# photography

I’m looking through photos from last year and appreciating that we had a lot of great times. It was a time of reuniting with friends after a long isolation.

# coding

Yesterday I discovered Shantell Sans, which is a beautiful and very robust handwritten font. Shantell Martin, the creator, designed it to be legible for people with dyslexia.

I added it to this website, and you can turn it on by tapping the B toggle in the top menu. (I’ll probably change that icon at some point.)

Southside Portraits

# photography

Claire and I have decided to move to Italy this summer. I’m excited for the move, and I’m also quite sad to leave Glasgow. I think it’s a really special place. I have a strong feeling that I want to capture some of that specialness before I leave, so I’ve been more motivated to go outside and take pictures. Last week, I went out to take street portraits three times.

Street photography in the Scottish winter is difficult. The streetscapes are drab and ugly. Pedestrians are wearing hats and scarves and puffy jackets. And the light is quite muted. I needed a lot of patience to find good shots.

When I got my photos back from the lab, I had three pictures that I liked.

This was my first photo. I went for a photo walk in Govanhill. In street photography, the first photo is always the hardest. You have to put yourself in the mindset to approach strangers. I had just taken my camera out of my pocket when my eyes wandered past this guy, who looks like he could be a Culkin brother, waiting for the bus. I did a double take, and we made eye contact. I gestured with my camera, “Could I take your picture?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, completely relaxed.

I rushed and took a clumsy photo without taking the time to frame or focus. “Thanks!” I said. As I walked away, I was disappointed, sure that the photo would be completely blurry. When I saw the final product, I discovered that the focus is actually okay. It’s quite soft, but it almost feels a little dreamy.

A few days later I had almost the exact same experience. I went out to take pictures and saw this woman standing at a crosswalk. It was my first photo of the day, but she was really excited when I asked for her picture. When I pointed my camera at her, she assumed the most confident, direct post, looking straight into the camera. Again, I was nervous, and after I took the picture I was pretty sure it was out of focus.

Fifteen minutes later, I bumped into her again, and we chatted for a minute. She said that she doesn’t have Instagram, but she was so excited to see the picture that she would use her friends phone to look for it.

When I got the photo back, not only was it sharp, but the the colors were great and her pose was awesome.

Later that day, I was walking home when I saw this couple behind the grocery store. “We’ve got a reservation for fish and chips,” the man told me when I asked for their photo, before happily obliging.

I like their pink-beige-and-tan color scheme and their genuine smiles.

“Scattered Minds” by Gabor Maté

# books# mind

Scattered Minds is one of the most influential books on the topic of ADD/ADHD. Canadian physician Gabor Maté wrote the book after receiving his own diagnosis for ADD. (Maté uses the shorter abbreviation, “ADD”, so I’ll do the same here.)

Scattered Minds is an impressive accomplishment of memoir, medical writing, and self help all in one as Maté ties together his childhood, family life, medical practice, research, and life’s wisdom. His prose, weaving together his personal experiences, research, and case studies, kept me engaged for the most part. Nonetheless, I got bored a few times and skipped a few chapters. I found some sections a bit repetitive or drawn-out. But, on the whole, I thought this was a great book about life as well as ADD.

Maté was born to Jewish parents in Hungary during the Holocaust — which immediately become relevant in Maté’s main thesis about ADD: it is primarily caused by emotional strain during infancy. Maté goes so far as to argue that ADD is actually caused by a deficit of eye contact between guardian and child in the early stages of development. I found his insistence on this causality suspect, but I take his broader point: emotional stress during early development affects the brain, and that can present in later years as ADD. Maté says that early childhood strain leads to a weaker executive function. In his analogy, the traffic cop who regulates emotions, thoughts, and impulses is off duty.

