LMR #11

March 2017

Considering the various projects and demands of my daily life, I decided to switch from a weekly to a monthly digest. So Last Week’s Reads will become Last Month’s Reads (LMR).

And for this last month we have:

The unfair and dangerous glamorization of Narco culture, Cesar Albarran Torres, The Conversation. A thoughtful look on the implications of the Hollywood and media representation of narcos and the cartel war, a narrative that not only perpetuate the stereotype of the Mexican or Latino “bad hombre”, but entirely overlook the actual brutality of what it is at all effect a war, where it is estimated that 160,000 Mexicans have been murdered and that it branches out into other illegal activities such as organ harvesting, sex trafficking and kidnapping.

Oliver Sacks on the need to normalize disability, Maria Popova, Brain Pickings. This is a very interesting story. Apparently there is an Island in the Caroline archipelagos of Micronesia, called Pingelap, where in 1775 a strong typhoon decimated the 90% of the population. Among the survivors, many deceased because of starvation in the following years, so that, from the original 1000, only about 20 people were left on the island. Centuries earlier, the original settlers had brought with them the recessive gene for total colorblindness (Achromatopsia), which flourished during the re-population of the island carried on by this small group of people. Color blindness manifested in 1 every 12 people, instead of the usual 1 every 30,000.

The achromatopic children seemed to have developed very acute auditory and factual memories… [They] were oddly knowledgeable too about the colors of people’s clothing, and various objects around them — and often seemed to know what colors “went” with what…[…] They were learning to compensate cognitively for what they could not directly perceive or comprehend.

Sacks came to witness how people adapted, so that this “condition” was not a disability or a defect but rather a new, different and exceptional ability.

There is a sort of critical level, so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population have some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life and won’t be marginalized and, sometimes, won’t even be noticed.

(I believe this should actually be extended to any kind of disability)

A Cartoon from Tom Gauld.

Screenshot 2017-04-12 20.12.40

You look like your name, Anne-Laure Sellier, The Conversation. Yes, apparently you tend to mirror the character traits that your name suggests! It’s impressive to think about how many things shape, or at least can play a role, on the type of person we are!


LWsR #10

3 February – 6 March

This is actually a “Last month’s reads” post…

The new job is keeping me very busy – mindwise, and I struggle to find the concentration to read as much as I am used to, and to write down my thoughts. At the same time, I am finding a lot of pleasure and happiness in my running training, and I am starting to slowly see some improvements ! I’ll probably write something more about it in another post… but for the moment:

The Story of Sophie Germain, Maria Popova, Brain Pickings. The incredible story of French mathematician Sophie Germain, of her correspondence (initially under a male pseudonym, but afterward revealing her true identity) with Gauss and of how, with great efforts and persistence, she won a prize from the Paris Academy of Science for her work on vibration of elastic surfaces, at a time when women were not yet allowed to attend its lectures.

How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left. Amanda Hess, The New York Times magazine. Feminism has never been a compact movement. Since its dawn, it has been incapable to collect the issues of different women under the same roof, forgetting how, behind her sex, race, class and sexual orientation shape the struggles of a woman’s life. The last decades pop-feminism most of all, distanced it from the political platform, making it, if though accessible to everyone, a little shallow and individualistic. But things might change. The #womensmarch of Washington was able to bring together women as well as men of different races, classes, sexual orientation and whoever identify him/herself as anti-racist and pro-environment and social justice. A movement, made not only by women but lead by women, that showed itself as inclusive and intersectional and that might finally bring along a fight that encompass different realities.

The Other World, Caithlin L. Chandler, Guernica Magazine. As MSF doctor, the author got to spent 9 days providing medical help at a refugee camp at the border between Syria and Lebanon. In the article, stories and feelings from a humanitarian crisis about which we know still too little and that looks far from being over.

The Body Adaptive, Gillie Collins, Guernica Magazine. An interview with Sarah Hendren, who, staring from the principle that every technology is an assistive technology,  uses art, design and engineering to build technologies, social spaces and a radically different cultural context for disable people.

