The day after I posted last week's entry about reading less books, I took the lift down to the city streets at lunch with the intent to stay in the shade and stretch my legs. I didn't have anywhere specific to go, and the urge crossed my mind to walk to the city library and look at the books. Those withdrawals came a lot quicker than I expected. I didn't go to the library. I walked on the north and east sides of streets and listened to music instead of audiobooks.

The next day I was at home and it was the perfect lunchtime for sitting outside eating a giant salad and listening to an audiobook. Well perfect is an exaggeration, it was 34 degrees outside and I had to put my bowl in the freezer while I chopped up my lunch so that when I finished preparing it and took it outside the lettuce wouldn't wilt before I finished eating.

My original plan was to read two books each month. But, around that walk nearly to the library I decided that starting February's books a week before February would be okay, as that would still be finishing it in February. February was a lot more than a week away on the twelfth of January, but I started a new book anyway. I promised myself I would only consume this book at the same time I consumed salads on sunny days. With the recent heat wave, this has been every day.

This morning when I was out walking before work I saw this chalked on the sidewalk...

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The woman with the fake tan stepped into my office, sat across from my desk and lit a cigarette.
At least, she would, sometime in the next 20 minutes. Smelling the future has advantages, but precision isn’t one of them.

My 2024 Resolution - Read Less Books

I read 44 last year, and that was with a month off during June for travel.

I finished my second book of 2024 this afternoon, Pax by Tom Holland. Another history book that was very interesting, but it's questionable how much of what I learned I'll actually retain. The tale of Sporus, most definitely… I'd hoped that having actually visited Rome now might help me feel more connected to the past when reading about it, but it did not really. So much changes during the lives of these people - including their names - that immersion two millennia later was always going to be a whimsy.

Reading less books should ideally reduce these feelings of over-consumption and disconnection. This will mean I enjoy the books I do read more, and maybe listen to the kind of song numbers this year that I did back in 2008.

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I Mammal

I enjoy reading history books, though it typically leaves me feeling infinitely small in the zeitgeist of human history aka the universe. There's been approximately 108 billion humans on this Earth (according to Chat GPT), and a number several magnitudes greater of total mammals (Chat GPT refused to get specific). Since synapsids broke off from reptiles and started on the evolutionary high way to developing LLMs (Dimetrodon isn't a dinosaur, but actually my great-grandpa?) there have been generations and radiations of so many layers and layers of creatures throughout the epochs that eventually gave us humans and golden retrievers and elephants without scrotums.

I found Liam Drew's I, Mammal: The Story of What Makes Us Mammals endlessly fascinating as he took me through the stages of evolution that led to nipples and middle ears and brains. Every time he explained how one of our mammalian traits could have developed - like hearing, and being able to survive out of water without oxygen - it made so much sense. Like, well, yeah I can see why that trait led to a higher success rate than other animals without it.

There were also lots of good titbits of a lighter nature. Like, apparently sperm were first observed by the person who invented the microscope. He didn't even let anyone else have a go first.

The chemistry of genes and hormones also was insightful. Apparently in one experiment with rats - who usually press a lever to be rewarded with food - were given a lever that resulted in baby rat pups being pushed out the chute. All the rats did not press this lever, except the group that they dosed with oxytocin triggering hormones and those rats pumped that lever until they had twenty babies at their feet. That explained a lot.

While I now feel even more miniscule, I do feel less like I am at the top of an evolutionary tree, or even a leaf on a branch. On timescales of millions of years I'm basically overlapping Napoleon in comparison to Dimetrodon. I am essentially background noise.


I experience a moment of self awareness at lunchtime. I was walking back to the office from the city library. A borrowed book and a kilogram of low fat strawberry yogurt balanced in one hand while I tried to slide my sunglasses on between the headband of my noise cancelling headphones with the other. I realised that I was probably peaking.


Last year I listened to Power and Thrones as an audiobook. As it regaled from start to finish of the Middle Ages in a thoroughly entertaining way I couldn't help wishing that Mark Corrigan (aka David Mitchell) were narrating it. Mitchell is the perfect comedian for me, wordy, not smug, but not too much self-deprecation. The perfect combination lampooning the past while still possessing a historian's authority.

Well, when I saw he'd written Unruly: A History of England's Kings and Queens and that he'd also personally narrated the audiobook I felt like the simulation had come up aces. This is the exact kind of content I'd wished for during Power and Thrones, albeit for a much narrower slice. Mitchell is in top form for this book. I'm not the type of person who'll ever piss themselves laughing. The equivalent for me would be a short, audible chuckle. And by those standards I was doing the equivalent of pissing everywhere. It's the first audiobook I've needed to slow to normal speed I think ever so that I could catch everything in its rich comical, historical detail.

The only reason I considered not rating this book 5 Stars is because it coasts along through the centuries with delightful cadence, then stops abruptly after Elizabeth the First. I understand why it stops there, but I still felt disappointed. But if wanting more is what you feel after a read like this I think you can say it was a good book.

After listening to David Mitchell's voice for so much of the past couple of days he is now appearing in my dreams.

The Hidden Life of Trees

How can you understand the lifecycle of something that lives for hundreds of years? Do trees have brains? These questions and more are asked in The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a book which I read in about three days this week.