I don’t know if I have do or don’t have ADD. I haven’t been assessed or diagnosed. What I do know is that I grew up in a house with financial strain, and my parents divorced when I was seven. My report cards describe a child who didn’t pay attention or hand in assignments despite being thoughtful and intelligent. In high school, I was excited to enroll in the advanced classes, but I spent much of my time asleep on my desk, having stayed up too late the night before and now unable to follow what was happening on the chalkboard. I developed a distrust for authority and tendency toward subversion. I fell in love with activism and backpacking. In university, I argued with my teachers. At work, I argued with my bosses. I picked up side gigs and worked on weekends. I never felt like I was doing enough.

I relate to many experiences that Maté and other people with ADD describe. So many that I can’t list them here; I would need to go through the book again with a pen and paper. Like the experiences described in the book, I developed a self-identity based in unmet potential, even while I was accomplishing achievements I was proud of.

I don’t think you need ADD to learn from Scattered Minds. Ultimately, we live in a society that puts strain on working humans from life’s first moments through to its last. About the social conditions for ADD, Maté quote the poet Robert Bly,

Bly notes that “in 1935 the average working man had forty hours a week free, including Saturday. By 1990, it was down to seventeen hours. The twenty-three lost hours of free time a week since 1935 are the very hours in which the father could be a nurturing father, and find some center in himself, and the very hours in which the mother could feel she actually has a husband.” These patterns characterize not only the early years of parenting, but entire childhoods.

Although society has created economic pressure on women to participate in the workforce when children are very young, it has made little provisions for the satisfaction of children’s needs for emotional nourishment and stimulation. In neither Canada nor the U.S. has public support for the care of young children of working parents come close to adequate.

Under this pressure, many of us struggle to find any sense of accomplishment or stability. In lieu of that, it’s normal to feel anxious, unmotivated, and flustered.

For someone with an ADD diagnosis, there are proven medical treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. But for anyone who feels overwhelmed with the scope of daily life, Maté offers solid advice rooted in self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Beyond finding compassion for ourselves, I think Scattered Minds is also a call to cultivate compassion for others. In 2015, when I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, the idea of neurodiversity blew my mind. I realized that many people’s psychological experience of the world is profoundly different from what we understand as “normal.” But instead of accepting a diversity of minds, we demean people who seem odd. Scattered Minds reminded me of this again. Everyone has a different experience of the world. Sometimes, those experiences can be very difficult. Sometimes, society makes those experiences unnecessarily difficult. But nonetheless those different experiences — the things that make each of us me — are beautiful.

“The Age of Revolution” by Eric Hobsbawm

# history# books

Eric Hobsbawm was one of England’s most distinguished and respected historians. The Age of Revolution is the first book in Hobsbawm’s monumental four-part summary of modern European history. The book covers the period from the French Revolution in 1789 through to the European political upheavals of 1848.

Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, was a communist. He doesn’t waste time lyricizing about the economic gains or innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, he goes straight into the living reality of the time.

Such as it was, the world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact… even in England itself, the urban population only just outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851.

From this starting point, we understand that the history of the “long 19th century” is a history of the relationship between people and the land that provided their livelihood — a relationship that grew increasingly alienated year by year.

The book focuses on the Industrial and French revolutions as coincident revolutions that both completely changed the economic structure of society, pushing England and France from traditional feudal societies to early market-based societies. By the end of the period, for the first time in history Europe had an economic system where land and labor could be easily bought and sold. Humans who had always worked the land for themselves now understood that their basic needs — food, hygiene, housing — came from a market.

A lynchpin in the story is the invention of the cotton gin, which automated the processing of cotton. Over the 18th century, America had built a massive industry of cotton production. But it still took considerable time and effort for enslaved people to process the cotton so it could be used for textiles. The cotton gin removed this effort and opened the floodgates of industry. Cheap cotton flooded the market, originating in the American South and entering Europe through Scotland and Northern England.

