February 1. The Seductive Appeal of Urban Catastrophe. It's mostly about the iconic ruined city of Angkor. We used to think that when the city was sacked in 1431, everyone suddenly left. Newer archaeology suggests that it was mainly the royal family who left, while nonroyals "continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was."
The actual decline had already started, and would continue for a long time. The cause was that "leaders bungled maintenance of the city's water system in response to climate threats." Applying this to our own time, I continue to think that collapse will be highly local. The places that do the best job maintaining and retrofitting their infrastructure will thrive, and the places that do the worst job will be abandoned.
February 4. Off the usual subjects, today I want to write about role models. With the Superbowl coming up, I really don't like Tom Brady. And when another person bothers you that much, it's usually because they're reflecting something inside you that you need to come to terms with. Brady always says that he couldn't have done it without his coaches and teammates. But the myth of Tom Brady is the legendary individual, not a cooperator but a competitor, whose will to win is so intense that he can carry any team of losers on his back to a championship.
My counterpoint to Tom Brady is a 90's NBA player named Derrick McKey. Supremely talented, on the court he appeared to be lazy, and he never put up big numbers. But his teammates loved him. They said he took care of the little things that made the whole team better. His lack of quantifiable production eventually led the Sonics to trade him to the Pacers. Immediately, the Pacers won twelve straight games, including a playoff sweep on the way to the eastern conference finals. Meanwhile the Sonics lost in the first round for two straight years.
So I can't defeat Tom Brady, but I can defeat my inner Tom Brady, by aiming for subtle helpful actions instead of obvious personal achievements.
Another example. I love the Great British Baking Show, and in one early season (spoilers follow) the three finalists were Brendan, James, and John. Brendan was like the Dalai Lama meets Hannibal Lecter: serene, precise, deliberate, and extremely competent. James was the opposite: wild and sunny, a master improviser who would always try crazy stuff and still bring in a good result.
The third finalist, John, was an average baker who could only motivate himself through mopey self-criticism. Week after week, he barely squeaked by, and even in the final, he was no better than Brendan. But the judges, like the writers of the disastrous Game of Thrones finale, admired his story and declared him the winner. (Years later, he would admit that he regretted winning because it derailed his life.)
Again, this bothers me because I still have an inner John, who I can eliminate by not doing what he would do, and instead doing what either Brendan or James would do.
Personality is made of actions, and small actions are more important than big actions, because there are more of them. If you want to be a different kind of person, just do what that person would do, in the smallest way, right now.
February 5. Matt sends a quote from Cory Doctorow's novel Walkaway:
You weren't supposed to need to be a special snowflake, because the objective reality was that, important as you were to yourself and the people immediately around you, it was unlikely that anything you did was irreplaceable. As soon as you classed yourself as a special snowflake, you headed for the self-delusional belief that you should have more than everyone else, because your snowflakiness demanded it.
I've always liked the snowflake metaphor. To me it means that every person, like every snowflake, is unique and special in their own way. Think of Mr. Rogers. He would say that each person is special, but he would never say that that means you should have more than other people. You could argue that if everyone is special then no one is, but I would say, because everyone is special, being special doesn't make anyone better.
I think that fallacious flip, from unique to better, comes from our quantitative culture. In a qualitative culture no one would even think of it. Matt comments: "There's a vertical idea of special and a horizontal idea of special, and they don't jive with each other."
It also occurs to me that being replaceable is something that happens in the workplaces of a machine-like economy, after we've passed through an education system designed to turn us into replaceable cogs. But if you're doing creative work, you don't have to go far in any direction before you're doing something that no one else has done.