Tag Archives: books

Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss: The Internet as ArtMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this after hearing the author on the Recode Media podcast and reading some of her shorter pieces in the Times over the years. There’s a lot to think about in Magic & Loss – I enjoyed the lucid language and often insightful commentary. The homage to the death of the telephone was wonderful, and the quick take on ‘science’ writing in the mainstream media was funny – but there were also a share of flimsy moments (did she really just try to summarize a billion photographs on Flickr by talking about the style of two users?) I found myself occasionally waiting for more substantive technical discussion (maybe I’m conditioned to expect it in any writing about the internet) but I guess the ‘internet as art’ premise doesn’t leave room for grubby engineering stuff. Unfortunately, the end of the book veered into esoteric academia. It’s impressive to see someone versed as equally in obscure Youtube clips as they are in Wittgenstein, but wrapping the book’s closing chapters in personal academic history (something about Tweeting to a physics professor?) left me feeling disconnected. I may eventually give this book another try, but next time I’ll go for the text (instead of the audiobook) so I can pause and follow up on the many arcane references.

Freedom, Concrete Island, & Richistan

The three books I’ve finished in the last few days initially seem disparate in theme, but if I dig, I might find a way to associate them and forge a coincidence in completing them around the same time. For some reason each of their unique stories caught my attention, after all. It’s a fun game to pick out three diversely categorized books and try to connect the dots between them, reading each at a completely different pace, thinking about them as various events unfold in my own life, and maybe looking for similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in. This fumbling investigation is the side effect of having no structured agenda when I decide which book to pick up on any afternoon.

On the surface, the novel Freedom is a long and gossipy portrait of modern love and grief in post-9/11 America, and Concrete Island walks the line of science fiction with the tale of a man stranded between two highways after crashing his car. The argument against looking for coherence in the works is sound; they are set in different times at different places, one spanning over twenty years of events and the other just a few days, one deeply probing the psychology of an entire extended family, the other acting as witness to the brute actions of three strangers. The reportage of Richistan further eschews comparison, it is a colorful piece of long-form journalism chronicling the lives of 21st century America’s newly minted (and apparently plentiful) million-and-billionaires.

The only theme that seems to flow through all the works is money. The power and appeal of wealth is explored in Freedom through Walter and Joey Berglund, who both seem to find their titular ‘freedom’ by providing financially for their family. In Freedom money is both gift and curse, leading to Walter’s moonshot political and romantic disasters, but also to the construction of Joey’s sense of moral responsibility. Contrarily in Concrete Island, money is dissolute. The wealthy architect on his way home from an illicit rendezvous ends up a lost soul stranded on a traffic island: as he nears death, he’s seen throwing greasy bank notes into the air like confetti as he tries to persuade an unsympathetic vagrant hobo to help him escape.

Richistan could be seen as expressing both the positive and negative ideas from Freedom and Island’s fictional narratives: in some interviews, the nouveau riche paint a disorderly picture of affluence by describing their lost sense of identity, responsibility, and common connection with society; in other chapters the prosperous subjects are seen as icons of decency who channel their fortunes into charity, or back into the markets from which it came.

One of my peeves with Freedom was the hunch that Joey Berglund was an unbelievable character. Hardly a freshman in college, he was brokering million dollar arms deals with weapons contractors in post-9/11 Iraq, despite otherwise being described as a generally ‘chill’ stoner who spent all his time chasing girls. Yet in Concrete Island, what hooked my attention was that the apparently ridiculous and impossible scenario of the main character Maitland being trapped on a traffic island in the middle of the city of London was actually written to be a completely coherent and believable situation.

So in one case, there’s a character who the author wants to be believable, but isn’t. In the other, there’s a character who the author can’t expect to be taken seriously, but who I actually did. Maybe it’s this inconsistently plausible complexion in fiction that drives me to also read books like Richistan, which takes no liberties of imagination with its subjects, only laying out facts about living, verifiable people.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

It was the never-discarded trail of breadcrumbs left behind by my browsing on Amazon.com that led to Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” getting stuffed in a cardboard box and mailed to my apartment. With precision, Amazon remembers everything I’ve ever looked at, how long I looked at it for, and what I looked at next. It really wouldn’t benefit them to “tidy up” that history, nor would it anyone else who is enamored with the idea of “big data” and harvesting trends from massive collections of information.

So it’s in this age of everything digital lasting forever, and giant mountains of digital ’stuff’ being heralded as the holy grail of information, that a book about throwing things away has become an international bestseller.

