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?

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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.

Mind dump: Parsing Ferguson


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For the second time this year, I was glued last night to live streams from on the ground in Ferguson. I have a lot to parse and process for myself, and I thought I'd mind dump here. Maybe it will spark some conversation.


Here are the filters I'm viewing this through.

I am white. I am middle class. I have an admiration for those who have it in them to act on their own radicalism. I have a strong preference for information presented through as few filters as possible (a camera on the ground will show you what the camera holder wants you to see, but that's infinitely better than a reporter in a studio talking about what s/he sees through a drone lens). The only "conflict" I've ever had with a police officer was as a journalist when there was some small-town squabbling between the chief and an elected official. I have a healthy respect for authority that comes with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding that authority (read: I respect an officer's authority to enforce laws, but I'm willing to question the law being enforced and to ask respectfully about my rights and responsibilities).

I also understand as a Freemason I have taken an extra obligation to adhere to the laws of the places I venture, but I also understand the context that a bunch of Freemasons were involved in founding the U.S., in direct violation of the obligations they took when being raised under the laws of Britain.


While I watched the actual announcement of the grand jury decision on whatever TV station was on in the house, I spent most of the night watching Bassem Masri's Ustream channel, with occasional checks on Argus's livestream clips.

I largely followed reaction on Twitter.

I didn't catch any of the news of the bridges being blocked in New York City until this morning. While I certainly understand people demonstrating in other areas, I feel like it was more important for people to express themselves in Ferguson directly.


Here are some facts I can't be blind to.

The announcement was scheduled for a bad time. The announcement came in prime time. Most people were out of work. Many people were glued to the television. People were available to demonstrate, and people were available to watch. If you want to minimize both, have it at 11 a.m., before the East Coast heads to lunch and as the West Coast hops in cars to commute to work.

Demonstrators were organized, and were prepared for both peace and violence. This was certainly an organized demonstration. People with bullhorns had access to benches or other structures to stand on and be seen. People with cameras and strong social media presences were allowed to be close to those people. Leaders called for 4 minutes, 30 seconds of silence after the announcement. While a lot of people were clearly prepared for smoke/gas, I saw a lot of hands up and I didn't see any weapons.

Police were also organized, but only appeared prepared for violence. I understand you prepare for the worst-case scenario, not the best, but if you don't appear ready for the best-case, you're never going to get it. This photo made the rounds last night. I have no way to verify this is from Ferguson, and I have no way to verify it's from last night, as opposed to the night in August when things blew up. But it's an accurate representation of what I saw. Nothing in this photo says, "We're ready for people to just hang out and hold signs."


A couple of things to consider. These are things we can easily make changes on with policy, rather than trying to change attitudes or train people.

The grand jury system needs some help. From data blog Five Thirty-eight:

U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Tech entrepreneur Chris Sacca has this to say about that statistic: "Failure to indict only happens when the prosecutor wants that to be the result."

Call it a conspiracy if you like, but a system with with two possible outcomes that comes out one way 99.993% of the time is only working in one direction.

Body cameras for police officers could help. For the past three and a half months, Michael Brown's family has been succinct in their reactions in the press. They haven't asked for riots, they haven't asked for money (although I think the system should allow them to file a wrongful death suit, and I certainly would in this case, given the option), and they haven't asked violent demonstrators to do their bidding.

But they are asking for some reforms that could avoid the hearsay reports in this case. Only two people for sure know what happened the day Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and one of them is dead.

Vox breaks down some of the pros and cons of body cameras (including things like, if an officer enters a home and the video is public domain because it's a police officer, is it a violation of privacy if there's nothing illegal going on?).


Some things I remember from watching on-the-ground video.

• Some protestors were certainly peaceful. They stood around with signs, chanted, took photos and tweeted.

• Some protestors were certainly not peaceful. They threw rocks and other objects, broke things, and some stores were looted, while others were burned.

• Some protestors were not violent, but were belligerent, taunting officers, who I thought showed good restraint under the circumstances.

• Officers used some strategies that were clearly aimed at creating arrests, like boxing in protestors and then telling them to disperse, without leaving them a route to do so.


Todd's a good friend of mine, and I didn't want to address this in 140 characters, but I think it's important and it's going to be a common question.

There's a larger context here. Last night didn't go from "No indictment" to "burn down Ferguson" in one step. It went from demonstrators on edge to a militarized police unit on hand to tear gas to cars on fire to stores being looted and burned. And, if Five Thirty-eight's data are correct, there was probably some institutional meddling in the grand jury's decision-making, and if businesses are seen as institutional, they're not "innocent." But remember, the steps along the way are important. If everything remains peaceful, or if violence is quelled early instead of perpetuated by a back-and-forth, it probably never gets that far.

