Best Of 2019

I watched 51 movies in 2019. Here are my favorites:
Clovehitch Killer
A Star Is Born
Apollo 11
Marriage Story

My favorite TV show of 2019:
I Think You Should Leave

I read 48 books, 30 of which were audiobooks. The best were:
Road Not Taken by David Orr
Bullshit Jobs by David Graber
Feeling Good by David Burns
The Big Picture by Sean Carroll
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Funnest Dad moment: Watching kids drive around in toy electric cars in Parque de las Palapas, Cancún, México
Runner up: Hikes with three year old at Saddle Mountain and Cape Lookout

Best choice: Quitting job to be stay-at-home-dad for 8 months
Runner up: Deciding not to go back to school after attending a Portland State University open house

First time: Sailing on Columbia River

Would have never guessed: Got a second tattoo

Most time consuming: Getting a puppy

Most anticipated: Started Nail Paint for Boys

Most disappointing: Two offers on houses not accepted
Runner up: Off With Their Heads concert canceled

Surprisingly Enjoyable: Going to a nude spa in Amsterdam
Runner up: Silent disco

Saddest moment: Death of my kid’s friend’s Mom

Best ending: Dog lost while daughter was pet sitting, after hours and hours of hopeless searching, the dog came back on its own

Most handy moment: Replaced heating element in clothes dryer

Least handy moment: Failed to find and fix leak in clothes washer

Best Trip: Amsterdam
Runner up: Skiing in Colorado with big sister, camping in Rocky Mountain National Park with big brothers

The Fastest Way To Get Rich

The fastest way to get rich is to steal.

But…if you steal you can get in trouble.

So make it legal for you to steal.

But…eventually you’ll run out of things to steal.

So make it legal to steal the things that never run out.

People who pay attention are artists.

Artists make art by paying attention. What you get out of Art is an understanding of how to pay attention too. With enough practice you can pay attention—that is to say, make art—too.
How do you get people to pay attention? Make better Art.
When do you know you’re looking at good art? It makes you pay attention.
What does it feel like when you’re paying attention? It feels like God.

Stereotype Yourself

I don’t know to what extent the enthusiasm generated for Apple’s iPod spurred sales for the corporation’s other products, but probably a lot. There’s a name for this in marketing and it’s called the Halo Effect: the customer bias toward certain products because of favorable experiences with other products made by the same company.

<tangent>It was certainly true for me. From my perspective the IPod may well have been the peak of consumer technology. That was the last time a consumer tech product provided more value than the cost of life it extracted. Since the days of loving my IPod, over the years I’ve purchased two Imacs, a Macbook and three Iphones. Now, however, my enjoyment is waning. I’m holding out as long as I can with my Iphone 6S because I don’t want to get an Iphone that doesn’t have a headphone jack. And I’m bummed the magnetic charger for Macbooks was done away with.</tangent>

The Halo Effect is also a cognitive bias that’s seen when perceptions of one quality lead to biased judgments of other qualities. People who are sociable, kind, or attractive, for example, are stereotyped as also being more likable and intelligent. This is why the advice to “dress for success” works.
We can also stereotype ourselves. Besides the benefits of improved physical health, once you stick to an exercise routine, you quickly notice the other added benefit of feeling more capable. You see yourself as one who has the ability to stick to something once you’ve started. Someone who gets to the gym must also be capable of getting out of bed early or is the kind of person who responsibly carries around a planner. Basically, any effort or attention deliberately applied to something that previously went unnoticed has a Halo Effect initiating a snowball of self-respect rolling downhill.

Choosing to eat vegetarian instead of eating unthinkingly or putting limits on smartphone use has wide-ranging Halo Effects. But the benefits of the Halo Effect aren’t restricted to big life changes; even a tiny act like making your bed can have an effect on how you think of yourself, and in turn, motivate you to do more.
That’s the advice of Admiral William McRaven in his May 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Pick something, anything, and be deliberate about it. Feel good about yourself. Carry your newfound belief in yourself forward to the next thing.

