What’s on my mind?
There’s a misconception that the practice of meditation involves clearing your mind of thoughts. There are amazing resources to learn all about it, but in short: the aim is to remain aware of thoughts as they come and go like clouds and not grab on to one and get lost in a train of thought.
Perhaps that’s not the best definition, but I think it explains how I’ve been this week. I used to meditate once a week at this place in Manhattan for about a year straight, and for whatever reason I lost the habit. Last Tuesday I returned and I’m already excited for next Tuesday’s sitting.
I’m definitely feeling more aware of so many thoughts passing by, but I’m very out of practice in letting them go. I feel some mental arms flailing around as I want to keep each one and nurture it into some nice, grand thought.
I heard something interested on a podcast recently about letting go of identifying with your thoughts. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, think of the House of Black & White where Arya is training to become “a girl” and lose her identity.
A girl may think a thing, but Arya does not. If you have a blog, podcast, or just love to talk a lot, you might notice how the further you elaborate a thought, the more you’re trying to inject your identity into the idea as though it is your own. At least that’s the case for me.
Of course, a specific thought at a specific time can only happen inside your head, so in that regard you are the owner of the thought. The idea however is likely to be shared by thousands. There’s a point where I disagree with the above however: I think sharing ideas is the most important thing humans can do. We developed the ability to communicate and that’s probably our best attribute.
So, on a personal note, I hope to put things here in a spirit of sharing, not identifying or owning, or to be an expert or visionary, but for the sake of the same ideas that reside in so many others to light up and become connected; which is how great philosophies can be born. Also, fully knowing that all of this can happen without me entirely, but for my entertainment at least, I’d like to learn and to listen.
Now that the meta is taken care of…
Minimalism and Wabi-Sabi
I’ve been reading Kenya Hara, and John Maeda lately. I also started getting into Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts, which hasn’t expanded much of what I learned from his first book, but has definitely rekindled my interested in thinking of this aesthetic applied to digital interfaces.
Just yesterday I saw this beautiful phone interface designed by Kenya Hara, for an elderly population, but something that I would love to use!
Now I have this crazy desire to make such an operating system in English, and include the sensibilities of Wabi-Sabi that I’m always talking about. I have no idea where to start in such an ambitious project and would probably need a whole design studio to be honest, but I think it’s going to be a fun concept to explore for myself.
For a guy that starts out a blog post about not identifying with thoughts, and letting them pass by, I’m really anxious to create more things. What can I say, humans are complicated.
I’ve had this idea for quite a while now, but I’ve set a deadline to complete a first episode by the end of January. The recording and editing will be done by then, and depending on the technicalities of publishing it, you may not see it until February.
In short, I’m trying this new style where I record a Voice Mail for a person, send it to that other person and wait for a response. With a few responses, or a few people, I hope to have something interesting that can be stitched together into a short episode.
This is inspired by old-timey hand written correspondence, but we’ll see how it really plays out. Recorded conversation is most interesting because it can have unexpected turns, and people can quickly adjust their stance on something and arrive at a natural conclusion. I’m afraid this won’t be as interesting to listen to, but I have a hunch that I could be different enough to still be interesting.
A friend sent me this book with the note that it’s one of his favorites and still picks it up again once in a while. That last part is most impressive to me, since I never read anything twice – there’s too many books in the world! I could immediately see why this one might be so re-readable.
I won’t give much background – descriptions and summaries you can find online – but I think I first heard of Rilke from the podcast Entitled Opinions. He was some German poet that left a lasting mark on his era, but I didn’t know much more than that. I know it’s sad, but I never pick up books of poetry. I guess I don’t know how to read it. Maybe it’s because poetry is work, and unless you sit and think and feel for a few days with the words in your mind, it never goes deeper than the surface. A story however will do the work for me, and I have a character to follow down deeper into some other experience. I would completely recommend this book to anyone that feels the same about poetry. This is Rilke’s only novel, and it holds my hand (somewhat) to where I need to go – as novels do – but along the way I can get an idea of some of the beautiful poetry out there that I’m missing.
Here’s my favorite paragraph so far. The only context that you need is that there’s a bit of fog in Paris.
- “What such a small moon can achieve. There are days when everything about one is luminous, light, scarcely defined in the bright air, and nonetheless distinct. Even the nearest of things have the shades of distance upon them; they are remote, merely sketched in rather than bodied forth; and all things that do indeed partake of the distance—the river, the bridges, the long streets and the prodigal squares—have absorbed the distance within themselves and are painted on to it as upon silk. Who can say what a slight green vehicle on the Pont Neuf might be at such times, or some red bursting forth, or even a mere poster on the fire wall of a pearly-grey group of buildings. Everything is simplified, rendered into a few exact, bright planes like the face in a portrait by Manet. And nothing is of slight importance or irrelevance. The booksellers along the Quai open up their stalls, and the fresh or faded yellow of the books, the violet brown of the bindings, the more commanding green of an album: all of it is just right and has its worth and is a part of the whole and adds up into a fullness where nothing is lacking.”
