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Past Letters

Want to see someone learn in public? Read economics, history, psychology & philosophy interwoven with stories from Martyn’s life.

No. 48 – Near & Far

I just returned from a wedding out on a ranch. It was serene, joyous, communal, classy and definitive- all the best nuptial adjectives. Out of all the delight, a brief moment in the service stood out. 

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No. 47 – Heartbreaks & Left Hooks

In his 1972 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey explains that, “[e]very game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.” The outer game is whatever external endeavor we undertake- tennis, soccer, dancing, fighting, language learning, whatever. Typically, we’re up against an opponent (though not always) and must overcome obstacles to reach an external goal. However, the inner game is the “game that take place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation.”

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No. 46 – Exile & Muddy Boots

Earlier this week I led a discussion with a squadron of the US Army’s 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade. I shared lessons learned from years in business and growing up overseas, and they talked through aspects of their recent Afghanistan deployment. It was a creative discussion that mixed seemingly incommensurate experiences. For me, the discussion was overshadowed by a single, simpler truth: I hadn’t been on base since the 2000s.

Put simply, I had returned home.

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No. 45 – Breaking the Fourth Wall

There is a concept in the performing arts called the “fourth wall.” The fourth wall is an invisible, imagined separation between a performance and the audience. All of the audience’s faculties (vision, sound, emotions) penetrate this barrier, but the performers act as though they do not. Violations of this barrier- when some aspect of the show acknowledges it’s a performance, addresses the audience, or solicits their assistance- are known as “breaking the fourth wall.” Examples include when Family Guy’s Peter Griffin talks about their Fox TV programming, or when police interrupt a Monty Python filming session to arrest two actors. It is jarring to the audience and audience reactions range from surprise to hilarity to disappointment. 

This week broke a “fourth wall.” 

Modernity is quite a show. We have incredible feats performed before us- clean water, cheap electricity, heat in the winter, AC in the summer, cell service, reliable high-speed internet, etc. These we take in good faith, ignore the hidden complexities, and simply accept what they add to our lives. We’re an audience gleefully captivated by the show of modernity. 

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No. 44 – Valentine’s Deflation

A friend and I found a new bakery this morning. There we enjoyed croissants, lattes, and the hospitality of the Afrikaans owner. As customers came and went, we compared it to a café we’d previously enjoyed a couple years ago. The simplicity of our morning hid a deeper truth: relationships are deflationary. 

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No. 43 – Strap in

A Marine is trained “to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.” At 18 years old, I screamed that mission statement and others like it until my throat was raw. At 19, I was taught to “close with” and out maneuver the enemy, receiving months of training in individual, squad and vehicle tactics. Combined with that, I learned to “destroy the enemy” using hand-to-hand combat, bayonets, hand grenades, rifles, grenade launchers, rockets, and different types of machine-guns. In the field, I slept with my rifle. I cheered bomb explosions and delighted in the radiance of tracer rounds. It is not merely that I carried weapons… I became one. Put bluntly, I existed to destroy. 

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No. 42 – Able Archer

As you’ve undoubtably heard, a bunch of hedge funds bet heavily against GameStop (stock symbol $GME) and have lost billions so far. The narrative has been cast as a David vs. Goliath scenario, or alternatively, the foolish, coordinated actions of a bunch of “unsophisticated investors” (quoting Massachusetts Secretary of State). But what actually happened?

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No. 41 – Apollonius & Cancel Culture

Did you feel it? 
If you were anywhere near the United States, this week was a collective release. 
Some of us let go of hatred. Or maybe fear. Or disappointment. Or apprehension. As we released all of that, I heard tears of joy. I heard euphoria. I heard celebrations. 
But in the same moment… 

Some of us also let go of hope. Or maybe faith. Or a sense of unity. As we released all of that, I also heard sighs. I heard murmuring. I heard apprehension. I heard fear. 
This is the reality of a life lived together. Sometimes, it feels like a zero-sum game, especially in a two-party state. One’s ascent to power comes at another’s demise. The emotions correspond with the elevation change. 

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No. 40 – Ignorance is Bliss (Redhead Epistemology)

“Ignorance is bliss.”

We say it about innocent kids, naïve teenagers and workplace noobs. The implication is that they don’t understand the matter at hand. If they did, they’d have a more somber, reasoned approach. Sometimes the comment is packaged with hubris, fear, melancholy, or even delight (for a small child, typically), but for the most part it’s a dismissal. 

Well, I bathed in ignorance this week. To be frank, it was everything short of bliss. But it got me thinking. What do I not know right now? What can I know in the future? What shall I never know?

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No. 39 – A Worthless Trinket

Earlier this week, MAGA protestors supporting Donald Trump stormed the United States Capital building to stop the Congressional certification of the presidential election. They succeeded, briefly. The results were horrendous. A police officer died after being smacked with a fire extinguisher. A protestor was killed and three others died from medical emergencies. Over fifty police officers were injured, including at least one that was crushed. Offices of elected officials were trashed. The hallowed chamber of American legislative power was desecrated.

Chantal Delsol put it best in Icarus Fallen: “The scar of disappointment will never go away. We will live in the same world as before, but we will not live in the same way. A certain innocence has left us, and lost innocence can never be recovered.”

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No. 38 – Martyn’s 2020 Year in Review

I was stumped for a while. What lies beneath the conflict and our efforts? How do we capture 2020’s complexity? Then, I chanced across Victor Hugo’s quotation of Tryphon in Les Misérables:

Fobit, et in fossa thesauros condit opaca,
As, nummas, lapides, cadaver, simulacra, nihilque
[He digs, and in the shadowy ditch find treasures buried,
Coins, stones, corpses, ghosts, nothing.]

In that, Tryphon provides an apt metaphor for 2020. It is certainly not sexy. In our world of capital, projects and mental models, digging a ditch is not noteworthy. Quite the contrary… it’s everything we would rather not get into. It’s dirty. It’s laborious. It’s monotonous. The unknown is always immediately behind the next effort. You can always dig deeper. The work never seems to end. Now that I think about it, that’s an excellent description of 2020.

So, depart that comfy chair and gulp down the coffee. Throw on some work boots, jeans and gloves and jump into this “shadowy ditch- the coins, the stones, the corpses, the ghosts, the nothing.” Let’s get into 2020.

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No. 37 – Jean Valjean & misaligned affections

I trust the tree is decorated, the lights are up, egg nog is in the fridge, and the Thanksgiving calories are fully burned off by now.

As time with family approaches, I’ve been thinking alot about relationships. The tale of Jean Valjean has combined with those reflections to produce a thought I’d like to share.

Here it goes…

Saint Augustine said that you know a man by his loves. In that, he meant that the objects of one’s affection offer a summary of him. David Foster Wallace goes further in “This is Water,” and says that such affections are inevitable, that every human being worships. We all have a core affection.

Is that enough to summarize us? Surely, between Saint Augustine and David Foster Wallace, we’ve covered everything, right?

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

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