Despite the celebrated promise of data hoarding, my past browsing led the magical website to believe that a book about cleaning (or ’tidying’ as Kondo calls it) was something I’d be interested in. The machine recommendeth, and I taketh away.

I’ve never paid much attention to cleaning. When I was a teenager, the floor of my bedroom often wasn’t visible beneath all the piles of crap that I had accumulated. It’s not something the average guy considers a skill – house cleaning just doesn’t have the panache of most other activities that one can get better at with practice or study. I’ve improved since I was young, but flotsam still collects in my wake and lives on in my closets. A giant styrofoam donut, ancient t-shirts, graduation cap & gown, nine year old pay-stubs. Things I haven’t touched or thought of in ages.

Kondo has a very simple philosophy: Take stock of every single thing you own. Touch each thing with your hands, and ask yourself if it gives you joy. If it gives you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

This might seem pretty vague. Whether not a thing is “giving me joy” doesn’t seem like a quantifiable measurement, and at first I didn’t expect the process would produce any results. But surprisingly, as I began going through my closet, touching things one-at-a-time made a tremendous difference in my ability to calculate that thing’s worth. Just glancing at a pile of books on the floor, or pausing to stare for a moment into the closet doesn’t call up the value of each item as plainly as if they’re picked up and handled individually.

In a single morning I filled eight trash bags with clothes ready for donation. My wardrobe now takes up about half the space that it did, and I feel confident that I would actually wear every single article I made a thoughtful decision to keep. Magic, indeed.

But life-changing? Like the measurement of whether or not an object gives you joy, to determine if something has “changed your life” is subjective. To really be “life-changing” like book’s title suggests, this exercise in “tidying” would have to affect the possessions that I really cherish, and that take up the most space – books.

For the last decade (or at least since Amazon Prime was invented) the size of my book collection has increased indiscriminately, annexing ever more space in my apartment. It is absurdly easy to have a passing curiosity, and two days later receive four books about it in the mail. Against this front, I waged a campaign to lighten my shelves.

When I was finished, I had four boxes to donate at the local Goodwill store. They weren’t full of garbage, or torn paperbacks, or comics. (I actually haven’t gotten to Kondo’ing my comics yet – that will be a true test.) I felt good driving away from the donation drop-off, thinking that I made an effort to stop hoarding information that I’m not using, and instead passing it to someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

On books, Kondo writes “their true purpose is to be read, to convey information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves.” Simple explanations like this are abundant in the short book, and true to her philosophy, she even recommends getting rid of it after you’re finished, or until you no longer need to reference the information it holds.

Cleaning has never seemed like it supported any philosophy to me. It has always just been an a banal domestic time-suck. But this book frames tidying in such a way that it can not only make your house look nicer, but make everything in life feel a bit fresher.

“By putting our house in order, we can live in our natural state. We choose those things that bring us joy and cherish what is truly precious in our lives. Nothing can bring greater happiness than to be able to do something as simple and natural as this.”

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 

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.’

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.

the Obstacle is the Way

Ryan Holiday, ‘The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art Of Turning Trials Into Triumph.’  2014 Portfolio Hardcover, 224 p. 

Holiday’s premise, and that of the philosophers whom he quotes rigorously, is that any challenge in life is best met head on. I was immediately intrigued by the book’s brash attitude. Over and over again, the point was made that obstacles, challenges and trials are essential to the human experience, and attempting to live without them or constantly avoid them is meaningless and harmful.

Breaking the philosophy into three distinct methods, he highlights Perspective, Action, and Will as the means to defeat any hardship.

Perspective, the first, defines how to approach a setback. It is the “fundamental notion that girds not just Stoic philosophy but cognitive psychology: Perspective is everything.” Take an obstacle for what it is: not how it makes you feel, what it might imply for the future, what its cause may have been, etc; these curiosities are just a distraction that do not contribute to its defeat. There is power in the fluidity of perspective, and that facility is an advantage over the stasis of an obstacle.

“Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius

The second discipline is Action. “What people who defy the odds do… They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work.” Action is what follows perspective: once we condition ourselves that an obstacle is only fearful if we think of it as fearful, then we may act to overcome it. Historical examples are packed in to illustrate this concept: Ameila Earhart flew in the face of doubt and discrimination, Ulysses Grant suffered hard losses and had to discard military convention, Thomas Edison experimented with six thousand possible filaments to use in his first light bulb. These stories of right and persistent action “…are not the exception to the rule. They are the rule. This is how innovation works,” says the author. An obstacle requires action, and right action grows naturally stronger according to the weight of the obstacle.

