First You Ignore Them, Then You Quarrel With Them, Then You Laugh At Them, Then You Win Dept.

We argue not to change the minds of the committed, but for the sake of the uncommitted.


The Closed Minds Problem - NYTimes.com

... is there a reason I go for door #3 ["Point out the wrongness in ways designed to grab readers’ attention — with ridicule where appropriate, with snark, and with names attached"], other than simply telling the truth and having some fun while I’m at it? Yes — because the point is not to convince Rick Santelli or Allan Meltzer that they are wrong, which is never going to happen. It is, instead, to deter other parties from false equivalence. Inflation cultists can’t be moved; but reporters and editors who tend to put out views-differ-on-shape-of-planet stories because they think it’s safe can be, sometimes, deterred if you show that they are lending credence to charlatans. And this in turn can gradually move the terms of discussion, possibly even pushing the nonsense out of the Overton window.

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Tags: Paul Krugman psychology revisionism sociology


Infamy, Infamy, They All Have It Infamy Dept.

But of course it's scary to stick your neck out.


A friend of mine — who might well be reading this as I speak, HI THERE GABE — is preparing to do some promotion for a book of his that got picked up for publication. He's going to have orders of magnitude more attention than I have ever received for anything creative I've ever done.

For fun, I tried to imagine myself fielding the degree of attention he'll be receiving, and even that much frightened me. (That he has years of experience on me dealing with the public in some form is not lost on me, even if in an entirely different role.)

Two seconds' thought brought me to the realization that it's not attention alone that's frightening. It's unwanted attention. It's when people use your celebrity status — even if you are only famous to a few hundred people — to single you out and hold you to a standard that doesn't exist anywhere except in their own minds. All unwanted attention, as far as I've been able to tell, consists of this kind of misguided idolization.

I'm in the process of preparing my most recent book for submission to some folks for editorial feedback, and then from there to some agents and editors (as soon as I can find their names in this excuse of a filing system of mine). I know full well that once I ask for the world to take me that much more seriously, I have no control over what happens next. Bloody scary, is what it is. No prizes for guessing that's part of why I've held back from doing so for so long, and why I've elected to remain king of a domain that consisted of myself and maybe five other people.

Which is unhealthier, self-imposed isolation or someone else's idea of fame? A walk-on part in the war, or a lead role in a cage? Jury's still out. What I do know is that said jury will never come back in unless I have both experiences for myself.

Of course it's scary to stick your neck out. Nothing is worth doing unless it upsets you a little bit. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.


Tags: publicity publishing writing


My One And Only Dept.

The original, the original, the original. Three times over.


Within the course of any one week — heck, any one day —  there's just so much to talk about: one of the better definitions of what it means to punch up, not down (punching down is easy; punching up is hard); Oliver Sacks's farewell letter to the world in the New York Times (not a dry eye in the house); and a dissection of the Italian film Human Capital (just because something is set in another country doesn't mean it'll supply you with a diverse point of view).

But somehow, all three of those things constituted part of a whole — with the defining and central premise being the irreplaceability of the human being.

1. The things worth punching up at are generally the monoliths, the deniers of diversity, the things that make everything into copies of themselves even if they're not trying to. When individuals are punched down on, nobody except the individual feels it. A monolith is built to take a beating, and sometimes that's the only way to bring something that big back into line.

2. There will never be another Oliver Sacks, and in a way I sincerely hope there never will be. Everything he had that was his, deserves to remain original. The fact that he will soon be gone ought to spur us on to rise to his example. You can't ever be anyone but yourself, and so the main reason to look to others isn't to imitate them but to find out how to be all the more completely what you are. Dr. Sacks's curiosity and enthusiasm for life is a model for anyone, I think, not just fellow scientists.

3. About the term "human capital" — Paul Krugman took a few lines to treat the idea that people are essentially commodities with all the respectful insolence it deserves. But as for the movie itself, the review of it reminded me of something mentioned in the translator's foreword to No Longer Human: "... as the result of our repeated and forcible intrusions in the past, Western tastes are coming to dominate letters everywhere. The most we have reason to expect in the future are world variants of a single literature, of the kind which already exist nationally in Europe." The same, it seems, goes for cinema, much to our overall loss. [Addendum: I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't comment on whether or not it tracks with what the review says, but the thought inspired by the discussion was my main reason for citing it.]


Tags: creativity originality


In All Heaven And Earth, Only I Alone Reserve The Right To Offend Dept.

Why "I'm an artist" stopped being a defense for the indefensible.


