Hearing a place

One of the countless details that define contemporary New York is the subway experience, and it’s no surprise that the voice of the subway is a long time Bloomberg announcer. I think one of the marks of a successful mayorship is that both big things and small things changed for the better. This is one example of one of the “small things” that nonetheless plays a big day-to-day impact and shapes a part of the New York experience for millions. I don’t think his voice covers every line, but it covers at least the newer cars.

Check the 4:10 mark for a cool look at one of the subway’s coolest closed stations.

Iron and blood

Rosa Brooks writes on the Islamic State, riffing on Von Bismarck’s view that “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided, … but by iron and blood.”

I’ve been following news on the Islamic State since their dramatic appearance on the world stage. So much about the Islamic State and its strategy and brutality have baffled us. It just seems incomprehensible that a regime could appear in the way they have, murder Christians and enemy fighters in the way they have, usher in the return of slavery and sexual violence in the way they have, and essentially get away with it. Brooks contributes to this conversation by pointing out that if the Islamic State survives the next few years, their presence as a member of the international community could become normalized after a certain point. It’s a terrible scenario, and it’s a reminder that the stakes of statecraft are higher than most of those living have experienced firsthand in most cases.

The appearance and survival of the Islamic State reveals two things I’d like to comment on. First, their existence rebuts the nonsense phrase people often trot out about being on “the right side of history” on some social or political issue. As Jay Nordlinger pointed out a few years ago, “history doesn’t have sides, though historians do.” To talk about history having “sides” is to imply that history is some personified thing, apparently with Western liberal values that inexorably march on. That’s patently false. If the Islamic State wins, their historians will tell a story of their rise and authority that’s much different from what any surviving Iraqi Christians might remember. 

Second, and to Brooks’s larger point, their potential for long term existence is a reminder that while we’re familiar within living memory with a world where there are clear winners and losers (for instance, the unconditional surrender in World War II of Axis forces, a type of surrender the West demanded that I think was unprecedented in modern warfare), the future may end up looking less black and white, and a lot more grey.


I’m in Ocean City, New Jersey this week. Going down the shore is something so many Philadelphians know as a part of the tradition of family life, and it’s been part of mine for most of my life, though we converted to New Jersey from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the late 1990s.

One of the benefits to vacation (at least the kind of vacation worth having) is time for reflection. It’s been a good year, and a lot of good work and projects have been accomplished so far. I’m excited about the weeks and months to come, which are going to bring some significant changes.

One thing I know I want to continue is the habit of daily writing. It’s something I’ve been able to get comfortable with, and as a sort of public journal, sounding board, and sharing device it’s been rewarding. I’ve been writing mostly for me so far, though getting into next year I want to figure out how to make the writing here a bit more widely useful.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying where the year has taken me.

Shakespeare memorial

Over the weekend I was in Philadelphia and went with a friend from Old City to Brewerytown to check out the neighborhood. We Ubered there for $10, but it was a beautiful day and we ended up with more time than we expected so we walked back through Fairmount Park and across the city.

On Logan Circle near the Free Library we came across this Shakespeare Memorial. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but I hadn’t really looked at it before.

What does Shakespeare imply? If all the world’s a stage, and we’re but players, we’ve got a responsibility to put on a good show.

Dreher’s Dante

I started reading Rod Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life” the other day and am really enjoying it so far. It’s a book in some senses about a man’s mid life crisis in modern America. It’s also a book about how literature and the solace that so much of great writing like Dante’s Divine Comedy provides can “save your life.”

“In our secular age, we no longer believe we are part of any universal story. We are free to choose our own narratives, which means we can follow our hearts. If there is no story except the one we write for ourselves, we are liberated to do whatever we like.

The trouble with this is that to be free from the imposition of someone else’s story means we become slaves to our own passions. If there is no story that is objectively true, how can we know when we’ve chosen correctly? If it feels good, do it; if it feels right, believe it, may strike you as the only sensible guide to conduct. This is how many people think today.

When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life. You wake up one day and wonder, Where am I? How did I get here? How do I get home? This is where Dante, the pilgrim, finds himself in the opening lines of the Inferno:

“Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
[Inferno I:1–3]”

WordPress iOS share sheet

Since starting to write regularly on mobile I’ve been using the WordPress iOS app. I’ve written before about it and it’s generally slow pace of development. I’d bet “deliberate” might be a fairer word to use, but as a user it just feels like Automattic hasn’t properly staffed WordPress’s mobile team.

Earlier this year WYSIWYG visual editing finally came to WordPress’s iOS app. A hugely welcome and overdue development. Since I wrote about wanting that shortly before it was released, I’ll try to channel that regarding another feature that I’d desperately like to see.

