Are you your cause? Art, and life, for your own sake

He died seeking the cause, seeking A cause. He was already dead, he never really lived — uptown, downtown, crosstown — his body was found all over town.

Every now and again I wander back toward the edge. I rewatch "Piñero" (watch) and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and remember to be open my eyes a little — maybe not wider, but differently, both outside and inside (myself and the house).

In a world in which we're focused on Baltimore and Ferguson and train wrecks and royal babies and underinflated footballs, we need to take time to remember that while the world might be bigger than us, we are not. And further, we are us. I am me. You are you.

I often look to others for inspiration, but those I feel most inspired by are people who do things outside my field(s). I understand the Miguel Piñero portrayed by Benjamin Bratt. That got me started doing some spoken word about 11 years ago, and I've since had some of those poems published in juried journals and compiled chapbooks.

But street artists like Shepard Fairey (known for the Andre the Giant "Obey" posters and the Barack Obama "Hope" posters), Banksy, Invader and even Mr. Brainwash make me want to dabble in something different; not what they do, since that's not my thing. But they open my eyes in different directions.

The same holds true when I watch parkour videos.

David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, mentions something along these lines when he talks to Marc Maron. Byrne grew up in suburban Baltimore, and it wasn't until he went off to college at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that he started meeting black people and Jews and rich kids and people from California — California! — who all helped broaden his horizons and help formulate what became his style: something of a fusion of a variety of influences. Did you know he couldn't actually speak any French when he wrote "Psycho Killer"?

These artists and poets and athletes don't do it for the money (though Piñero eventually made a living writing for TV and Fairey and Banksy have become well-known artists), they did it, and continue to do it, for themselves.

The important thing, though, is to remember something Rick Rubin tells Tim Ferriss: Compete only with yourself, and don't think too much. Write a better song tomorrow than you did yesterday; don't try to write a better song than The Beatles wrote. Lead with your heart, then let the brain look at what the heart has presented.

He died yesterday, he’s dyin’ today, he’s dead tomorrow. Died seekin’ a Cause, died seekin’ the Cause, & the Cause was in front of him, & the Cause was in his skin & the Cause was in his speech & the cause was in his blood but he died, he died seekin the cause. Seekin A cause. He died deaf, dumb and blind and he died and never found his cause because he never, you see, he never never knew — HE was THE CAUSE.“

What are you going to do for you?

[Both excerpts from Miguel Piñero, "Seekin' the Cause".]

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Discovering your photos: The world we live in now

google-images-screengrab

2015-04-14 10.02.30Above is a screen grab from Google Images' search page. At right you'll see a smattering of the sweetgum tree seed pods that fell in our yard this spring.

I know they're sweetgum seed pods because I took my phone out of my pocket, took a picture with it, uploaded the photo to Google Images (you can do this by clicking the photo icon at the right of the search field), and it spit out and bunch of like images that I could click on and learn about the contents.

Pretty much none of that last sentence made sense 20 years ago. A phone in your pocket? Maybe if it was a cordless, and you definitely couldn't sit down. Take a picture with your phone? I'm not even sure that was on anyone's radar. The rest of it? Well, google.com was first registered in 1997. Pretty much all Internet 20 years ago was dial-up, and even the "high speed" stuff still took a long time to upload a photo. There were probably people working on the "what is this a picture of?" thing, but with the sort of speed I found this out with? Not even a thought.

I know I've written about innovation recently, but I am just continuously astounded at the world around me.

Next time you complain about poor cellular signal or the crappy battery on your phone, remember that it wasn't too long ago that if you wanted to talk on the phone you had to be attached to a wall, and if you wanted to take pictures, you had to carry your camera bag.

How do you see a blank page?

Marc Maron spoke to Amber Tamblyn this week on his podcast (listen here). The actress has a new book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, out.

In the book, Tamblyn uses troubled and deceased child actresses as inspiration for poems (she herself began acting professionally as a preteen).

One notable moment in the podcast is when Maron opens the book to a poem dedicated to Lindsay Lohan, and finds nothing but a titled on an otherwise blank page. He finds it very pessimistic, but Tamblyn doesn't agree. She says she's not willing to impose anything on Lohan (though to be fair, putting her name on the page sure does impose something, it's just a bit more open to interpretation, I think).

While Maron looks at that blank page as pessimistic — empty, devoid — I feel very optimistic about it. There's still a chance to write a whole story there — and not only that, but a new story, leaving a past behind.