Collapse of Values

What struck me the most when finishing Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, is his statement about the need for societies to reconsider core values in order to survive. He points to the Greenland Norse who stubbornly held to their pastoral, European identities to their own demise. They insisted on maintaining livestock which consumed a disproportionate amount of agricultural resources because they were a sign of high status. The Norse had contempt for the Inuit and refused to value their practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light. Instead of sending ships on lumber-gathering missions in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they sent men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks were used to trade for things to build and adorn their religious churches. Surprisingly, there are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it despite the fact that eating fish would have substantially reduced the ecological demands of the Norse settlements. Instead of choosing to change their values and eat fish, trade with the Inuit or prioritize building reserves of fuel and food over building cathedrals, they died.

The Norse story from the 1300’s is put into stark reality by Farhad Manjoo’s recent article in the New York Times entitled, It’s the End of California as We Know It. California is suffering year after year from wildfires, blackouts, diminishing air quality, housing affordability, homelessness, traffic — all human-made catastrophes. Californians appear to be just as stubbornly committed to their values as the Norse of Greenland. He writes, “If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it. You’d be able to get around more cheaply because we’d ditch cars and turn to buses and trains and other ways we know how to move around a lot of people at high speeds, for low prices. It wouldn’t be the end of the California dream, but a reconceptualization — not as many endless blocks of backyards and swimming pools, but perhaps a new kind of more livable, more accessible life for all. But who wants to do all this? Not the people of this state.” Diamond explains Californians attitudes by saying: “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”

I’m not a Norseman nor a Californian, but I’m just as human. What values do I have that undermine my ability to live happily now and provide my kids a chance of living happily in the future? Would I be willing to change zoning rules in my neighborhood to meet the housing demands even though it would cause my property value to decrease? Can I change my meat-eating diet so that I don’t contribute to the devastating effects of livestock agriculture which is a leading cause of global warming? Can I stop driving a car and booking long distance flights for vacations abroad? Can I deny myself the constant onslaught of consumer culture? Would I still be American if I did? Would it be moral to deny attempts of 3rd world cultures the chance of living my 1st world lifestyle, along with all of the negative effects to the planet that that entails?

To some extent those value choices that define and cement my culture are very important in maintaining a shared identity with others in my community which engenders trust and cooperation. So if a failure of living a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t kill us, then maybe the death of our culture will. But I do think, in the face of a threatened planet, I could change my values and accordingly, my lifestyle.

Poem – The Universe Is Walking On A Treadmill

Nope I don’t think so. This was not premeditated.
Everything is protons and neutrons , my soul pushed the protons and neutrons together that made me say that thing.
It was from the soul
and the protons and neutrons.
I don’t exist. I don’t exist. I don’t exist.
What makes it exciting?
I was walking on the treadmill the universe walking on the treadmill
All the atoms in existence and I occupy some small fraction of it for the time being.
Observe. Observe. Observe.
Time can never run out.
The protons and neutrons are moving precisely in the way that the protons and neutrons would move if under the specific position they’re in at this specific moment
The universe feels good when the protons and neutrons are moving precisely in the way that are the way they are supposed to move when under those moving conditions

Simple Pleasure #1: Walking | How To Enjoy Simple Pleasures

You may feel a bit insulted by the claim that you need somebody to teach you how to enjoy. This isn’t really about having the capacity to enjoy, but rather about choosing what to enjoy and consciously practicing how to enjoy in a certain way. This also isn’t about telling you what you should or shouldn’t enjoy. The point is taking a moment to question your assumptions related to how you derive pleasure. If left unchecked, one could over invest scarce time and resources needlessly and come out worse off than they were before.

We’ve all experienced the sense of fleeting enjoyment that things have. Even when you do discover something enjoyable, after some time it becomes harder to replicate and eventually stops being enjoyable altogether because you’ve found something that you think you’ll enjoy even more. Why does enjoyment feel out of our control?

