A question

To paraphrase Les Mis, “One Year More…”

As of right about now, you have one more year in college.

What are your goals, hopes, things left unfinished that you want to do before you ride that waterpark chute down into the “real world”?

Feel free to cross-post here and in one of your other major media outlets. 🙂

Doggin’ it with Caesar in Vienna, Austria

OK, so I have to set up the joke with a cultural allusion.

You’ll be thinking to yourself:

   (A) I totally know this allusion and I’m a bit offended you felt like you had to explain it to me

   (B) I’ve heard that phrase but I never knew where it came from – thanks!

   (C) Say what?

My guess, “B” (but quite possibly “A”; only conceivably “C”). Anyhow…

According to traditional historical accounts, during the late Roman Republic, Roman generals were prohibited from bringing their armies back across the Rubicon river into Italy, lest they use those forces to overthrow the legitimate government. So, in 59 B.C.E., when Julius Caesar returned from conquering the Germanic and Celtic tribes in Gaul (now France), he had a colossal decision to make. That choice would transform his life and the lives of all his countrymen. Crossing the Rubicon would mean civil war. Should he?

Supposedly, he thought about it for a few moments, said “Alea iacta est” (“The die is cast”), and crossed. And the rest is… well, you know.* (The Republic ultimately collapsed, leading to Augustus and the Roman Empire.)

So, ever since, “crossing the Rubicon” has been the phrase for making a decision with enormous consequence: one that is fateful and irreversible.

And now we come to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, home to an extraordinary collection of great, and serious, art. And this, Caesar at the Rubicon, by Wilhelm Trübner:


Caesar at the Rubicon (a.k.a. Dogge mit Wurstschüssel)

Photography was prohibited at the Belvedere, as at many museums. But Mom saw all the Asian tourists snapping away, and saw how fascinated I was by this painting. “Go ahead, take a picture,” she told me, and I did. And, within 30 seconds the authorities were there, insisting I put my tablet away. Oh, well.

Here’s a little clearer look at it. You’ve got to admit that image is pretty unexpected – and pretty funny.

trubner caesar official

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’d never heard of Trübner – a contemporary of the famous Gustav Klimt and others from the fin de siècle era before World War I in middle Europe. And I haven’t yet been able to track down the backstory of this painting. But he evidently had a thing for dogs and sausages!

trubner dog2

Dogge mitt Würsten (Dog with Sausages); a.k.a. “Ave Caesar morturi te salutant” (Hail Caesar! We Who Are about to Die Salute You!) http://museumdogs.tumblr.com/post/99679107059/wilhelm-tr%C3%BCbner-german-18511917-dogge-mitt


*The rest is “history”? Our primary accounts of this event may well be embellished, and we’re not even sure exactly which river was the Rubicon.

How much can we do? How do we find out? Thoughts during my first metric century

So I rode my metric century today. That’s allegedly 62.137 miles (100 kilometers), but the actual Ramapo Rally bike route clocks in at 64.6. I rode a devilish 66.6 when you count a couple of brief wrong turns, and some stray mileage in parking lots and rest areas.

(When you’re my age, tack on a mile just riding to porta-potties.)

It was definitely hot, and definitely hilly (as advertised).

You and I rode the Rally’s 50 mile route together (I hugely enjoyed those rides, by the way, and miss them!). But this year, BTCNJ revamped their routes. They eliminated one of those scary Route 23 crossings you hated. However, they replaced it with a truly brutal hill in Butler. All in all, I think the 50 is tougher now, and the 62 adds another 800 feet of elevation beyond that.

Then, of course, it was also 90+ degrees today. (You know this: you were hiking seven miles in Harriman.)

So it was hard. But I did it. And while I was pretty exhausted, I was also pretty exhilarated.

0816151406a @Ramapo Rally 2016

As you’ve noticed, you don’t know if you can do something until you do it.

You and I and most people we know aren’t signing up to test ourselves in war; God willing, war will never come to our doorstep, a la Red Dawn. How do we discover the real outer limits of what we can accomplish?

(We know two things for sure. First, those limits are a lot further outward than we think. Second, when we do test ourselves and pass the test, it feels great. Better than almost anything else. We want to feel that feeling more often. Right?)

I was thinking about your summer internship experience, and contrasting it with that incredible New York Times article about life as a manager at Amazon.com.

While you were definitely tested (and totally passed) the challenges of life in D.C. this summer, it doesn’t sound like you were challenged much at work. That’s really too bad.

Then, in starkest contrast, there’s the Amazon life. Where people are pushed well beyond their limits… whether they’ve just been given birth, been diagnosed with cancer, whatever… where employees are routinely found crying at their desks.

What would make someone want to work there? It can’t only be the money. People who can get a job at Amazon could make just as much money at tech or financial services companies that are at least slightly more civilized.

