The Monthly Mind Meal - February 2021

Things worth sharing.

I’m going to try something new. You’re reading the first edition of the “Monthly Mind Meal”, a medley of all the things I’ve learned or discovered in the past month that I found interesting, smart, or otherwise worth sharing. I’ll be doing this on the last Friday of each month, replacing my regular weekly article.

So it begins…

Did You Know?

Some interesting things I’ve learned recently:

  • Did you know that the Panama Canal was almost built through Nicaragua instead?

  • There’s vague talk by the U.K. government of building an undersea tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. I’m not sure what to think of this ambitious idea, but I’ve learned that any engineer who tackles it is going to face an interesting obstacle. Did you know there’s a million tons of explosives at the bottom of the Irish Sea?

  • Did you know that in 1902 Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany drew up unrealised plans to invade the United States?

  • You’ve probably heard of Dolly, the cloned sheep whose existence was announced 24 years ago this week. But do you know why she was given that name? It’s because she was cloned from DNA taken from a sheep’s mammary gland, and to quote head scientist Ian Wilmut: “we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.” I’ll file that under “jokes you wouldn’t get away with in 2021.”

  • Did you know that in the aftermath of the First World War, when international delegates were meeting in Paris to discuss the peace terms, American president Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe illness that was almost certainly Spanish Flu? According to the book The Great Influenza, Wilson completely changed his attitude to the negotiations after getting sick, and granted enormous concessions to the French that he’d previously refused to consider. No-one can be sure, but the author speculates that without that bout of flu, the Treaty of Versailles might have been far less punitive to Germany, depriving Hitler and co. of the grievances that propelled them to power. Makes you think.

  • Ever heard of the 1991 Downing Street mortar attack? This month was the 30th anniversary. I imagine most people my age have never heard of this attempted assassination of Prime Minister John Major - but that’s only because the IRA missed. We can only speculate about how different the U.K. would look today if a single Irishman had adjusted his aim by as little as five degrees.

Check This Out

Deutsche Welle’s short documentary on the fentanyl epidemic is a disturbing glimpse of the human cost of this crisis:

It’s set in Vancouver, but from what I understand a similar story could be told in basically any major West Coast city. DW zoom in on a motley cast of junkies - all of whom are walking warnings about the dangers of drugs - to show you what an opioid epidemic looks like in practice. The general vibe is of suffering and despair. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, a young man shoots up on camera then expounds at length about the misery that addiction has wrought upon his life and family. I’ll show this clip to my kids if I want to make sure they stay sober.

The film concludes by extolling the success of Vancouver’s “harm reduction” programs - needle exchanges, safe-injection sites, etc. - and advocating their expansion. On the other hand, the journalist Chris Rufo casts doubt upon the supposed success of these initiatives and questions the underlying philosophy of harm reduction. I’m not sure what to think, but I know the DW film is well worth 40 minutes of your time.

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Reading Material

Some good articles I’ve read lately:

  • You know what the best thing is about successfully completing a job search? Finally being able to deactivate my LinkedIn account again. The site is insufferable, and this is a great article about exactly that: LinkedIn’s Alternate Universe.

  • This short biography of Xi Jinping taught me a few things about modern China.

  • Writing in The Atlantic, Gary Kayima has said everything I’d want to say and more about San Fransciso’s recent decision (now postponed, thankfully) to rename a swathe of its schools.

  • I don’t know how much sense it will make if you don’t have a background in software, but I learned a lot from “DNA seen through the eyes of a coder” an introduction to DNA explained through analogies to coding.

  • There’s a lot of buzz these days about the therapeutical potential of psychedelic drugs, but Tim Ferriss urges us to consider the environmental cost. If current trends continue we might drive certain psychedelic-producing species extinct within years, and their loss will be a spiritual tragedy. I can’t say I’d considered this side of the equation before.

  • Have you ever wondered what it would take to destroy the Earth? Not just wiping out humanity - that’s way too easy - I mean destroying the big ball of rock we’re standing on, Death Star-style. Someone with more free time than me has catalogued all the ways in which one could obliterate, disintegrate or otherwise annihilate the planet we call home, ranking the methods by feasibility, and it makes for surprisingly entertaining reading: How to destroy the Earth.

  • The U.K.'s vaccination rollout appears to be going well, but we can’t hold a menorah to Israel, which has by far the highest vaccination rate of any country so far. How did they do it? This article explains the various reasons why; there’s a lot for other countries to learn.

  • Want to lower your heating bills? One blogger has an ingenious solution: use the waste heat from Bitcoin mining to warm up your home.

As for books, I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first in a trilogy of novels about colonisation of the Red Planet. All I can say is that I hope the real-life colonisation of Mars is more exciting than this snooze-fest. Read my full review here, and if you want a good novel about Mars exploration I recommend The Martian (the source material for that Matt Damon movie) much more than this.

I also wrote a review of Ryan Holiday’s book Conspiracy; read it here.

Don’t Check This Out

Thanks to COVID I’ve been watching more movies-per-month lately than I typically get through in a year. The recommendable ones have all been big, popular titles you’ve already heard of (except maybe the Iranian film A Separation; watch it), but the least recommendable was definitely Annihilation, a total waste of two hours. I’d write a full review, but there’s nothing I can add to the Critical Drinker’s profane, poop-joke-filled analysis below:

Alright, as the Drinker himself would say: that’s all I’ve got for today. Go away now.

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Image credit: Bjorn Snelders on Unsplash