Why Are Misogynist Lyrics "Entertainment" in 2015? | The Pitch | Pitchfork

Of course offensive art has a right to exist, and is necessary. All art has a right to exist — but its status as art is not protection from others' opinions. Art’s interpretations by the audience that receives it is as much a part of it as its creator’s intentions.

Emphasis mine. Great article overall, but that particular slice of it caught my eye and demands some expansion. It puts in the baldest possible terms one of those unspoken assumptions about art and creation that too often get handwaved off.

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Tags: art artists creativity creators sociology


Immovable Type (Dis)continued Dept.

More on me drilling my own escape tunnel from dead-end software.


The makers of Movable Type, the software I've used for years on end to host this blog and a few others, announced today that they have an AWS appliance version of their software. The "micro" instance is free, but anything beyond that is either $0.07 per hour or $499 a year.

I suspect that's as close as we're going to get from here on out to a free-to-use version of the program, especially now that the open source version is on life support and is only receiving security patches. An earlier, single-user license of the commercial product has been entirely discontinued, and looks like it'll never come back. I'm not shedding any tears; I'm just dismayed.

Once upon a good long time ago, I considered forking MTOS. That idea died screaming, not least of all because that would have required me to become an expert in structured line noise Perl. Sorry, if I'm going to invest that level of effort in anything, I'd rather it be a forward-thinking effort. The sheer amount of technical debt involved there meant I might as well start from scratch — and if I was going to do that, why not do it on my terms, not someone else's?

When I first started taking seriously the idea of creating my own blogging engine / CMS, I had no delusions that I was going to unseat anyone, or get away with anything that radical. Nor did I particularly want to: the audience that creates and uses WordPress is a diverse and valuable one. But I felt like there was a missing space in the market, a spot for a user-friendly blogging system, written in Python, that had learned as many good lessons as possible from its more widespread ancestors.

Even if such a space was sensed by only one person, me — and if I filled it for myself, at the very least I'd be winning in two ways. One, I'd have freed myself from ever having to depend on anyone else's project; two, I might well be able to allow others to benefit from it. A third possibility — that I in turn might benefit from having a culture of contributors — is also possible, but I'm not banking on it.

To that end: Watch this space for details. When life hands you lemons, extract the acid from them and burn through your chains. I'm hoping to have some commits in there by the end of the year.


Tags: blogging Movable Type Python software WordPress


No Mind Doesn't Mean Mindless Dept.

Zen's "no-mind" means humility, not cultivated ignorance.


Bret Victor, beast of burden

... When I talk about not knowing what you're doing, I'm arguing against "expertise", a feeling of mastery that traps you in a particular way of thinking.

But I want to be clear —  I am not advocating ignorance. Instead, I'm suggesting a kind of informed skepticism, a kind of humility.

Ignorance is remaining willfully unaware of the existing base of knowledge in a field, proudly jumping in and stumbling around. This approach is fashionable in certain hacker/maker circles today, and it's poison.

Knowledge is essential. Past ideas are essential. Knowledge and ideas that have coalesced into theory is one of the most beautiful creations of the human race. Without Maxwell's equations, you can spend a lifetime fiddling with radio equipment and never invent radar. Without dynamic programming, you can code for days and not even build a sudoku solver.

It's good to learn how to do something. It's better to learn many ways of doing something. But it's best to learn all these ways as suggestions or hints. Not truth.

Learn tools, and use tools, but don't accept tools. Always distrust them; always be alert for alternative ways of thinking. This is what I mean by avoiding the conviction that you "know what you're doing".

I read all of this with a different set of associations than most people might. draw. The topic in question is programming, and there was a lot for me to glean there (what with me now involved in a few major programming projects ... more on that later). But the natural connection I made was with Zen and the doctrine of no-mind.

For those who just sat down and ordered a drink, the concept of no-mind is sometimes better explained by the euphemism "beginner's mind". One approaches life best by putting down assumptions, preconceptions, one's own situation and position, one's own self. Put all that down, take yourself out of the equation, and you'll see problems all the better for what they really are. Bonus: the more you do this, the more you find your problems are not even "your" problems, and are not even problems at all.

Stated that baldly, as the distillation of a great deal of experience, wisdom always sounds cheesy and dumb. My own experiences in this regard, I could fill a book with and probably still not convince anyone of their truth. But all I can say is, there's something vital and important there, and I wish more people were motivated to look for it in their lives instead of just distracting themselves with quick fixes.