” ..living with atypicality is a site of invention and creativity. People see disability always as a diminished form of normalcy or a form of normalcy that has to have this pathos around it. But a disabled person’s experience is as complicated as any given life. It’s got heartbreak, sadness, joy, and frustration, and every possibility and experience in it. If you see that, then you see the invention and creativity that comes from looking at people with nonnormative experiences. If you can just strip away this freighted cultural baggage, you can get interested in what people do.”

LWsR #9

24 January – 13 February

On the 12th of February, Swiss people were called to vote in merit of of law aimed at facilitating the naturalization of third generation migrants. The UDC, a right-wing Swiss party, campaigned against the law by using a racist and patriarchal rhetoric centered around Muslims and veiled women. An article in Jet d’Encre explains what is happening and the hypocrisy behind their claims.


(Illustration by Katty Huertas)

Brave, Amy Silverman, Lenny. To have 13 years old and Down syndrome. A mother tells us the story of her daughter Sophie, her struggles and her successes, and most of all how her being raw and authentic, is giving her a life fuller that what many other kids (and adults!) have. Definitely made me think.

The Makeover Trap, Sally Davies, Aeon Magazine. #Transformationtuesday, How to look good Naked, Cinderella, Caitlyn Jenner. Pop culture is pervaded by examples of our fixation with change, and the transformation in our authentic best selves. As the author says:

“the stories that circulate through popular culture offer insights into the social contexts in which they are produced”.

So instead of dismissing it as a frivolous and shallow phenomenon, let’s analyse and try to understand what it means and what is actually happening. An interesting take on our absorption into our individuality and external attributes.

How To Disagree, Brain Pickings, Maria Popova. A short meditation on what it means to be a migrant and how reciprocal respect and acceptance between the adoptive country and the foreigner, is the prerequisite to constructive and fruitful criticism.

LWR #8

17-23 January

Make brain-care your priority for 2017 ! Instead of focusing on too many, too expensive and time-consuming new year resolutions, let’s focus on a single one, our brain health.

“1. Practice positive, action-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to creating something mindful and beautiful every new day. Too much stress and anxiety–induced by external events or by your own thoughts–can kill neurons and prevent the creation of new ones.

2. Thrive on Learning. The point of having a brain is to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they migrate and how long they survive depends on how you use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567.” It means, “challenge your brain, and often, with novel activities.”

3. Learn more about the “It” in “Use It or Lose It.” A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain’s beauty as a living and constantly-developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses.

4. OK, remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: cardiovascular exercise enhances the creation of new neurons (neurogenesis), at any age!

5. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don’t need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don’t stuff yourself with the “bad stuff.”

6. We are, as far as we know, the only self-directed organisms in this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from college, keep learning. Once you become too comfortable in one job, find a new one. The brain keeps developing ALWAYS, reflecting what you do with it.

7. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.

8. Don’t Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbour… Make your own decisions, and your own mistakes. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbor’s.

9. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We need social interaction for resilience and mutual support.

10. Laugh. Often. Especially to complex humor, full of twists and surprises, helping keep things in perspective.”

Those are 10 ways to do it, proposed by Alvaro Fernandez. Let’s take care of our brains, and all the rest will follow 🙂 …as for me, number 1 and 2 will be the priority. Even though I really like to find myself in new situations and environments, and learn new things, I tend too often to let fear and insecurity to prevail, ending up feeling anxious and well.. like crap. It’s time to stop and enjoy every bit of what comes !

It happened. Donald Trump started his mandate as president of the United States. Politico (Annie Karni) proposes a short analysis of the five main takeaways of his inaugural speech, that took place on the 20th of January in Washinton. Speech in which he managed to accidentally cite Main, Batman evil enemy


and add a few culture-charged words to the history of presidential inaugural addresses


(credit to Francesco Costa, taken from his newsletter. That I love.)

Good vs Bad Selfishness, The Book of Life. Being labelled as selfish by the ones around us, is the one of the last things we want for ourselves. Is selfishness always that bad though?

