In 1970, John Baldessari cremated all the art he created between 1953 and 1966. He keeps the ashes in a bronze, book-shaped urn.
Let's say that another way.
Everything John Baldessari created for thirteen years – the soul, the heart, the love, the tears, the pain (because true art really does hurt a lot of the time) – became ash, at the creator's own hand.
That's a lot of his own history to just drop. Yeah, he's holding onto it, but not in its conceived form. It's dead. He didn't just pile the stuff, pour some gasoline and light a match. He did it in a crematorium. He put it through a death ritual.
And then he turned on a camera and wrote, "I will not make any more boring art," until the film ran out.
Let's begin by noting that this is not a post about evolution vs. creation. It is by no means an assumption that either argument is right or wrong, and, truth be told, I don't find them to be mutually exclusive. I've recently read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and I've found a few things I think are worth taking away and applying to our modern world.
1. Generalization vs. Specialization. This is something that Buckminster Fuller writes about in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller's take is that generalists are important leaders, and they'd best know where to find specialists. That is, if you know a lot about X, you're a great Xer. But I don't want you running the business I own, because we also need people who are great at U, V, W, Y and Z, and you don't know anything about those. What I want is someone who knows enough about U, V, W, X, Y and Z to recognize someone who is great at each – a generalist.
Darwin refers more to the survival of species. If you're a specialist as a species, that's fine, but you'd better really know what you're doing. If you're all about pollinating one plant and eating one species that would otherwise wipe out that plant, you'd better understand population control. If you eat all of your prey, you're simply going to starve to death. If you're a generalist, you have many more options, but you're a lot more spread out as a species – that's bad for safety. So pick your poison.
2. Use begets strength. We sometimes forget this, from a fitness perspective. We spend a lot of time sitting in our culture and tend to think, "Eh, I don't want to lift anything heavier than I need to, it'll just make me tired and lead to injury." But you're more likely to injure a muscle or joint you don't use regularly. Darwin was able to use this knowledge to determine why some creatures had strong hind legs or longer beaks.
3. Domestication vs. the wild. Your dog (yes, the one cuddling with you on your love seat) was descended from a wolf. We have DNA evidence of that. If you need further proof of it, introduce your dog to some strange dogs of different breeds – they will know how to play together and how to hunt together. But your dog, having a life of general safety, will take chances a wolf would never take, like playing in traffic. Domesticating animals takes many – but not all – of their instincts away. They lose some things in an effort to make them better pets. See also, No. 2.
4. Breeding. This is natural to follow from No. 3. In creating dog breeds, we keep certain traits in and leave others out. We can give them floppier ears, or make them run faster, or give them flatter noses, or make them mean (see this documentary; it's fascinating). Darwin recognized this early on. If you want your pigeons bigger, breed the two biggest pigeons you can find, then mate those pigeons with other big pigeons.
Now take a look at humans, and imagine what, with the culture we maintain, we're breeding into and out of ourselves. We're likely breeding in better resistance to toxins (great for those who enjoy eating Twinkies and drinking Gatorade, at least until they take out the BVO, not so great for the future effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation treatments). We're breeding in larger gluteal muscles (we sit a lot, and we want some padding back there). We're breeding in greater wrist strength (future generations will likely suffer less carpal tunnel). We're breeding out the ability to function without a screen nearby. [OK, not really, but damn, people, get off Twitter and talk to one another occasionally, he wrote as he constructed in his head the Tweets that would refer to this blog post.]
5. Species as an arbitrary designation. We, as humans, must categorize things. If we see a fir tree, it's a tree, but if we see a computer speaker, it's not a tree. Birch? Tree. Scotch tape? Not a tree. We do categories (trees, phones, paper), and then we have to break the categories down (pine, smartphone, construction paper). We do this for two primary reasons: (a) We need to be able to wrap our heads around our world, and categorizing is a great way to do that; and (b) we need a way to communicate &ndashl if I call something a "notebook" and you call it a "coffee cup," we're never going to be able to agree to which object the other is referring. But, Darwin points out, what we call things is fairly arbitrary.
6. Observation. We tend to be very wary these days of anything we can't measure. And it's hurting the progress of our knowledge. Darwin noticed things, because he looked at them. Story: I broke my nose playing baseball as a kid. The ER doctor came in and said, "Your X-rays are negative," and sent me home. Two days later, we went to another doctor, who walked in looking at another set of X-rays. "Your X-rays are negative," he said, and then looked up. "But I can tell by looking at you it's broken." Sure, your Klout score may be an 88, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole. I have to look at what you're doing on social media to make that determination for myself.
