Required Reading, 5th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Thinking Outside Pandora’s Boxvia Startups and ShitStartup L. Jackson is an anonymous Twitter user who has a biting and insightful take on Silicon Valley. Check out his most popular tweets for some hilarious tech wisdom.

He also has a blog for the thoughts that don’t fit snugly into Twitter’s 140 character limit. His analysis of the music industry was particularly interesting to me, and just as interesting are the hyperlinks used to support his point, that streaming music is not a profitable business, and why should it be? The only reason music was profitable in the past was because it was wildly inefficient.

Mobile: It Changes Everything, via ben-evans.comIn keeping with the theme of insights from a technologist, below is a 25 minute presentation from Benedict Evans about the mammoth potential of mobile devices compared to the PC, and people’s online consumption preferences. The presentation presents numerical data in a pleasing visual manner, and makes sense of trends in technology and commerce. The implications he presents are staggering:

Why the Dodo Deserves a New Reputation, via Audubon: Moving on from tech and into the world of paleontology and the dodo bird. For starters, I hadn’t realized the dodo had been extinct for almost 400 years (last seen in 1662)! Here is an attempt to correct the misunderstandings in the dodo legend, namely that it wasn’t such a dumb, maladapted bird. Our impression of it has been misinformed by bad science and inaccurate drawings of its body (only two drawings that exist were done by people who had actually seen a dodo bird!). Rather, this creature was the product of the locale it evolved in, and its evolutionary eccentricities are explained by this quote from The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease:

“Strange evolutionary events often happen on islands. Large animals on small, remote islands often confront energy crisis because there are typically fewer plants and less food than on larger landmasses. In these settings, very large animals struggle because they need more food than the island can provide. In contrast, small animals frequently do better than their mainland relatives because they have enough food, they face less competition from other small species, and because islands often lack predators, releasing them from the need to hide. On many islands small species become larger (gigantism) and large species become smaller (dwarfism). Islands such as Madagascar, Mauritius, or Sardinia were thus hosts to giant rats and lizards (Komodo dragons) along with miniature hippos, elephants, and goats (SEE: Homo floresiensisthe Hobbit of Flores).

Reflections on The Siding Spring, One Year In

And 83 Posts.

I started The Siding Spring a year ago today. It isn’t my first blog, but it’s the only one I’ve stuck with. My previous attempts at blogging were all dismal failures, primarily because I never committed to an overarching concept that allowed for honest writing.

None of my old WordPress atrocities still exist, and my memories of them are mercifully dim. I opened my first blog in 2009. I forget the name, but I remember the posts attempted to be lofty and philosophical. It was even less fun to read than a stack of philosophy papers written for a junior college course.

At the end of college, I tried to start a humorous literary criticism blog in 2011—something else I’m too dumb to pull off compellingly. The only post I recall attempted to explain why Charles Bukowski is more fun to read than Earnest Hemingway. Regardless of which taciturn drunk you prefer, this blog was as painful to read as it was ill-conceived.

Lastly, In mid-2012, I started a blog the day after being dumped by my girlfriend. Project D.A.N. was the most cringe-inducing of all my blogging attempts, because its ethos of relentless self-improvement led to PAINFULLY emotionally and intellectually dishonest writing. I wrote dozens of posts about things like the benefits of not reading celebrity tabloids and why I make my bed in the morning. The writing was so insincere that if Tony Robbins ever read that blog, I’m sure he would’ve changed his name and sworn off inspiring others forever.

None of these efforts lasted long. Lying to yourself in a public space for no one’s benefit isn’t a motivating activity—the enthusiasm for writing about something you don’t care about quickly wanes. After giving up on Project D.A.N, I didn’t even try to blog for a couple years.

But then, in late October 2014, the idea for the Siding Spring came to me pretty much out of no where. A blog to collect the things I think are interesting. No strained attempts at perfection, no writing about subjects I have no knowledge or interest in. Among other things, it could be a place to review the books I read.

Reading had started to feel like a futile exercise. I would read a book then move on to the next, doing nothing with the information I’d gathered. It wasn’t learning so much as it was a scanning over of interesting information. After reading a book, it would soon grow hazy in my mind, until a year later I might as well have never bothered with it. This blog forces me to work harder at reading. Highlighting and then typing out the 3,000 or so most important words of each book is helpful for absorbing the material. Being forced to summarize a book in just a few paragraph is difficult but makes me clarify why that book was worth reading. It’s a painstaking process but has made me into a better writer.

I’m enjoying blogging now more than ever. My goal for the next year is to actually garner a readership. Hopefully I can do this without promising that this blog ‘will make your life better’—most writing on the internet is disturbingly aspirational.  To be successful by being informational without making any overblown promises might be impossible. Who knows, and who cares? Finding readers won’t be easy, but I have a few ideas that if done correctly will lead to more interesting and appealing content. Here’s to another year!


Required Reading, 4th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

The Lonely Death of George Bellvia The New York Times—Some people die alone. This article is both a riveting investigation into who George Bell was, as well as a meditation on what it means to grow old and how to do so with dignity:

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. “This job teaches you a lot,” he said. “You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. ‘He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had.’ Gimme, gimme. Yet when he was alive they never visited, never knew the person. From working in this office, my life changed.”