“When the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter which is heaped on it, and consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” – Marcus Aurelius

Will. “Our final trump card.” The third discipline of beating challenges. Will is the essence of the fight, and as described in the book’s final section, it is the last thing we may hold on to when action seems to fall short. We may change our perspective, and we may begin to act – but when the first act fails, and the second act follows – it is will that will stand us back up for a third, fourth, or fiftieth try. Abraham Lincoln is offered as the personification of willpower: he was raised in poverty, but educated himself. He lost his mother as a child, his first romantic love passed away, yet he found political office. He suffered from what is now understood as clinical depression, but in his time was just considered an unattractive personal habit of ‘melancholy.’ In spite of all his disadvantages, he often repeated the phrase – “This too shall pass.”

Meditation on the persistence of obstacles is a way to enhance the will: “Behind mountains are more mountains.” Being certain that another challenge exists after the current one means that slowing down or losing strength can only make the next problem more difficult. Being persistently mindful of the cyclical nature of opposition strengthens the will.

In the book’s last pages, a Stoic Reading List is prepared. Inspired by this contemporary reading of classical concepts, I dug out my old copy of Epictetus’, ‘the Art of Living,’ to see how much of Holiday’s narrative was comparable to the wisdom of the ancients. Epictetus states: “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take on things.”  My copy of  ‘the Art…’ which had sat untouched on a shelf for years, has since been relocated to my bedside. Now I can take 5 minutes every day to remind myself: The Obstacle Is The Way.

 

 

I’m actually wearing pants right now

I  just finished reading ‘The Year Without Pants,’ written by a Scott Berkun, a former manager at WordPress.com. It’s an in-the-weeds tale of life at a distributed (remote work) company, something anybody who has ever sat in a cubicle fantasizes about. I picked the book up because I wanted to know more about working from home, and whether it’s a realistic alternative.
 
I love WordPress, the company, which is a great way to write, receive feedback, and share my thoughts with whoever wants to read them. As a user of their products I totally endorse their mission and what they stand for. But a few things about the story make me think the author wasn’t completely sold on working remotely all of the time.
 
The story finishes with the writer’s departure from the company, only a few years after starting. To me, this makes a pretty big statement. He doesn’t really elaborate on his decision to leave, aside from claiming an aspiration to ‘the writing life.’ Hmm… everybody aspires to the writing life, but nobody quits a job over it…. Right? I wonder if he is reserving his negative opinion of the experience because the experience is what gave him a subject for his book, and he is grateful for it to that end. 
 
From an editorial perspective, it’s a pretty sleepy read. There is an entire page describing a game of shuffleboard played between two coworkers. I think it was shuffleboard – I had to skim several re-tellings of ‘meetups,’ which read like journal entries from a 16 year old girl coming home from a date. The author’s enthusiasm over these rare in-person interactions between colleagues seemed awkward – I felt like too much excitement was garnered from the kind of trivial stuff that happens daily in any regular work environment. The banal was given epic status – to paraphrase what is described as brilliant team-building, “We stayed up late and drank beers together, tee-hee!” 
 
The lack of clarity in the narrative is interesting. The story bounces annoyingly between soapbox tirades on the virtues of good leadership, and very boring histories of meetings, arguments and project schedules. Many of the ‘conversations’ recounted in the book, sometimes pasted in verbatim from online chat records, are synopses of interactions that took place via text, on the internet. Communicating with someone via chat is dull enough already, reading someone’s recount of a conversation from that medium is even worse. Is it possible that in the years of working at WordPress, communicating only through brief, unedited and casual chat windows, the author lost all sense of what makes paragraphs, sentences, and chapters engaging units of a cohesive whole? 
 
At any rate, I think the book (and WordPress) indirectly raise interesting questions about working remotely. There are absolutely benefits to it. For people who do this kind of advanced technology labor, there really isn’t a need for them to inhabit the same physical space. The internet enables mostly the same kinds of interactions that an office space would, to a point. But that line is drawn somewhere around being able to pick up on your cube-mate’s non-verbals, eavesdropping on hallway conversations, and having someone besides a cat to drink coffee with. 
 
So maybe the answer is not having people work from anywhere in the world at any time, as WordPress does, nor is it requiring punch cards to a suburban cube farm from 8:30 to 6. Perhaps there’s something in the middle to strive for.
 
