I was reading a book review in Le Monde this morning about “ecospiritualists” and the wide literature emanating from France on the subject of connecting humans back to nature. One theme that emerges is the need to tend to the “garden” of one’s self just as much as the garden of the Earth when it comes to ecological consciousness. It’s a theme that has become trenchant in American publishing as well through books like Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing, which encourages readers to release their attention on devices and the modern economy and redirect it to nature.
The Le Monde writer Valentine Faure is clearly empathetic to the movement, but is also a bit perturbed by the motley set of ideas, beliefs, and practices that are combining into France’s version of ecospirituality (what she describes as a “bricolage”). The criticism seems apt — people are pulling in so many ideas from so many indigenous and other cultures that they are deconstructing entire cosmologies into easily replaceable parts. It’s almost like the Costco-ization of church.
What’s driving the popularity of these movements? A general “pulling back” from modern life: a retreat from burnout and overwork, of urbanization and concrete, of the frenetic pace of social relations driven by digital media. Alienation — a theme in the criticism of industrialization since the era started — has seemed to hit something of a popular zenith as people confront the immense mass of humanity and the unfathomable scale of the systems required to keep those humans alive, fed and happy.
The need for more spirituality seems necessary for people (and for society writ large), but I struggle to understand exactly the path from our urban lives to ones of the “forest” or “river”. The potentially great democratizing force of communing
The book covers the origins and execution of the French-Algerian War, and it offers a unique vantage point compared to most works that cover conflict: Horne essentially secures access to all the major fighters on all sides, offering him a nearly comprehensive perspective to understand what took place. Perhaps even more importantly, Horne situates the conflict in the politics and sociology of Algeria and France, showing how demographics and opinions swayed the military strategy of the war and vice versa. Every aspect of war finds a spot in his analysis, and that makes it not just interesting as a story of a particular historical experience, but a narrative for war and conflict in general.
As I was reading the book back in 2021, I realized that there was just a lot of information to comprehend, and so I ended up writing a 30+ page outline of the book to connect and synthesize all the threads together. I’ve had a few friends ask me for the outline over the past year, so I figured it was well past time to edit it a bit and publish it on the site.
The sleepy suburban streets of Silicon Valley, with Stanford at its epicenter, were once well-tended farmlands, a lush region of physical toil and abundant agricultural exports that fed the frontiers and the fronts of world wars. Over the course of the last century, that rustic life was transformed first into the postwar hub of the West Coast defense industry during the 1950s, then into the fabrication center of the nascent and soon ubiquitous semiconductor industry, before the region all but died out with a surprise whimper in the 1980s, decimated by the offshoring of hardware to the Asian Tigers of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.
From that economic nadir came the longest bull run Silicon Valley had ever witnessed: the sequential invention and rise of the consumer internet, mobile, cloud, artificial intelligence and more, not to mention the coursing rivers of biotech burbling between the corporate complexes of software giants.
Silicon Valley has engraved itself into the economic chronicles of the globe, becoming an elemental metonym for innovation the world over. Despite its riches and influence though, the region’s origins — and Stanford’s unique place in that story — remains a strangely under-studied phenomenon. A passel of works, particularly over the past decade, have attempted to narrate that story, some better and some worse, but none have definitively concluded: why there and why then?
It was a research problem that I was intensely curious about as an undergraduate at Stanford, and one that I wanted to solve through the assiduous work of the historical scholar. So for two years — and thanks to an Undergraduate Research Fellowship — I perused the Stanford historical archives for all the evidence that I could find that connected the university into the wider region that it inhabited.
What I discovered surprised me. Stanford, something of
Every year, I read thousands of articles, essays and profiles (Reeder, which replaced Pocket for me, tells me more than 2,000). It’s always hard to qualitatively summarize “the state of the union”, but this year felt more repetitive, what with endless reporting on the War on Ukraine and the U.S. midterm elections sapping the bandwidth of already mentally-strained reporters and writers.
Alas, I wish I could say that it is a golden age of writing, but this year — while there were dozens of very solid pieces — I really felt our collective writing output failed to match the vertiginous moment that we are approaching as a world community. I’m biased as an editor, but the editing of articles (to say nothing of Hollywood’s flabby blockbusters these days) leaves much to be desired, with so many words finally arriving at middling conclusions and narratives.
It’s really a question of economics: the media world has just been wrecked in the post-Covid world. Crippling layoffs abound. Coupled with the more limited contacts between journalists and sources in our work-from-home era, and I am starting to see a general decline of that unique insight that comes from observing a subject and a story as closely as possible.
