On Finding Brian Writing

Brian Writing has moved!

You can now find me at http://www.brian.digital/writing

I switched from living on wordpress.com to managing a self-hosted site. Hopefully this doesn’t cause any headaches – I think I crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, so you should still find me in your WordPress readers or email inboxes, if you are a subscriber. And Bonus! No more ads!

All the old posts are also still available, so maybe use this update as a reminder to go digging through the archives while I come up with something new to write about.

-Brian

 

 

on the Oscars and Being Liked

If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or the Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.

Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year had climactic scenes in which characters confronted the importance of ‘being liked.’  

Coincidence? Or important cultural phenomenon, captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives, and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star, now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is…  God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.

Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters, or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.

The theme repeats in the film, as Sam and Edward Furlong’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated, but more to the point discussion about the same thing.

Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.

When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.

In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would ever ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:

Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.

Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. ‘They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,’ she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing a electronic computer.

Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without the Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.

Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.

The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from Boyhood to manhood, the scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and Imitation Game.

So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked, and the struggle to escape from it. Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”

The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t need really need to.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde

on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

- The End of Absence 

on 365 (Inspiration is for Amateurs)

Twenty-four days ago I decided I would take a single photograph every day, for 365 consecutive days. I’m only using an iPhone, and I’m often taking more than one picture, but the goal is a single ‘shareable’ image at the end of each day.

Creative people who ‘sit around and wait for the clouds to part,’ as Chuck Close has put it, before they sit down and get to work, are not going accomplish very much. Often it seems easier to believe that the best work only comes in moments of divine inspiration, but as I embark on this challenge I’m finding that routine & persistence is the best way to refine technique and make good work.

Knowing that I need to make a photograph at some point during each day is opening my eyes in ways that they weren’t open before, when I was lazily waiting for the right image to coalesce before me.

Here’s a gallery of what I’ve done so far, in these first few weeks:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianbrian/sets/72157650665080771

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ICYMI

I can sense the ‘cycle’ of news media as this rotating blob, tucked just inside a massive doorway, and the moment one tries to step away from it, a persistent wind continues pushing it closer and closer.

It’s unavoidable – even consciously trying to decide that I’m not ready to jump back in after a break, I can’t go anywhere without incidentally grazing the ‘rotating media blob’. I visualize it like Slimer from Ghostbusters, or the big ancient space portal in Stargate – in the case of Slimer, you’re not going to outrun it – and in the case of Stargate, you’ve gotta step through, just because it’s there.

In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, CNN blares the sound of gunshots in Paris. At home, my dormant iPad pushes alerts of Academy Award nominations; newspapers collect at the front door, and restaurants everywhere are painted with televisions that shower everyone passing by with what’s ‘happening.’

Picture of Slimer

Slimer

On the last day of my recent vacation an article was sent to me describing the ‘In Case You Missed It’ (ICYMI) phenomenon and how it has become a kind of permanent purgatory for modern information consumers (anyone in the world with a phone or laptop.)  (“The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World,” John Holcroft, NYT)

Looking at the concept from the distance of having spent seven days alternating between a black sand beach and the cloudy rainforest, I could relate to the feeling of an itch that I had ‘missed something,’ but I felt no urgency or responsibility to catch up. It seemed that ICYMI only matters if you’re already ‘locked in.’

Each time the media blob brushes against my sleeve as I try to pass by it, I know that once I fully submit to the cycle, I’ll be pulled back in, and things will start to ‘matter’ again. Far away political events, trivial details of the intellectual arts, and incomprehensible fractions of data concerning the world economy will all congeal and form an awkward, incalculable load balanced across my knuckles as they hunch over their keyboard habitat.

It felt wonderful for just a few days to leave that all behind, and to truly participate in the real world and people who are actually present – instead of expending mountains of energy trying to ‘catch up’ on everything I’m ‘missing.’

Paris par Deux

I last visited Paris in November, 2011. It is a city I admire and my imagination returns to it often. Despite what the terrorists would have us believe, Paris is a city of love – maybe a cliche, but for many, absolute truth.

During my last trip, I walked the city at length, peeking excitedly into alleys and shopfronts and up at the balconies. I love the city’s rhythm, and my camera kept finding moments of ‘two’ – two people sharing a small corner of the city, amongst the millions who inhabit it.

At a time when Paris is threatened by separation, division, and ideology that seeks to break apart – I want to pause and reflect on these small moments I last saw there, and the unity they represented – simple frames of two people, sharing togetherness, freedom, and fraternity.

Creativity and Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Mason Currey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Reading Daily Rituals, an atlas of anecdotes regarding the daily tics of well known intellectuals, has given me pause to think about my own idiosyncrasies. Am I repeating actions habitually without realizing it? Do I have better days when I follow a routine?

Coincidentally many of the famously creative people and their quirks share a common thread. Historically writers, painters, architects and their ilk seem to have had a few oft-employed strategies for balancing their burdens. Walking and solitude were critical in the schedules of the great thinkers, who all seemed to champion their restorative and catalytic powers.

Beethoven took his strolls after a ‘midday dinner,’ while Freud ‘marched at a terrific speed’ after his evening meal. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Dickens promptly left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk, doing what he described as ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’ Darwin was known to walk three times a day.

Unsurprisingly, many of the subjects couldn’t get anything done without solitude. In middle age, Tchaikovsky moved to a tiny village miles away from Moscow where he said “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.” Leo Tolstoy was known for locking the doors to every room adjoining his study in order to keep distractions at bay.

