30-minute thoughts: Living spaces

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Having recently moved back to the US, we’re re-engaging with America’s largest irrigated crop: the lawn. As with many issues, I find myself in inner conflict. I like the idea of having a nice, tidy green lawn of soft, cool grass where our daughters can play, without worrying overmuch about ticks and other beasties. But I hate the idea of pumping and pouring precious groundwater into something that’s not meant to grow here, of dumping chemicals on the ground purely for the sake of aesthetics, of being a contributor to the mass death of insects (and the threat that poses to the rest of the biome, including the species homo sapiens), of killing off all plant life except a certain species or two of grass in an area in the pursuit of some cultural ideal.

We’re hoping to pasture a few chickens on the lawn, using the ingenious Egg Cart’n “chicken tractor” as a movable coop–which offers an extra incentive to limit chemicals applied. (Disclosure: my father-in-law designed and sells these things. And they are ingenious.)

We have, perhaps, a quarter-acre plot (with power lines close by), which limits, for example, the ability to plant a forest in our backyard. We’ve dedicated a bit of the space to growing vegetables, using a variant of “Square Foot Gardening” (raised beds). I did end up “nuking” some big, solid patches of dandelions with glyphosate. We hope to experiment with planting some buffalo-grass plugs and over-seeding a drought-tolerant fescue, without chemically burning down most of the many weeds (and some grasses) we have in the lawn right now–for something of a grass-based lawn (if it “takes”) without going to extremes. We’ll till up one area and seed a “bed” with a mix of lots of wildflowers. May they be helpful to some pollinators and other insects. We’d like to plant some more bushes and small trees, ideally ones friendly to birds and maybe other small wildlife.

I recently found High Country Gardens, which looks like an awesome source for sustainable lawns and plants; they have some books I’m very much looking forward to reading. Their “lawn alternative” wildflower mix looks awesome…but a bit of a stretch for our small-ish backyard. Facebook’s “Healthy Yards” page offers helpful reminders in my feed. I’ve looked a bit at the Kansas Forestry Service’s website and trees-list, and a bit (esp. re. grasses) at KS Extension Service resources. But overall, I’m running on a dearth of knowledge, a dearth of energy to explore and learn, and with competing ideals of cultural aesthetic mandates (especially in a small town, vs. completely rural–but some of which are internalized) and of responsibly living on the earth.

I find nature deeply nourishing. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature. I like growing things. I don’t feel like I have huge amounts of time to invest in them. I want to minimize use of chemicals. I do use them somewhat, and prefer not to buy things branded “organic” or “non-GMO”. I dread the depletion of the aquifer under us…and I use a water softener, reverse-osmosis system, and irrigate my lawn. I love the idea of wild, emergent natural spaces, with an ecosystem sorting itself out. I live on a plot in a small town, and think about ticks or leeches (depending on the place) and poison ivy when I’m in woods or grasses. I enjoy, and shudder at, carefully manicured English gardens. I’m deeply refreshed at the oh-so-carefully-shaped wildness of Japanese gardens. I, um, have a few internal paradoxes.

What resources do you recommend for exploring the creation of “living spaces”, with both human living and the sphere of “life” of which we’re a small part in mind?

My Mental Milieu (Covid-19 edition)

Hi all,

I’ve come to realize that my view of the world differs substantially from that of a number of friends and acquaintances. I’m also increasingly hesitant to enter the pig-pen wrestling events that constitute much of Facebook “debate”–both for my own mental health, and from an increasingly low assessment of “benefit” in cost/benefit calculations. And yet, I think some of the sources I follow do offer perspectives that others would find helpful, and are worth sharing.

So–this post is written as though a friend, who trusts me in multiple dimensions and whom I trust, had asked me for input on helpful/interesting sources of information. It’s not soliciting debate, and it’s not intended as a forum for others–I’m being closeminded and tyrannical that way. Please assume that comments submitted on blog post or FB post will be, by default, deleted or not published, with no personal insult intended. I may let some through, at my discretion. If there’s something you think would be valuable to include in this list, and that it’s likely that I’d agree, feel free to PM me or submit a comment on the blog (it’ll get snagged awaiting moderation)–again with the caveat that I may or may not respond, with no personal insult intended.