You can’t deny the amount of effort that is put towards teaching you what to enjoy. Trillions of dollars are invested in the form of advertising to train us in enjoyment. As a result we tend to maintain under-theorized requirements for enjoyment. To enjoy, goes our unconscious thinking, things are required to:

  • Be rare. The exotic and hard to find will please us more than what is easily available.
  • Be unique. Ordinary and familiar is dull and uninspiring.
  • Be expensive. Cheap or free are hard to appreciate.
  • Be popular. Endorsement from other people ensures their quality.
  • Be big. Large scale means big enjoyment.
  • Be something you’re good at or even the best at. Enjoyment increases the more expert you become.
  • Be a means to an end. Makes money, advances career, increases power, makes you better, helps someone else, makes a lasting impact — rather than an end unto itself.

Every once in a while something that doesn’t meet the above requirements jumps out and surprises you with the amount of enjoyment it provides. We call these Simple Pleasures.

I think we have more control over what we enjoy than we think. We impair our ability to enjoy life by undermining our ability to enjoy simple, easily obtainable things. “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge,” says critic Jerry Saltz and, like any knowledge, we can learn it. Trust your own responses a little more. Focus on approval from others about what is enjoyable a little less. Decide to take pleasure in life more often and in more ways. From Seneca:

“To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power, it is in every man’s power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.”

For example, above is a video essay on one of life’s purest and most simple of simple pleasures — walking.

Look for more videos on simple pleasures coming soon.

The Benefits of Seeing Reality

There’s an antidote to many of life’s problems that you may not realize you already have at your disposal. It can reduce anxiety and depression. It can transform your experience with pain & other difficulties. It costs no money. It’s available to everyone at any time. What is this wonder drug?

It’s reality.

Step one: come to terms with the fact that you rarely perceive reality as it is.
Perhaps you’re thinking that reality is the source of your problems, not the cure. But there is a big difference between reality, and your perception of reality. Our brains come equipped with many biases to assure ourselves that we know what’s going on even when we don’t.

In an article in Vox, “Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong” Brian Resnick, explains,

“Much as we might tell ourselves our experience of the world is the truth, our reality will always be an interpretation. Light enters our eyes, sound waves enter our ears, chemicals waft into our noses, and it’s up to our brains to make a guess about what it all is.”

This overconfidence in perceiving reality is not always necessarily bad. It helps us set goals and work towards them even when the odds are stacked against us. This sense of understanding feels good. Voltaire is quoted saying,

Illusion is the first of all pleasures.

But this pleasure comes at a price. There are forces at play within us that we can be unaware of that cause unnecessary pain. Rarely do we experience an event itself, but an invented story about the event. Such stories can treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self. Over time irrational thoughts and beliefs are unknowingly reinforced and lead to patterns of thought that drive negative experiences and lead to mental health disorders.

Step two: become aware of thoughts and see them for what they really are.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches that all thoughts should be treated as hypotheses – we don’t assume thoughts are true unless there is compelling evidence to support them. Thoughts need to be put on trial and we need to second guess what our brains are telling us.

Author Robert Greene explains,

…only by throwing some light on yourself and realizing that these qualities, these flaws that are built into us, they are inside you too. Only then can you begin to overcome them and use them for productive purposes.

Question, question, question. Don’t assume that the reason that you feel something, and that it’s right just because you feel it. And in that kind of process, you will become rational, you’ll become somebody who can use empathy, you will have the ability to judge people properly and accept them for who they are as opposed to continually moralizing, wishing people were something that they’re not.

You’ll have a much smoother path through life, and you’ll be much calmer and more peaceful without all that emotional baggage that drags you down. But it starts with looking inward and questioning yourself and not assuming that everything you feel or think is right.

