Issue 024
February 24, 2019

CERN, Lisa-Brennan Jobs, Running with Murakami

Notes on cern, family, memberships, running, and goals

Buildings at CERN

Dearest Explorinos —

I wrote this opening ten days ago with an intent to send earlier, but didn’t have a chance to edit / polish so here it is today from a hip cafe in London, as if sent yesterday from a science cafe in Switzerland. (Also not true! Because here we are a week later still, and I’m in the kitchen — pale early morning light — at my parent’s house surrounded by cats who are watching me, thinking I have the food; I am sorry cats, I do not have the food. Their eyes, they know all, only watching to shame.):

Hello from CERN! Where I’m presently sitting in their famed cafe listening to conversations go on around me in a dozen languages and a dozen more uniquely accented versions of English. I was here five years ago working with the same team on the Line Mode Browser project. The Line Mode Browser was the second web browser (terminal based, text only, no images, coded by then intern, Nicole Pellow, who then went off into the world and now nobody seems able to locate (Nicole, are you reading? Please say hello!)), but it was the first browser available for non-NeXT machines. This time, we’re rebuilding WorldWideWeb, which is the name of the application Tim Berners-Lee wrote on his NeXT box as, truly, the first web browser. (It was later renamed to Nexus.) The WWW turns thirty next month, and this project is in celebration of that.

You can play with what we built here: (I’ll be writing more on that later.)

Explorers Club Members

A huge and heartfelt thanks to everyone who joined the Explorers Club membership program last month. It’s the program that helps make possible Roden, Ridgeline, On Margins, and other essays.

We’re currently at about 160 members. Before launching I had written in my notebook the goal: Core Explorers — 300. Why 300 members? Because that’s the line where costs — foreseen and unforeseen, server infrastructure, equipment, production, time, etc — are covered, and where a small portion of that incoming cash can be set aside for seeding future publishing projects.

More importantly, though, it’s the line (in my head) where a small gathering of folks becomes a group becomes a village and, more than anything, I’m interested in what we can cultivate with this community of opt-inners.

If you were thinking about joining but still haven’t, and you want to support this constellation of work I’m producing, please consider joining the Core 300.

300 subscribers will also unlock the first Inside Explorers newsletter. The Core 300 may also get some special treats later this year. Earlier is a better time to join if you’ve been considering.

I’ve added a little graph showing where we are in filling in the Core Explorers. Can we sneak in the last 140 in the next few weeks?


A cafe with a waterfall view

Just a heads up — my 3,320 other walkers and I are having a blast walking together in Japan in my other newsletter: Ridgeline.

Recent highlights include an unexpected evening at a Japanese snack bar, and a cafe owner obsessed with minivans. Once a week, pretty short, a photo, notes on walking in Japan. Subscribe here.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs Interview

Small Fry cover

I interviewed Lisa Brennan-Jobs in December for On Margins. The episode came out a few weeks ago. She was a wonderful guest. We discuss the font choices, design iterations, and business considerations for the cover of her New York Times best-selling memoir, Small Fry.

But the pieces of conversation that most excited me were those around family — specifically the boundaries or edges or mindsets that define family; who’s in or out, “true” family or “false” family.

I’m adopted and so these questions (sorta? kinda?) define my life and relationships.

They defined Lisa’s, too. Her dad, Steve, endlessly struggled in his figuring out of how to be the father to this unplanned tiny human. And in showing us this confusion, Lisa captures the fragility of a man we so often associate with total clarity and decisiveness.

In this way, the celebrity of her father becomes an asset rather than a showpiece. It’s in “knowing” Jobs as a public person, as a wizard of shaping culture, as a man who — for the last twenty years of his life — hit nothing but grand slams (mostly), that makes his waffling on fatherhood so utterly crushing and human. Steve was never as three dimensional to me as he was after reading this book.

That, combined with Lisa’s transformation — her coming of age — turns the book into something I found to be extremely hopeful. I was delighted to crawl inside the mind of a small girl, and see the world through her eyes, which was, obviously, new to me. It helped me understand the powerful dynamic between fathers and daughters in ways I hadn’t before considered.

I know DNA is a powerful and necessary psychological binding mechanism, but I can’t help but think (hope?) we’re nearing the end of and era of the normative vanity of only being able to consider those of our own blood to be “true” family. Personally, I’ve found that my ability to be a father-like figure to children around me is not only possible, but incredibly (unsurprisingly?) fulfilling. A dear friend of mine in London, single, male, just became a foster father. (He joked: “For the first time in my life I represent diversity.”) There are so many archetypes of family that we don’t often consider “normal” — and I look forward to the dissolution of these barriers going forward.

Lisa’s book was a great chance to revisit my thinking around a lot of these topics. A big thanks to her for reaching out to me to be interviewed. (Huh? Oh, heck no I wouldn’t have had the temerity to reach out to her on my own!)

Listen here. And if you enjoy it, please consider leaving a review on iTunes.