All of a sudden, cloth became a material that ordinary people could cheaply buy and use. The production of cotton exploded in the United Kingdom as the British sold it domestically and then abroad. England flooded with money from cotton, and that money launched the Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, the demand for cotton fed an explosion of slaveholding in America, which would grow over the following decades until reaching a breaking point with the Civil War.

This is the period of European history when power shifted from the aristocracy (traditional land owners) to the bourgeoisie (market capitalists). In the United Kingdom, the transfer of power passed through industrialization. In France, the transfer passed through violent revolution.

France’s revolution also solidified the idea of the nation. After French revolutionaries rose up and created a new constitution, they believed that they had a righteous mission to spread their politics abroad. Napoleon, who had risen to prominence through the revolution, seized on this nationalism to lead France through a series of wasteful and ruinous wars across Europe, which ended in defeat and disaster.

This is a rough summary based on what I can remember of what I have read so far. I’ll take time to update it as I proceed.


Preface

The book “is not a detailed narrative, but interpretation.”

The book is for the person “who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today.”

Introduction

The period between 1789 and 1848 “forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture, metallurgy, writing, the city and the state… The great revolution of 1789-1848 was not the triumph of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general, but of middle class or ‘bourgeous’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’ but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world whose center was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.”

”… the twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.”

“it is more relevant… that they could not with any probability have been expected to occur at this time in any other part of the world.”

“Our problem is to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph.”

Chapter 1

The world in the 1780s was relatively empty: large blank swaths on the map, criss-crossed by trade routes. Much of the world was unknown. Inhabited territories of Europe were largely marsh, brush, and underutilized grazing territory.

“Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today.”

People moved slowly by foot, cart, or boat. They “lived and died in the county, and often in the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.” “There were no newspapers.”

“The world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact.”

Even “the provincial town still belonged essentially to the economy and society of the countryside.” The town professionals worked in auxiliary industries.

“The provincial city had declined sadly since its heyday in the later middle ages. It was only rarely a ‘free city’ or city state; only rarely any longer a centre of manufactures for a wider market or a staging-post in international trade.”

“The provincial town of the late eighteenth century might be a prosperous and expanding community… but that prosperity came from the countryside.”

Early economists assumed that land and land rent was the sole source of income. “The crux of the agrarian problem was the relation between those who cultivated the land and whose who owned it, those who produced its wealth and those who accumulated it.”

Europe divides into three areas:

  • Overseas colonies were where farm workers are unfree, either on latin feudal estates or American slave plantations
  • Eastern Europe was mostly agrarian serfdom, so the typical farm worker was unfree
    • “the flood of serfdom which had risen almost without a break since the later fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.”
    • “the typical peasant was a serf, devoting a large part of the week to forced labour on the lord’s land, or its equivalent in other obligations. His unfreedom might be so great as to be barely distinguishable from chattel slavery.”
    • The colonies and the East largely served Western Europe as dependent economies.

The West was modernizing, though “In most countries of Western Europe the fuedal order implied by such ways of thinking was still politically very alive… Economically, however, western rural society was very different. The characteristic peasant had lost much of his servile status in the late middle ages… The characterisc estate had become a system of collecting rents and other money incomes.” The peasant was “more or less free,” and paid rent or a share of crops to a landlord or a local lord. England had already progressed well towards capitalist agriculture. As English smallholding and cottage industry was stripped away in the 18th century, there remained a bourgeois class of agricultural entrepreneurs and an agrarian proletariat.

The UK became incredibly powerful through economic development, and “by the 1780s all continental governments with any pretence to a rational policy were consequently fostering economic growth, and especially industrial development.”

(p. 36)

Hiking to a Hidden Valley

# travel# photography

Claire and I took our friend Leilani into the highlands on Saturday. Leilani said she wanted to see some dramatic Scottish landscapes, so we brought her to Glencoe.

Claire and Leilani stand on the mountainside

Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes. Paintings and photographs of this dramatic valley evoke a sense of desolate wildness. In truth, Glencoe is very accessible. One of Scotland’s main highways runs through the glen. The drive from Edinburgh to most of the West Coast takes you through Glencoe.