If you’re a friend, you probably have a decent idea of my biases, and we probably approximately agree about what they are. If you aren’t, you’re hereby released from the obligation to educate me about what biases you detect.

OK–so some of the sources I’ve been found helpful for good information on Covid-19 (and related subjects):

Specifically followed recently re. Covid-19:

(I don’t know either how it happened that there are three medical/bioscience professionals named Jennifer in this list!)

Jennifer Gruenke, retired biologist w/ background in virology, immunologyhttps://www.facebook.com/jennifer.gruenke.5

Jennifer L Kasten, MD, MSc, MSc – repeated source of informative posts and helpful links
Vince Staggs – biostatistician, health services researcherhttps://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008029755306
Adam Nisbetthttps://www.facebook.com/adam.nisbett
Jennifer Koontz, MD (semi-local doctor in KS, often helpful+relevant interpretations of what’s happening broadly and in KS specifically)https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.koontz.161
Dr. Erin Bromage (PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from James Cook University, Australia; says “I am not claiming to be an expert in coronaviruses, medicine, or preparedness.”)https://erinbromage.wixsite.com/covid19/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them
Whitney Tilson – I’ve actually followed him for a number of years on other subjects. His cross-promotion is a bit annoying, but he seems generally to have a good sense of numbers and trends, intellectual humility and honesty, and goodwill (and willingness to act on it), and I’ve found his Covid-19 newsletter to be a valuable input.send me a PM and I’ll send you a subscribe address for his free COVID-19 email newsletter.

“Science” pages and blogs

These are a number of pages I’ve followed for a while, and found quite valuable overall. Note that attitude, language, and other things some will find offensive are far from infrequent. If you find these valuable, I’m sure you can find other related pages that would also be interesting.

Science-Based Medicine (If I had to pick just one of these, this would probably be it.)https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/
The Credible Hulkhttps://www.facebook.com/therealcrediblehulk
Insufferably Intolerant Science Nerd*https://www.facebook.com/InsufferableIntolerance
* ( Double the “you might find content that offends you” warning for this one.)
Respectful Insolencehttps://respectfulinsolence.com/

General Publications

New Scientist (a UK weekly science mag–far from a journal, I think far from PopSci, not sure how it compares to SciAm).https://www.newscientist.com
New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com
The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/
The Economisthttps://www.economist.com/
The Conversation – news from academicshttps://theconversation.com
The Atlantic (I don’t assess this as highly as I once did; still interesting. Something like a Never-Trump Republican editorial stance.)https://theatlantic.com
Be skeptical: New York Post, Washington Times
Dismiss without a second thought: Natural News; InfoWars. And a host of others.
Interesting, potentially valuable: I recently found Flipside, a newsletter that includes both left and right on its editorial board and tries to pull in thoughtful commentary from others on both sides. Attempted “bubble-buster”. I don’t know if it’s best in genre or not.https://www.theflipside.io/

Assorted topics (already somewhat dated)

Calling Bullshit course – I’ve started but not gone far, but it seems worthwhile. A primer on practically assessing claims and narratives. Relevance is, perhaps, self-evident.https://www.callingbullshit.org/
The Hammer and the Dance – increasingly dated, but helpful in understanding the need to “hit hard” to buy time to figure out equipment, therapies, and eventually vaccines. (Hint: some places did, some didn’t, and we haven’t made terrific use of the time we bought.)https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-the-hammer-and-the-dance-be9337092b56
The two docs who own that urgent-care chain made a lousy argument. There are many critiques. One collection is here.https://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2020/04/about-those-urgent-care-doctors-in-bakersfield-theyre-wrong-heres-why.html
If you get Covid-19, it’s not just dying or going “back to normal”; there can be long-lasting effects.(1) https://www.facebook.com/barry.mangione/posts/10157600661769272