To practice this skill of questioning, CBT practitioners use worksheets like the “Dysfunctional Thought Record,” which asks the user to write down a situation where they had an intense emotion. Then they are to think about which automatic thoughts led to that emotion, identify the distortions that those thoughts contain and then reassess how much they really believe in those thoughts. In the end, the initial emotion is reevaluated — usually leading to a decrease in intensity.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, has said more than once that the reason he meditates is to answer the question:

“What is reality? What is really happening? To be able to tell the difference between the stories that the mind keeps generating about the world, about myself, about everything and the actual reality.”

Meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can become more aware. It allows us to recognize the authenticity of thoughts and emotions and not be overwhelmed by them. Mindful meditation allows you to practice observing a thought, or a worry, and interrupt it before it spirals out of control and causes you to anxiously dwell on it.

One way it does this, similar to CBT, is called Mental Noting. Mental Noting is the practice of using a simple “note” to give a name to what you are experiencing. It does not involve analysis or judgment. It’s simply to give your current experience a one-word label — ‘seeing’, ‘touching’, ‘feeling’, ‘thinking’ etc. The goal is that with enough practice in mental noting while meditating, it can become second nature with any experience in day-to-day life.

Steven Johnson, in his book “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” writes, “The Novel is an empathy machine.”

He explains that,

“We can imagine all sorts of half-truths and hypotheticals: what-she-will-think-if-this-happens, what-he-thinks-I’m-feeling. Reading literary novels trains the mind for that kind of analysis. You can’t run a thousand parallel simulations in our life but you can read a thousand novels over the course of that life…It’s true that the stories that unfold in those novels do not directly mirror the stories in our own lives…But the point of reading this kind of literary fiction is not to acquire ready-made formula for our own choices. [What it] does teach you to do is see the situations with…a keen vision and feeling.”

In other words, reading helps us practice feeling emotions. We can observe the antagonist’s choices and feel what they feel and practice recognizing the thinking distortions the antagonist has before they do. Heroes usually carry some deeply painful event that they believe has been resolved or overcome, but which is still affecting their behavior. Screenwriter Michael Hauge calls this the hero’s “wound”. We the audience can feel the character’s wound by proxy and experience the character’s attempts to be effective while trying to not admit that the wound exists – just like we do in real life. So when the hero embarks on a journey (the plot), they are forced to confront their wound and we get practice in doing the same — ideally leading us to confront our own personal thought distortions.

We all have stories we’ve told ourselves that limit our potential and cause undue pain. Use all opportunities to practice challenging your negative thoughts with frequent reality testing: meditation, cognitive therapy or by consuming fiction. Don’t believe lies.

Zach’s Best of 2018

I watched 71 movies. My favorites were:

  1. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore
  2. Dunkirk
  3. Goodtime
  4. Ken Burns The Vietnam War
  5. Game Night
  6. Wild Wild Country
  7. Tully
  8. American Animals
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I watched 132 episodes of  TV. There wasn’t anything that was that memorable except for the episode USS Callister in Black Mirror.

I read 45 books. 25 were audiobooks – the most I’ve ever listened to in a year. My favorite books were:

  1. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
  4. What Is Ancient Philosophy? By Pierre Hadot
  5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Favorite Purchase Jabra wireless headphonesRunner up: Prana Brion Pants

Most painful:  In the dark mistaking a bottle of essential oil for eye drops

Saddest: Seeing my kids cry as we take back the pet dog we got for a month because she started biting people

I’m too old for this moment: Pulled some hip muscle I never knew I had while at the skatepark

Runner up: Sprained my ankle pretty badly at an Andrew WK concert

Most Adventurous: Bought a Triumph Scrambler and took it camping at Little Crater Lake

Runner up: Backpacking Canyonlands National Park – Needles District

Most New: Started a new job

Most Frustrating: Unclogging toilet after 2 year old flushed contents of entire waste basket

Dumbest: Accidentally burning a hole in the deck of beach rental property while trying to cook pizza with this thing

Most miles driven: Two road trips amounting to a total of 4,236 miles of driving

Best Dad moment: Taking all kids camping at Timothy Lake by myself

Nature’s Role In Helping Us Succeed

Avoiding danger is a key survival skill for any species. One way our species accomplished this was by developing systems in our brains over tens of thousands of years that would make it unavoidable for us to not notice danger, and as a result, hopefully, respond to it. This system has been identified as the negativity bias by social scientists – “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.”

