Discover more from The Ruffian
If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall
In this edition: the biggest mystery in history, the best selling sandals in the world, and why oh why do we grow old?
One of the big dispositional differences between individuals is how strongly they feel the need to pull information or insight out of others. Some do this instinctively and often, others do it infrequently or not at all. I'm in the first group. If I'm talking to someone who knows more than me about something (ie nearly always), I ask questions. I invite them to tell me more. I don't do this out of politeness (well sometimes I do, but that's if I'm not interested in the topic) but out of a selfish and vampiric urge to suck whatever knowledge or wisdom I can out of that person while they're with me. This observation was prompted by "Ten Rules For Students And Teachers", an excellent list created by the artist Sister Corita Kent and popularised by John Cage. Rule 2 is "Pull everything out of your teacher. Pull everything out of your fellow students." This isn't only a rule for students, however. Teachers who turn to their colleagues for advice are more effective than those who don't, and entrepreneurs who take advice from peers are more likely to succeed. Bob knows.
I have a pair of Birkenstocks I bought a few years ago and while I was dimly aware they'd undergone a reinvention since their previous cultural incarnation as the choice of ageing hippies, I hadn't quite realised, until reading this, the scale of their new success. Sales have tripled since 2012, to $800m worldwide, which is not bad for sandals. In fact it's amazing. The product is simple and eminently copiable. The brand isn't the sexiest or most vibrant. But this German, family-run (since 1774) business makes a product that has become a global phenomenon and is, thanks in part to some clever marketing, more successful than it's ever been. The article is a joy to read, not least because the company's CEO, Oliver Reichert, makes for a dream interviewee: unguarded, expressive, irreverent and funny.
I have two podcast episodes to recommend. Actually three. The first is from the Rationally Speaking podcast, hosted by Julia Galef. Frankly I could have picked any of these, I strongly recommend investigating the whole series. Julia is a superb interviewer, capable of drawing out the nuances of complex ideas and gently probing for blind spots. In this episode she talks to the historian Gregory Clark about what may be the most important and mysterious event in history: the Industrial Revolution. Why did it happen when it did? Why did it happen in Britain? In short, there's no definitive answer, but a ton of intriguing theories, and several juicy insights into the nature of innovation. (Favourite bit: Clark explains that other nations were generating clever innovations during the same period, but for reason their's tended not to be as economically productive as Britain's. Asked for an example, he says, "The French invented the hot air balloon." Bless!) My second rec. is this rich and fascinating conversation between Ezra Klein (also a terrific interviewer) and the conservative thinker Arthur Brooks. Their subject is the nature of disagreement, which is something I'm writing about for a new book. Klein and Brooks discuss why political discourse has become so poisonous. Brooks's central contention is that in politics, as in marriage, the deadliest toxin is not anger but contempt. Funnily enough, we discuss the role of anger in politics in the latest edition of Polarised, the podcast I do with Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Our guest was Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas. It's probably my favourite episode so far.
This tweet thread from the American novelist Charles Finch, on what he's learned about writing from other writers, is completely brilliant. Here's one of the things he's learned from Virginia Woolf: "The constant assessment of how similar or dissimilar you are from other people". That struck a particular chord with me, just because it's something I do all the time. It's a mental habit, and probably not a bad one. (It's not to be confused with "...how good or bad I am compared with other people"; I mean obviously I do that too, but that one's not so healthy).
IS AGE A DISEASE?
Here's another mystery: life. I mean, the biological fact of life. The second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, may be summarised as "everything goes to shit". Buildings crumble, ships rust, mountains crumble to the sea. There's nothing those materials can do about that. But biological organisms put up some resistance. They are little pockets of order in a disorderly world: stays against the chaos, albeit temporary ones. As this lucidly written article puts it, "life pits biology against physics". And the truth is that while scientists know quite a lot about the mechanisms and symptoms of ageing - telomere fraying and all that - they still don't understand its fundamental cause. Do we grow old and die because our bodies just wear out (physics) or because we are programmed to do so (biology)?
MARTHA MY DEAR
It's one of Paul's silliest Beatles lyrics - I mean it's addressed to his dog, c'mon - but the melody and rhythm are intricate and complex, and yet somehow completely irresistible, which is a very Beatles trick. All of which is to say I totally love this nerd bluegrass cover version.
Thank you for reading the irregular Ruffian. I would be super grateful if you could spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or via email.