Who Can We Turn To?

May 26, 2009 — 32 Comments

“On the web, there’s a certain kind of encouragement to never ask yourself how much information you really need,” Merlin Mann says. “But when I get to the point where I’m seeking advice twelve hours a day on how to take a nap, or what kind of notebook to buy, I’m so far off the idea of lifehacks that it’s indistinguishable from where we started. There’s no shell script, there’s no fancy pen, there’s no notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that’s gonna help you figure out why the fuck you’re here,” he tells me. “That’s on you.”

But see, the thing is that you couldn’t walk into a book store without hitting shelves of authors trying to answer that question. Whether they succeed or fail, there is a concerted effort towards substance and meaning. Even movies – not all of them obviously – make statements or indictments or capture moments in time.

I hate that online we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that “it’s on you.” I can’t think of one writer I read who I can honestly say is trying to make my life better – efficient or smarter yes, better no. That’s so shitty because it’s what art is supposed to do.

So I guess the question is, what sites are flying under the radar that are working towards that higher level? Those are the sites I want to read, or better yet, the writers I could sign.

Brave New World

May 21, 2009 — 13 Comments

Wilshire Boulevard runs the entirety of Los Angeles, from the city to the ocean. When it curves into downtown, it’s more than six lanes wide, bordered by the tallest skyscrapers in California. At night, they’re backlit against the sky so that when you run, like I do, down the completely empty sidewalks, above the packed 110 freeway and down into the glass canyon, it feels like the city parts at your presence.

At first, I thought this was an example of the soundtrack delusion. A way to use glamour or juxtaposition or association for a false sense of self-importance. Then I realized that it is the opposite. It’s the same feeling that you’d get rising in the morning in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city, or the one you can understand if you’ve ever pulled into the driveway of someone’s mansion, yes, but it’s there for anyone.

A student or a two-million a year bank executive have equal access to the same feeling – the one that we seem to be subconsciously pulled to, like it is fulfilling or innately purposeful though we know, deep down, that’s just an illusion. So maybe the flutter you feel when the street cleaves through the heart of the city isn’t something to scorn, maybe it’s something to embrace.

Getting your fix cheaply, quickly and naturally, in a weird way, might be a kind of freedom.

One Big Waste

May 19, 2009 — 30 Comments

I don’t get “liberal arts 2.0” or Zen Habits or productivity blogs or the rest of these self-improvement sites.

It’s completely detached from reality. Look at these awesome subway maps. Or check out some study about how the brain thinks about difference kinds of cereal. Scientists have discovered a secret way to reduce traffic congestion.

Excuse me if I don’t cum in my pants. In fact, my eyes glaze over. It’s all so pointless.

Am I really supposed to believe that they do anything with this information? I don’t even think they really read it. Does the headline make me seem smart? Are the words “psychology” “rationality” “DNA” “happiness” or “The New Yorker” anywhere in the article? Well then goddamn, I better summarize it and tell other people.

Who gets smarter from this? Where is the discussion? Where is the reality?

Ok, so now my email inbox is 20% more efficient. I’ve examined a sweet tagcloud of words from all the items in Google Reader. I’m firmly convinced that I need to believe in myself. I memorized a list of cognitive biases. Now the fuck what?

We’re not dandies. You don’t get anything for fine-tuning your body and mind like it’s a car modification kit. The question to ask is: What are you working towards? And I think you’d see that you could spend every second of every day reading that crap and it wouldn’t get you anything closer to being there. Unless, of course, your goal is to be one of those writers yourself and pass the buck of actually deriving value from the work to some other hypothetical reader.

At the Core of It

May 14, 2009 — 16 Comments

You probably didn’t know that most of the “experts” quoted in news stories are connected to the reporter through a PR firm which they pay thousands of dollars to every month. The PR firms subscribe to services where reporters basically troll for perfectly tailored quotes in exchange for a few generous superlatives after the person’s name. It’s where a lot of book blurbs come from, or the part in someone’s bio where it says “James has been quoted in the New York Times, Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post.”

You probably forget that someone with even mediocre credit could lease a Jaguar for $349 dollars a month and a couple hundred down at signing.

You probably never stopped to consider that the average Digg user looks like this.

Remember: Women in porn take Xanax between scenes to numb the pain. Celebrities rent the cars the day before the taping of an episode of Cribs. A commentator barely skims the material he’s debating on television and thousands of people write and yell and simmer over remarks he pulled out of his ass. Or somebody has five-figures of credit card debt and a soul-crushing job, but people hear his big title or where he went to college and they feel jealous, inadequate and awful.

Think about the things people are sincerely outraged over – how regularly, if you truly examined the root of the issue, would you see that it was only shadows? Shadows of half-truths, lies, exaggerations, flippant responses or rationalizations.

You want to be respected, be in the papers, have a nice car, have an avalanche of traffic, wonder why your life isn’t like a porno or a tv show. Well, the funny thing is that “reality” seems to require the suspension of disbelief as much as fiction does.

I’m just saying that when you really look at it – and I mean really look at it, as in the facts and figures and averages – the things we think are important are comical. Intellectually, it’s time you admit to yourself that it’s all a big fucking farce. Only after you’ve done that you can start to understand that spiritually.

When Richard Feynman was a boy, his dad would take him on nature walks through the woods near his home. His father would point out a bird and say “there’s a Spencer’s Warbler” and explain to him how at that very second it was eating the lice that ate the proteins off its feathers because everything is a source of food for something else.

It turns out that only half of what he told him was true. The important half. The part about why the bird acted the way that it did, what it was doing, or what it meant. The name was mostly just jibberish.

To Richard Feynman, this was an important theme for the rest of his life. When he taught in Brazil, he realized that although the students often studied physics, they rarely understood it. To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy. What people forget, he felt, was that the words themselves are relatively worthless. Their meaning is what has value.

I saw that Fred Wilson gave a speech a few weeks ago on what he called “earned media.” It’s very likely that this will be one of the next big internet phrases. And as usual, people will miss the operative word: earn. They’ll miss that the concept is both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts. That “earned media” communicates both a literal definition (hard work) as well as an idea (genuine vs paid media). They’ll be too busy “using” the word to really understand it. I’m sure only few of them will stop to think about how strange it is that the concept is also known as “free media.”

What made Feynman so special, at least to me, was that he only cared about what things meant. His father taught him that there was an enormous difference in knowing about a bird and knowing what other people call birds. One is harder to test, it doesn’t fit as well into textbooks, and like earned media takes time to accumulate.

Deciding to live that way is difficult but admirable decision. People who are self-taught know how embarrassing it is to try to use a word you’ve seen but never actually heard before – how quickly someone will jump in to correct you. But which side of the table do you want to be on? The side doing the correcting or the doing? Correct in detail or in principle?