The WordPress iOS app needs to add support for the iOS “share sheet.” A lot of what I write is inspired by or quotes from other sources on the web. Yet if I’m reading something from Twitter or in Safari or wherever, and I tap to share, there’s no way for me to “share” that link into WordPress to start a post. I can message a link to someone, or even paste a link along with a highlighted excerpt into a third party app like Todoist, but I can’t do any of that into WordPress.

I don’t intend to write about every feature that I think WordPress is missing; but like the former absence of the visual editor, support for the iOS share sheet seems like it should be so obvious.

Relationships shape us

“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.” —Pope Benedixt XVI

Christianity is much more about a relationship with a person than it is some vague spirituality. Pope Benedict’s commentary here is a reminder of that, along with the implication that every relationship of consequence involves commitment, bears unexpected fruits, brings undesired costs, and is ultimately something that transforms us as a person. To know someone is to be willing to be changed by them.

The best books

Jennifer Maloney writes on the “rise of phone reading,” where publishers are seeing more readers engaging books through their phones and are actually seeing a decrease in readership from the iPad and Kindle population.

Specifically: 54% of digital buyers are using their phone to read at least some of the time, and 14% are reading primarily through their phones. Tablet reading declined from 44% to 41% of readers, and Kindle reading dropped massively from 50% to 32% of readers.

This is credited more or less to the increase in iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screen sizes, and backed up by this insight:

“The best device to read on is the one you have with you,” said Willem Van Lancker, co-founder and chief product officer of the subscription-book service Oyster. “It requires no planning. My bookshelf at home isn’t any good to me when I’m at the park.”

When I was in London for the Olympics a few years ago I read my first few books on my iPhone 4 on the hour or so ride from my hotel to central London every morning. That screen size was definitely not ideal, but it was great being able to enjoy a book without being stuck carrying it around the rest of the day. I’ve been a phone reader since then, and definitely more so since the iPhone 6 came out.

A corollary to Van Lancker’s insight is that the best annotations are not only “the ones you have with you,” but also the ones you can instantly search.

I think physical libraries in the home have been and will continue to be as much a signaling device as anything else, in the same way a large flat screen mounted in the middle of the home is a signaling device for some families.

Conserving Mount Nittany audiobook

When I finished Conserving Mount Nittany in 2013, I knew I wanted to see it released as an audiobook, too. Since Ben Novak founded the Mount Nittany Conservancy and since his experiences feature so prominently in the book, I sat down with him for a few hours that summer and we recorded the raw reads of the book. Those reads sat in Google Drive for about 18 months before the Nittany Valley Press could produce those reads into something presentable.

Nittany Valley Press has done that, and Conserving Mount Nittany is now available on Amazon and Apple in audiobook format. I’m also making it available below for free, because we want the story of Mount Nittany to be accessible to the widest interested audience. An Amazon or Apple purchase is still the best way to ensure you get a lifetime copy that’s all your own and that you can bookmark and listen to on any device. All proceeds benefit Centre Foundation’s Mount Nittany Conservancy and Shakely Family Conservation funds.

Profit, mission, impact

Felix Salmon wrote last March in Reuters about Larry Page’s interest in giving his friend Elon Musk $1 billion rather than giving that sort of money to a charity. Why? Because Musk’s aspirations weren’t just a company, but functionally were philanthropical. Free solar energy? Autonomous vehicles making the roads safer while recovering millions of hours of human productivity? Creating a permanent human settlement on Mars? Those are for-profit missions that surpass any nonprofit mission.

Yet Musk is a singular figure, and the trust that his friendship with Page brings must be central to Page’s confidence that his $1 billion would have far more limited impact in the non-profit realm. It would, compared to Musk.

Let’s assume, though, that in almost every case a major donor could achieve better aggregate results for humanity through for-profit investing or outright gifts to visionary leaders. What purpose could nonprofits serve in that scenario?

I think their purpose would be to continue identifying critical social challenges and raising the social consciousness of their communities to acknowledge and address those issues.

For-profit companies need profit before they can afford to adopt credible social perspectives. The social perspective of nonprofits are adopted prior to their first balance sheet, and donors and earned income result from the adoption of a mission that stirs the social consciousness.

There will always be unpopular but necessary civic, social, moral, and ethical causes that require champions, and nonprofits are corporate vehicles that we protect from taxation because we understand that the power to tax is also the power to destroy.

These unique corporate vehicles won’t get us to Mars or develop sustainable energy, but they can help ensure we remain socially consciousness people with the means to ensure that our technologically brighter future remains a socially enlightened future.