Anyway, my point is that the attitude being described here is one worth bringing to most every aspect of life. Learn what's out there, and make use of it, but never assume it's the end of the road. That goes for your own mind as well. The things your mind tells you it wants are not always good for you, not always accurate, not always compassionate. You have to build both trust in yourself to keep moving forward, and keep enough skepticism about yourself to not step stupidly off the end of the pier. This is why Zen Buddhists sit zazen in the first place, as a way to do both of those things by teaching their minds to shut up and get out of the way.

If there's another term that comes to mind for this sort of thing, it's the cultivation of spiritual humility. Most every religion or practice path in the world asks for something in this vein, although they go about it differently. Christianity asks for it by way of spiritual identification with and emulation of Jesus Christ, Buddhism doesn't ask for the same kind of thing — rather than have our aspirational feelings ignited by emotional devotion to an embodied ideal, it asks us instead to look into ourselves fearlessly much as the Buddha did. They both ask us to follow a model of a sort, but for different reasons and to different ends. This is fine; there are as many paths as there are people, and there ought to be.

Back to the original point, spiritual humility. However you get there is likely to be worth the effort, but the important thing is not to let the tool that you use to get there become its own end. The point of loving God and Christ, as I understand it, is to also love your fellow man; without that, no amount of love of God or Christ is worth the bother. The point of studying Zen and practicing the path is to do those things, but not to get caught up in them per se. If you're peeved because your zazen is being disturbed by a cat trying to climb into your lap, the cat is clearly more important — but don't let that constitute an excuse to not do zazen, either! Be humble and self-questioning about your intentions and your actions, because that's one of the easier ways to see through them and discover what they really are.

The last point I want to make about all this, one I ought to have made first and foremost, is that "beginner's mind" is not "idiot's mind". Skepticism and a questioning attitude are made more powerful, not less, with experience. You learn all the better the traps you set for yourself, and how to not step into them — but nowhere does it say this comes automatically with time and experience. Remember my talk before about the expert beginner  — better to say, perpetual amateur? That kind of naïvete is the diametric opposite of what Zen is supposed to be about.


Tags: belief religion spirituality Zen


Radio Shuttered Dept.

Kiss the Shack goodbye. You won't see its likes again.


Goodbye to the Electronics Store - NYTimes.com

I’m not nostalgic for the old days when shopping for electronics meant dealing with the hassle of driving to a mall, finding parking and studying inserts in the weekend newspaper for deals. Still, there was a certain excitement about hauling a stereo or computer home. Receiving a brown cardboard box with the Amazon smile logo emblazoned on it is more efficient but feels just a little less satisfying.

It's a shame to see the likes of Radio Shack vanish, but really, they dug their own grave with such enthusiasm they almost fell into it. They refused to see how their business model was being eaten alive from all sides, how one device now does the work of two dozen, and naïvely hoped that their deals with wireless carriers would keep them alive. No such luck.

With me, this kind of thrill of discovery, of hauling home the goodies, took place in other arenas — the book, video, and record stores I haunted habitually in New York, and still do when the opportunity arises. Plundering Amazon isn't quite the same. It is possible to make wonderful discoveries in the cracks and crevices of that place, but there's something about getting out of the house and bringing it all home that they can't reproduce.


Tags: shopping


Slow Down, You Move Too Fast Dept.

Speed kills culture, not just individuals.


Speed Kills | The Nation

We don’t have less time than ever; on the contrary, life expectancy has steadily increased. What we have, at this latest point so far in human history, is more of so much else — more people, more books, more cultural products of every kind, in addition to the staggering volume of online content. We feel ever more acutely the mismatch between available time and all the possible ways we could spend it. ... And yet, despite the ostensible constant novelty — new information, new communication, new techno-toys — there is a numbing sameness to the experience of daily life for many of us. Too much of life is spent in the same essential way: clicking and typing and scrolling, liking and tweeting, assimilating the latest horrors from the news. And this relates back to the speed of time’s passage. True experiential variety, the social scientists tell us, is what gives life the feeling of passing more slowly — getting out of our routines, having adventures. It’s when the days pass by in a barely distinguishable blur that we look back and think, “Where did the time go?”

There's a lot of #firstworldproblems in that piece, and definitely in that excerpt, and also the sort of projection of one's own malaise into a general worldview that I've come to dislike (and not just because I see it myself and want to root it out when I do). But ... yes. There's just that much more to do, and I'm amazed at how much of it is such banal tail-chasing.

