The Epistolary

Read. Think. Write. Repeat.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been waking up at a reasonably early time, a little before 7am. This is also the time of year when, in the Northern hemisphere, the days are starting to get longer, with sunrise happening earlier and sunset happening later. Together these mean that I’ve been awake just as the sun has been making it’s way up past the horizon. Right now, I’m grateful to be living in an apartment with large north-facing windows that look out onto some woods, where the trees are still brown with their branches empty, and there’s still a gradually diminishing layer of snow on the ground. And so, my mornings have been starting with the sun come up and gradually painting the trees varying shades of brown, yellow and gold. Paired with a cup of coffee and a good read, it’s been a very centering way of starting the day.

One of the few good things to have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the normalization of remote work, which means that more often that not I don’t have to rush out the door in the morning. Being able to slow start the morning in this way has been really nice, and will definitely be something I miss if we go back to a more normal mode of work.

My experience of the mornings have been made sharper by the knowledge that this experience is temporary and fleeting (I suppose a few years of meditation and reading about Buddhism is starting to leave tracks in the brain). Each day’s light show is over in a few minutes, but also, even now the sun rises early enough that I miss the first, most golden painting of the trees. Soon, I’m going to be missing it entirely. By the time my lease is up in June, the trees will be more green than brown, and the days will be more filled with light than not. But perhaps by then, I would have found a different way to brighten up my morning routine.

It’s almost two months into the new year, and what an eventful two months it’s been! The winter weather continues here in Massachusetts. There are a couple feet of snow on the ground, and a dusting of snow on the trees. I spent the morning watching the sun come up and make the snowy trees glow. My north-facing windows means I get to see this light show twice a day. Today it’s bright and sunny and the sky is clear with some white clouds in the distance, and that makes the biting cold worth it.

And with the stage set, here’s the first Sunday Selection the year. Enjoy!

Why I (Still) Carry a Notebook Everywhere

I’ve been journaling (on and off) by hand for several years now, and though I also carry a pocket notebook everywhere, I can’t say I really use it very much. But the experiences and stresses of the last few years (and being stuck at home for long periods of time) have given me a new appreciation for the importance of being present and really observing and paying attention to the world around me. And while meditation and regular walks have helped with that, maybe more diligent use of my notebook would be another step in the right direction.

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

As readers of this site might know, I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism over the last few years, in addition to practicing meditation. It’s interesting to see similar ideas pop up in all kinds of other places, such as this article. Though Alan Lightman is talking about the origins and evolution of the physical universe, he very eloquently tells us about how everything is transient, changing and in a constant change of evolution. He also makes a fascinating argument, from a scientific standpoint, that the Self is an illusion. But even if you’re not looking for Buddhist insights in non-Buddhist writing, but are simply curious about the universe and our place in it, this is a wonderful read.

As an aside, this is an article from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova, which I feature here on a regular basis. One of the things I like so much about Popova’s style is how she doesn’t shy away from writing beautifully long, meandering, yet very coherent sentences!

How to Want Less

And from the universal to something much closer to home. I’ve been following Arthur Brooks’ series on happiness in The Atlantic over the last few months, and this is perhaps his most comprehensive article on the subject. Again, it’s interesting to see Buddhist themes pop up in other places, and this time it’s the idea of non-attachment to your goals and ambitious. It’s a long read, but stick through it and you’ll be rewarded with ideas and advice that are both philosophical and actionable.

Midnight Mass

At some point in the last few years I got really into watching horror shows. I even worked my way through The Strain in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and then gradually went through American Horror Story. While I’ve enjoyed all of those, Midnight Mass is my new favorite. There are interesting characters, philosophical musings, a careful soundtrack, a slow buildup, ample twists and turns and an absolutely explosive and unexpected ending. I’ve been careful not to binge-watch it because there are only 7 hour-long episodes and I’ve been wanting to stretch out and savor the experience as much as I can.

I saw the first signs of ice on the local water bodies while on a walk today. It may not technically be winter yet, but it’s definitely coming. The days are getting short, uncomfortably short, and though I am a fan of brisk winter weather, I also like the sun being out. Thankfully it hasn’t been too cloudy yet, so I make it a point to get out at least for a walk every day. But all that being said, I see myself spending a lot more time at home and indoors in general. Which brings me to:

Do Dishes, Rake Leaves: The Wisdom of the Ancient Homemakers

I’ll freely admit that housework is an acquired taste for me, and even today I try to keep most of it limited to one or two days a week. But I also like the end result, so I’ve been trying to dislike it less. And being mindful of what I’m doing helps. While you should definitely go read the whole thing, this excerpt gets to the point:

Nothing is worth the measure we give it, because worth doesn’t really exist. It is a figment of our judging minds, an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of imaginary distinctions, and one more way we withhold ourselves from the whole enchilada of life that lies before us.

