The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read + Other Strange Tales…

This post is a little different to the usual.  It is a cross-post of my most recent newsletter.

This is the only time that I’ll be putting one of these up on the blog – I just wanted to give everyone a chance to see what kind of thing I send out to the mailing list.

Let’s do this!

The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read…

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Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature – A History of Violence and Humanity’ is an absolutely incredible piece of work.

Over the course of this dense, beautifully written, and exhaustively researched tome, Pinker not only proves beyond any reasonable doubt that almost every type of violence in the world is in rapid decline, he also shows you why (the real reasons are surprising.)

This is a landmark achievement and probably the most genuinely hopeful book I have ever read about humanity and our future.

It is by no means small, nor is it a fast read, but it may actually change your view of the world for the better.

It did mine.


I Took an Internet Fast…

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As some of you know, last month I took a week and headed north to a place in the highlands nestled between the mountains and the ocean.  I rested, and I swam; I read and I wrote; I ate good food and had good times with good people.

But the best thing?  For 9 days there was zero internet.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the interwebs (after all it’s one of the biggest reasons I can make a living doing what I do.)  But as in all things, balance is key.

Living in the digital information age can feel like drinking water through a fire-hose.  Time and space are fast becoming luxury items.  Periodically unplugging, and taking a little of both for ourselves, can be vital for our general wellbeing and happiness.

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening my axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

[P.S.  If like the photo and want to see more shots from my time away here is my Instagram.]


Film: The Flying Scotsman

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I recently watched ‘The Flying Scotsman’, a 2006 British drama based on the life and career of Scottish amateur cyclist Graeme Obree.

Seemingly about Obree’s breaking of the one hour distance record on ‘Old Faithful’ (the bike he made himself from scrap metal and parts of an old washing machine) the film ultimately reveals itself to be a prescient and frank discussion of mental illness and it’s effects.

It was not the film I was expecting; it was much more.


The #BeKind Campaign

Last month I created my first T-Shirt (inspired by this blog).

When I got back from my trip, some of the coolest things in my in-box were pictures people had taken of themselves wearing them.

If you were one of the people who supported the campaign, bought a shirt, or sent a picture then:

Thankyou.


In Other News:

Just before I went away I published a blog titled ‘In Praise of Shadows…’ a discussion of beauty of darkness.  It is one of my favorite things I have written and you can read it here.

Since being back I have been hunkered down in the studio working hard on the upcoming E.P.

That this one has taken way longer than expected.  If you are one of the people who are waiting for it then thankyou, and know that it will be with you very soon.


Quote of the month: 

‘Discipline Equals Freedom’ – Jocko Willink


What did you think?

I’ll be sending these newsletters out a little more regularly now than I have in the past (but I wont be cross-posting any more online).  If you’d like to start receiving them, get early access to my stuff, AND get 3 free pieces of my music you can sign up here.

Hope you are well. Have a great day,

J

35 Comments

  1. Hey, I just wanted to drop you a note and let you know that posting your newsletter was a great idea, it spurred me to sign up so I can enjoy reading your other thoughts in between posts! As always, I’m also enjoying your beautiful photography on IG, it never fails to brighten my day and inspire. What’s inspiring me now is the glorious winding down of summer and the moody days of fall to come, it’s magical! I hope this finds you well, Kim.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. One of your very nice followers on IG had a great suggestion – putting your poetry & photography together. I wonder if you would do this in book form or create a poetry/photography category on this site? Either way, it would be great to see it out in the world! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi James, thanks for the “like” on “Today is Brought to you by the Letter “Tzett.” Now that I’ve visited your site and seen your interest in Pinker’s book, I think you might appreciate the idea behind my recent post “Building Blocks.” I think we’re of similar minds – can we please stop with the violence? Kind regards, MSOC
    P.S. sorry about the advert, but i really do think you’ll appreciate it….

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  3. As always, James, these are beautiful recommendations. I am disappointed that I missed out on the #BEKIND campaign (alas, I was travelling abroad when it happened and so I was unable to purchase a lovely t-shirt of my own), but seeing the photographs fills me with joy & hope for a lighter world. Thank you for sharing them with us – and, as always, I absolutely cannot wait for the arrival of the EP. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As ever, this is a beautiful comment my poetic sister. Do not fret the T-Shirt campaign, there may be more coming…
      Where were you travelling to?
      EP is coming in to land I think, I cannot wait for you to hear it.
      It is beautiful to hear your voice, I very much enjoyed your poetry,
      Big hug, big love,
      – J