I'm not so naive as to think nobody went out to burn stores and steal stuff. But I think that was an opportunistic byproduct of the night, not a goal of demonstrators.


Chris Kluwe is back at it, and I'm glad to see it.

You might remember that the NFL player once told a legislator that if gay people were allowed to get married, the legislator would not turn into a lustful cockmonster.

Kluwe posted more photos and such on his Twitter feed as well.

Two things stand out to me very quickly. In the sports photos, almost everyone's white. Also in the sports photos, I see very few police officers.

Also note that in the Seattle and San Francisco photos, these people are happy that their team won. Holy crap.


And finally, at least for now, some links, photos, etc. that I think are, or could be, of importance.

• Here is what the Post-Dispatch looked like this morning, and here's what I think should be media's responsibility in the coming days and weeks.

This photo is not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Tiananmen. A slideshow of photos from The New York Times starts with an even scarier view.

10 powerful minimalist pictures that beautifully challenge police brutality in America

• Far away from Ferguson, protestors shut down bridges in New York City.

Where people were tweeting about #Ferguson last night

• This isn't just a police brutality or racial divide case. It's a human issue, and this is a good truth:

I'd love to collect some of your thoughts and hear about some other angles I should consider. I probably haven't thought of a lot of things.

Can we talk equality for a minute?

I get ambivalent about participating in Blog Action Day most years, because, while I always think it's relevant to the world, the topic isn't typically something I'm passionate about.

But I can say something about equality. It's a topic I've given up on more than once. On the one hand, the fact that you bleed red, I bleed red, whatever, is obvious to me. On the other hand, you just can't change some people's minds.

inequalitywordcloud-smThere's so much to talk about, overall. Some of what's going on in the world...

Gay marriage
I can't believe we're even still talking about this. Sanctity of marriage? You know what's bad for the sanctity of marriage? Domestic violence. You know what else? Divorce. You know what the rates are among gay couples? I don't either, but I'm betting in both cases, it's substantially lower than straight couples. Look, you have a religious issue? No problem. We have a separation of church and state in this country. How about we just allow marriage to be a church institution, and call the legal bit a civil partnership?

Sexism
Here's another one I can't believe we're still talking about, but sadly, we are. Women on the whole still make less than men for the same work. Women are still notably absent from positions of power. And while there are a growing number of associations to help support female business owners, we still need associations to help support female business owners.

Look, 50.8 percent of the U.S. is female, we should be seeing something like that in terms of female leadership in corporate America and the like. Don't give me anecdotal evidence as "proof" that we're making progress. The fact is, we're really not.

Racism and white privilege
"People think Dr. King gave his speech and racism was over," Chris Rock tells Ice T, continuing on to say that white folks didn't even really start to watch what they said in public until 1978 or so.

Look, there is never going to be a time when we don't look at "other than me" suspiciously. It's hard-wired into us, and it's the same mechanism that keeps us glued to news about murders and robberies even though our mouths say we want to hear good news instead. But we have the ability to make our actions pair with our beliefs (or what we claim as beliefs), and treat everybody with respect.

I'm sure that many of you have read the essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, but if not, take 10 minutes to do so, and, particularly if you're white and haven't thought about it before, do think.

Class
I struggle with this more than any other, I think. I grew up in what I think is what is called a high-diversity school system. While I've never spent much time in "up-and-coming" neighborhoods (that means a place where housing is dirt cheap and you may not want your kids out after dusk), I find higher-end suburbs uncomfortable as well.

I've never had to live eight to a home, but there were times my parents worked multiple jobs.

I also happen to think a lot of racism is tied up in poverty, making it really a class issue.

If you need your eyes opened to class inequality in the U.S., listen to Ms. Pat school Marc Maron. Maron's reaction is of genuine surprise.

If you need your eyes opened to class inequality across the globe, check out Kevin Rose's interview with Scott Harrison. Harrison was one of those guys companies used to pay just to be seen in public drinking their products, and then he went on a trip and discovered there are children in this world dying horrible deaths because they can't get clean water. And then you can go give to Charity Water because you will totally feel like a selfish ass after you hear it.

Religion
While Christmas generally makes me uncomfortable (though I don't begrudge anybody their holiday), I'm becoming a little better with ritual.

But we still live in a world where we're killing in the name of (insert whatever you call the deity here). All the time. It's been that way throughout recorded human history.

And in a world where even the NFL has to reclassify its player fines because someone in the organization doesn't understand religious expression if it's not their religious expression.

Come on, people, rise above, eh?

Your comments are appreciated.