How Your Junk Mail Shows If You’re Rich Or Poorvia The Washington Post—Those junk mail credit card offers aren’t random. If it’s in your mailbox, it’s for you.

Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill, via MIT Technology Review—As discussed in The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, the more we ask from automation, the more necessary an electronic ethical code becomes:

Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

Essay: On The Benefit Of Doing Different Things

From the inspirational journal:

“A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.”

What is your favorite way to relax and rejuvinate yourself.

A full night’s sleep!

In all seriousness, I’d say the best way for me to rejuvenate is to switch up whatever it is I’m doing by doing something near it’s opposite. I doubt I’m unique in this. A switch of focus will refresh anyone. After all, no less an intellect than Anatole France (at least, he sounds smart. I got this quote from Bartlett’s Quotations and don’t actually know who he is) said, “Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.”

That’s why when I’m exhausted from being social, it feels good to sneak in some alone time; just as it feels especially good to get out with friends if I’ve been cloistered in the Ivory Tower. If something grows tiresome, shrug it off and take up a diametrically opposed activity.

“Silver Screen Fiend” by Patton Oswalt

I like to drink.
At my drunkest the worst I do is rewatch
Murder on the Orient Express or fall asleep.
I used to smoke a lot of pot. All it made me do
was go on long walks by myself and laugh at things.
I’ve enjoyed my share of LSD and mushrooms.
They exploded my being from the inside out—
while I sat and listened to music.

I’ve done my due diligence as far as vices,
but I’m an unbearable slouch when it comes
to interesting stories connected to them.

This will be either the most interestin or
the most boring addiction memoir you’ve ever read.
I can’t promise it ever gets “harrowing,”
but I can promise that I tried—I really tried—
to make it funny.

Here we go.

And so begins “Silver Screen Fiend”, Patton Oswalt’s memoir about his mid-twenties and early thirties. He focuses especially on the four years he spent living in Los Angeles and watching A LOT of movies (1995-1999). During this time, he was employed as a writer for MadTV and practiced his stand-up comedy, all while harboring a pipedream of being a film director.

He kept track of all the movies he watched: beginning with Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and ending with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace four years later to the day. Seeing The Phantom Menace was the flowering of a slow-blossoming epiphany for him, because he had so many complaints about how crummy it was without ever trying to make a movie. In the end, he realizes he’d been taking movies way too seriously:

Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life. And it hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film.

Consuming art and media is so much easier than making your own. No amount of watching movies will make you a better maker of movies if you’re not actively striving to create your own. Oswalt was slow to realize this. Furthermore, it got to the point where his love of movies was interfering with his ability to fully engaging with life. So this book is, in it’s own way, inspirational and motivational. I’m glad I read it.

High School Graduation Speech, my favorite essay of Patton’s.
Buy on Amazon

Continue reading

Required Reading, 3rd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. The most interesting one I read this week was a long one, and deserves your full attention:

Why the Best War Reporter in a Generation Had to Suddenly Stopvia Esquire: A profile on C.J. Chivers, a war correspondent who’s seen it all in the past fifteen years, from Ground Zero on 9/11 to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya:

By that April 2011, when Libya was collapsing into civil war, Chivers himself had been at war for ten years. He’d been in Afghanistan in November 2001, just after the bombing began, as he’d been in Iraq in March 2003, when the bombing began there—as he’d also been in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, and as he had been in every theater since, too many deployments for him to even remember, amounting to years away from his home, his wife, and his five small children, four boys and a girl.

The Times hired Chivers at age thirty-four in 1999 to cover war. That was the handshake, he says. A former Marine officer, he might know how to handle himself in a war zone, the paper figured. What theTimes could not have known was that Chivers would develop a brand of journalism unique in the world for, among other things, its study of the weapons we use to kill one another. After reporting on a firefight—whether he was in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Ossetia, Libya, or Syria—he’d look for shell casings and ordnance fragments. If he was embedded with American soldiers or Marines, he’d ask them if he could look through what they had found for an hour or so—”finger fucking,” he’d call it—and ask his photographer to take pictures of ammunition stamps and serial numbers. Over time and in this way he would reveal a vast world of small-arms trade and secret trafficking that no other journalist had known existed before.

“The Glass Cage” by Nicholas Carr

Because designers often assume that human beings are “unreliable and inefficient,” at least when compared to a computer, they strive to give them as small a role as possible in the operation of systems. People end up functioning as mere monitors, passive watchers of screens. That’s a job that humans, with our notoriously wandering minds, are particularly bad at. Research on vigilance, dating back to studies of British radar operators watching for German submarines during World War II, shows that even highly motivated people can’t keep their attention focused on a display of relatively stable information for more than about half an hour. They get bored; they daydream; their concentration drifts. “This means,” Bainbridge wrote, “that is is humanly impossible to carry out the basic function of monitoring for unlikely abnormalities.”

Automation asks so little of us. By it’s very definition, it runs itself, and that’s the problem. In some industries more than others, technology has gotten so advanced that it’s reduced its employees to passive monitors instead of engaged participants. That’s a role humans are uniquely bad at being. Our collective nature means we thrive on active participation. We are defined by the work we do.