Our modern-day brains are equipped with this finely tuned built-in brain apparatus that’s super-sensitive to negativity, but instead of using it to be hyper-aware of negative things like tigers stalking us or other tribes moving in on our territory, our brains dwell on no Facebook likes, being looked over at work, the aches and pains of an aging body or insults we received years ago.

Some people seem to be able to brush off these negative feelings effortlessly and move on with life while for others, the negativity turns into habitual thought patterns. But there’s no reason that the more negatively-inclined of us can’t learn to cope and even thrive with negativity bias and in fact, I think those who consciously learn to do so can turn it into an advantage.

First, consider another psychological finding called the “facial feedback hypothesis” which demonstrates how manipulatable the brain is. The “facial feedback hypothesis” is the idea that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Your brain doesn’t just look externally for stimulus but actually pays attention internally to what your body is doing. So, when it senses that a muscle, like those connected to smiling, are flexing, the brain attributes it to happiness, and then we feel happy. In other words, our brains can be manipulated by conscious physical effort.

Our physical bodies aren’t the only thing that can change our emotions – our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect emotions too. Thoughts can trigger emotions, like worrying about catching a flight, and they also serve as an appraisal of that emotion: as in, “this isn’t a realistic fear”. The former causes emotions, the latter dispels them.

So, you wake up and the body is stiff, your mind is cloudy, the alarm clock hurts your ears – all these physical stimuli are signals that the brain intends to give meaning to. These negative feelings remind you of a thought, “I hate my job, It’s the worst.” Now the brain has the proof it was looking for to justify the emotion – “You feel sad.” You take that sad feeling and apply further cognitive distortions to it, “I always feel sad and it will never get better.” Those thoughts are heard by the brain, it pushes the buttons and pulls the levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel worse. You take a long time to get out of bed and you choose to skip the gym and eat a pop-tart instead — these actions reinforcing negative thoughts causing more sad emotions. Repeat this enough mornings in a row and you’ll have a personal Rube Goldberg machine of entrenched thought patterns where “waking up” = “life is pointless”. This is one manifestation of depression.

What if you chose to attribute those negative feelings somewhere else? Stiff body, cloudy mind, alarm clock: Instead you think, “This feeling in the morning? This isn’t because of work. This is the prerequisite feeling before achievement is possible. This is how you know you’re on the right track. This is what winning feels like.” The brain believes you. And again starts to look for a way to justify those thoughts. You come up with the thought, “I’m making progress at work.” The brain pushes those buttons and pulls those levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel better. So you go to the gym and stick to your diet. Repeat and eventually “waking up” = “Life is full of possibilities.”

Apply this to every scenario where negative feelings occur:
That uncomfortable feeling of confusion isn’t proof of incompetence, but evidence of being on the threshold of learning something new.
That dissatisfaction isn’t proof of discontentment, but evidence of putting in the required amount of effort before achievement is possible.
That feeling of fear due to uncertainty isn’t proof of your incapableness, but evidence that you’re getting stronger

Exercising doesn’t feel great all the time which is why many people don’t do it. You have to come to learn that the negative feelings of exhaustion, discomfort and pain are actually good – no pain, no gain. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and the reward is forthcoming.

Epicurus said,

“Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.”

Can one feel a near-constant sense of progress by taking what nature gives so readily and translate dissatisfaction, discontent, uncertainty and disappointment into something else? What if instead of considering those negative feelings as something to be avoided, we saw them as necessary and looked forward to them like sign posts informing us that we’re on the right track? Since those negative feelings will be there one way or another, I’d say might as well try to make the most of them.