How do you make yourself nicer?

I’m not, like, some expert on philosophy. But I have a degree in it! I took a bunch of ethics classes in college, ethics is great. I love ethics. You can quote me on that.

Here’s a question we never studied and nobody ever asked in an ethics class: how do you become a better person?

We talked (often endlessly) about what it means to be a better person, sure. How do you know if you’re a good person or not, what is a good action, is there really such a thing as good/bad. (Philosophy is all about those italics.)

How a person actually goes about the actual process of going from an OK person to a better person along any dimension is, apparently, not a question of philosophy at all. I can’t name a single philosopher I read who says much about it at all. Maybe that’s a limitation of my reading, maybe not, I don’t know, but doesn’t that say something?

I am also a religious person and was raised religious, but I’m only interested in the secular version of this question. Of the religious texts I’ve studied there are a few that tackle the question of moral self-improvement, but it’s still pretty vague. The most explicit Jewish writing about becoming more ethical is from the mussar movement and they are…intense and weird? Though sometimes insightful?

So let’s say that you woke up one morning and realized you were a jerk. You’d been denying it for years, but it’s time to get honest. You’re mean to people, and for no reason at all. You get angry — not “murder” angry but not-nice angry, and with some frequency. You have relationships, but it’s increasingly clear that these are people who tolerate and recognize your flaws. Because you’re not all bad — but you’re mean, and a bit of a jerk.

You realize this, and make a commitment to do something about it. It’s time, gosh darn it! (You’re working on your language, too.)

What exactly would you do about it?

[Oh, by the way, please nobody mention The Good Place to me. It’s good, I like it.]

Here are the only plausible things I can think of that might help you be nicer.

  1. Keep a diary about your efforts. But I have no idea how that would help. Maybe it would slow down your quick thinking so your slow brain could take control…is that how people get better? Their rationality just lashes out at the emotions, until emotions grow docile and tame? Look, maybe.
  2. Maybe you need a role model? I’ve sometimes felt myself be nicer to others after reading a biography about a really good person. For a few days that person lives in my head, asking questions like “What would Abraham Lincoln do?” or “Can you imagine what Gandhi would think of that?” The problem is that after a few days I go back to normal. But maybe there is a way to keep their presence around? If you wanted to be nicer, maybe spend some time each morning thinking about a really really nice person? I don’t know, I’m making this up.
  3. Put up sticky notes everywhere? But everything eventually loses its force and fades into the background.
  4. Study ethical texts with regularity? Not because they’ll help you manage complicated moral issues (though maybe they will) but because it’s a way to keep things fresh and interesting while still giving you a regular reminder that you’re aiming to be better?

I have no idea. I don’t think I’m a jerk, but I’d like to be a better father/husband/son/friend/teacher/person, sure. I don’t know how much I care — probably not enough. Most of us don’t care, though we probably should, as Eric Schwitzgebel argues.

I’ve looked around, there seems to be practically no empirical work on any of these questions. Moral psychology is the name of the field to look in, but they steer clear of the developmental question. I assume there’s a good reason, it veers too closely to “in this study I started a cult”, or it’s unstudiable for some other reason.

But this seems like a shame for our jerk, and for all of us too. Don’t we want to study the actual process of moral improvement? For are we not all jerks, wishing just a bit that we were a little better?

High, Holy Days: A Playlist

A lot of you have been asking where my Elul/Rosh HaShana/Aseret Yemei Teshuva/Yom Kippur playlist is. “Is it ready yet?” people ask. “You promised.”

Well, it’s not quite done. I’m still tinkering with it. But it’s as ready as it’s ever going to be. Here it is, on Spotify.

Screenshot 2019-09-24 at 7.54.30 PM

Screenshot 2019-09-24 at 7.54.42 PM

You want me to what? Explain it? That defeats the whole point of a playlist. It would be reductive to go song by song and explain its presence and purpose. I mean, seriously.

Still, there is what to say.

We open as the month of Elul does, with the arrival of the Infanta heralded by the shofar. The Queen is in the field, Elul is in the sky, and the question is what you’re going to do about it. Mad Men, indeed.

It’s time to start asking the big questions. Turn off your mind, relax — but not too much. You need to rethink things, to pay attention. It is not dying, but it’s not not dying either. Because there are certain things to keep in mind when you hear the shofar. Everybody here is a cloud. Don’t forget. If I’m alive, next year.

Sinnerman, Troubleman, Man, it doesn’t matter what you’re called. It matters what you are.

Here’s the deal about “Who By Fire?”: I don’t like any of the versions on Spotify. This is one of those times when a song has a single correct version, and it’s the version with the saxophone.

The whole thing doesn’t work with that Mediterranean guitar intro/accompaniment nearly as well. I think it’s just a fundamental difference between guitar and sax. Sax is a horn, guitar is a string instrument. Your guitar can do a lot of things (e.g. it can weep) but it’s not powered by breath and it never will be. To put it another way, guitar is your siddur but sax is your shofar.

This is the version that should be on the playlist. If it were a mixtape I’d have ripped it, etc.