Lesson: Stop relying on measurements; they don't tell you the whole story.
7. Community. For Darwin, this was an ecosystem, a group of animals and plants that needed each other to survive. For us, it's a reminder that we do need communities, interconnected systems that help us to live, and, more importantly, to thrive.
8. Nature and nurture. I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that I don't think evolution and creation are mutually exclusive; it's not a case of nature versus nurture. Both can occur, and my interpretation of his work is that Darwin believed that some aspects of species were a product of genetics, while others came from their surroundings. A dog will, innately, try to get into the trash (it smells food), but you can train it not to. The former is nature, the latter is nurture.
9. Isolation can be beneficial. If a species is getting wiped out in the wild, sequestering a few of its number in zoos or on wildlife reserves greatly increases its chance at survival. We deal with a lot of overwhelm – too much noise, too many screens, too much stuff – sometimes isolating ourselves is best for our individual survival.
10. Adopt new habits. Remember our specialists from No. 1? Sometimes they need to adopt new habits if they're going to survive. So, too, must we adopt new habits to thrive as the world changes around us. How many of us who learned BASIC in the 1980s, writing 150 lines of code to get a ball to move across a screen, thought we'd be able to give a telephone a couple of voice commands and send a video of our kids around the world in a few seconds? The world has a tendency to make vast changes around us, and if we want to grow with the world, we need to change our habits.
11. It's OK to be wrong. Darwin admitted that not only did he not know if a lot of the stuff he wrote about in Origin of Species was correct, he didn't even know if some of it was testable. We don't do nearly enough speculating these days, mostly because we're afraid to be wrong. Being wrong just takes a possibility of the table, but at least you're looking for something new.
What did I miss while reading Darwin? Anything you want to share?
A lot has been said about what communications technologies like online chat, SMS and Twitter are doing to the English language. Shortcuts like "u" and "r" and "lol" and "brb" have spread into "icymi" and the ever-dreaded "yolo."
Is this bad for the English language? Some will say that proper English is still taught and tested and there are new books coming out all the time written in proper(ish) English. But ask college instructors what they're getting from their students – some of them are getting the caliber of work you'd expect from a middle school student.
See what I did there, with the "they're" and the "their"? I did that correctly. Did you have to go back to check?
Sure, there's always been a bit of a divide between formal and informal writing. In a formal setting, I'd never start a statement with "but," and I'd throw out colloquialisms like "see what I did there."
Online comic The Oatmeal regularly takes on grammar, giving us instructions on semicolons, using i.e. vs. e.g., and reminding us that "definately" is not a word, but "definitely" is.
This got me thinking, though. We've been speaking the current incarnation of the English language for just about 500 years now (the Great Vowel Shift wrapped up around 1550, but started closer to 1450). Noah Webster began standardizing spelling and punctuation in his first dictionary, published in 1828. So, we've been speaking this language for 500 years and it hasn't even been standardized for 200. Not only that, but we're adding more and more words every year, so English is still a growing language.
Two hundred years ago, it was OK to write "center" or "centre," to capitalize Very Important Words (like Tweet, apparently) you wanted to emphasize, to write run-on sentences without commas or hyphens, and in general to write paragraphs so long you'd lose your place on the page if the typeset didn't have enough white space.
With character limits in our communications and the advent of video as a mass-communication tool, correct written English is, for better or worse, something left for formal settings like print media and cover letters, though more and more businesses are content with a run of the mill cover letter (Dear sir or madam, I am applying for an administrative position with ABC Company. Please see the enclosed video introduction and resume. I hope we can Skype soon. Yours, &c.) and a personality test.
Fewer and fewer jobs require strong written language skills; if you're good in person or over the phone, people can accept SMS-speak in their written communication, because more and more of their written communication is via SMS.
So why not revert to covering only the basics in school, and leave formal written English as a secondary school elective or even a college course?
I don't know that I'm willing to go that far, but I definitely see an argument for de-standardizing spelling and grammar while we wait to see what the future of communications technology is. Maybe formal English will become more useful again, but maybe it won't.
I used to get up early. Really early. 4:30 or so. Now I'm just going to bed at that hour. And I have to say I'm loving it.