If nothing is worth it, why cook? Why shop and chop, boil and toil and clean up after? To engage yourself in the marvel of your own being. To see the priceless in the worthless. To find complete fulfillment in being unfilled. And to eat something other than your own inflated self-importance. That’s what we empty when we empty the bowl, and a busy kitchen gives us the chance to empty ourselves many times a day.

MD Nichrome: on Spacing and Sci-Fi

This article combines a number of my favorite things: science fiction, typefaces, design and art history. It’s a long read, but chock-full of beautiful, well-researched images and examples. If you want to learn a decent amount of history about design and typefaces used in science fiction, and also see a typeface come into being, pour yourself a fresh cup coffee and get comfortable!

Things Learned Blogging and How to Blog

It’s getting to the end of a year, sadly another year where I realize that I wrote much less than I would have liked to. Though I don’t agree with all the things (especially the parts about technology), I agree with the general theme. In particular, one of the reasons I started writing Sunday Selections was as a forcing function to write regularly, though unfortunately that happens less often than I like. Again, new year, new hopes. We’ll see.

Lost in Space Season 3

Lost in Space is one of my favorite recent science fiction TV shows. I don't like it quite as much The Expanse, but it's a close second. I think it's a big improvement on the original and does a very good job of updating the characters and themes and introducing interesting storylines. It's not perfect, the characters are a little one-dimensional, and there are some plot holes, but overall I enjoy it a lot.

Summer is saying goodbye here in New England, there are pops of red and yellow among the green and the weather is starting to get cooler (while staying more cloudy than I would like it to be). To me, summer felt like a long period of rest, and though COVID still abounds, life is more normal now than not. I have something of a social life again, I’m going out to restaurants (though preferably outdoors, while the weather holds up), and I’m going in to a physical office a couple days a week. Life finds a way.

Today, we have a couple of closely related articles, and after a long time, some book talk. By the way, I realized that I have access to a New York Times subscription via my institution, so expect to see more links to their articles in the future. Since they will be paywalled to most readers, I’ll try to keep them from taking up too much space.

Keep Track of the Tiny Details and Keep Keeping a Logbook

The first of these was from the beginning of the pandemic, when as the sameness of the days kept building, time seemed to become meaningless. The second is from now, when I, for one, have been having a hard time readjusting to the flow of time, and trying to keep at bay the feeling of it slipping through my fingers like so much time. Like the author I find keeping a log of some sort to be helpful. One day I might go back through them and take a look at all the entries, but for now it reminds me that today I did and experienced things I did not yesterday.

The Inner Ring of the Internet and Rewilding Your Attention

Attention is, of course, intimately related to the passage of time. After all, what is attention but the investment of time (intentionally or not)? These days, as the ills of algorithmic social media become increasingly apparent, reclaiming our attention seems to be coming to the forefront of our collective consciousness. As these posts tell us, being aware of where our attention is and why is crucial, both in terms of creation and consumption. In particular, while algorithms may be tuned to show us what’s popular, that’s not necessarily the same as what’s good or important.

Epicene design information

The unassuming title of this articles belies the rich treasure trove of history and culture that it contains. I am certainly a type nerd, though I’m not always interested in the history behind particular designs or trends. But this piece managed to weave together the history of a set of typefaces, the social, economic and political contexts surrounding them, and placed them in relevant cultural contexts of gender and changing tastes. It’s a long read, but very much worth it.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

I finally managed to finish Olivia Laing’s wonderful book on loneliness, which as I’ve mentioned before, defies neat summarization. It’s a memoir, a history book, cultural and artistic critique, and much more than the sum of its parts. Though maybe not quite as relevant as it was a year ago, I think we will come to look at it as being essentially timeless.

I decided to revisit my youth by picking up a copy of the Silmarillion that I’m now pouring through. That being said, I think I ought to finally read Dune before the movie comes out.


A few days ago, author Austin Kleon wrote a post critiquing the growing culture of summarizing books instead of actually reading them. His critique is two-fold. First, if a book can in fact be adequately summarized, perhaps it is not worth reading in full in the first place. A corollary to that then is that books that are harder to summarize are more valuable. Having just finished Olivia Laing’s excellent The Lonely City, I find myself agreeing with this. I’ve tried summarizing it in conversation with friends multiple times and I never feel like I’m doing the book justice.

Kleon’s second critique is that if a book can be summarized, is it worth writing in the first place? He talks about the current book publishing process where a book is sold based on a proposal, in effect a summary, the marketing beginning even before the book is written. Kleon says:

This is the sensible, professional way of working, but for me it is a kind of creative death, antithetical to the reason I write in the first place: to discover what I know, or discover what I don’t want to know, to invent something on the page that couldn’t exist unless I went to the page to have an experience in the first place.