- From “Business as Usual, During Alterations,”
by Ralf Williams (Astounding Science Fiction, 1958)
- George shook his head slowly. “You’re wrong, John. Not back to where we were. This morning, we had an economy of scarcity. Tonight, we have an economy of abundance. This morning, we had a money economy—it was a money economy, even if credit was important. Tonight, it’s a credit economy, one hundred percent. This morning, you and the lieutenant were selling standardization. Tonight, it’s diversity. The whole framework of our society is flipped upside down.” He frowned uncertainly.
“And yet, you’re right, too. It doesn’t seem to make much difference. It’s still the same old rat race. I don’t understand it.”
I bought a box of SF pulps when I was in my late teens from one of my father’s friends, who kept them in the garage. English editions of Astounding Science Fiction, for the most part. Stories written by authors whose names I barely recognized, despite being a science-fiction reader from about as soon as I could read.
I paid more than I could afford for them.
I suspect that one story paid for all of them, though.
It’s a thought experiment. Until recently I’d forgotten the opening of the story (aliens decide to Mess With Us) but remembered what happened after that.
We’re in a department store. And someone drops off two matter duplicators. They have pans. You put something in pan one, press a button, and its exact duplicate appears in pan two.
We spend a day in the department store as they sell everything they have as cheaply as possible, duplicating things with the matter duplicator, making what they can on each sale, and using checks and credit cards, not cash (you can now perfectly duplicate cash—which obviously is no longer legal tender). Toward the end they stop and take stock of the new world waiting for them, and realize that all the rules have changed, but craftsmen and engineers are more necessary than ever.
They realize that companies won’t be manufacturing millions of identical things, but will need to make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slightly different things. That their stores will be showrooms for things, and stockrooms will be history. That there will now be fundamental changes in 1950s-style retailing—including, to use a phrase that turned up well after 1958, a long tail.
Being Astounding Science Fiction, the story contains the moral of 95 percent of Astounding Science Fiction stories, which could perhaps be reduced to: people are smart. We’ll cope.
When my friends who were musicians first started complaining sadly about people stealing their music on Napster, back in the 1990s, I told them about the story of the duplicator machines. (I could not remember the name of the story or the author. It was not until I agreed to write this foreword that I asked a friend, via email, and found myself, a Google later, re-reading it for the first time in decades.)
It seemed to me that copying music was not stealing. It was something else. It was the duplicator machine story: you were pressing a button and an object appeared in the pan. Which meant, I suspected, that music-as-object (CD, vinyl, cassette tape) was going to lose value, and that other things—mostly things that could not be reproduced, things like live shows and personal contact—would increase in value.
I remembered what Charles Dickens did, a hundred and fifty years before, when copyright laws meant that his copyrights were worth nothing in the U.S.: he was widely read, but he was not making any money from it. So he took the piracy as advertising, and toured the U.S. in theaters, reading from his books. He made money, and he saw America.
So I started doing Evenings with Neil Gaiman as fund-raisers for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and learning how to do that—how to make an evening interesting for an audience, with just me and a stage and things I’d written, partly because it seemed to me that one day it might not be as easy to make money from selling stories in the traditional way, but that business might still continue more or less as usual, during the alterations, if there were other things I could do.
And so as the nature of music-selling changed utterly and fundamentally, I just stood and watched and nodded. Now the nature of book publishing is changing, and the only people who claim to know what the landscape of publishing will look like a decade from now are either fools or deluding themselves. Some people think the sky is falling, and I do not entirely blame them.
I never worried that the world was ending, because as a teen I’d read a thought experiment in an SF pulp published two years before I was born. It stretched my head.
I know that the view is going to be very different in the future, that authors are going to get their money from different places. I am certain that not all authors can be Charles Dickens, and that many of us became authors in order to avoid getting up on stages in the first place, and that it’s not a solution for everybody or even for most of us.
Fortunately, Cory Doctorow has written this book. It’s filled with wisdom and with thought experiments and with things that will mess with your mind. Once, while we were arguing, Cory came up with an analogy that explained the world we were heading into in terms of mammals and dandelions, and I’ve never seen anything quite the same way since.
Mammals, he said, and I paraphrase here and do not put it as well as Cory did, invest a great deal of time and energy in their young, in the pregnancy, in raising them. Dandelions just let their seeds go to the wind, and do not mourn the seeds that do not make it. Until now, creating intellectual content for payment has been a mammalian idea. Now it’s time for creators to accept that we are becoming dandelions.
The world is not ending. Not if, as Astounding Science Fiction used to suggest, humans are bright enough to think our way out of the problems we think ourselves into.
I suspect that the next generation to come along will puzzle over our agonies, much as I puzzled over the death of the Victorian music halls as a child, and much as I felt sorry for the performers who had needed only thirteen minutes of material in their whole life, and who did their thirteen minutes in town after town until the day that television came along and killed it all.
In the meanwhile, it’s business as usual, during alterations.
Another excerpt: NPR.org
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