“…we collectively fail to distinguish between good and bad versions of selfishness. The good, desirable kind involves the courage to give priority to ourselves and our concerns at particular points; the confidence to be forthright about our needs, not in order to harm or conclusively reject other people, but in order to serve them in a deeper, more sustained and committed way over the long term. Bad selfishness, on the other hand, operates with no greater end in view and with no higher motive in mind. We’re not declining to help so as to marshal our resources to offer others a greater gift down the line; we just can’t be bothered.

Unfortunately, afflicted by confusion about this distinction, we frequently fail to state our needs as clearly as we should, with disastrous results precisely for those we’re meant to serve.”

Resonating with the saying “you cannot serve from an empty vessel”*, the minds behind The School of Life invites us to be attentive to our own needs and to take space for ourselves, because even though this might be judged harshly by our loved ones, it is what ultimately lead us to be our better selves and serve them the way they deserve.

*I don’t really know from where this expression originates. By quickly googling it I found out it is attributed to writer and life-coach Eleonor Brown. But I don’t know anything more about her or the context it was written in and so on and so forth. And I am actually too bored to dig deeper :P. Though, I have heard  and read it multiple times in yogic contexts.

LWsR #7

3 – 16 January

Four Women who left Syria.  Wafaar, Naema, Ibtisam, Ruquia are four refugees of a war that killed up to 470,000 and injured about 1,88 million people. Those interviews give us an alternative narrative of Syria’s war and Syria’s women, where everyday struggles and bravery are accompanied by frail but persistent hope in a better future.

“If this war is ever won, it will be won by women”

(image by Sally Nixon, Lennyletter.com)

Let’s talk bout AbortionThe ASAP Science guys explain us which are the different types of abortions and how they work. And remind us that reproductive freedom is beneficial for the health and safety of women and babies. I love their colorful and original videos !

The mind-body problem, a video from one of my favorite Youtube channels, The School of Life. I have never really felt comfortable with my own body. I have always found my features maybe not particularly unpleasant, yet very average, plain, unoriginal. And I have always felt it like a sort of burden I had to battle with, an unfair cumbersome representation of my interior life. This is exactly what this video is talking about. We tend to judge the personality of other people from how they look like, merging physical attributes with personality traits. Yet we feel very frustrated by how our own appearance influences the way other people think about us. We feel trapped in a disguise that doesn’t represent the way we truly are. How can we change that? New clothes? New haircut? Exercise? The School of Life suggests something different: let’s start by trying to look at other people differently, by disentangling their look from their personality, so that they too will do the same with us one day. Very timely and important in a society dominated by appearance and style and where first impressions guide our interactions with other people.

From Scraps, art made out of recycled objects, by Lydia Ricci.

“Paper, board, the back side of anything, glue, hot glue, tape, staples and what was almost thrown away.”


More on fromscraps.com.

LWR #6

27 December – 2 January

Our brain on art. Noah Charney, Salon. rothko-620x412(image credit: Getty/Daniel Leal-Olivas, taken from the Salon article). Have you ever thought, standing in front of a modern or contemporary art piece, “I could have done it as well”? Have you ever felt like that was not “real” art, to be unable to understand its meaning, value and point altogether? I certainly did. If you did as well, than this article is for you. The author, referring to a book written by neuroscientist Eric Kandel, explains how our inability to appreciate abstract art comes from the fact that it requires a more complex and unusual mental effort. Old Medieval and Renaissance paintings, even though very enigmatic and full of symbols and hidden meanings, depict reality as we know it. The objects and the scenes represented are very similar to what we see around us, thus our brains can follow along well known patterns and draw meaning from the painting. In abstract art though, what we see is very different what we are used to, reality is fragmented, depleted of clear forms and borders, representing mainly concepts and ideas, rather than objects and characters. Though the actual meaning is thus more simple and primordial, our brain needs to do an extra effort, in order to get out of the usual schemes and analyze this new, unknown reality. I don’t know if I will actually make it to look at art in such a way, but I am certainly eager to try. And definitely curious to know more about Kandel and his contribution to art history.