Having never published a book, I’m not in a position to comment on his main argument. However, I think Kleon is describing a sort of essay, which according to Merriam-Webster is, an “analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view”, or alternately “an initial tentative effort”. That is, an essay is fundamentally an exploration, an exercise in considering a topic from different perspectives, often personal, and not necessarily coming to a definite conclusion. An essay is a thought process, in written form.

Aside: it’s not lost on me that this definition of essay is the complete opposite of the typical meaning adopted by educational systems around the world (at least, the ones I’ve been exposed to). Most “essay questions” on homeworks or exams expect persuasive answers, presenting arguments and guiding the reader towards a definitive conclusion, the anti-thesis of the above definition.

By contrast, a monograph is: “a learned treatise on a small area of learning” (also from Merriam-Webster). Writing a monograph will probably require exploration, investigation and learning, but that is not the point of the writing. They are complementary and perhaps interleaved processes, but unlike an essay, they are not the same process. A monograph is a summary (or at least a survey) of knowledge in a particular area. A PhD dissertation, for example, is closer to a monograph than it is to an essay. This post, and Kleon’s, are closer to essays than it they are to monographs.

At the end of Kleon’s post, he asks:

Maybe there’s a third path here. Maybe it’s possible to write something that is easily summarized but impossible to sum up…

I wonder if monographs fit that bill.


The Scholars of Night, by John M. Ford

I’ve been a science fiction buff since I was child, growing up on classic writers like Heinlein and Asimov (yes, I’m excited about the Foundation TV series, no, I’m not getting Apple TV just to watch it). But I admit this was the first time I ever heard of John M. Ford, even though he seems to be highly regarded by some of my contemporary favorites like Neil Gaiman, Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow. It seems like most of his literary works have been in legal limbo for the last few decades, but new editions of his writing are being released. Doctorow’s brief blurb about Scholars of Night sounds very interesting and makes me want to read the rest of his work.

Having Too Much or Too Little Free Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-being

I found this paper via Cal Newport on the source of the desire to be productive. As the title suggests, both having too much and too little time results in people reporting lower levels of well-being. So the possibly multi-million-dollar question: how much free time is “just right”? The answer seems to be a little more than two hours a day, but less than five hours. Of course, the definition of “free time” is complicated, and there are a number of complicating factors, as the paper explores in detail. This adds some fuel to a pet theory I’ve been developing: the term “productivity” is overloaded and we really should be using more fine-grained terms for the different kinds of activities we’re talking about.

Understanding ProRAW

With new iPhones just released, this seems like a good time to talk about a feature Apple announced with their previous round of iPhones: ProRAW, a new format for digital images that combines raw data from the camera’s sensor, with some of the computational smarts that Apple has been hard at work on. Even if you have only a passing interest in photography, computational or otherwise, this is a very interesting read.

Two perspectives on the designer who Steve Jobs couldn’t hire

Coming back full circle to giants in their fields who are relatively unknown, this article talks about Richard Sapper, a contemporary of Dieter Rams. Sapper is the designer of (among other things) the IBM ThinkPad 701 and the Alessi 9090 espresso machine. Though I’ve heard of both of those things before, Sapper was unknown to me. This article covers a number of his creations, his design philosophy and contains pointers to documentaries and books about him.


Summer is drawing to a close in this part of the world, temperatures are starting to dip, and we managed to escape the worst of both Henri and Ida (though the ground is now thoroughly saturated with water). Meanwhile, the Delta variant continues to rage, though not as much as in some other parts of the country. Still, with college students coming back and schools reopening, numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better. That being said, I’m glad to be living and working in one of the most vaccinated communities in the country and am probably going to start going back to the office, at least for a few days per week. A large part of the reason I like being an academic is being surrounded by excellent colleagues and collaborators. It’s something I’ve sorely missed over the past year and half, and it will be good to be in that environment again.

Resilience is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure

The last year has probably left all of us tired and on edge, especially if you’re living in the US. And while there’s still a lot going on (and probably always will be), it’s not possible to be working all day every day, even on important issues, without burning out. Like many things in life, being able to rest and recover is a skill that we have to learn and practice.

7 Science-backed Methods To Get Out Of Your Head

For me, one of the side-effects of being home all the time is that it’s very easy for me to get stuck inside my own head. This past year has made me realize just how much I depended on being around other people to not get lost in my own thoughts (though writing for an unseen audience does help with that somewhat). Though I’m not a fan of this article’s click-bait-y title, the points themselves make sense, and some of them are things I’ve been trying to do on my own.

