherwise). Minneapolis removed zoning restrictions in 2018 on duplexes and triplexes and a grand total of three got built by 2020 because of a lack of changes to the building code. From Strong Towns .

23) Scaling back prosecution of small, non-violent crimes reduces violent crime by keeping people out of the criminal justice system . It seems that going to prison increases the likelihood of committing future crimes. From reasons to be cheerful

24) Famously bike friendly Amsterdam was as car choked as many other world cities as recently as the 1970s. From The One-handed Economist .

25) The role of deregulation in the shale boom . The Energy Policy Act of 2005 allowed for drilling of oil on public land to skip environmental review as long as the project met predetermined limits. This led to more certainty for investors, more rapid turnaround in projects, and rapid technological innovation. We should do the same thing for carbon neutral technologies (eg, geothermal). From Eli Dourado. 

26) The average time to complete a National Environmental Protection act environmental review now takes 4.5 years to complete and is more than 600 pages long. From James Pethokoukis

27) It took just 16 days to plan the Central Park Zoo. The Power Broker .

28) Lack of resilience seems to be a primary factor in civilizational collapse (at least this is how I understand Spencer Greenberg's conversation with Samo Burja ). I'm editorializing a bit here, but I think we have to find ways to improve environmental (or societal) outcomes without putting a straight jacket on our society,

29) Non-violent protest is statistically more likely to create lasting social change than violent resistance . I heard this first while listening to the amazing City of Refuge podcast and didn't quite believe it, but was pointed to Erica Chenoweth's book Why Civil Resistance Works by the show's producer (this podcast is a good introduction). The way this works is that stable social change ultimately requires buy-in from people, especially leaders of institutions. While violence can be an effective short run deterrent, overtime it repels people.

American society

30) Americans are rapidly becoming less likely to think God exists. Especially Gen Z. Via  Ryan Burge .

31) Unmarried young adult Americans are having sex less often . The driving factor seems to be later marriages and, increasingly, religious observance. Via Lyman Stone .

32) The great downsizing is coming. The leading edge of the baby boomers are 75 today and the share of 80 year olds in the population is set to increase rapidly over the next 10 years , which is important because 80 is when people tend to downsize and move into nursing homes. Via Calculated Risk .

People

33) When in a group of people who speak different languages, the chosen language for conversation tends to be the one known best by the participant that knows it least well, not the one that most people speak best, or the one with the highest average proficiency. Via Eurozine

34) People who have been connected tend to double down out of embarrassment rather than change their minds. Via Brooke Harrington .

Health

35) The phenomenon of terminal lucidity , where patients with dementia become themselves again shortly before they pass away. From The Guardian

36) Obesity is almost definitely not caused by overeating, will power, or self control. In 1975, no country in the world had an obesity rate greater than 15% ; today this is common . From Slime Mold Time Mold .

37) AIDs has existed for almost 100 years , not just since ~ 1980. It is thought to have been in the US as early as 1940. Via Sarah Schulman on the Ezra Klein show .

38) The placebo effect is getting stronger in the United States. “The implications of this are pretty serious - the placebo effect in the United States has actually become quite a lot stronger over time, meaning that drugs that once would have been approved may not be now - because their performance relative to that of placebo is less convincing. "From All That Is Solid .

39) Orphans were used to transport the smallpox vaccine across the Atlantic from Spain to Venezuela in 1803 . They were intentionally given cowpox, which prevents smallpox, two at a time across the ocean until they made it to Caracas (this is where the root word for vaccine comes from, cow is vaca in Spanish). It's unlikely that the orphans were asked if they wanted to do this, but they likely saved thousands of lives. Via The Atlantic .

Life hacks

40) Be careful about your heuristics. Over focusing on what is easily measurable can cause you to miss what's truly important. This is called the McNamara fallacy. It's best summed up by this quote by the Great Bill Russell: Let's talk about statistics. The important statistics in basketball are supposed to be points scored, rebounds and assists. But nobody keeps statistics on other important things - the good fake you make that helps your teammate score; the bad pass you force the other team to make; the good long pass you make that sets up another pass that sets up another pass that leads to a score; the way you recognize when one of your teammates has a hot hand that night and you give up your own shot so he can take it. All of those things. Those were some of the things we excelled in that you won't find in the statistics. Via Aeon .