I am curious if any companies have had success with ‘hub’ offices in ‘home’ cities, leaving a space open to all, and having people who work out of their homes regularly attend in person only for weekly or bi-weekly gatherings – as opposed to hiring globally and sponsoring jet-set international meet-ups every four or five months, as happens at WordPress. 
 
All criticism of the story’s boring moments aside, I hope WordPress continues doing whatever it’s doing to put out this great platform for blogging. Whatever works for you all – carry on! 
 

the Four Hour “Lorem Ipsum”

What would I do with the extra thirty-six if I only had to work for four hours, every week?

In Tim Ferris’ book, The Four Hour Workweek, the answer to that question is given less attention than the ‘how-to’ guide for finding oneself in such a quandary. As he recounts his own experience, the author presents the alternative ‘new rich’ lifestyle of time spent dwelling nomadically through Europe, learning languages, and adopting several new ‘kinesthetic’ activities per year as the alternative to cubicle-dwelling wage slavery.

For a creative mind, some of the ideas might be poisonous to accept – Ferris proposes a ‘physical product’ driven business as the only path to a life of R&R; he argues that selling widgets, gidgets and gadgets is the easiest framework for removing oneself from the day-to-day operations of a financial enterprise. Artists, singers, athletes, counselors, teachers, beware – there are no four hour workweeks in your future, if you can’t outsource the manufacture & fulfillment of your muses to virtual assistants in India.

After drawing up thorough instructions on how to pick a market and jump in to the sales fray, Ferris takes a moment to reflect on what it will feel like, when you’ve done enough outsourcing to travel leisurely around the world and spend only brief moments checking email to run your business: ‘It will be hard at first.’

He says it’s in this extra downtime when you’ll come face-to-face with big questions – ‘What’s the meaning of everything?’  Ferris asserts that dwelling on the intangibles may be avoided by frequent jiu-jitsu or tango dancing lessons.

The motivational and analytical quotations peppered into the text are enriching, and appear so often that readers may subconsciously find them as one of the most compelling reasons to keep turning pages. From Machiavelli:

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” 

The wealth of quotes are thoughtful, and despite the book’s overall ridiculousness, they complement several other useful tidbits buried in the impossible mission of spending only four hours per week doing actual work. For example, the few paragraphs on speed reading were unexpectedly helpful.

With his big plan and fancy quotes, Ferris seems all set to kick up his feet with an umbrella drink and live the dream. But hasn’t this question of one’s obligation to forgo personal pleasure in the name of societal duties been around for a while?

In the publishing industry, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Latin text ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…’ (attributed to Cicero, 45 B.C.) has been used as placeholding filler for typesetters to use before final copy was ready. In translation, Lorem Ipsum states…

‘We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue.’

Uncountable drafts of novels, newspapers, and magazines have used this quote in their creation process. Gutenberg himself may have plated it out. Whatever reason one chooses to argue for its selection, its ancient dictum is stark: Concentrating only on pleasure is bad.

Yet, here is Tim Ferris, flying in the face of 500 years of publishing tradition with an entire volume dedicated to enriching the lives of ‘men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms and pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire…

I’m searching here for some thread of irony in The Four Hour Workweek’s reliance on quotes from big thinkers (Seneca, Thoreau, Bruce Lee…) yet in the end, the author repulses at ‘coming face to face with the big questions.’ And as a reader, after completing the book, you might be wondering whose advice to follow…

Tim Ferris, with a few years on the best seller list under his belt, questing for 80% pleasure and only 20% work?  Or Cicero, and his thousands of years of placeholder-text wisdom: “in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted.”

Perhaps it’s a bit demanding to expect that The Four Hour Workweek will match the lofty ideals set forth by the people whom it quotes (or who its typesetters quoted.) Its presentation is gimmicky, but underneath the goo, there lives some valuable advice and reasonable calls for reflection on the profit-driven and time-crunched modern lifestyle.

 

Three Books About Computers

I’ve been reading some more essays on software engineering and computer programming lately, from the three following books. Here’s a brief synopsis and some of my thoughts on each:

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age – Douglas Rushkoff

The back jacket of this book describes Douglas Rushkoff as an author and media theorist – not as a programmer, which should be a yellow flag for anyone coming to this text looking for pragmatic programming advice.

That said, he offers an easily digestible summary of trends in internet technology, and where he thinks society as a whole would benefit most if certain standards of thought were subscribed to in the future. Many of his concepts are agreeable, if a little alarmist. (Which is okay, because I think I might be turning into a bit of an alarmist myself.)