I love trees. They're tall and stoic, so I relate to them. Like Peter, I too feel a sense of serenity and belonging when walking beneath an ancient forest canopy and that is not just because most ancient forest canopies I've walked under have been adjacent to a thriving craft beer industry. There was a day in Switzerland last month where we walked through a forest ever so briefly and it reminded me of the endorphins of hiking in the forests in the Pacific Northwest. Nearly every chapter in this book also gave me that feeling.

In Hidden Life, Wohlleben summarises the results of many studies into trees and tree "behaviour". Do trees have a sense of taste and smell? They can react in different ways to different predators. Can they remember, and count? They respond to stimulus in different ways after being conditioned, and seem to know what time of the year it is. Do they have friends and enemies among their forest neighbours?

The answers are fascinating, though simplified from what I am sure are rigorous scientific experiments. However at times I did worry that the author may love trees too much. A lot of his narrative seems to be personifying natural selection, biology and physics as thought, knowledge and memory. Surely trees don't have brains. What they have is really just chemical reactions and electrical impulses.

Which, I guess, is actually how my brain works as well...

Perhaps the real problem here is that I have personified myself too much.

The Eiffel Tower Sparkles At Night

We started our visit to Paris with the City of Lights walking tour, which concluded an hour before sunset.

Today was our first full day, and it was definitely filled.

Starting early, on a mostly deserted Boulevard St. Michel, we bought café crème from a takeaway store, the first hint that coffee in Paris was not going to compare to Italy.

We then ate crepes on Ile de Cité in a park that wasn't technically open.

After breakfast we needed to find a toilet, a journey that took us across the prow of Ile Saint-Lois (a 17th century planned neighbourhood), over the Seine, past the medieval architecture of Hôtel de Sens and to a small playground where a part of one of the Bastille's towers remains in a fenced off section behind an old gazebo.

No plaque, but a little bit of trash.

Between that point and our first afternoon nap in Paris we walked up the canal of Port de l'Arsenal, visited Place de la Bastille, had another average coffee among the shops of Marais, visited Place des Voges for further review of seventeenth century urban planning.

One of the first planned, public squares for recreation. Circa ~1604. Still going strong in 2023.

Then we visited one of the oldest houses in Paris (now a busy Pho place), had a kebab, and saw more of the canals.

Around dinner time we re-emerged to golden, early evening sunshine and browsed a couple of the many English second-hand Bookstores. As a book lover, these cramped spaces crammed with second hand novels, non-fiction, plays and everything else in narrow aisles and mismatched shelves stretching above my head reminded me of Portland, and were a treat just to be inside. The prices were quite high though.

After the bookstores we commenced a self-guided history tour of the nearby area, concentrated on the Latin Quarter and Île de la Cité. This took us past statues, old churches, parks and streetscapes, and highlighted the many appealing and busy restaurants between Church of Saint-Séverin and Boulevard Saint-Germain. We squeezed in to a table at La Maison de Gyros for an immense plate of chicken kebab, salad, fries and garlic sauce. More chicken in one meal than I think I ate in all of Italy.

Our tour continued after dinner, past the church into Square René Viviani to observe the oldest tree in Paris. There was a paving stone from the original Roman road somewhere around there, but I couldn't spot it before the whistles started to kick everyone out.

We crossed to the island and admired what was left of the Notre-Dame. An amazing building, and with all its scaffolding a reminder that even city staples that feel like they might last forever could one day be whittled down to a hard to find paving stone in a small garden.
Fortunately, the gargoyles withstood the flames. And we learned about the difference between gargoyles and grotesques, and added a few museums to the to do list.

After a further tour of the island, we came up to the O.G. modern Paris landmark the Pont Neuf. According to some French historians, on this bridge in the seventeenth century they invented for the first time "stopping and admiring a river in a city". And whether that's true or not, I do believe that at a time when rivers were full of mud and corpses and the many cast offs of early industry that anything that motivated city planners to take steps to clean up waterways and create walkable places to visit was a huge turning point in world history for people like me who would come to visit centuries later with my camera.

And speaking of walkable cities, we crossed Pont Neuf to the right bank, and then down to the edge of the Seine. As the sun set in front of us we walked four kilometres, never needing to cross a road once. The entire way, on both sides of the river, people sat with picnics and drinks and music. Parisians and tourists. Hustlers sold water, beer and cigarettes. Everyone was happy. A group walked behind us for a few minutes playing Titanium on their portable speaker on repeat and people sang along, which was a nice connection back to Adelaide on a Saturday night in France.

We reached the Eiffel Tower at dusk, paid a Euro for the toilet and then crossed back to a good spot in front of Trocadéro to wait for 11 PM and the light show.

During planning the Eiffel Tower didn't even earn a pin on my map of Paris, but it was worth seeing once. Not just for the spectacle, but to be a part of that huge crowd which spanned both sides of the river and all around me. Everyone was here to be in Paris. The part of my homo sapien brain that likes to conform to social norms was ecstatic. But more than that, during the sparkling that lit up the iron beams, the mood of the crowd carried the sensation that this was one of those moments in life that you look forward to, and that you don't forget. It symbolised the achievements of a species and an individual that allowed me to be born halfway across the world and to then stand here in this historic city for a few minutes. Five to be exact. Then we took the metro back to the hotel for sleep.

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