Perhaps, for some, it’s the very idea that they will be pushed to their limits and beyond… will finally see what they’re made of… might be forged and annealed in Amazon’s furnace to be something greater than they were before.

And they might get to actually do something… even if it consists of finding a more profitable way to distribute Amazon gift cards. You and I and 98% of the Times’s commenters may find it a travesty to hand over your whole life to Jeff Bezos for a chance to accomplish something so meaningless in the scheme of things… but it is still something.

Biking through some of those towns way up north in Passaic and Morris counties today, you see a lot of death’s head Harley Davidson stickers and the like. We passed a tattoo shop called Seppuku, which I thought was just a wonderfully creative name (though it was hard for me to tell how much humor was intended).

Do you get more of this fiercely violent imagery when people don’t have enough power and agency in their own lives? We all know how much harder it is to be a non-college-grad white guy these days than it was 50 years ago… etc., etc., and all the class-ridden clichés and overgeneralizations that go with this line of thought.

Of course that’s what Obama meant when he talked about people “clinging to guns or religion.” (What Michael Kinsley will be remembered for: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”)

Maybe this need to connect oneself with immense power one can’t have in real life is why some young men get so obsessed with violent video games? Does it help explain Aztec sacrifice? Roman mystery cults? I don’t know, but it sure isn’t anything new.

I think most of us — even adults here in Ramsey’s comfortable, leafy suburbs — often feel insufficient power and agency in our own lives. It’s easy for me to notice what other people might be doing to (over)compensate, but what about me? Uncomfortable question!

Back in the day, sport served some of these functions of power and agency. Read the notorious stories of Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys, somehow surviving four-hour practices in 116 degree Texas summers, with no water, and non-stop abuse. We don’t want, won’t tolerate, that kind of stuff today; nor should we.

Even Marine boot camp seems to have softened a bit; drill instructors are banned from using profanity; recruits get a “family weekend.” (Though some of those allegations about boot camp do feel kind of reflexive. You know, the “why can’t things be the way they used to be/today everything has to be politically correct” stuff that we correctly wave off as nonsense in other areas of life…)

(BTW, and somewhat OT, notice that all these forms of accomplishment are ultimately social; even when they’re brutal. Others, not you, set the standards and determine whether you’ve met them. Matthew Crawford talks about this at length: the paradox that the only way to become a full individual is in engagement with, and by responding to, needs and standards and disciplines generated by others. This is something I think Crawford understands better than, say, Rand. Here on Earth, the more autonomy an architect gets in imposing his own unique vision, the more likely the building is to prove unlivable and unmaintainable.)

Anyway, the question is: how can we help people reach their fullest potential without brutalizing them? And maybe even help them do it in the service of something that matters? (Unlike, for example, college football… or getting a Frozen doll crosstown a bit faster.)

I think we can, but we’ll need to think more seriously about how. To begin with, it’ll definitely require some fierce (albeit polite and sane) accountability. Because too much coddling clearly doesn’t work, either!

In the meantime, there’s an even bigger question for you and I. Can we figure out how to help ourselves reach our fullest potential?

Musings on the Metro, Matthew Crawford, mediated environments, & etc.

So, I was thinking about your complaints about those new infoscreens on the D.C. Metro subways…

I admit it. My first thought was, wow, just 21 and he’s already grouching about the future <grin>. But your post deserves more contemplation than that!

You mention Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. That book sure is dense with fascinating and fruitful ideas, isn’t it? It’s really a tour of the entire last 400 years, from Hobbes to Tocqueville, Nietzsche to, I dunno, Mark Zuckerberg? To respond to your post, I wound up listening to the entire audiobook again this weekend – for the third time. (It helped me bike 40.7 miles yesterday and another 41.4 today.)

Crawford’s book really begs for engagement and conversation. I could write a whole parallel chapter of thoughts on each of his chapters, and it would be worth my time, if I only had the time. (Since I can’t do that, I may try to reflect on the only place where his book really fell short for me: finding some practical ways to bring his worldview to the extremely intangible way I make a living… as a writer.)

But, returning to what I think you might’ve gotten from Crawford.

First, there’s the idea that these new electronic maps represent a greater abstraction and mediation of the rider’s experience, which was more direct when riders needed to use physical maps or rely on hard-to-hear conductors’ announcements.

Second, the idea that riders have lost something important as a result. This abstraction disconnects them further from the experience of struggling at first to get where you’re going in a strange city, and authentically “earning” your mastery.

Third, the idea that these screens are an intrusion on the “attentional commons,” a la CNN in airports. The moment an advertisement appears on one of the Metro’s seatback screens, it’ll represent yet another direct appropriation of value from the poor commuter to the corporate “choice architects” who are generating “hyperpalatable stimuli” to distract you in the service of greed.

