R.I.P. Oliver Sacks

And now we say goodbye.

I am sad to hear that Oliver Sacks died today. He was 82. I knew his days were numbered, but I’d hoped to read his recently-published autobiography before this day came.

The key to his significance was his writing ability, as put eloquently in his New York Times obituary: “Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.”

I’ll be forever indebted to him for writing Migraine, a look at the various ways the chronic headaches manifest themselves. As a lifelong sufferer of migraines, hearing other people’s stories brought me comfort (not to mention, A LOT of people have them MUCH worse than I do!).

Also read the farewell blog post written by his personal assistant and his collection of farewell essays.

“The Next America” by Paul Taylor

Meet the Millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident, and broke.

Everybody has an opinion about Millennials, mostly informed by media bloviators. According to this book, we’re (those born between 1980 and 2000) inexplicably overconfident in our prospects for the future. The author’s explanation is that our parents coddled us, but I think an unmentioned source of that confidence is the gilded age we live in. Credit is easily obtainable, meaning we can pay for extravagant lifestyles  and educations later. Shiny, sleek technology distracts our attention from the crumbling infrastructure, the pot holed inner city streets and sidewalks. Uneven expectations are a given when everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket and the entire world is easily accessible with the touch of a button (24% of Millennials say that ‘Technology use’ is the number one unique distinction of their generation).

That said, the point of the book is to explore generational differences in America. There’s not enough money to go around. Nobody has made a decision on how to keep promises to the elderly without bankrupting the youth.

Among the topics discussed: Older people are working longer which means there’s less room for younger people in the workforce. Marriage is getting rarer, especially among poorer populations. College tuition is at all all-time high, and will continue to get more expensive. People are living long than ever. Fewer babies are being born. And either the young will have to accept a tax increase to pay for the retirement of the old, or the old will have to take a benefits cut. At this rate, were robbing from the future to pay for the present.

Quotes and Anecdotes: Marriage As A Status Symbol and The Basics of American Demography.
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What Is The Great Man Theory of History?

Some men are born great, others just talk fancy.

The Great Man Theory of History says that history can be explained by the larger-than-life supermen at the helm of world events. These men aren’t only made by their times, these men make their times.

In many ways, the theory of a ‘Great Man’ at the heart of each historical era is a preposterous oversimplification but I think there’s an important truth at the heart of it: you can understand history by studying these people. After all, John D. Rockefeller is meaningless in a vacuum. Looking back, these men and their times make sense when studied as a whole. They were the focal point on which newsworthy events centered. The figureheads of mighty industries. Retrospectively, dozens of fantastic books have been written that explore these men within the context of their time and place, to the point that the two seem inseparable. Some suggestions, in roughly chronological order:

Read about Socrates to learn about ancient Greece and philosophy.

Read about Jesus Christ to learn about ancient Rome, religion and celebrity.

Read about Michel de Montaigne to learn about medieval France and to ponder what it means to live a good life.

Read about George Washington and Ben Franklin to learn about the American Revolution and the ideas and events our founded The United States.

Read about Abraham LincolnGeneral William T Sherman, and “Stonewall” Jackson to learn about the intricacies of the Civil War (reading about Lincoln will also teach you something of clinical depression).

Read about Frederick Douglass to learn of the brutality of slavery; Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to find out about the Civil Rights Movement.

Read about Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan to learn about the origins of modern industry and finance.

Read about Charles Darwin to learn about Victorian society and the power of ideas.

Read about Samuel Zemurray to find out about United Fruit, shipping and commerce.

Try to understand Hitler and what it means to be evil.

Read about Winston Churchill because he’s a hilarious badass and mobilized the English language for war.

Read about William Randolph Hearst and Edward Bernays to learn about the origins of modern media and advertising.

Read about Robert Moses to understand why New York City is such a clusterfuck. More lastingly, you’ll learn something about the mechanics of politics and what it takes to get stuff done.

Read about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to get a grip on the personal computing industry.

Of course, this selection suffers from a massive selection bias (“Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”) but that’s the point of the theory. The stories of the great outliers of the time describe their times. these aforementioned men are a great starting point for grasping the vagaries of Western civilization.

“Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari

Finding someone today is probably more complicated and stressful than it was for previous generations—but you’re also more likely to end up with someone you are really excited about.

This is a book that only Aziz Ansari could write and he does so brilliantly. Teaming up with an academic sociologist (Eric Klinenberg), and using focus groups from reddit and his comedy shows, he explores how dating works in modern times. Specifically, how do we go about looking for love when we are able to live virtually anywhere, and communicate with anyone at any time? This book is more a meditation than a how-to guide, and Aziz is insightful, compelling, and hilarious throughout.

Further Links:
Check out Aziz’s hysterical Madison Square Garden special on Netflix (a couple YouTube bits relevant to this book: Making Plans With Flaky People and Creepy Dudes Are Everywhere).
The Freakonomics podcast that sold me on reading this book.
What the professionals are saying: Vanity Fair’s review.
Quotes and Anecdotes: Stop going on Boring Ass Dates
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“Darwin: Portrait of a Genius” by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is a superb biographer. He has written a series of short, accessible biographies on people like Socrates, Jesus, Mozart, and Napoleon that are effective at engaging the reader, and placing the figure in a historical context that elucidates why they story is still relevant.He does just this with Charles Darwin, the eminent Victorian naturalist.

The biggest surprise to me was how old an idea evolution was even 150 years ago. Darwin was simply the best traveled scientist of his day and so was the first to notate the surprising varieties of species in the world. He didn’t invent the ideas of evolution or natural selection, he was the scientist famous for popularizing the theories and had gathered the most evidence for them. The climate of Victorianism is completely antithetical to the zeitgeist of today, and the places his ideas were carried in the absence of knowledge of Mendelian genetics are disturbing. From natural selection comes Social Darwinism, eugenics, and forced sterilization.

The history of these ideas are still relevant, and being fought over, and so this portrait of a Victorian genius and his ideas is still vitally relevant today.

Vocabulary and Anecdotes
exponent—a person or thing that expounds, explains, or interprets.
panjandrum—a person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence.
saponaceous—of, like, or containing soap; soapy.
polymath—a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
Quotes and Anecdotes: The Ancient Theory of Evolution and The Power of Ideas (For Good and Evil).

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