The other night I took an hour off (a WHOLE HOUR!!!) and sat back with a copy of some of Camus's early essays — a paper-bound edition, no less. After spending what felt like weeks in front of the computer, it was like a housebound man going to the shore and plunging into the surf. Maybe the big contrast print affords us is experiential, and not just technological. It felt different, and the words sunk in that much more. It was a poignant reminder that not everything in life happens in front of, or is committed to, a screen.

And then the next morning I got up and stared at a computer again. You can only get away from it all for so long before it catches back up with you.

That said, I've been trying to read more and scroll less. What with one of several possible future writing projects looming, I could use the headfood. The more off my beaten path(s), the better. (Small wonder I'm less interested in reading things labeled as SF; so much of it seems more interested in maintaining or protecting a label than in striking out into genuinely creative new territory....)


Tags: culture reading


Noise Filters Dept.

The uncanny has become the new normal.


HULK’S TOP TEN FAVORITEST MOVIES OF 2014 | Badass Digest

BECAUSE AS OUR LIFE EXPERIENCE BECOMES POPULATED BY MORE AND MORE THINGS, WE'RE GETTING MORE AND MORE DEPENDENT ON SURFACE ESTIMATIONS. EVERY DAY, WE ARE BEING HIT WITH SO MUCH "NEW" INFORMATION THAT THE CONSTANT PRESENTATION OF THE UNCANNY IS BECOMING OUR NEW NORMAL (PLEASE READ PRESENT SHOCK; LINK BELOW). AS SUCH, WE'RE HAVING TO SEE THE SURFACE OF A THING, ASSUME IT IS WHAT IT IS, AND MOVE ON BECAUSE WE DON'T HAVE THE TIME. AND BECAUSE OF THIS WE'RE MISSING SO MUCH DAMN TRUTH.

I sometimes wonder if this is part of what's behind the "invisible gorilla" effect — did we suffer from this kind of thing in a previous era, because our filtering mechanisms for daily life were attuned differently? Impossible to tell without popping into a TARDIS and finding out for ourselves, I guess.

That aside, this does seem to be the mechanism by which we become dependent on genres and labels generally — what our friends think, what channel something is on, who directed this, what else the author put out, etc. Few people have the time to commit to anything deeper than that, or the dedication. For most of us, a movie is just something to pour into the eyes for two hours. Those of us who understand this have a responsibility to not just be another creative spigot under which people will put their heads and guzzle mindlessly.

I also suspect that "constant presentation of the uncanny ... becoming our new normal" is another reason why fantastic imagery on a screen is becoming less and less compelling. Our eyes fairly popped from our heads at Star Wars in 1977, because we didn't have decades of like-minded moviemaking making such a thing easy to take in — predictable and safe, even. The really daring visuals of today are in the corners, and aren't about things blowing up: Boyhood, Irreversible (and Enter the Void, even if I was no fan of the film), Takashi Miike's gonzo genre-busting experiments, maverick anime like REDLINE, and so on.


Tags: audiences entertainment movies


Texas Sharpshooting Dept.

Maybe audiences, authors, and critics should be cultivated together, not separately.


Why Is Academic Writing So Academic? - The New Yorker

... an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it — to the main activities, in other words, of academic life — they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences — and, sometimes, which audience members — matter.

One of the first things you get drummed into you as a writer — that is, if you plan on doing it as anything but a hobby — is to know your audience and aim for it. Too much of the time this becomes "people who read X", instead of "people who are interested in X". I wonder how, or even if, a non-fiction book like Gödel, Escher, Bach would be able to find an audience today, because of how unlike previous treatises on its subjects it was and is.

The same applies to fiction, too, of course. Because profit margins are so tiny for any kind of publishing, fiction doubly so, everyone seeks to maximize their take by reproducing — if only provisionally — what someone read last week. It's less expensive to market a maverick book, because you don't have to spend nearly as much time explaining to people what the blasted thing is. And given that most people barely have time to read anyway (you skimmed this while waiting in line for your coffee, right?), it's something of a losing proposition to ask for anything more from the apparatus created to extract value from words.

Some parts of the publishing market are scrappier and more inventive than the rest; they hew more closely to the indie comics scene than anything else. But too much of what both the indie comics scene and the indie publishing scenes produce are weird for weird's sake — different for the sake of difference, not different for the sake of being genuinely better. I suspect that in turn comes down to how writers are cultivated and appreciated.

Maybe what we need is more of a single-tent approach — a publishing house that also has a literary organ for criticism, one where the critics are entirely separate from the publishing side of things, and can speak honestly (and have the audience speak back). That might in time not only create better books, but create an atmosphere of discovery for them for readers, too.


Tags: criticism publishing writing


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