Some miscellany worth considering that I’ve run across these past few weeks:

  • @tkasasagi is a machine learning computer scientist working on a pHD focused on (I think?) Japanese literature around the “Tale of Genji.” Her Twitter account is a delight. And the results of experiments she posts are heartening. It’s wild how the old Japanese kuzushiji way of writing can be decoded through the right models into easily readable contemporary type.
  • Satellite blockchain publishing, in case email isn’t decentralized enough for you: finally an interesting bitcoin use case?
  • My Mechanics — These restoration videos are the adult version of those mystery egg videos for kids. The tone of this channel in particular hits all the right notes. “It worked very well” says a mysterious set fo hands in a caption, and I feel a surge of happiness. No words, no music. Just the sound of tools making an old thing brand new. A few subtitles. Satisfying to the max. Warning: You may lose your Sunday to this. (I mean, that WELDING UNDENTER machine … is just … perfection.)
  • Photogrammar — an incredible archive of government funded images from the Farm Security Administration. Including work from folks like, Walker Evans.

Running and Meditation and Murakami

I began running again, suddenly, for no explicit reason. I reread Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” a month ago, so maybe that seeded the impulse. In the past week, I’ve run five kilometers five times. The last time I did that is maybe five years ago. My home in Japan is surrounded by great trails. I’ve been a buffoon not to have taken better advantage of them. I can run for ten minutes and watch the sun set behind Mt. Fuji. Like I said: buffoon.

I used to run a lot. I ran two full marathons: Lake Kawaguchi marathon (now called the Fuji Marathon), and the Tokyo Marathon. I highly recommend the former, if you’re into marathons. Lake Kawaguchi is gorgeous. But, generally speaking, I don’t recommend marathons. I think the best running distance is a half-marathon — just long enough to enter a meditative state, but not really long enough to injure yourself. (I stopped running full marathons because my knees were not enjoying it; my ITB is insanely, comically stiff, bad genes for running, but strong legs, can power a bike up hills for days.)

It’s the first time I’ve done any significant running since I completed my first ten day vipassana sitting. Delightfully, I recognized a number of parallels. When sitting for ten hours a day your mind has a tendency to rush forward. The more you think about the end the more painful it all becomes. One skill you develop during those ten days (if you’re lucky and attentive) is the ability to do that ridiculous thing meditation people often riffle off: to pull your mind into the now, “detached” from the flow time itself, etcetera etcetera. You can peek at the horizon — oh, it’s still so very far away — but don’t stare at it. Yes, it’s far, but this will end, and for now all we have is this moment, the feeling of the body at this very moment, and all the attendant pain which … huh, isn’t as horrible as it may have seemed.

You pull yourself back to the now over and over again. In doing so, as I’ve discussed in a few of my talks last year, you develop a physiological template of in-the-moment presence. Not just a psychological understanding, but the physiology of nowness, which is almost impossible to explain.

And so I’ve found these past few runs to be some of the easiest running I’ve ever done. Not because I’m running too slowly (avg. sub-five minute km?), but because anytime I feel the pull of the mind to fly off and stare at the horizon — There’s still that many kilometers left?? — I easily pull it back. And the pullback is graceful, not forced. The mind goes to the breath. Back to that physiological template built up during the vipassana retreats, that stillness, and I am able to enjoy how the body is feeling in the moment (which is usually not feeling as bad as you might think).

Murakami gets there, too. At the end of his first (and only?) ultramarathon, he writes: “If someone had told me to keep on running I might well have run beyond sixty-two miles. It’s weird, but at the end I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing.” And then, expanding on that:

Usually when I approach the end of a marathon, All I want to do is get it over with, and finish the race as soon as possible. That’s all I can think of. But as I drew near the end of this ultramarathon, I wasn’t really thinking about this. The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance.”

He’s in the nowness place. A valuable life trick is to learn to course correct without needing to stare too longingly at the goal. Just a quick peek every now and then for bearings. Often times we’ve misplaced the goal anyway, are off by orders of magnitude, and so the energy estimate will only deflate you when you realize your “goal” was, say, just a one-tenth way point. Focused on the now, present, when you hit that “temporary marker without much significance” you just set another one out in the distance. Maintain rhythm, keep breathing, chugging along. F’ destinations, embrace journeys. You know the drill.

It took so long for me to get this thing out because I was waffling over membership language. 80% of the time of writing this was spent writing and rewriting and sitting on and then rewriting that membership section up above.

Speaking truthfully: The membership program is throwing me far outside my comfort zone. Driving me slightly mad. Making me a bit of a wreck as I try to figure out how to frame it in my own mind and then to you all. I’d much rather just have a book to sell you. Or a used car. But instead I’m trying to sell — *waves hands furiously at everything with desperate look in eyes* — which is, obviously, not as clear or simple.

The seed of that anxiety is born in part from overly focusing on goals. I fully recognize this is a marathon event. Who knows where the end is. But at the same time, I am aware that goals help motivate. So 300 is the target for now, and once we hit that, I can take my foot off the nutso pedal and go on enjoying these things as I used to, before I became a neurotic little NPR of my own design.

So once again, thank you to everyone who has joined and thrown in their support.

I leave you with a picture of a tree, in front of a concrete block, nearby the antimatter factory at CERN.

The cats have now all been fed.

— C

A tree at CERN