(2) “Finally, A Virus Got Me”. “”Many people think COVID-19 kills 1% of patients, and the rest get away with some flulike symptoms. But the story gets more complicated. Many people will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems. Even their neural system is disrupted. There will be hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, possibly more, who will need treatments such as renal dialysis for the rest of their lives. The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more questions arise. We are learning while we are sailing. That’s why I get so annoyed by the many commentators on the sidelines who, without much insight, criticize the scientists and policymakers trying hard to get the epidemic under control. That’s very unfair.””
“Plandemic” is full of falsehoods, and the people behind it untrustworthy. (Note that these are just a few links, and also note the caveat that I haven’t even completely read through all of them; they’re included only as representative sample.)(1) https://www.facebook.com/kathleen.weber.montgomery/posts/10113287265749743
(2) https://www.facebook.com/rickydhouse/posts/10107708071444999
(3) https://www.reddit.com/r/CovIdiots/comments/gezery/plandemic_documentary_debunked/
(4) https://respectfulinsolence.com/2020/05/06/judy-mikovits-pandemic/ (note that this doctor’s tone is far from conciliatory, which may be off-putting.)
Why antibody tests may overestimate (presumptive) immunity among the population. This is Bayesian statistics, with counterintuitive results–but ones that impressed me years ago with regard to other “mostly accurate” tests. (Note that one comment I recently saw indicated that https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/30/antibody-tests-might-be-deceptively-dangerous-blame-math/
Why conspiracy theories thrive in pandemicshttps://theconversation.com/why-pandemics-are-the-perfect-environment-for-conspiracy-theories-to-flourish-135475

Local Information

There’s a good chance many of my local friends already know about these sources of information–but for what it’s worth:

Reno County Emergency Management – the Facebook page seems like it gets the most focus in disseminating info.https://www.facebook.com/RENOEMA
KS Gov. Laura Kellyhttps://www.facebook.com/GovLauraKelly
Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce. Some good information.https://www.facebook.com/HutchChamber
Hutchinson Community Foundation – involved w/ a lot of organizations that are helping people.https://www.facebook.com/Hutchcf/
Kansas Dept of Health and Environment.https://www.facebook.com/KDHEnews

Quote: “Who Am I Being?”

“One of the different questions adult development theory lets us ask is, “Who am I being right now and is that the person I want to be?” You bring that question into your everyday life and it moves you.”

-Jennifer Garvey Berger, in Farnam Street/Knowledge Project interview. Great discussion of the self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored, and self-transforming ways of being. In general, a great map of growth in life and decision-making.

Words are the Footprints Of Thought

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…further reflections on book summaries, Socrates, knowledge, and wisdom

It strikes me that words are the footprints of thought. Words aren’t thoughts themselves; words aren’t the things themselves; words aren’t knowledge or wisdom. Words are dead. But if the footprints follow a helpful path, and you follow the path, you may walk the path into wisdom or knowledge as well.

Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing, for much the same reasons I’m somewhat skeptical of book summaries. Indeed, I’d planned, but forgot, to mention his dislike of books in my prior post. Later, when I searched online, I found this excellent article (you should read it; it’s short), with a quote of Socrates from Plato’s The Phaedrus:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

The map is not the territory; the words in a book are not the author’s thoughts. If well-chosen, the words may be helpful guides along a path of thoughts similar to that which the author followed, but knowledge and wisdom are attributes of people, not of words.

In travel, guidebooks and tour guides can be helpful orientations to places, can even in themselves be enjoyable and educational experiences. And yet, a “guided tour” of a place is an entirely different experience than to inhabit that place. Perhaps it’s so with books and authors. The mere act of writing and reading (or speaking and listening) mediates the flow of wisdom and knowledge between two people, perhaps constricting it, certainly re-shaping it.

I’ve visited Darjeeling. It’s a lovely place, with mountain air, wonderful food, old hotels. I could recommend several restaurants, a lovely little hotel, and several experiences to you. Perhaps you could say I know a bit about Darjeeling.

But several years ago, tourism to Darjeeling stopped for a time. A community center was burned; there were burning tires in the streets. I could give you only a laughably sparse sketch of the reasons for this. I don’t know, in any meaningful way, the experience of those who live there, of the tensions within the community in Darjeeling and beyond.