The Lonely City by Olivia Lang

Talking about being home alone, I’ve been working my way through Olivia Lang’s excellent book that talks about both her experiences of living alone in New York City, interspersed with detailed histories and observations about how various people and movements in the city’s past have dealt with being alone. Lang is a brilliant writer who manages to weave together personal anecdotes, biographies and social history into a diverse, coherent whole. It’s a highly recommended read even for people who don’t find themselves in lonely cities.


Since the beginning of the summer, I’ve been mostly feeling a sense of neutrality. Definitely not unhappy, not quite happy, somewhere in between, better than ‘meh’. It doesn’t feel bad, but it does feel uncomfortable, at least sometimes. However, I suspect this is more to do with our cultural narrative surrounding happiness, than with the actual state of mind that I’m in. Culturally we’re conditioned to think that if we’re not happy, we’re unhappy, that happiness must be pursued, and unhappiness avoided (often at all costs). But I’m starting to suspect that is not actually true, and that the pursuit of happiness is in fact one of the contributing factors to unhappiness.

Thankfully it seems I’m not alone in thinking this. Psychologists like Roy Baumeister, Martin Seligman and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl all seem to agree that meaning is separate from happiness. Crucially, while happiness is fleeting and often produced by external circumstances and events, meaning is enduring, transcending both time and the self. The interplay of meaning and happiness seem to (somewhat cruelly) describe the human condition: learning from the past and planning for the future is crucial to meaning, but happiness requires being present.

Leaving aside meaning, I want to focus on the question, if not happiness, then what? Specifically, I think we often forget that there is a lot of space between happiness and unhappiness. Towards the bottom of that space, closer to unhappiness, is the feeling of ‘meh’. Things aren’t bad per se, but they’re not good either. Staying in this space for long periods of time is not good for us, and it’s worth putting in substantial effort to getting out of this state. But in between ‘meh’ and happy is a very large space where things are not perfect, but quite good. Let’s call this space ‘contentment’.

I suspect that this is a space where many of us spend a lot of our time. In this space there are lots of good things: a stable living situation, food and shelter, satisfying employment. But there are also some bad things: maybe a lack of relationships or friendships, a bit too much work and a bit too little pay, that one coworker you simply cannot stand. And while it’s perhaps worthwhile to try and change some of these things, it’s not worth spending a large amount of time and effort. Instead, a good life requires learning to rest and abide in this space, without feeling the need to be constantly moving towards ‘happy’.

Contentment is a plateau, if unhappiness is a trench, and ‘meh’ is a plain (it’s ok, but it’s humid, floods sometimes and gets swampy), happiness is the mountain range that can sometimes seem very far away. When you’re content, the air is cooler and clearer, you can see further and get a clearer view of what’s around you. But most crucially, the ground is firm and stable, you can build and settle. That’s something you can’t do either in the swamp, or on the side of a mountain. From the plateau you can take trips to the mountains, even if you need to go down into the plains sometimes. On the plateau, you can live a life.


We've had a couple days of actually good summer weather here, though we have a week of cloudiness to look forward to. I've been using the good weather to replenish my Vitamin D stores. Yesterday I ended up walking for 5 miles, got some ice cream, ate it outside and took a chunk out of my backlog of Brain Pickings articles. And that brings us to our first selection of the week:

The Woman Who Saved the Hawks

Though ostensibly focused on pioneering conservator Rosalie Edge, and her featuring in the book Beloved Beasts, Brain Pickings writer Maria Popova gives us also gives us a glimpse into the start of the conservation movement, through the eyes of Edge, Rachel Carson, and a number of both beautiful and horrifying images of birds. My long walk yesterday took me through some protected wetlands, and yes, gave me glimpses of a number of birds along the way, making this article particularly timely.

How to Find Focus

Like a lot of people, the last few years have done a number on my ability to focus. Even before the pandemic and political turmoil of 2020 and early 2021, doomscrolling, the addictive, engineered dopamine hits of social media threatened to make any kind of deep focus a thing of the past. While I'm working on improving my focus in the short time (mostly by staying offline as much as possible), this article talks about focus on longer timescales: focus (or perhaps more accurately, direction) can be a result of exploring a number of options first, and then deciding which ones are best for you.

In Times of Crisis, Draw Upon the Strength of Peace

While I've been enjoying the last few days, it's not lost on me that we live in complicated times (socially, politically, environmentally) and that we are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. These times will be marathons, not sprints, especially if we want to achieve lasting positive change, and not just survival. In that light, it's important to “put on your own oxygen mask first”, make sure you do the things needed to ground yourself and maintain your own sanity and safety. As this article tells us, there is no way to peace, peace is the way. (An Anti-Mandalorian credo of sorts?)