Being the Change: Peter Kalmus Book Appearances

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Peter Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and our guest on episode 39 of the podcast, has a new book out, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. In the book Peter shows you how to slash your fossil fuel use to 1/10 the average and still live like royalty. If you’d like to hear Peter speak you have two chances:

Wednesday Aug 9, 7:00pm: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena
Friday Aug 11, 7:30pm: The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

Hope to meet some Root Simple readers at Peter’s talks!

Getting Online Hearing Aids

SilverDia2_CMYK_1024x1024I was born with crappy hearing. High frequencies such as high pitched bird calls and bleeping electronic devices run above my hearing range. Worse, I will often confuse “s” sounds with “t” sounds thus turning my perception of ordinary conversations into a never ending avant-garde poetry reading.

Good hearing is part of a good life. Friends and relatives get frustrated when they have to yell or repeat things. And there’s research indicating that hearing problems can contribute to dementia later in life.

Generally I’m not a fan of Silicon Valley’s “disruption” tactics, but if ever there was an industry that needed shaking up it was the hearing aid biz. Until just a few years ago hearing aids were expensive, costing thousands of dollars each for a device that’s far simpler than our much cheaper smart phones. For most people in the U.S., insurance won’t pay for hearing aids.

When I first got a hearing aid ten years ago from HearX, at $2,000 per ear, I could only afford one. It’s an outrageous price since, according to the New York Times, the device probably costs around $100 to manufacture. It’s just a microphone and speaker with a modest amount of signal processing. The computer on which I’m typing out this blog post also has a speaker, a microphone and much more sophisticated audio signal processing capabilities. It can also play cute cat videos and costs half as much as one hearing aid. And why, if I just went to my doctor for a hearing test, am I paying for someone at HearX to do the exact same test?

When it came time to replace the overpriced hearing aid which HearX would no longer service, I checked out Costco. Their hearing aids were half the price of HearX but they still made you go through another hearing test. A friend (annoyed with my bad hearing) sent me an article on new online hearing aid services and I discovered that they were half the price of Costco at around $500 to $600 an ear. I ended up going with Audicus and I’ve been pleased with the two hearing aids I purchased. I went to my doctor and got a hearing test (she also did an MRI to make sure that there was not something else going on). I sent the hearing aid test to Audicus and a week later they sent me a box with two hearing aids.

With my Audicus hearing aids the part that goes in the ear is a one-size-fits-all plug as opposed to the custom earmolds used by HearX. This cuts down on costs and means that you don’t have to go in for a fitting. I haven’t noticed any significant difference in terms of audio quality or comfort between my Audicus hearing aids and my HearX hearing aid. I’ve been using my Audicus hearing aids for two years with no problems.

I have a few important tips if you’re considering a hearing aid:

  • When I first got hearing aids a friend who is an audiologist told me to wear them all day everyday even if I was alone. This is because they take awhile to get used to. For me I was hearing sounds I had never heard before some of which were unpleasant.
  • Even when you get past the early phase you should still wear them as much as possible. I’ve been bad about this lately. It’s important to remember how important communication is for ourselves and for our relationships.
  • And don’t worry about aesthetics. Hardly anyone will notice that you are wearing them. People don’t look at your ears when they are talking to you they look at your eyes. I went with the silver colored mode above rather than a flesh colored hearing aid.

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.

Take a Look Bike Mirror

511SR6oUfgL._SL1200_In honor of bike to work week which, in the case of a work-at-home blogger such as myself should be called bike from work week, I thought I’d discuss one of my favorite bike commuting tools: my “dork mirror.”

This little mirror attaches to a pair of glasses so that you can watch motorists behind you updating their Facebook profiles, texting and Snapchatting while they “drive.” Combined with middle age, this accessory marks you as a serious bike dork. Add some Lycra and you’re a full fledged MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra). Of course, I ditched the Lycra a long time ago and bike commute in this outfit:

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All it takes is a little saber rattling to disrupt those Snapchat sessions! But I digress.

What I really like about the Take a Look mirror is its durability. There’s a lot of poorly made plastic crap on the market these days. The Take a Look mirror is oddly, almost supernaturally, indestructible. I’ve sat on it so many times that I’ve lost count. It’s lasted for many years.

A mirror like this makes changing lanes a lot easier and gives you an awareness of what’s going on behind you. The mirror attaches to a pair of glasses and is fully adjustable. There’s an adapter kit if you want to attach it to a helmet.

The one caveat I’d add is that you need to be careful not to check the mirror too much. It’s more likely that something bad will happen in front of you: someone turning, a pedestrian jumping out from the curb, someone opening a car door. And you should be able to ride without using the mirror. That said, I never leave home without it.

Deep Work

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Do you find yourself unable to get work done, interrupted by incoming emails, Facebook updates and tweets? Can’t seem to get that garden planted or get that novel started because you’re too “busy?” How ironic that a computer science professor, Cal Newport, could be just the person to lead us out of our distraction with his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The book can be boiled down to this: thou shalt schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on single, important tasks. And, yes, that includes thinking about how we spend our leisure time too. If you allow incoming texts and notifications to define your day you’ll turn into a human router, pushing around frivolous emails, text messages and silly cat videos.

To give in to these temptations is to train ourselves to be distracted. Alternately, the longer we spend in periods of uninterrupted concentration the easier it becomes to focus. It was Newport’s deconstruction of the Internet Sabbath that won me over. Newport says,

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s carving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t other benefits to putting aside one day and making it different than all the others. But let’s not kid ourselves that an Internet sabbath is going to cure the crack-like addictiveness of social media and click-bait websites. Newport suggests, “embracing boredom” and not surfing the web even when you’re waiting in line at the post office. Rather than schedule time away from distraction Newport suggests scheduling time to give into temptation. Go ahead and surf the web, just do it in a scheduled block of time. We are, after all, human and need to view the occasional cat video (or catch up on Root Simple blog posts!). But we can’t let those cat videos define our schedules and inhibit our ability to focus on a single task.

Newport has a refreshing agnosticism towards our technological future. He’s neither anti-tech nor techno-optimist. He’s of the “right tool for the job” mindset. In a provocative chapter called “Quit Social Media” Newport compares things like Facebook and Twitter to a farmer’s tools and suggests,

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

In other words, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you should use it. I’ve spent a lot of useless time on Facebook in recent years despite the fact that it and Twitter account for less than 5% of the traffic to this blog. Most visitors come from Google. I’d be better off spending focused time writing better how-to blog posts than chasing likes.

Now most of us have to deal with what Newport calls “shallow” tasks, such as responding to emails and going to meetings. For myself and, I suspect, most people reading this blog, we need to adopt one of the middle-ground solutions Newport recommends: scheduling large blocks of time to take on single, important and challenging tasks while not allowing shallow duties to occupy more than 50% of our days. For some, such as the novelist Neal Stephenson, that Newport offers as and example, a more radical disconnection may be necessary. Stephenson doesn’t have an email account. As Stephenson puts it,

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Lastly I want to give a tip of my metaphysical hat to Newport for acknowledging a non-materialist justification for avoiding distraction. Usually, when the topic of our distracted age comes up, the solutions are all about brain science. Newport throws a bone to us non-reductionist types with an appeal to the sacredness of craftsmanship, honed by long periods of concentration. This craftsmanship can extend to all our work and leisure activities even to mundane tasks like doing the dishes.

Newport has an excellent blog focusing on deep work and study habits here.