Mark Twain Statue in Fort Worth, Texas

Mark Twain had a small separate study built on his property, where his writing consumed him such that his family ‘would blow a horn if they needed him.’ It wasn’t only men who found solace in isolation – Georgia O’Keefe told an interviewer, ‘My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.’ (She also walked for a half-hour every morning.)

Less agreed upon than long strolls and silence was the level of persistence and doggedness one should have in their habits. Some, such as Alexander Graham Bell, chose endurance: he reportedly worked around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours sleep a night. A family member remarked of him,

‘When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.’

Similarly, Nikoli Tesla had several odd tendencies, like re-polishing the silverware before he dined in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel every evening – but none of his conventions matched in uniqueness the work schedule he kept, from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning.

Some creatives had a less tenacious approach.

Goethe remarked, ‘My advice… is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.’

Sharing Goethe’s sentiment, the notoriously slow writer Joseph Heller once said ‘I don’t have a compulsion to write, and I never have. I have a wish, an ambition to write, but it’s not one that justifies the word ‘drive.’

on Tomato Time

It may be a stretch to write about productivity on a Friday (the Friday before Christmas holiday, at that) but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

If you’re a human who must use a computer for any more than a few hours a day to do your job, chances are you probably struggle somewhat with staying on task. It is in the internet’s DNA to make jumping from one thing to another really easy. The purpose of hypertext (you know, that http thing in a web address) is to transfer you from one text to another… and do it at hyperspeed!

I’ve lost a lot of productivity when I encounter a frustrating problem, and instead of forging through decide to take an internet ‘break’ which stretches into hours. It’s difficult to keep a disciplined work routine when you’re face to face with a ‘distraction machine’ all day.

For the last several weeks, however, I’ve been using a method that’s something like the dragon slayer of wasted time – the Pomodoro Technique.

Named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) the technique was invented by some guy in some place some time ago. That’s not important. What’s important is the method: work a solid 25 minutes, with no interruptions or distractions. At the 25th minute, a bell chimes, and you take a five minute break. Get up, stretch, pour coffee, whatever. Then another 25 minutes. Repeat the cycle, and after completing four cycles (or ‘pomos’) extend the break to 15 or 25 minutes.

Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 15.

There’s some psychology or other sciencey stuff that explains why this works so well. I think you can read all about that in the ‘founders’ original paper on the technique, available here. There are also functions to improve the cycles, like planning out tasks before beginning a ‘pomo,’ estimating how many ‘pomos’ a task might take, and ‘dropping’ any pomo which is interrupted beyond repair.

I wish I could remember where I first heard about this technique so I could give credit to whoever has bumped up my output over the last several weeks. As I’ve faced deadlines for end-of-semester projects in graduate school, been tasked with a new project at work, and continued trying to read & write in my own time, using the pomo method has been invaluable.

Aside from keeping me disciplined about getting shit done, the pomo technique has also made clear to me that the 8 hour workday is a myth. For anyone working in an office, actually getting 8 hours of solid work done is difficult and unlikely. The most pomos I’ve been able to complete in a single day is 16 – almost equal to about 8 hours of work – but it took me from 9:30 in the morning to 11:15 at night to do it.

There are a variety of apps for smartphones, desktop & the web that make following the process a breeze. Most will display a countdown on your display, at the end of which a small bell chimes, reminding you to take your break. I recommend the ‘Pomotodo‘ app, which also lets you write a short statement about what was accomplished with each ‘pomo’ and displays nice charts and graphs to help you visualize your work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.23.31 AM

I gave myself approximately one pomo to write and publish this blog post – and knowing that I have only a limited amount of time to accomplish it is making me work a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Hopefully I’ll be finished on time, and get to have a 5 minute coffee when I’m done!

Cubicles are Bullshit

There is a place inside every American middle and high school that misbehaving students are sent for rehabilitation. It’s called ‘In-School Suspension,’ or I.S.S.

The method of this punishment is that unruly kids are taken out of regular classrooms and placed in a quiet room with desks that have ‘privacy’ walls – the idea being that if they can’t see other students they won’t be provoked to interact with them and disrupt the teacher’s authority.

An enforcer sits in the room, overseeing everyone to make sure they aren’t just sleeping. Actual school work is expected to be completed during this time.

What no one tells these kids, as they sit in I.S.S., is that they are getting a lesson of much greater utility than they realize – they’re being taught how to sit in a cubicle, which very many of them will inevitably end up doing once they become adults.

As far as interior design goes, the differences between sitting in I.S.S. and working in a cubicle are extraordinary. By extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily similar.

Here’s a picture of the office at the New York Times in Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Here’s a picture of some kids serving In School Suspension in Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to read the wonderful book that Nikil Saval has written about the history of the workplace, ‘Cubed.‘ His meticulous research traces back the initial transition of an industrial society that produces material goods to an informational one that produces services and knowledge. He recounts the American movement out of factories and into the office.

Unfortunately, lost in this beneficial transition was an equally evolved concept of the physical spaces in which employees worked.

As I make my way through page after page of examples leading to the obvious conclusion that cubicles are bullshit, I find myself struggling with the slog to the book’s end. Not because it’s a bad book – it’s a fantastic book – but because I know how it ends.

It ends with me sitting in a cubicle.