On the other hand, some of you will have read The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew or SEX after 60, which are famously blank for humorous reasons.

So, what is it? How do you see a blank page?

Get smarter: Seth Godin talks to Srini Rao about responsibility and work

It's not often that a podcast comes along that really, truly teaches some lessons. Sure, there are often great lessons hidden in podcasts, or you can come away from them as a whole saying, "I definitely learned something," but very few really require a notebook and a pen alongside your earphones.

Such is the case, however, when Seth Godin talks to Srini Rao on The Unmistakable Creative.

I'm not going to ramble on too much; I'd rather you just go give it a listen. Godin's new book is called What To Do When It's Your Turn (And It's Always Your Turn). He and Rao discuss the benefit of blogging every day, of ability to dodge responsibility in a corporate workplace, and a bunch of other stuff you should be ready to examine yourself over.

On responsibility and rescue: 2 stories from Michigan

I saw a couple of stories juxtaposed on one of the sites I work on the other night.

One was about a woman who asked the legislature to create a duty to act law. From the story:

Brandon Mitchner may still be alive if someone had called 911 when he fell into the Grand River last June, his mother told Michigan lawmakers on Tuesday.

Mitchner, 22, was last seen walking home from a downtown Lansing bar after a long day on a party bus. An inexperienced drinker, he'd been celebrating a friend's birthday and was intoxicated.

People saw him fall in but didn't call police.

This is a shitty story all around. Her kid got drunk, fell in the river, and died. Nobody called for help. Damn, that sucks.

Should someone have called for help? Absolutely. Should the people who were there be punished? I don't think so. What about the friends who were there and let "an inexperienced drinker" drink enough to become "intoxicated" (the quotes because they're in the story)? Do they bear any responsibility? They lost their friend; that's a lot of punishment. What about the bartender and/or owner? What about the homeowner who allowed him to leave?

I'm trying to push the level of ridiculous a bit without being too insensitive, but I think at some point, individuals need to be responsible for their own actions. And if someone made a point to call 911, awesome! But if you can't rely on the responsibility of individuals or their friends, or the kindness of strangers, do we really need legislation to require someone to interpret a situation as dangerous and call 911? What if someone calls 911 and it winds up not being an emergency? Will citizens be required to learn a list of instances during which 911 must be called, and if there are 10 people around and only one person calls, do the other nine get fined? What if a bystander doesn't have a cell phone with him or her?

Speaking of responsibility and not doing what's required, let me tell you about the other story. It's about four state police officers in Saginaw who saw a guy who in a restaurant with only enough cash to buy fries — so they bought him dinner. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't fall under a duty to act law.

I posted the story on Facebook (to the site's page) and was happy to see that most of the comments were positive, but I'm still rolling my eyes seeing that people were skeptical about the action as a publicity stunt.

I guess my question is this: Should we legislate helping our fellow humans? I don't think so.

Rambling thoughts on innovation

"If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet," comedian Joe Rogan asks, "how long before you could send me an email?"

What, like, 8,000 years?

We didn't go from spears and hatchets to email overnight. Maybe the hatchet people couldn't ever develop email. But maybe the email people wouldn't have figured out anything useful to do with the hatchet and would have died of exposure.

We're a cooperative species, and also one that grows on incremental improvements with occasional breakthroughs. When we figured out metal tips for our spears and arrows, we could suddenly do a lot more damage than we could ever do with wood- or stone-tipped spears and arrows. That was a breakthrough. for sure. But then our spears and arrows got incrementally better with the development of new metals and plastics, and our archery systems today would still be recognizable to someone 8,000 years ago, but the power would seem other-wordly.

Tim Ferriss and Peter Thiel discussed the future of products, and one thing Thiel (author of Zero to One and an entrepreneur himself) says is that he's not looking for products that are incrementally better, but those that are, say, 1,000 times better than what came before.

That's fine, but not everything can be a breakthrough. If it were, we'd be stuck with a rusty old infrastructure waiting on something brilliant to come along.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller outlines a major innovation that came as a series of incremental improvements: the water wheel. We took the basic concept of a lever, and then we put a bucket on it. Then we put a bunch of them together in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, and then we hooked some gears up to it, so that the bucket lever arms would turn the gears and do some other work.