After this you get to go down to the river for three songs. This is tashlich, but it can also be the mikveh before Yom Kippur if you want to keep things moving roughly chronologically. (I originally tried to make this thing match the chronology more closely. It was a mess.)

From “Get By”:

This morning, I woke up
Feeling brand new and I jumped up
Feeling my highs, and my lows
In my soul, and my goals
Just to stop smokin’, and stop drinkin’
And I’ve been thinkin’ – I’ve got my reasons
Just to get by

And you get one last wordless prayer. Then, the whole thing ends, and we’re on to a new year. Will there be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem this year?

But pat yourself on the back for a second — you have made it to a new year, this year.

May you be written in the book of life. Ketivah v’chatimah tovah.

A Syntax of Geometrical Figures in “De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines”


Holanda represents the intelligible reality of the Holy Trinity through a “hypothetical” syntax of geometrical figures:

“Starting from a perfect circle, three triangles merge in the abyss, provoking a strange sensation as much of movement as of immobility. Alpha and Omega are inscribed on the first equilateral triangle, perfectly inscribed in the circle.”

Spectacle and Topophilia by David R. Castillo

Bonus images:





Three Trivial Curiosities

Nobody knows for sure where the term ‘Indian Summer’ comes from.

The word ‘hippocampus’ refers to three different things:

The hyphen distinguishes between the mythological creature and the fish.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder At the Vicarage the term ‘shemozzle’ appears in the following dialogue:

“I expect you’d find her in the studio in the garden — sitting to Lawrence Redding.”
“There’s been quite a shemozzle about him,” said Lettice. “With father, you know. Father’s dreadful.”

‘Shemozzle’ is borrowed from the Yiddish ‘shlimozel,’ usually meaning ‘misfortune.’

Axiomatization of “Story”

Axiom 1: At least one story exists.

Axiom 2: There exists an “empty story,” i.e. a story where nothing happens.

Axiom 3: Two stories are the same if and only if they contain the same events in the same order.

Axiom 4: If X is a story and Y is a story, “X then Y” is also a story.

Axiom 5: For every story X, there exists a story Y that contains story X. In this case we say that Y is a telling of X.

Axiom 6: A story exists that contains the empty story, the story containing the empty story, the story containing that story, the one containing that, etc. forever. This is called the neverending story.

Since there is a story where nothing happens, there is also a story that is a telling of that empty story. As a result, the story where nothing happens and then someone tells a story about nothing happening is also a story. This can keep on going indefinitely, populating the entire universe of stories with retellings about nothing.

Geometry and theology

Boiled the elements down into the axioms
Mistook a fax for remedial tediums
It seems Ezekiel speaks to some
My mind was hazy and numb
And left hand gripped a clump of palladium
Saw the beast with the wings and the talons
The simple answer but it felt out of balance
Bad news like a blue screen of death
Besides the point, but which hue seems best?

I’ll keep conducting these autistic symphonies
These sentences have sentenced me
Like I didn’t have the sense to sense the mere
The presence grows weird
Doesn’t make sense but I don’t fear, not a damn thing
I live like a man who’s already dead
Like I had a motorcycle but my name is Zed
(I’ll be missed), said another clumsy alchemist
Like he just learned predicate calculus
The existential quantifier, a backwards EX
My rap career is a cataloging of defects
Copy edited by Ryan Seacrest
Like he must be new to this
Milo doesn’t exude hubris, chuuch
Like he must be new to this
Milo doesn’t exude hubris

Stop Making Sense

Van Morrison in Rolling Stone, 1978:

But a lot of your most danceable songs have very profound lyrics.
I don’t know, this thing about lyrics – I’m just catching on to this. If you get some of the facts together . . . I mean, I sell records in places where they don’t speak English. And I’ve experienced listening to Greek singers, for instance, and not knowing what the words are, but I get a story and a feeling from it even though I haven’t a clue to what’s being said. So if English-language songs can sell in non-English-speaking countries and people can be touched by them, then we can see how irrelevant the words are.

Sometimes it seems that you let the words dance when you sing them; you release them, and they take off in their own directions.
The only time I actually work with words is when I’m writing a song. After it’s written, I release the words; and every time I’m singing, I’m singing syllables. I’m just singing signs and phrases.

But this can’t be the whole story. Music with incomprehensible lyrics isn’t the same as listening to instrumental music. It’s also not the same as listening to scat or wordless yammering. Somehow the presence of words — maybe it’s just the possibility of meaning — changes the way we listen to a song.


Beyond that, though, we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

From this, explaining why Signal v Noise is leaving Medium. Look, don’t get me wrong, I would love a return to blogging. I would personally benefit from a return to blogging. But I really see no reason to expect a return to blogging.

Every blog is either (a) a legacy blog, created during the heyday or (b) the blog of someone with a significant social media presence. Blogs don’t even bother with the blogroll of old — blogging is entirely dependent on already having the potential to draw a readership. If you’re starting out blogging now, how could social media not be part of the puzzle?

Maybe blogs are ready to “swing back in style” in the same retro sense that vinyl sales are growing, I don’t know. A small minority defined against the dominant culture — that still seems to me the future of blogging.



I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.

Conan O’Brien, who gets it. Who says the present doesn’t matter?
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