41) Be more adventurous with your experiments. At Bing, 2% of experiments led to 74.8% of gains. This suggests that we're probably being way too conserative with what we're testing. Via University of Chicago Press .

42) Habits are very sensitive to environments. If you are having trouble breaking a habit, try changing your environment; if your environment is changing, be intentional about your habits. Via David Epstein

43) Don't forget to look for what you can remove to solve a problem . We systematically overlook subtractive changes that could be beneficial (removing something to improve it). From Scientific American. 

44) Forecasts made after a vacation are more accurate. Source .  

45) You can't self talk and scan your peripheral vision at the same time . From Allan Parker via Oscar Trimboli .

Wisdom 

46) Busyness is a form of laziness , which I heard for the first time from my friend Uri Bram in his interview with Oliver Burkeman . I think about this at least once a week.

47) Fundamental error attribution , where we explain our faults as due to our situation and the faults of others as due to their characters so applies to friends vs. enemies. So if we have a friend who makes a mistake, we're more likely to attribute it to their situation, and if it's an enemy, we're more likely to ascribe it to their character. The key is to try and figure out what the other person thinks went wrong from their perspective. From non zero .

48) The most precious resource is agency : “This is not worship of employment, but a simpler observation: It seems that the more you ask of people, and the more you have them do, the more they are able to do later on their own. It is important to note that while we shouldn't allow children to be bobbin boys, no one would describe Steve Job's summer job at 13 as his exploitation. We should be thinking much harder about making sure children can make meaningful contributions to the world." From Simon Sarris and a theme of the parenting books I read this year, Montessori Toddler .

I'm not sure how to categorize these

49) France has more successful jailbreaks by helicopter than any other nation . GQ

50) The world's first unicorn was United States Steel, founded in Pittsburgh PA . Via Google Arts and Culture .  

51) The original definition of the word weird: destiny-changing power. From Grow by Ginko

52) Mariah Carey made 1.9M from All I want for Christmas is you in 2020 ( NBC Philadelphia via Conor Sen

House of Broken Angels

2021-12-04

House of Broken Angels Cover

I picked up House of Broken Angels as another stop on my literary tour of California, but after reading it, I wouldn’t call it a California book. It’s a San Diego book, through and through. I’m not sure how it reads to someone who hasn’t lived here, but even as a relatively new resident, I recognized places and neighborhoods.

House of Broken Angels is the story of two half brothers, both named Angel, of a man from Tijuana as the elder Angel (Big Angel) nears death from cancer. The two Angels wrestle (figuratively and literally) with each other’s and their father’s sins, as do the rest of their families. It’s a book about how short life is and about how frail humans are.

The other thing that places this book in San Diego is the connection the characters have to Tijuana, where the main character immigrated from. The two cities, just 20 miles a part, share an economic and social relationship. They mayors regularly meet with each other. Now that I live here, this seems obvious, but it surprised me at first.

The book brings the relationship between the two cities to life. The Angels’ father is from Tijuana, but immigrates to San Diego when he leaves his first wife (Big Angel’s mom) for his second wife (Little Angel’s mom). When I lived in Europe, one of my favorite things were the border regions where cultures bled into each other. The Italian part of Switzerland, which feels like both Italy and Switzerland, the northern part of Spain, the feels both Spanish and French. San Diego has elements of that. This book the way that people, relationships, and culture move back and forth across the border.

To me, the best part about this book was the way that it approached the end of life, the yearning for one more Christmas morning, and regret over mistakes. The other thing I’ll take from it is some understanding of the Mexican-American San Diego experience.

Grapes of Wrath

2021-10-26

The next book in my literary survey of California has been Grapes of Wrath, the iconic novel that I missed in high school.

The book tells the story of the Joan family as they leave Oklahoma and head west to California, driven by the Great Depression, mechanized farming, and poverty.

[I’m not going to review the book since I don’t think that’s useful for a book of this stature. I’m just going to reflect on it. I’m also not going to worry about spoilers, so if that bothers you be warned].

The book is extremely well paced. Steinbeck slowly turns up the pressure, showing how poverty forces the Joads from one no win situation to another. After enough least-bad options, the family eventually breaks apart. The slow creep of ruin really affected me, as did the images of starving children and pregnant women.