A path winds through Glencoe

But Scottish highways aren’t like Canadian highways. Most of them are two-land roads that meander through mountains and valleys. As soon as we exited the roadway toward the gorge that cuts through Glencoe, we lost sight of the road, and the sound of passing cars and trucks faded under the sound of rushing rapids.

Two of the mountain peak of Glencoe

Three imposing peaks, called the “Three Sisters,” form Glasgow’s most famous landmark. Our hike took us up between two of the three sisters, leading to a beautiful hidden valley.

Claire and Leilani on the path

We made a long, steady climb over rocky ground, following a rushing stream. Scotland offered trademark dreary weather, with low-lying clouds raveling and unraveling around the mountains and a steady drizzle dampening the ground under our feet.

Claire standing in the Hidden Valley

At the top of the path, a completely secluded valley opened ahead of us, cradled between the dramatic mountain cliffs. We stopped to drink from a mountain stream that fed cloud water directly into our hands.

Claire and Leilani heading back to the car

On the walk back down, we sat on the slope of the mountain for a picnic, taking in the full vista of Glencoe.

Five Lessons from the Ski Hill

Last week, I skied in the mountains for the first time in my life. My dad taught me to ski when I was five years old, and I went skiing a few times each year through my childhood and into adolescence.

The Prismic skiers at the top of the mountain.

I was thrilled to go on a ski trip in the alps for my company work retreat. We spent a Wednesday skiing down the side of a mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Maybe it was the views and the fresh air, or maybe it was the fear of death, but I thought about life all through the day.

Skiing in the mountains is intense — especially when you haven’t skied in five years. I learned five lessons about how to deal with high-pressure challenges.

Erik gathering speed.

1. Commit

I was convinced I was going to break a bone.

As an adult who used to know how to ski, it seemed inevitable. On my first run, I felt shaky. After one or two more runs, I remembered how to point my skis and tilt my weight correctly.

I shrugged, unsure, when the ski instructor asked me if I wanted more instruction. “I don’t think you need it,” he volunteered. “You’re a good skier.”

My confidence rose, which helped my technique. The ski instructor told me and my coworkers Levi and Erik to go off on our own. “Take the six-person chairlift,” he said.

Without knowing where we were going, we followed his advice. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. The trail difficulties are green, blue, red, black. But our instructor had told us that on this hill the reds are more like blacks and the blacks are more like double blacks. We stared at signs pointing to red (black) and black (certain death).

With only one way down, we took the red trail that looked the friendliest. It was amazing. Winding down the mountain, we had panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Towards the bottom, we got to a final slope that was wide, steep, and icy. We all looked over the edge with apprehension. Levi dropped down and skillfully skied down. A moment later, Erik went.

Skiing offers an amazing feeling: there is only one way forward. The path is dangerous, but it’s also exciting and beautiful. If you choose your runs wisely, you will have the skill to handle everything you encounter. So it was as I stood alone at the top of this drop. I dropped in.

I felt myself struggle to slow down, grating my skis along the icy slope, trying to generate friction. I wobbled as I carved back and forth. My legs shook. I slipped around as I tried to turn. I felt unsteady and unsure.

Commit, I thought.

There’s only one way forward, and I can do it.

I pointed my skis downhill and leaned into the speed. As I let go of my fears, the hill glided past. My skis sliced through the powdery snow, sending plumes of powder to my sides. This is how to ski, I thought.

Commit, I reminded myself throughout the day. When life gets scary, remember what you’re doing and keep going.

Simon and Côme at lunch on the hill.

2. When you lose control, let go

The rest of the day was smooth. I felt confident. We paused for a Savoyard lunch on the mountainside and then kept skiing through the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day, with an hour left on the hill, we asked the instructor what trail to take. He pointed us to another advanced run at the top of the mountain. We rode up the chairlift, and then skied cross-country style for a while along the mountainside to find another lift, which took us up higher.