Nicholas Carr isn’t a disenfranchised Luddite. Rather, he’s a deep thinker on the possibilities of technology and where it’s taking us. After all, as he says, technology is “what makes us human. Technology is in our nature. Through our tools we give our dreams form. We bring them into the world. The practicality of technology may distinguish it from art, but both spring from a similar, distinctly human yearning.” But he does have serious misgivings about letting the machines work for us (telling us how to navigate, remembering facts, etc.) while we sit idly. And those misgivings make for an engaging, if harrowing, read.

Quotes and Anecdotes: The Downside of GPS
Buy on Amazon

Continue reading

Required Reading, 2nd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Why Singapore has the smartest kids in the world, via—I’ve heard many vague statements bemoaning how bad the American education system is, but this quote clearly distills what’s lacking:

“One thing that’s been clear to them is that the world economy no longer rewards people just for what they know. Google knows everything. The world economy rewards people for what they can do with what they know.”

How Did Picasso Create 50,000 Works of Art? via Altucher Confidential—There’s a lot of wisdom in James Altucher’s writing. He’s prolific and repeats himself a lot but I found some enlightening new ideas in these reflections on quotes from Picasso:

“Action is the foundational key to all success.”

I know too many people who have an idea for a book, or a show, or a business. But “when I have time” or “it’s too late for me”, ignoring that Barbara Cortland wrote 23 books in her 82nd year.

The one thing in common from anyone above is that they wrote every single day. It’s hard to sit down every day and…sit. Blank paper. Blank canvas. Blankness.

And then…if you do something…it might suck. It might be the worst thing you ever do.

Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, has an incredible world record: he’s missed more shots in professional basketball than any other player. He’s missed over 13,000 shots.

So taking action is more important than anything else.

Nothing => Thinking => Doing => Finishing => Repeat is a daily practice for…I don’t know.

But I hope I can do it every day.

Is The World Looking Progressively Weirder? via Marginal Revolution—As the glut of information being generated expands on top of what is already available, our attention spans can’t hope to keep up:

As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door. 

Art Appreciation: Ralph Steadman

“Art is anything you can get away with.” – Marshall McLuhan

Last night, I watched “For No Good Reason” which is a documentary about visual artist Ralph Steadman. I’d never heard his name but I recognized his work. To be sure, his grotesque artwork is impossible to ignore. Watching him paint, you see a sort of interaction with his subconscious. The angriest, most frustrated depths of his Id come splattering out on the page: The rage, the social injustice, the malaise of modern life. It’s all there in sickening detail.

Steadman is best known as Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator. Theor work embodies the ethos of the 60’s and 70’s when, according to Steven Pinker, “sanity was denigrated, and psychosis romanticized” in pop culture. In other words, a period of decivilizing in the mainstream that’s antithetical to today’s social media.

It’s fascinating to hear fellow Baby Boomers discuss Ralph’s art. The era of organized protest being taken seriously by young people is so fargone as to be completely foreign. From director Terry Gilliam: “The problem with protesters is that we got old and we got tired. We screamed and shouted and we did change the world to a degree, but not as much as we’d like. And that leads to a depression and a sense of semi-impotence, which I think after a while just begins to wear you down. You realize you did make these changes, and you see a new generation of people coming up, who are beneficiaries of a lot of the noise we made, and they don’t give a damn. They’re interested in shopping.” And therein lies the rub.

Required Reading, 1st Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

How Pope Francis Became the People’s Pontiffvia Vanity Fair—a glimpse into the background of the mysterious and inspiring Pope Francis. His shrugging off of the trappings of prestige is unheard of these days:

Francis is the first Pope in 110 years who hasn’t lived in the palace, and he has shaken off many monarchical trappings. Up in that window, he isn’t a ruler condescending to look down on his subjects. The window isn’t a portal to the divine; it’s just an ornate window in a city full of them.

And what is he? He is a free man, that’s what he is. Somehow he has stayed true to himself and to the core Catholic message and has kept free of the pomp of the papacy, the crush of celebrity, and the expectations of the global Church. “He doesn’t ‘play’ the Pope,” says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “He is who he is.” He’ll ride in the Popemobile with the protective glass down, no matter the security risk. He’ll establish a shelter for homeless people near St. Peter’s Square. He won’t stop speaking off the cuff and he won’t insist that all the cardinals agree about everything. With 1.2 billion members, the Church is a tumultuous household, and he isn’t going to worry about a few flying dishes.

Perspectives on Insomniavia The Book of Life—leave it to Alain de Botton to make you reconsider what’s important in life. His writing makes me feel less alone. It conveys an understanding of what it means to be human and the compassion that says, “it’s okay. You aren’t crazy.”

Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with an abundance of ideas and pent up energy. While I worry about my sanity, de Botton reminds me to enjoy it:

Insomnia may also provide the perfect occasion on which to think. It’s easy to forget how little strategic thinking ever gets done in the day. Judging by the ideas generated there, our beds have more of a right to be called our offices than our offices. Insomnia is the revenge of the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the daylight hours.