It's been a tough transition; many naps, a cranky dog, and, well, it's only been three weeks and I'm not always real sure what day it is, but that's more an accident of shifting my weekend to Tuesday-Wednesday at the same time as shifting my sleeping hours.
I think we're good now.
I typically wrap up work between 3 and 3:30. At that point, I take the dog for a short walk (he's usually tired and cranky, but if we don't go out then, he'll be about 14-15 hours in between rest stops; it's for his own good, really).
There is nothing quite as still and dark and quiet as a dead-end suburban street as 4 a.m. approaches. Rufus seems nervous most nights – I'm sure the animal smells are different. Dogs and cats and squirrels during the day, but bats and owls and raccoon at that hour.
I get the coffee on, since JB rises at 4 – yes, she's rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as I'm getting out the last of the day's energy before going to bed – I do whatever's left of yesterday's dishes, and button up my to-do list.
It's at that hour that I come up with ideas. I'm really not flushing them out at that time (to be honest, I wrote this post the other day and scheduled it to go live at 4 a.m. on Firday, but I'm up pouring JB's coffee as it hits the site), but the blog post titles, the life changes I want to make, the items that make it to my "gotta go try this local place I've never been to locally" list, they tend to make it to my white board (which is 7' x 8', so plenty of room for it all) while most people are asleep.
Some of the ideas won't wait; I'll sleep a couple of hours and they're dying to come out. Others wait until a day off.
But while you're sleeping, I'm creating. That feels awesome.
I was a general assignment reporter on 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday, and our weekly papers came out on Monday and Tuesday, so we wouldn't be going to press again for another few days. I didn't really have anything to write about, even though it was obviously big news, and a life-marking event for my generation.
But I was mostly numb to emotion for a few days. When I found out a friend had died, I took a couple hours off of work and played music, music that she'd enjoyed, songs she'd sung with me dozens of times. Generally, though I just felt like I should be informing someone of something.
In Daniel Schorr's autobiography, he says one of the things that made him a great journalist was that he felt emotionally removed from everything that happened, and able to report on it objectively.
These are communities with very different populations and very different priorities. And they all love their children.
If you followed the news at all over the weekend, you know that it was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage for the first day and a half, and now it's more of a human interest angle (funerals and profiles). During the first 12 or 15 hours or so, there was so much misinformation out there, much of propagated by news outlets, that it reminded me that sometimes we need to shut up and look for truth sometimes. And in some cases, maybe shutting up isn't the best route to take.
Media jumped all over information and drew conclusions without any real information. We know now that the shooter was Adam Lanza. He had his brother Ryan's ID on him, though, and some media outlets didn't think to account for the fact that maybe the person and the driver's license wouldn't match. Far from being dead in Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was wondering why people were writing shocking things on his Facebook wall. He was on the bus on the way home from work.
For several hours, the media had the wrong Lanza brother. Ryan deleted his Facebook account, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fallout from this as the months progressed. Don't be surprised if there are civil lawsuits.
Lesson for the media: Sometimes you need to shut up and figure out what the facts are before you go blabbing out any old information you think you have.
You know who else should have shut up? Some people who just want their football. President Obama was in Newtown to deliver his standard "America is weeping with you, something must be done" speech on Sunday night [aside: Don't get me wrong, that's important for the people of Newtown to hear, I just wish we'd have someone speak from the heart instead of delivering the script sometime]. He interrupted the broadcast of the Sunday night football game for about 10 minutes.
On the other end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country's biggest gun lobby. Just a few days after they thanked everybody for getting them to 1.7 million likes on Facebook, they pulled down their Facebook page.
They also went silent on Twitter for a few days, which is common for them in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.
If you want to stay relevant, I think you have to say something, even if it is just a "We're mourning, too." I think it's really telling that they take a "let's go hide in the corner until everybody focuses on something else for a while" approach to these events.
Lastly, I want to mention something that might point to the growing maturity of the Internet as a medium.
Well, one mother went back trough the author's personal blog and ripper her a new one for the things she was really saying about her kids in public.
Instead of this becoming a war, like that Oatmeal-Buzzfeed thing that happened, the two parents got together to start a discussion and find some common ground.
We, as a species, and we, as a culture, and we, as the media, have a lot to learn still. Mostly, I think it has to do with listening. If we listen to each other, we're going to be able to prevent some of these incidents in the first place.
They're only stepping back far enough to reassess the situation.