Epictetus. Elif Batuman, The New Yorker. Few practical tips on how stoic philosophy can help us in our everyday life. Very similarly to Yogic philosophers, the stoice Epictetus teaches us that we shouldn’t worry about things that we cannot control and we should consider every negative situation as an opportunity to learn something and to get stronger.

The great A.I. awakening. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, The New York Times Magazine. 18ai-cover2-superjumbo-v4(image by Pablo Delcan, The New York Times Magazine). The story of how Google used machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve its Google Translate service. Long but worth it.

The marvelous Ed Withlock.  Jeré Longman, The New York Times. Meet Ed, the oldest man to have run a marathon in less than 4h (85 years old, Toronto 2016) and the only man above 70 to have run a marathon in less than 3h (73 years old, Toronto 2004).

“Asked why he kept running Withlock candidly said he enjoyed setting records and receiving attention. […] He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and he does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy.”

Loss and technology

Sometime ago I read and article on The Verge, about the story of Eugenia Kuyda, a Russian  developer and start-upper, who created a chat-bot of a deceased friend, Roman Mazurenko.

Roman and Eugenia were very close friends, they met in Moscow in 2008, lived together in San Francisco and collaborated in the creation of various startups and projects. They were both visionaries and very attracted by new technologies and they way they can interact with our life. Roman especially, was a charismatic and bright young men, full of ideas and enthusiasm.

Deeply touched by his death (Roman was hit by a car in Moscow, in 2015), Eugenia decided to create a bot of him, by using 3000 lines of Telegram messages that he had exchanged with her and other friends throughout his life. An algorithm identifies motives and patterns in Roman’s words, and uses them to create a sort of avatar with whom you can exchange messages and chat. The avatar is thus supposed to give you answers and talk the way Roman would have done.

A part from the actual quality of the avatar, and the differences and lacks with respect to the “real” Roman, which are of course huge and unbridgeable, friends and families found a certain degree of solace in the chat-bot and a little help in the mourning process.

This story gave me really a lot to think about. We all leave daily an enormous amount of information online, which will stay there forever, and even without invoking any apocalyptic scenario, the truth is that we do not know where this information will go and what it will be used for. I’ve never really gave much thought about the implications of this with respect to death and mourning. Till 15-20 years ago we had only few pictures (physical pictures, placed in a specific physical space) and maybe an audio or video tape (again stored in an actual object) keeping the trace of a missing loved one. Now we have infinite lines of text, pictures, videos, Facebook or Twitter statements, place visited and so on and so forth. How is this going to change the way we mourn our loved ones? Is it going to help us or is it going to make the process a never ending one? Are we going to get lost in all of this material and loose touch with reality? Can and will it be used to keep a person virtually alive? Can this online-virtual person actually give a correct (even though certainly approximate) representation of the living one?

I have the immense luck of never have experienced the sudden lost of someone close to me. So I know nothing about the feelings and the struggles associated with it. And it would be quite naive of me to even try to answer those questions. What I can say, is that I am a little scared of what will remain of me once i will be gone and what can be done with it, and I am also a little scared to get stuck and trapped in a labyrinth of text and pics, should i loose someone. The future possibilities (what can be built with all this material) are actually unpredictable.

As a society, all of this is still very much a taboo. we do not speak about death and loss. But it is really important to think about it, especially how technology is shaping it, because all of this is already happening and changing our life and the way we process our feelings. And will keep changing in ways we cannot foresee. I do not know if Eugenia’s experiment is good or not, but I do know that we have to think and talk about it, because if for now it is a single episode, it could soon become a commodity without us even realizing it.

I am totally for technology and progress, but I am quite concerned about the way we accept and dive into everything so acritically and recklessly. We should learn to approach technology in a more mindful way, not diffident, but simply keeping our eyes open to what things are doing and will do to our emotional and psychological selves.