It took a lot of incremental changes to make that major innovation happen, and if someone hadn't developed one of the incremental steps, we wouldn't have come to the major breakthrough that made powering machines with falling water a viable operation.

The lesson here, I suppose, is not to sit around and wait for breakthroughs. If you see some incremental improvements that need to take place, those are important, too, and can lead to the breakthroughs eventually.

On entitlement and your right to work hard


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We were walking around downtown not long ago, talking with some friends about a new "work" culture. The sort that was really spearheaded by Avon and Tupperware and has since blown up. You can have parties now with representatives selling organizing totes to sex toys to low-cost energy (though that last one is a a tough business to get anything out of).

People quit their jobs to sell stuff that is often highly marked up to handle their commission. And if you get an invitation to a party with a consultant, expect someone to try to guilt you into buying something.

"Remember, I have fun doing this, but if you don't buy anything, I can't put food on the table." OK, but if I don't like your products or your prices, why would I buy something?

You're entitled to try to sell me something, not to my purchase.

It's not just about work. Entitlement is about a lot of things. Did someone delete your comment on a news website? Yes, the company believes in freedom of speech. Do you know what you're not entitled to? Publication. You have the right, in the U.S., to say pretty much whatever you want (there are some limitations on that, of course). You do not have the right to expect someone will listen. You do not have the right to expect someone to provide a platform. You certainly have the right to create your own.

The "American Dream" has had various incarnations over the past 240 years. But I think we're at a point where many people need to be reminded that you have the right to work your ass off for your chunk of the American Dream. You have no right to just expect a chunk of the American Dream to fall into your sedentary lap.

Whom do you work for? Not your employer, your reason

Gypsee Yo grew up under a repressive regime in Albania. When she was 16, she and her best friend Magdalena promised to get to America for a better life.

So they took a job, dismantling bullets.

After a while, the government stopped dismantling bullets, instead repackaging them to sell on the black market. Or rather, the government was having 16-year-old girls repackaging bullets in concrete warehouses.

And then one day, a painfully hot day, one of the girls picked up a really heavy box of bullets, and she caved in under its weight, and she, along with the box, went crashing to the floor.

Quick physics lesson: Impact ignites gunpowder, which propels a bullet in the direction it's pointing. Bullets bounce off concrete until either drag slows them down enough that gravity stops them or they find something soft enough to embed in.

So if you drop a box of bullets in a concrete warehouse, you'd better get under or behind something and pray, which is what Gypsee, Magdalena and their coworkers all did.

When the chaos subsided, Gypsee found herself among the lucky ones. The two blood-stained fingers on the floor in front of her, not attached to a hand, showed her Magdalena was not so lucky.

From that point on, the government may have been her employer and some bureaucrat may have been signing her paycheck, but that's not whom Gypsee was working for. She was working for herself, for her best friend, for a future.

Think about your employment situation, then. Whom do you work for? Why? If you complain about work, think not about your employer, or your customers, but about your reason for working. If that reason isn't enough to propel you forward in your work, get out of your situation, whatever it takes.

What does 2015 look like?

If you, like most of us, flip the calendar tonight, you're probably also doing two things: reviewing your year and thinking about some resolutions for 2015.

My year in review basically consists, chronologically, of becoming a Freemason, getting married and moving 1,000 miles. There were other pieces along the way. Lots of great conversations, lots of lessons. A longer-than-two-week bout with poison ivy. My first real experience with animal stress (the dog had something called hot spots, which means he was literally trying to — and succeeding in, until we got some medicated shampoo and a cone of shame — PEEL HIS FACE OFF for a month).

In all, it's been a fairly chaotic year, punctuated by highs and lows. (It seems that was more or less the way of the world in 2014.) I might be willing to trade some of the extremes over the next 12 months for a more subtly happy, peaceful existence. As far as what's in store for me? I'm looking back and taking some lessons from me.

It's also some of the wisdom I have to pass on to you, take it or leave it. I'll write like it's for you, but it's really for me. But it's for you, too.

Benjamin Franklin came up with some guiding principles for life, and they're not faith-specific. In fact, Jesus is paired with Socrates, and there's no other mention of anybody. You could do a lot worse, and I'm betting you couldn't do a lot better.

I think moderation and justice are the most important here, and I hope for more of them — from and for everyone — in the coming year.

