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The Image

February 26, 2009 — 16 Comments

Michelangelo once went at night to look at the near finished sculpture of a friend. As he examined it, he watched the man fiddle with the window for favorable light. Michelangelo stopped him and said “Don’t trouble yourself, the important thing will be the light of the Piazza.” Meaning that the public decides whether the work is good or bad. His posturing in the shop late at night was irrelevant.

I was thinking about how often we go around trying to just that. Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as eccentric? Or some community college professor put “philosopher” after his name? People like to revel in the status of titles that are inherently not theirs to give.

But it’s all just masturbation. In other words, they’re living in unreality. I’m not saying that someone else gets to decide if you’re a writer or not, but maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t call yourself a “social media expert” unless you get a paycheck with those words on it.

Here’s the thing: the delusion is your loss. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a joke. Giving yourself credit for something in advance does the opposite of encouraging growth, it breeds atrophy. And foolishness. And arrogance. And everything but the thing you want so badly to happen; that is, for people to respect you on your merits.

Selling Out

February 24, 2009 — 19 Comments

I think this ranks as one of the proudest moments in my life. That’s Hanno, slutting it up as a dog model.

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If I do the math correctly, I believe that instantly makes her more popular and more accomplished than Maxie, Murphy or Buckley.

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I think the most appropriate thing to do in celebration is mount a larger than life size portrait of the dog in the center of my apartment. Right near the books.

Good:

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

An exploration of the effects of being articulate, well-spoken and obsessed with learning is especially relevant after watching Obama use those three traits to take the presidency. It’s the author’s point that Lincoln’s log cabin story has obscured how impressive a writer and speaker he really was. More importantly, we forget that with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt we’ve never really had a president before with equal deftness in reading, writing and speaking. Normally they are good at one and abysmal at the others. There’s a part in the book where he takes one of Lincoln’s speeches and lays it out into a poem. It’s just one example but an incredible way to make the book’s central point: that Lincoln’s understanding of the English language and the power of persuasion were so impressive they we’re not even aware that he was using them.

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

A wonderful concept for a book. It spends a page and half or so on the deaths of 170 different philosophers. For some, it nicely juxtaposes their beliefs with their practical applications. For others, it illustrates a hypocrisy. Mostly though, I think it does a good job bringing the lot of them back down to earth. The introductions (there are three) are themselves a decent discussion on death and dying. It’s one of those books you wish was a Wikipedia page so you could follow all the strands it begins to tug at.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin

This has to be one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. The central point of the book is so incisive that it not only survived the major technological and cultural shifts of the last 50 years but is made stronger by them. He looks at how much of what we take as important or news is image or artifice – press conferences to announce press conferences, awards, articles about how much money celebrities make, news leaks, news breaks, annual “Best of” list, press releases, “no comment”, et al. A nice example is foreign policy. A president might say he wants to increase our “prestige” abroad. What does that even mean? As far as I can tell it means nothing, except perhaps a naive desire to receive credit for something you’re not taking any action to produce. The rest of the book is on what he calls “unreality”, a place similar to the dream would where our friends at Brazen Careerist live. I got the sense from the title that it was going to be about the media it much deeper and more personal than that. Very, very good.

Not So Good

Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation by David Denby

Ahh, I had such high hopes for this and I think the author did too. Unfortunately, I don’t think he quite understood the subject on which he was writing. Snark is a very real and very important trend in American culture but nyone that thinks Bill O’Reilly is snarky (he’s not, he’s an asshole. big difference) is completely clueless about where it’s going. It almost boggles the mind that someone could assert the right is leading the snark charge. The fact of the matter is that they aren’t culturally relevant or smart enough to be responsible. But it is something that you should have at least a vague knowledge or sense of because one day it will blindside you or your company. A nice example is to monitor the writing of any Gawker writer – see how often one day’s post will contradict the one that came before it. That’s because they write considering only the immediate post at hand (partly because of the economics of it) and it prevents them from developing a coherent editorial voice. Since everything has to be controversial or critical, what they write ultimately is never about what they have to say but the way in which they have to say it. It’s more sad than anything else.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America by Frank Rich

It’s a shame that a book about story and spectacle would be so poorly structured and without message. The book has a fantastic title but is otherwise a complete waste. Rich is very endemic of the problem that critics of Bush has – they want to paint him both as a Machiavellian genius and completely incompetent at the same time time. The reality is much simpler and more in need of telling – his leadership style created incentives to be dishonest and manipulative and he was incapable of being aware enough to admit their was a problem. It makes for a bad presidency and boring books.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper

We need a book that looks at why the music industry resists innovation and makes poor decisions. This book is not that. It’s a timeline as told by a series of agents, scouts and label heads. Rarely does the author question what they say and he certainly never analyzes it. I get the feeling that his background as a journalist held him back from making this much more than a long article.