We found ourselves at the top of a beautiful, isolated, meandering run that wove along the mountainside, out of sight of the rest of the hill. It was our favorite run of the day. About a third of the way down, we got to the first tricky part — another steep and icy slope.

I went first.

About halfway down, I hit ice. I tried to slow down by turning uphill, but I couldn’t. My skies scraped onwards down the hill, while my body pulled backwards. I fell over, landing safely on my side — my first wipeout of the day.

I signaled to the group that I was fine and waved them onwards. One by one, they skied past me. I regained my confidence as I watched them safely navigate the slope. Then, with great care, I stood up and inched myself backwards to a spot where I had space to maneuver.

Okay, I thought. This is ice. I can’t stop myself. Maybe I can’t control exactly where I’m going. But I can get down this hill.

I pointed my skis downhill and shot downwards. I can slow down when I get to the bottom. For now, I just have to let go.

When you have no control, it’s futile to try. You’ll only lose balance. As I shot down the ice, I knew I had enough control to get safely down the slope. I knew that when I got to the end of the section I could slow down. That’s the key: loosen the grip, then tighten it again.

Levi on top of the mountain.

3. Persevere

Towards the end of the same run, we reached the final boss battle. It was a long, steep, narrow stretch. We were all nervous. Levi went first and wiped out halfway down. He landed like a pro, catching a stray ski. He gathered himself, got his ski back on, and got to the bottom.

Leo (who had joined us after lunch) and Erik followed, and all three of them gathered at the bottom, waiting for me.

I felt my heart race while I summoned all of my lessons from the day. Pay attention to your weight and your feet. Relax. Know you have the skill for this. Commit.

I dropped over the edge.

As the steep slope came into view in front of me, I saw a patch of dirt directly in my path. I panicked and pulled back, but it was too late. I already had speed. I lost control, my skis came out from under me, and I fell onto my side.

In retrospect, I know that if I had persevered through the brown patch, I would have been fine. When obstacles arise and you can’t stop, you have no choice but to forge onward.

But, that’s not what I did. And so I learned my next lesson.

4. When you fumble, regain control

It’s fine, I thought. I can just get up and keep going.

But I couldn’t. The slope was too steep and icy. I slid. I grabbed at the snow, but there was nothing to hold onto. I accelerated down the slope like a human toboggan.

I hoped to slow down, but I felt myself gaining speed. I rotated one way and then the other. I watched the blur of my coworkers zoom past me.

For a moment, I was at peace. This is fine, I thought. It’s easier than skiing down. But as the seconds ticked past and I keep sliding, I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction I was going. I could go off a cliff or into a post. My ski could catch on something, breaking my leg.

I need to get back in control.

I hacked at the slope with my ski poles, which did nothing. I realized the only way to stop myself was with my skis. I clawed at the hill to orient myself so my feet were below me. As I slid, my skis collected snow like a plow, and finally I slowed to a stop.

I looked up and saw that I had slid about 100 meters. My coworkers were now far above me on the slope. I felt a little rattled, but I had no injuries.

I signaled to my coworkers that I was fine, and they took turns skiing down past me. Finally, I stood up, and skied down the rest of the hill. I was shaken and a little trembly, but I mustered the confidence to ski smoothly. It was the last run of the day.

Mabel carving the slope.

5. Check your priorities

I’m not a thrill seeker. But, I like a challenge, and I can be a little impulsive. On the other hand, I’m a little scared of heights and a little clumsy. Altogether, this made for a lot of reflection throughout the day. As I got tired in the afternoon, I asked myself, Is this worth it? How would I feel if I really hurt myself? How would Claire feel if something happened to me?

The experience reminded my that I like my life. I want to keep it safe.

I suspect that half the skill in skiing is knowing your limit. You practice so that you can tackle the routes you take, but you also choose the routes you know you can handle.