Find a quest, and see it through. It doesn't have to be monumental, but it has to be big enough to call a quest. Something greater than an adventure. I think with a quest, it's OK to make parts severable. If you don't fulfill your quest, you can still accomplish a lot, and have many adventures on the way.

Find some ritual, even if it's drinking your coffee in silence in the morning, or writing exactly 1,029 words in the first hour you're awake every day, or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand so you have to concentrate a little more.

Tim Ferriss asks just about every one of his podcast guests about their morning rituals. It's usually in the last 10 minutes; that's a great place to start.

Speaking of Tim Ferriss, he spoke to Chase Jarvis about bringing back the polymath. This is the most important thing of 2015 for me. You know how sometimes you want to be good at everything? Well, you probably should be. Here are a few reasons, but Buckminster Fuller outlines more here. I wrote a few thoughts on Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth about five years ago; more will be forthcoming in the next month or so.

As part of this, some things to consider:
Learn more about the world
Read these things weekly to get smarter
Get more interesting
Participate actively in your choices
Own your bad choices so you can make some better ones

The artist John Baldessari once destroyed all of his artwork. He didn't tear it up in a rampage. He collected all of it, cremated it, and he still has the ashes. He felt he had spent the past as sort of an apprentice, and he was ready to become a master. So he got rid of all his apprentice-quality work, and set out on his master's journey.

I've entirely thrown out about half a dozen blogs in my day, including purging archives here at joshshear.com three times. I think the quality has gotten a lot better. But maybe it's time to go read, and then destroy, some of the stuff that's not up to my current standards.

That's not to say, "I never did that," it's to say, "This is no longer a part of me," and I can always reserve the right to change.

If you're serious about improving, make sure you remember that practice is important, and so is a willingness to be challenged, and sometimes to fail.

"Now there's a hand my trusty fiere
And gi'e us a hand o' thine
We'll tak' a right guid-willy waught
For auld lang syne"

On Christmas, thoughts on religion and political correctness

Hey, if you're celebrating today, happy Christmas.

I'm not celebrating. As a Jew, I've been not celebrating Christmas for 38 years now.

It's not that I hate Christmas (though, I'll be honest, a bunch of the stuff that it'd be nice to have in the house is waiting until next week because I do hate the mess retail outlets are for the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas), it's that Christmas isn't an everybody thing.

It's not a war against Christmas, any more than your insistence on wishing me a merry Christmas is a war on me more here). I intend to have a very nice December 25, actually. It involved waking up early, having some coffee and some eggs, kissing my wife as she headed off to work, getting this blog post up and then getting to work myself.

I suspect it will be a fairly quiet day at work, beginning with photos from Mass at the Vatican, then parades, then a Knicks game, and about half time in the Cavs game I'll be done and heading off in search of some Chinese food.

Maybe this is a time to talk about the war on Christmas. You know, because a movement toward political correctness is a direct exclusion of Christians. No, it's not, really. It's meant to be inclusive of everyone. I suppose a proper greeting might be, "Merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, happy Kwanzaa, happy New Year and enjoy whatever else you might celebrate this season." It's a little cumbersome, though. I don't see it catching on.

You may have seen this one floating around Facebook:

That's not bad, unless you're among those who think it's just a group of Christians trying to get everybody to just go back to "merry Christmas" and be happy about it.

I don't care. I'm probably not going to wish you a merry Christmas unless I know you celebrate it. Otherwise, just deal with my, "have a great day," because that flow chart includes tolerance — gratitude, even — for that, too.

Maybe it's a good time to talk religion, too.

The BBC asks if religion might disappear someday. More people, after all, are stepping up to admit they're atheists, and to state they don't need a deity to be able to live a moral life. Some people call this Secular Humanism.

I believe those folks who can live a moral life without a God figure looking over them. Me, I'm a primitive monkey. I need to believe there's something bigger than me out there. Not to fear, not to blame, but just to say, hey, thanks, I'm doing all right down here, and I'll get better.

On the one side of it, there's Kevin Smith's film "Dogma." The assertion is that God gets a little miffed that everyone's just out there speculating and killing each other. Enter Sam Harris, who basically says, "Not all religions are equal, and some of y'all really need to cut the shit." Those are my words, by the way, not his. Go read him and listen to his stuff. He's a really smart dude, don't let my watering his ideas down steer you away.

I think we're getting into rambling territory here, so I'll leave you with some Nat King Cole and a fire to warm your day. Happy Christmas, if you're celebrating.