A Plan for Action

February 20, 2009 — 5 Comments

Epictetus once said that we ought to stand up to our equals, defer to our superiors and act with moderation towards our inferiors. I’m not sure I agree with that.

In fact, I think I’d change it to learn from your inferiors, ignore your equals and spar with you superiors — parry but be ok with losing. It’s certainly harder and will tie your stomach in knots but the best part of waking up sore and stiff, I’ve found, is knowing that the quickest way to loosen up is to do it some more.

The Bums of Los Angeles

February 18, 2009 — 8 Comments

Last week, Ian had an interesting post on homeless of downtown Los Angeles. It’s an ok start but his analysis plainly lacks the study that the subject requires. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m an expert but my first taste of the power of the internet came in 2005 when I uploaded a photo of the second dreadlocked mullet I’d found on as many coasts. It was quickly seen by more 20,000 times. I’ve since learned that they call it a “beaver tail” in the business. After I took the photo I saw the lady on the right drape it around her neck like a scarf.

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The downtown homeless are the product of a perverse version of the survivorship bias. Santa Monica- a beach paradise, is less than 15 miles away. Even a crackhead would feel the magnetic pull of the coast. Downtown gets stuck with the ones that couldn’t figure out how to get there. Basically the deranged, the destructive and delirious.

If you travel west through Los Angeles, you can actually see the spectrum of homeless competency laid out as you get closer to the ocean. It’s best illustrated by panhandlers out to make money in a city designed around the car. There are no pedestrians! Mid-city, the homeless stagger into the streets and try to cajole change from moving vehicles. Only when you get to Beverly Hills do you start to see the first semblance of notion of performance art. There’s a crazy black lady who entertains the paparazzi in front of a parking garage near a medical building that does a lot of plastic surgery. (You may have seen her on TMZ.) Then as you continue through Westwood (UCLA) you see an occasional guitar or instrument. Finally in Santa Monica, they begin to have pets, sunny dispositions and hilarious political platforms that they shout from bullhorns.

Although Ian mentioned the legless guy downtown who walks with his hands, he missed the one dressed like a pirate and demands you call him Captain (or something like that). There’s also a guy who lurches out around corners and aggressively barks like a dog. He’s apparently had bad experiences with people’s pets because he barks between cries of “how do you like this, huh?” Most importantly, he ignored the one who ordered a vodka and water at the iHop I was at near the Staples Center. When they asked him to stop loudly muttering curses, he yelled “I will not! I wheeled myself in here and I can wheel myself out.” There’s the guy who passes out headshots of himself, the one who doesn’t like dogs who pee in the grass because “people sleep there,” and the one I saw get maced in the middle of a farmers market.

I’ve never been to Detroit or Pittsburgh, but I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the worst bums in the United States. And of that, downtown has to have some of the most impressive. The best part is that it couldn’t have happened to a city that cares more about chickenshit little things like parking tickets and street sweeping. In Koreatown, the homeless set up tents in the middle of the sidewalk and cook themselves breakfast each morning on portable grill with impunity. But if you so much as spend an extra minute in an hour parking space, they will cover your car in tickets.

Freakonomics did a quorum on what to do if you’re homeless last November and unfortunately all the answers were lame. But if you ever found yourself homeless, the first thing you should do is find a way to get to Los Angeles. So long as you aren’t crazy, you could hustle your way back to solvency so fast. There’s no competition like you’d face in San Francisco – who knows how to do the silver robot thing? There’s no crippling weather like say Boston or New York. There’s not the institutionalized culture of giving which you’d think would be a bad thing but it’s actually crippled the ingenuity of the homeless in Los Angeles, leaving them to lay around or wander like helpless zombies.

The market, as they say, is completely open to disruption.