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  4. 1.Once I’ve struggled my way through the blessed ‘bird book’ may give this a try. Also a couple of others on your recommendation list.
    2.Your website btw is like opening a little box of tricks. Everytime I look on it I discover something new I never noticed before.
    3. I love that photo so so much. Something about it lights me up inside.
    4.Question: Being a man from Edinburgh. What do you know of the Stone of Scone?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You should’ve apparently in Edinburgh Castle now after being stolen from Westminster Abbey and brought back to Scotland in the 50’s 60’s. There is a film about this. Also called the Stone of Destiny or Coronation Stone. Sorry bit of a history buff.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Don’t be sorry – history is fascinating.
          I have not been inside Edinburgh Castle, so I will not have seen it. But, if I do go, I’ll now be sure to look for it 😉
          Have a great day you, and thanks,
          – J

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  5. Hi James

    While I largely align with the general idea that Pinker puts forward that we can escape from the violent aspects of our nature, Nassim Taleb does a rather damning refutation of many of the arguments of that particular book.

    For me, Steven doesn’t go nearly deep enough.

    For me, the most important book I have ever read, was Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, which far from what the title suggests, was the first clear exposition I had read of the evolution of cooperation, and the ultimate power of cooperation in contexts of abundance. And that is likely a personal thing, as I had already read many hundreds of other books on evolution, philosophy, science, strategy and technology, it just happened to work for me at that point in my development.

    It is clear to me, that it is ultimately the personal contexts we get to experience that are the largest single influences on who we get to be. We all have both competitive and cooperative natures, and the more abundant resources are, the more likely we are to be cooperative with wider groups.

    Unfortunately, that reality is in stark contrast to the scarcity based valuation mechanism (market based economics) that currently dominates this planet.

    If we really do want long term peace them we must find a stable way to transcend markets as a measure of value, and deliver universal abundance of all real needs. The issues in doing so are not technical. We can relatively easily develop the automated systems to deliver (speaking as someone who has owned and operated a software company for 30 years).

    The real issue is getting people to see outside of the implicit boxes created by currently accepted cultural paradigms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there,
      First, thanks for reading this and taking the time to comment so thoroughly, I really appreciate it.
      I am not sure if your reading of Pinker’s book is the same as mine. It seemed pretty clear that his main point was not that we can escape the violent aspects of our nature, but merely that all forms of violence are trending downward – a fact that, up until today at least, is pretty much proved by the data. I have read Taleb, and really don’t see a contradiction. Pinker states in his conclusion that he doesn’t exclude the possibility of future war, and he shies away from making future predictions – an approach which would seem to mesh up very well with Taleb’s Black Swans. I am also unsure of what you’d be trying to accomplish with your aim of leaving the current economic model we operate in. If you’ve read the book then you’ll know that ‘gentle commerce’ was the second primary pacifying influence in our history of violence. Personally, I am all in favour of free-market economics, especially if it has (provably) reduced instances of violence.
      I read the Dawkins book a good few years ago, but you have piqued my interest so I may revisit it.
      I hope that helps to clarify some of my points, if it’s a while since you read ‘The Better Angels…’ I would recommend revisiting it – you wont be sorry.
      Have a great day, and thanks again for writing,
      – J

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      1. Hi James,

        It is very true that relationships engendered through trade can (and have through most of history) reduce violence in two very different ways.

        1/ In times of genuine scarcity the sharing of goods and service through trade reduces both the frequency and degree of scarcity experienced across the range of goods and services so traded, and in doing so tends to reduce the incentive sets to violence.

        2/ The actual social contacts made over time in markets tend to form socially cohesive bonds over wider networks than would otherwise be the case, and such social cohesion tends to weaken the power of propaganda to demonize an “enemy” and create feelings that sustain war.

        I full acknowledge both of these aspects of markets in history, and “the times they are a changing”.

        Now we have automation taking an ever greater role in our lives.

        Automation changes things in several profound ways.

        In terms of goods and services, any process that can be fully automated can be supplied in abundance to all, but markets cannot deliver universal abundance. Anything universally abundant, no matter how important it is, has zero value. Oxygen in the air is the prime example – without doubt the single most important thing for any human being, yet of zero value in most markets, due to its universal abundance.

        This becomes a major issue of justice, when the only reason that most people do not experience the sort of abundance that some of us do, is the market mechanism itself. The search for profit prevents the benefits of full automation being universally distributed.
        Automation changes everything.

        Full automation turns markets from a power for peace, to the greatest source of existential risk present (when viewed from the perspective of the sets of strategic influences present in human interactions).
        Some people are reacting to that by trying to prevent automation (we see an explosion of such legal edifices – in the realm of intellectual property laws in their many guises).
        That is a very sub-optimal outcome, that still imposes a great deal of unnecessary risk and tragedy on human existence for the majority.