I was surprised at how deep I was into the book before I realized how bleak the ending would be. There wouldn’t even be the satisfaction of a shootout.

The ending! I can’t believe no one I knew let on even a little bit about how weird it is. I can’t claim to understand it.

It’s impossible to read this book now and not think of the homelessness crisis in California. I’m sure some of the members of California’s current tent camps would agree with Steinbeck that the police cause more injustice than the people.

For better or worse, the claiming of land is a part of the California psyche. Wether it is water rights, land claims, zoning, or the right to keep your view in a California beach town, there is a preoccupation with protecting one’s claim from others in the golden state.

I think the biggest thing that this book added to my understanding of California is an appreciation for how turbulent the period mass inward migration was, even though it is a crisis that has now passed. I think I understand better why it was such a big deal.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. Although I liked East of Eden more, I thought the characters in Grapes of Wrath, particularly the female characters were more fully imagined.

Where I was from

2021-09-28

Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I moved back to California. I am a Californian by marriage and a somewhat reluctant one at that. The muted seasons and even the beautiful beaches, which I sometimes enjoy, aren’t really my thing. And yet this is where life has taken me again.

In an effort to make the best of it, I resolved that if I’m going to live in this state, I’m going to appreciate it, and I kicked off a California reading tour.

The latest book in my survey is Where I was from, a memoir by Joan Didion. I’m still at the beginning of my California reading journey, but so far this would be the first book I suggest anyone read if they want to understand the state.

Where I was from is about the author’s relationship with California, how her understanding of California changed as she grew up, how the California of her youth faded away, and her relationship with her parents as they grow old and ultimately pass away. It’s exceptionally well written. It weaves the author’s family history into notable events from California history and both of these into the human experience of leaving behind a version of a place, of yourself, and of those you love you as you age.

Where I was from isn’t primarily a history book. Perhaps because of this, it has unlocked California for me in a new way, like how meeting a friend’s parents for the first time helps explain who they are.

It’s common to talk about California’s boom/bust cycles because of the gold rush, but it’s also apt. After all, this is a state that’s population has increased by more than 50% in a decade 5 times since 18501. Didion’s book spends time on less famous booms: the aerospace industry after the Second World War and the development boom of the 1960-80s when the great ranches of California were broken up and developed into communities.

The aerospace boom is told through the perspective of Lakewood, California, a suburb that grew up next to the McDonnell-Douglas plant, and then struggles with its identity as that industry moves away in the waning days of the Cold War.

The development boom is told through the stories of the heirs of the Irvine and Hollister estates, great California ranches passed down intact from Spanish and Mexican land grants. These heirs proceed to break up these great ranches to make suburbs and shopping malls, along with a tidy fortune.

For Didion, the settlers that rushed West during the gold rush, the families of Lakewood and the heirs of the great ranches all have a common Californian experience: Each generation rushes headlong to make California into their version of paradise. Some make it and prosper and others are left behind. In in doing so, they change California. In the end, those who profited most from the changes look back and wonder what they’ve lost in the process2.

Didion’s Californians are not fearless and self sufficient pioneers, but real people terrified of getting caught in the mountains before the weather turns. They benefit greatly from the investments of the Federal Government, be those investments railroads, aqueducts, or jet planes. Their experience of striving to change the world and then having to live with the consequences is a human one. If there is something uniquely Californian, it is the speed and the scale with which those changes take shape.

The best example I have of how this book has changed how I view California is Cannery Row in Monterey. Today, Cannery Row is a tourist trap. A couple of the old canning operation buildings are preserved but no actual fishing or canning continues. When I had visited it in the past, all I saw where the tschotskes and doodads. But now I see it differently: a monument to a past generation of Californians who strived to build a new world and succeeded, only to have that way of life slowly become irrelevant and fade away3.

Notes

I didn't have anywhere to put this, but I especially appreciated the Didion's mother's observation that California had become "all San Jose."

1: California’s growth is really stunning. The first decade where it didn’t grow more than 20% was 1980.

2: The addendum to this book set south of Market street in San Francisco about the tech industry almost writes itself. I also appreciated the author's observation that it is especially Californian to feel that anyone who shows up after you is altering the state beyond repair.

3: In a typically Californian way, just up the street from Cannery Row, an industry that literally fished itself out of existence, is the Monterey acquarium, with emphasizes the importance of ocean conservation.