2022 was a year of shocks and disappointments, but it was also a year of bullshit craziness, bookended by the supposed rise of Miami as a tech hub and the crash of Twitter led by none other than that wisest of tech elder, Elon Musk. In regards to Miami, how do you cover the
This year, I wrote 43 issues of the “Securities” by Lux Capital newsletter, a dozen or so articles for Lux Capital’s website, published 37 podcast episodes of “Securities” with my producer Chris Gates, and wrote about 6-7 pieces on my personal blog (yes, Lux absorbed the vast majority of my writing time!) Then there’s the unpublished work: my intellectual journal has another 65,000 words of thoughts that at some point will hopefully marinate enough for publication.
So to that end, I compiled a “best of 2022” list of “Securities” newsletters and podcasts, which is hosted obviously enough on the “Securities” blog. That list includes 7 newsletters and 6 podcasts that I thought best exemplified the range of ideas we are trying to build with the publication. Among the big topics were the future of science, disasters and chaos, and industrial policy and progress.
Outside of formal writing, informal writing (aka Twitter) has taken a serious plunge as the social network fell into chaos the last few months. At least to me, the value of communications there almost instantly declined upon the ownership change — my timeline has no one I actually follow anymore, replies are a mess, and overall engagement at least in my circles seems to be at a nadir. So I have barely tweeted these past three months as I just observe the new patterns of engagement.
Maybe 2023 will be different. Somehow though, I feel that the gravities here have their own universal constants that will continue in the years ahead.
This year, I read 51 books, including 3 novels in French and 3 graphic novels in Korean. 2022 was a blistering year, what with Putin’s war on Ukraine and the seismic financial crises sweeping across tech, crypto, trade, and semiconductors. So my reading this year weighed heavily on both the chaos emanating from across the globe as well as existentialist books on how to thrive as wave after disastrous wave smashes into our daily lives. Plus, a bunch of classics, since it’s actually calming to just depart our world and head into the past every once in a while.
First Place: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is an absolute classic and Ishiguro is now a Nobel Prize winner, so I already had high expectations before reading the novel. I was nonetheless floored. When I think about aesthetic excellence in fiction, few works get closer to the ideal than The Remains of the Day, a book that somehow manages to bury us in the thoughts of a singular narrator — a butler named Stevens in the declining estate Darlington Hall — while creating a propulsive plot laden with the weight of memory and history.
The book may be a microcosm of a butler and the home he upkeeps, but it’s essentially a layered and universal novel of identity. What does our labor add up to? What happens if the projects we work on we later find out weren’t worth the cost? What does singular and exceptional devotion to work preclude from our lives? What does it mean to live as an individual within a decaying institution?
It’s perhaps the latter question that makes the novel so enriching. While it is an extraordinarily empathetic account of a person, it’s also a loupe by which
I last did a review of my writing in June and since then, I’ve published two dozen new “Securities” newsletters and podcast episodes. Here’s a recap.
One blockbuster piece that drove a lot of email was on a theme I dubbed “Vaporware Skepticism,” partially inspired by a line from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (“And that’s how they know what’s going on inside a person’s head — by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance”). The piece explored the well-financed hopes of new technologies including decentralized finance, nuclear fusion, and lab-grown meats, arguing that VCs flush with undisciplined capital are investing earlier than the science in these fields allows. We all want progress of course, but there is a pace to these innovations that capital often can't accelerate.
The year of 2022 has been a tough one for optimism — a deep economic recession in tech, Russia’s war on Ukraine, China’s unending Covid-19 lockdowns, de minimis progress on climate disruption — but that doesn’t mean there were no developments showcasing the enlightenment of humanity. In Scientific Sublime, I explored the James Webb Space Telescope and the broader impact of new scientific instruments on optimism. Progress certainly feels like it has been halted, but wondrous sci-fi moments remain possible when the best of global humanity comes together to push the frontiers of knowledge forward.
This has been a year of falls downward and somehow upward for a variety of notorious founders, politicians and bureaucrats. Reputations are rebuilt as past failures subside from minds. So where does reputation end and truth begin? In “Truth and Reputations,” I briefly surveyed the landscape of our fallen "heroes" to explore what really lies below the sheen of some of the most spotlighted people in our society.
I haven’t done a writing review in a very, very long time (almost 6 months)! So I figured it was time to aggregate my collective output and highlight some of my favorite pieces.
First of all, most of my writing energies these days are devoted to the “Securities” by Lux Capital newsletter, and the identically-named podcast series, which is produced by Chris Gates. I’ve been covering science, technology, finance and the human condition since we officially launched in January, and so far, I’ve published 23 weekly newsletters and 20 podcast episodes.
I’ve covered a huge amount of ground given the openness of the overarching theme, but among my favorite newsletter issues:
American Civil War 2.0 — on the perilous state of civil society in the United States and why a new Civil War seems to be closer than it appears.
A four-part series on “Risk, Bias and Decision Making” with Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman, famed securities and portfolio researcher Michael Mauboussin, and World Poker champion and cognitive psychologist Annie Duke.