When you find yourself preparing for a high pressure situation, it’s worth asking: Is this the right place to be?

My day on the ski hill was perfect. I learned a lot, I challenged myself, and I had fun. But all day I was making choices. Do I have the energy for this? Am I paying attention? Am I ready for this run?

When you do take on the right challenge — when you commit, open up, push through, and get safely to the end of the run — it is wonderful.

Paris Wakes Up

# photography

Last week I went out for two beautiful, cold morning strolls in Paris. They were my first proper excursions with my new camera. On the first day, I left my hotel before sunrise and walked down to the Seine. The city was still quiet, as Parisians start the day late.

A couple walking across an intersection

This camera has a wider lens and a different focusing mechanism. The wider lens creates a challenge with composition. It captures a bigger frame, which means that details are smaller and there are more of them. Instead of photographing a subject, the camera captures a whole scene.

A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis
A woman crosses the street at Hôpital Saint-Louis.

A man unloads flour from a delivery truck
A man unloads flour from a delivery truck.

Firefighters on a morning run
The Paris pompiers (firefighters) take their morning run.

A cyclist rides down the quay of the Seine
A cyclist rides along the Seine.

An old man crossing a bridge in front of Notre Dame
An man crosses the Seine at Pont Marie.

A woman standing in an intersection.
A woman pauses to decide which direction to go.

A couple sitting on a bench
A young couple takes an early smoke break on the canal.

A man standing on a bridge over the canal
A man stops while crossing a footbridge over the canal.

By ten o’clock, the city is alive as everyone has finally left for work — including me. I put my camera away and make my way to the office.

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

# reading# books

At my office book club, we finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On the whole, I found this book disappointing. I respect Malcolm Gladwell as a storyteller, but as a philosopher his ideas are deeply misguided.

In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individual determination does. That part of the book is compelling.

After that, Gladwell uses the rest of the book as a rambling argument for racism. The book’s penultimate chapter is called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” which — you may have guessed — is about how Chinese people are good at math because of rice farming. That’s as crass as a stereotype can be. Gladwell never feigns any attempt at subtlety or caution. Gladwell’s coup de grace in the final paragraph of the chapter is that the world’s hardest working students and the countries with the world’s best math students are all in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture.

Gladwell leaves it to a footnote to clarify that China (the primary country discussed in the chapter) is omitted from this list for technical reasons, and he completely ignores that neither Signapore nor Hong Kong produce any rice at all. In fact, the other three countries don’t even produce that much rice. Per person, they rank below Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, India, and Peru — all countries that have miraculously avoided the good-at-math stereotype.

But Gladwell asserts that Asian readers should take no offense at the bizarrely unsubstantiated stereotype.

Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left. Sometimes people of Asian background get offended when their culture is described in this way, because they think that the stereotype is being used as a form of disparagement. But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty… Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

Gladwell acts as if he misses the obvious facts here:

  • anyone would be offended if you described them as if they had just walked out of a peasant farm,
  • millions of East Asians feel uncomfortable as strange assumptions about their skills and interests follow them through their whole lives, and
  • billions of people from thousands of cultures in dozens of countries compose the group that Gladwell describes as “Asian” and reduces to the concepts of rice.

But more than that, he also ignores the wrongness of assuming character traits about people based on their ethnicity. On the contrary, he argues that to do so is logical — a lazy intellectual trap that puts Gladwell squarely in the same category as the eugenicists and phrenologists of days past.

I won’t comb through the rest of the book, but I had similar qualms with almost every chapter. This raises the question: is Gladwell deliberately oblivious, or just unwise? In this case, I think he’s probably just unwise. Towards the end of the book, he loosely logics that Caribbean slavery was ultimately a good things because it led to himself (a descendent of slaves) being born. We don’t need a Philosophy 101 class to understand that consequence doesn’t justify cause, but Gladwell seems to genuinely miss this fact.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023