        I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that in this strategic sense, of the fundamental drivers that create the playing field of this game we call life, that markets have gone past the point at which they delivered benefit, and are rapidly diving into the realm of delivering severe (and exponentially growing) existential risk.

        Another thing automation is doing is taking the human relationships out of markets. EBay and Alibaba supply goods and services without the human relationship.

        So while the internet does allow you and I to meet, and to communicate, which might be a very positive thing, it is also progressively taking that daily trading relationship away for many. Multi player virtual environments allow some individuals to shrink the size of their real world networks.

        Getting back more directly to the book, it is as I said, I agree with the idea that we can escape from the tendencies to violence that exist, but the major evidence set presented by the book is flawed, in profound ways, that are exposed by Cirillo and Taleb in their paper – It is well worth the time to read.
        It is well worth taking the time to contemplate, particularly in the context of the Chicxulub event and dinosaurs, or the Toba event and the human diaspora. We have lots of evidence for the damage that “fat tail” distributions can deliver.

        So, like I said, yes to the overall theme, but no to the evidence set presented in support of the theme (which is kinda of sad, as for many people, a failure of the evidence set leads to a rejection of the hypothesis as a whole, rather than just a rejection of that evidence set – and there are good reasons for that – which is why Pinker hasn’t done any favours with the book – it will only be seen as positive by those who already intuitively understand something deeper, it wont convince those who don’t, in fact it actually actively turns them away).

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        1. Hey there,
          You have a very interesting point of view. What is your evidence behind your automation theory? Or is it just an opinion? I’d be interested to know.
          I am still not clear how you can disagree to the data presented. It is, after all, data. And if you agree with Pinker’s hypothesis (that violence has decreased over time in all areas) how can you disagree with his data (which shows violence decreasing over time in all areas)? That seems a little skewy to me.
          And what is your evidence that people have been turned away from the book because they ‘don’t intuitively understand something deeper’? This smells like opinion presented as fact to me.
          Anyway, thankyou very much for your input. If you do have any data sources for your opinions I’d be interested to see them.
          Hope your night is going well,
          – J

          Like

          1. The evidence for automation abounds – self-driving cars is one instance, fully automated factories another, cell phones another Ray Kurzweil does a great job on that.

            I presented the prime source, but the link was edited out somehow.

            What Cirillo and Taleb clearly demonstrate in their paper is that the evidence presented by Pinker does not demonstrate a decrease in violence, but is in fact exactly what one expects in “fat tail” distributions.

            Evidence is not the issue.
            The issue, as always, is how one interprets it.

            If you understand complexity theory, then it is clear that there are an infinite possible number of ways to interpret any evidence set.

            Some methods of interpretation are more reliable in some contexts than in others.

            Our brains seem to be composed of linear projection systems, which worked well for us during most of our evolutionary history, but take a lot of training to reframe datasets to work well in our exponentially changing current reality. Right now, using interpretive systems tuned by a linear relationship to our past will miss the most important trends of our time (at all levels).

            If you want evidence on this, look at Ray Kurzweil’s prediction systems, Stephen Wolfram’s New Kind of Science, David Snowden’s Cynefin framework for the management of complexity. If you really want to warp your common sense, then get into quantum mechanics – Hiesenberg is a good start, and that requires Einstein and Hilbert to get into the mathematical context. Feynman is a great way into some of the deeper aspects.

            Getting the beginnings of an understanding of what we are, and how much our models (understandings) of reality influence our experience of reality, is fundamental to starting to see that it is much more about how we interpret the data than the data itself.

            Snowden’s take on complexity is about the best simplification of an extremely complex topic that I have found.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post. That book’s on my ‘must read’ list, heard nothing but good things about it. (In return I would highly recommend ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari). Like the T Shirt project, we could all use a bit more kindness and compassion. I’m now following your instagram, looks like you have some superb shots.

    Like

  7. I think I’ll be chasing up Pinker’s book from my local library – it sounds like a must read. I was most impressed with them when I asked for a copy of ‘In praise of shadow’. They did not have it. However, what they did was purchase a brand new copy! I have just finished reading it. It’s an interesting observation of the world and contrasting cultures from a totally different and surprising perspective. I found it an intriguing read. Beautiful photos of your getaway BTW 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Libraries are amazing. And that is very cool. It is a step forward in my secret master plan to spread good books far and wide in he world!
      Moohaahaa! 😉
      Thanks a lot for your kind words, they really mean a lot to me. I am very glad you liked the book. ‘The Better Angels…’ will change your life.
      Have a great weekend you,
      – J

      Liked by 1 person

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