When I was reporting for the Chicopee Herald from 2000-2003, I understood sprawl primarily as a "white flight" phenomenon. It goes something like this. "OMG! People who look different from me are moving into my neighborhood! I'd better go build a house a little further out from the center of the city and bring my good neighbors with me!" And then every few years that would keep happening.
That's why houses and acreage grow as you move away from cities. If you want to keep people out of your neighborhood, price them out. When you get too far from cities, everything else is just farmland, because nobody wants to drive two hours to get a haircut. Or socks.
My neighborhood abuts a wooded area, and it's growing. The neighborhood, not the wooded area. In fact, this whole neighborhood was wooded, not too long ago.
We had a tree taken down last year. It took us 18 months to get it all cut up. At first, I thought it was inexperience with a chainsaw that had me dropping chains. Then I called in a friend, and he had the same problem. Then I brought in a pro, and he dropped 3 chains in the hour and a half he was here.
It turns out that tree was full of bullets – it had been here close to 100 years before roads and houses were put here, and that tree was probably some combination of target practice and innocent bystander on deer hunts. No matter, it just absorbed the ammunition and grew around it.
Back to the deer.
About two years ago, I took a walk out to the fourth block of my street, which had been clear cut, but had not yet had pipe or wires laid and had not been paved. There was a deer out there, grabbing some of the last of the season's grass. I waited while it ate, and then I wandered back toward the houses, leaving the woods to the deer.
The pipes have been laid now, the street is paved, two houses are up, and National Grid has been down there for a few hours each day to get electricity and gas lines out there.
Last fall, we had some deer in the yard snacking on our bushes and resting in the ivy (seriously guys, eat all the ivy you want). When they saw me taking photos from inside the house, they retreated toward the back of the yard. I didn't dare try to get outside to take photos.
Over the summer, the deer have come back a few times; I usually find out when I bring Rufus into the back yard and he gives chase. They usually just look annoyed, having to leave their spot. They would take off and go find another yard to lounge (and snack) in.
But last week, something happened that I haven't seen before. Rufus flushed a couple of deer from their resting place in the ivy, and they just hopped over the fence, and turned around. They probably figured out that one dog wasn't taking on three deer, and they just stood there, snacking on the ivy from the adjacent yard.
It felt a lot like they were starting to take a stand. Like they were saying, "You know what? You people just keep knocking down our home to build more homes and leave empty houses elsewhere. We've got nowhere to go, so we're just going to stay here. Do what you will."
We also see those deer in the yard late at night. I work until 3am five nights a week, and then bring Rufus out for a late-night potty trip. I've stopped taking him into the yard, because there are almost always deer back there [I wear a camper's headlamp when we're out after dark, and it reflects of their eyes].
If the deer are getting less scared of predators, and the catfish are hunting pigeons (not kidding, there's video there), we're clearly stepping on nature's toes, and she's not happy.
I am working to reduce my footprint, I hope you'll start to do the same. I'm not ready for catfish to come knocking on my door or for deer to come light my grill, and I think we're headed in that direction if we keep invading their homes.
I finished a nearly 27-month position at Gold's Gym recently. I learned a lot. One thing I didn't get any of while I was there, was quiet. With the overhead music going, the weights clanging, the elliptical machines whirring, feet stamping on treadmills, or people just saying hello, it was never quiet.
As I transition into this new position with Advance Digital, I've had a chance to do a complete overhaul of my day. I work from 6pm to 3am Thursday through Monday. I work from home. My sleeping patters are all messed up; it's going to take me a few more weeks to learn how to sleep late, rather than to get up at 8 and settle in for a 3-hour nap sometime before I sign in at 6.
Instead of turning on the radio now when I wake up, I know I'll get plenty of news throughout the day (unlike at the gym), so I pour some coffee and step into the yard with Rufus (we get a couple of walks in later in the day), return some personal email, do a run of Facebook and Twitter, and hit some house chores or read or go to the gym to get some exercise (somehow I'm doing that a lot more frequently, even though I only had to go downstairs when I was working there).
Some days, I don't talk to anybody except JB. She says goodbye when she leaves at 4:15am, and then whenever she gets home, that's the next time I open my mouth. The loudest thing throughout my day is typically the running of the filter on the fish tank, or Rufus's clicking on the hardwood. Right now I have the dishwasher going in the other room right now. I can hear every slight change in its cycle. The loudest thing in the room is the keyboard I'm typing on. The loudest key on the keyboard is the space bar.