I know a bit about Darjeeling. I’ve been there. But really, I don’t know Darjeeling. Those who live there know the place more than I–but even they know portions of it, from limited perspectives.

If you want to know Darjeeling, go there. Enjoy the experiences. Then seek out the people who live there, across the various ethnicities. Listen deeply to them; learn the joys and frustrations. Live there yourself. And then, you’ll actually know a portion of Darjeeling.

We read books seeking wisdom and knowledge. They’re often amazingly effective as guides of thought, for being only blots of ink on a sheet of plant fiber–but they are guides only, flawed mediators of thought, valuable only insofar as they lead us to “re-think”, or to think anew, things that are valuable.

Seek to think, to learn wisdom for yourself, to discover for yourself–and you’ll find the words on the page to be powerful allies. Seek a shallow knowledge, and you’ll receive it, a gilding for the lead of your being. Your guides will lead you to what you seek.

(Oh, curse self-awareness. The above felt really meaningful while I was writing it, but it faded to glurge. I’m publishing anyway. The core idea is at the start: words are “footprints”, they won’t do the work for you, and if you expect them to do so, you’ll end up with nothing worthwhile. Friends who write: constructive criticism welcome (here or via e-mail). I don’t mind rambling a bit, but how does one ramble well? Perhaps the biggest problem is that I started pontificating somewhere along the way. Generally a bad idea, probably especially when one’s tired.)

Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

Are book-summary services valuable innovation, or valueless semblance of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer. I do, though, have several thoughts.

Against: they’re abominations!

  • My instinct: they’re extreme abridgements, and can’t help but do violence to an author’s message. Shane Parrish, a gent I highly respect, describes book summaries as being put together by 22-year-olds who don’t have your life experience, insight, or context–and as really not useful.
  • They build an appetite for “snacking” rather than for thoughtful engagement. Even if they accurately represent the content, the work of reading is part of actual absorbing what you read in a meaningful way.
  • They kill the aesthetic in favor of the utilitarian.
  • They make you, and others, think you know more than you actually know, offering a shallow appearance of knowledge or wisdom rather than the real thing.
  • More than that, they let others seem more knowledgeable and wiser than they are! Grr!

For: they’re really useful!

  • All reading is skimming. I think that’s actually another insight I gained from Parrish. You’ll never read all the books out there. You might not even finish most books you start. Is it better to not encounter an idea at all, or to encounter it in possibly-distorted, possibly-oversimplified form?
  • Books are often way too wordy. Carol Dweck’s Mindset has a powerful idea, but struck me as stuffed full of fluff. Some other books bearing brilliant ideas have nonetheless been tortuous reads. Summaries get to the point!
  • A summary can be useful as a “preview” of a book, as a roadmap of the author’s ideas and the book’s structure.
  • A summary can be useful for a book you know you’ll never read.


My gut reaction to summary services is abhorrence. And I just now downloaded a number of summaries, and also recently subscribed to a “summary-ish” service. I have getAbstract access through my membership in a professional association, and think I will find value in the summaries. I think there is value in them, in “tasting” books and ideas. But the idea of them is deeply prosaic, deeply “grey”, deeply…well, the medicine one must swallow, not the delightful confection one dreams of. And it’s really sad to have knowledge or insight as “medicine”, not the stuff of delight but the stuff of necessity.

I’m not going to gush over summary services, but I think they have a place, a useful role. And they feel like a desecration of the art of writing. Bah, humbug, and all that.

What are your thoughts?

Three-Minute Thought: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

Three-Minute Thought: On Facts and Understanding

It strikes me that to “know” something without a rich set of context is, at best, a weak and impoverished knowledge. It’s not a binary thing; all of us are imperfect “knowers”. But the more we rely on what we “know that we know” to order the world, the higher the barriers we erect to our own learning, and the further behind our potential we will fall. Books that come to mind:

  • Changing On the Job, by Jennifer Garvey Berger, on “forms of mind”.
  • The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, a speculation on life and afterlife as fulfillment of one’s desires. Offers a rich analogy with the “mundane” domain of knowledge.
  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregersen, a book I highly recommend that argues for the importance of seeking out “unknown unknowns” and that offers some tools to do so.