Your last argument (I’ll call it the “Lemon Nightmare”) is all too plausible and terrifying. The instant I see Don Lemon’s face appear on a seatback in front of me, better believe I’ll be out there organizing the pitchforks and torches! <grin>

The other two arguments — if in fact you’re making them — I’m not so sure about…

Personally, I wasn’t at all bothered by similar screens in the U-Bahns on my recent visits to Vienna and Munich. It’s true they made it easier to get where I was going without royally screwing up.* But I still used the physical maps before I boarded, and there were still sufficient opportunities to get lost.

To me, at least, learning the system still felt difficult enough to be rewarding, without being so hard you’d surrender in frustration. (Ask Robbie. This is precisely the level of difficulty game designers aim for: hard enough to challenge, not hard enough to alienate. Same idea works when you’re designing courseware or training materials.)

As for mediated and abstracted phenomena, even a physical subway map is very much both of these. I once read a fascinating article about how the NYC subway map was redesigned, modernized, and stylized in the early 1970s, making it less physically accurate but way more attractive and easier to use.

Legendary, still-controversial Massimo Vignelli NYC subway map, 1972

Legendary, still-controversial Massimo Vignelli NYC subway map, 1972

(BTW, subway map design is endlessly controversial — especially in NYC with its extremely complex system. But, as seems de rigueur for me, I’m drifting off topic…)

You and Crawford got me thinking about how practically everything we do is abstracted and mediated in important ways. What would it really take to ride the subway completely without abstraction and mediation? Would you have to walk barefoot down the dark tunnels along the railroad ties (somehow avoiding the third rail)? Of course, the subway itself couldn’t exist without the abstractions of the engineering drawings prepared to build it…

I feel a zillion times more connected to my surroundings on a bike than in a car, but even there I’m meeting the earth through rubber and metal, like the motorcycle racers Crawford discusses at length. If I go on a nature hike, even that experience is mediated by the great folks at the NY/NJ Trail Conference who’ve cleared and marked my trail for me.

Everything I’ve ever read has been abstracted into (and mediated by) letters, words, and type. Every idea I’ve ever heard has been abstracted into (and mediated by) language. (In your educational travels, have you come across the long-running debate over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? That language shapes thought, and different languages might shape thought in different ways? If not, you should…)

But I think Crawford draws a sensible distinction. If I understand him right, the mediations and abstractions he dislikes most are those that disconnect people from their environments in qualitatively new ways — for example, the Mercedes driver-assist systems he describes so colorfully. <grin>

I’m not sure your Metro subway screens meet that criteria. Seems to me they’re still delivering the same kinds of abstracted information, just in more convenient, efficient, and usable ways. But what do you think? Do you think they’re more like the Disney Jr. “Handy-Dandy Machine” he talks about? Where you press a button, and technology solves all your physical and interpersonal problems for you, keeping you permanently infantilized?

Handy Dandy Machine, Disney Jr. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (c) Disney

Handy Dandy Machine, Disney Jr. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (c) Disney

On balance (as you suspected), I think you’ve come down with a very mild case of the “it was hard when I was young — it should be hard for you, too” syndrome. Not to worry. Merely a symptom of adulthood. As long as you don’t shout kids off your lawn (if you ever get one), you should be fine.


*If you “royally” screw up in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, are you actually “imperially” screwing up?

Human connections, artisanal relationships, and Brooklyn real estate

(I will be responding to your Crawford/Metro post. I started blocking out a post, but quickly got deep into the weeds, so I have to do some more pruning and thinking! Ditto for the Munich and other travel posts I still owe you. But I am really glad we’re doing this again! In the meantime, with Optimum Online down again today, here’s a quick post from Anthony Franco’s…)


This is so weird.

I was musing on a conversation we have occasionally about whether people are losing the ability to connect with each other, and what role social media might or might not play in that (all stuff that indirectly relates to some of what Matthew Crawford writes about.)

And I was thinking to myself: Perhaps this is cyclical. People will come to realize that the kind of featherweight, fungible connections they make on Twitter, Facebook, et al are just too ephemeral, just don’t work for them, just don’t help them build the kind of lives they want. (I haven’t even mentioned Tinder.) People will move back to something deeper, more real, sustained, lasting, face-to-face, and less technologically mediated.

And then I had the darker thought: No, this megatrend is not going to be reversed any time soon: both the social and technological factors driving it are just too powerful. What we might see is a few transient, trendy, twee experiments among, say, Brooklyn hipsters. Sort of like the equivalent of paleo diets, but nothing that is likely to last… think of them as “artisanal relationships.”

And while I was musing on this and trying to block out an essay on it, I came across this in the New York Times Real Estate section: “The Millennium Commune”…

So, are these “co-living” ventures a creative and innovative experiment in solving the twin killer problems of high cost and social isolation… or a new way for landlords to profit on tiny SRO (single-room occupancy) apartments… the wave of the future (I personally doubt it)… something that might actually be attractive to lots of folks starting out in cities on low incomes, say, you?