The loudest key is the one that creates the space between the words. That's one to grow on, I think.
Pay attention to what Clay Shirky says here, because it's important.
The commercial Internet is approaching 20 years of age. From an availability standpoint, it's a mature medium – there are few places in the world you can't access the Internet, and in the developed world, it is readily available to a large percentage of the population either in their homes, at work or in libraries or other places of public accommodation.
From a standpoint of what we're going to do with it, we're not even close.
Shirky points out that the printing press was invented in 1454; we know of erotic novels dating to 1499 but not scientific journals until the 1660s. So, LOLcats might be everywhere on the Internet in various forms right now, but give it time.
Mitch Joel recently likened Shirky to Marshall McLuhan, a comparison I've grown more comfortable with since I first read it a week ago. And if you can understand what that means, you can understand why Shirky's projections on the Internet's future are important.
Here in the U.S., we're in presidential election season. One of the toughest things for me in this season is our de facto two-party system. Anybody meeting a short list of qualifications (35 years old, natural born U.S. citizen) is allowed to run for president, but it's always a two-person race.
This means that typically, we're voting for the person whose policies we dislike least (or, in very bad years, the person we dislike least).
The continuing maturity of the Internet has opened up a more transparent government. We know more about who has done and said what, what our laws are, what legislation is coming up for votes and who is throwing stupid amendments on what.
What the Internet hasn't yet done for us is create a more participatory government. Participation starts and ends with voting for the average citizen. While the occasional letter to a legislator may or may not change someone's mind on an issue, but it doesn't directly contribute to government. Shirky explains how people are using GitHub for open organizational flow.
It's the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and an innocent field in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere, there's a memorial service going on. Somewhere, someone's still applauding Clint Eastwood for blaming Barack Obama for sending troops to Afghanistan, which actually happened in December of 2001, during George W. Bush's first year in office, in the wake of those attacks. Somewhere – a lot of somewheres, actually – someone is crying for a lost family member, friend, or stranger who died that day. And somewhere, someone at a law enforcement agency is taking credit for stopping a terrorist plot set for the anniversary that may or may not have actually been in the works (it's tough when "success" means that nothing happened).
These are all fine ways to remember 9/11. Except the Clint Eastwood thing. That was just weird.
But a lot of people forget something else that happened immediately after the planes hit the towers that Tuesday morning. A lot of young people – the supposedly disengaged, video game generation, the first to grow up with the Internet in their homes and so supposedly with no real ability to connect with other humans face to face – became part of something bigger. They stood up and joined the military, said "never again" and went off to fight Bush's battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another group of the same generation picked up signs and joined their elders on picket lines and in getting arrested for the sake of peace – don't go off killing the vast majority of people in those countries who had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
People got engaged. They made changes in their lives. And some people even started living like it could happen again, to them, and they were going to achieve their dreams so that if it did happen tomorrow, they'd be able to say they'd lived out those dreams.
And now we're back to moments of silence and the two-party blame game, and we're pretty much just sitting or standing around being armchair citizens and Monday morning political quarterbacks and we're just the same group of people who got attacked 11 years ago. Only more paranoid.
It's time to get back to living our dreams, to creating things, to being more awesome. Will that make people dislike us again? Probably, but if you're going to be hated, make it because people are jealous, not because you're stupid or lazy or disengaged. Today, get ready to do something amazing, because tomorrow, someone might fly a plane into your desk.
I'm not being hard on myself when I say that, I just mean to say that sometimes, I fail. It's not a judgment, merely a fact.
I'm also a success.
I'm not saying that to pump my ego, I just mean to say that sometimes, I succeed. It's not a judgment, merely a fact.
I read something this week from Joshua Fields Millburn about letting go of sentimental things. It's not something I do often, or well. My Moment helped a little bit last week. I did shed some books and some kitchen items (seriously, we had multiple pots and pans that we haven't used in at least two years), but I certainly kept books that people had written in, even if I don't plan to read them again.
Also: I have a boatload of photos. I'm going to put in the hours to digitize those.
Yeah, digression. Success, failure. Right. That's where we're going.
I'm reworking my priorities, what I understand success and failure to be, and how I approach stuff.
And by stuff, I mean stuff. Physical things.
Memories are stored inside us, not in attics, basements, airtight boxes or vacuum-sealed bags. Not even in pages or picture frames or newspaper clippings or boxes with motivational sayings on them.
The more I reflect on my life, the more successful I see I've been.