I think the most important message Rushkoff is trying to send is one that communicates the significance of the current moment in the history of human communication and cognition. He offers ten bullet points for how to get out in front of the avalanche.

We are not just extending human agency through a new linguistic or communications system. We are replicating the very function of cognition through external, extra-human mechanisms. These tools are not mere extensions of the will of some individual or group, but tools that have the ability to think and operate.”

His response to these ‘extra-human mechanisms’ are ten ‘commands’ for how to navigate the new normal. Instead of letting the programs affect their logic into our own biologic cycles, he warns that we must continue to be in charge. A few of his ‘commands’ –

  • Time: We Must Not Always Be On.
  • Place: Live in Person. There is No Substitute for In-Person Interaction.
  • Discrete: Everything Is a Choice. You May Always Choose None of the Above.
  • Identity: Always Be Yourself. Accountability Must Exist Online.
  • Openness: Share. Don’t Steal.

Rushkoff makes several statements about why it is so important to be careful in how society progresses alongside internet technology, but the one that struck me most was an analogy that might be stretching the limits of fair comparison – he compares people not learning programming, to people over the last few decades not understanding how their cars work.

He lists all the gripes about the modern automobile situation in the United States, identifying sprawl, environmental hazard, stress of drivers, accidents, etc., and proposes that all these negative things could have been avoided if people would have spent more time wondering how cars work and what they do instead of just getting in and driving them.

Therefore, he says, everyone should know how to program, so that sixty years from now we aren’t stuck in a debate about how to fix all the problems that poor programming has caused, or how to catch up with the other nations who have advanced past America in their programming ability, etc.

His argument isn’t ridiculous – he’s saying that by blindly accepting the technologies, we blindly accept the risks and dangers they bring with them – but these seem like two different animals.

I like the idea, and I agree with some of the sentiment, especially that automobile culture has created an environment with just as many new problems as solutions to old ones – but I disagree on where to lay the blame.

Not everyone is meant to be a programmer, just like not everyone should be a Navy Seal, a mural painter, or a tour de France cyclist. it requires a person with a unique set of skills and personality.

The automobile problems society has now seem to me as much the result of poor land use decisions, mismanaged federal funding, and urban planning as they are the result of ‘people not knowing how their cars worked.’ How can that claim even be justified? How can you measure what would be different if people had ‘known how their cars worked?’

If Rushkoff is arguing we should all learn to program for the purpose of being able to check off the box, and have our asses covered later just in case someone needs to take the fall for writing bad programs – why is he choosing the actual programming layer as the thing society must learn?

There are so many components and pieces of modern technology that make the internet work, from the electrical engineering in circuit boards to the network infrastructure of fiber optic cable, that correlating programming to world-saving feels like a weak handed grab at one small piece of something that happens to be currently fashionable. Programming just seems like an easy target because it’s the most popular.

Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age – Paul Graham

Unlike Rushkoff, Graham hasn’t written this book as a treatise for an entire society to absorb and go forth with. Graham’s ideas don’t feel forced, or directed at a readership who wouldn’t already understand many of the concepts. He’s not trying to push the envelope as much as make the envelope shinier and easier to read.

In a masterfully clear writing style, Graham lets his intellect run wild through a variety of topics. He observes ‘Why Nerds are Unpopular,’ in one chapter. He expounds that Startups are the safest bet for wealth generation in another. Choosing an operating system, finding the ‘perfect’ programming language, and why income inequality is a positive thing in society, are all topics treated with their own essays.

Graham doesn’t make any bold statements in these essays that shares Rushkoff’s sentiment that programming should be a giant rainbow on which every type of person in the world can dance – on the contrary, Graham comes across as more likely to believe that programming should only be done by people who want to do it, and who understand how to do it, and everyone else should stick to the things they are good at.

In his ‘Nerds’ essay, he outlines the formative experiences of programmers (nerds) in school, and how their outcast separation from others lays the foundation for them to be successful when they enter the ‘real’ world.

The most interesting chapter for me was the exploration of wealth inequality in America. Graham argues that the only logical way to reduce income inequality is to take money from the rich – and that to do so damages the entire economy.

If inequality were solved by taking money from the wealthy and handing it over to the poor, Graham states, the wealthy would have none left to invest, Startups would disappear, technological growth would halt, and society would stagnate.

Graham’s proposed alternative is not to attack wealth itself, but the corruption that it so often enables. If you kill corruption, the wealthy will continue to grow small businesses. If you kill wealth, for the sake of redistribution, then everything that wealth enables dies alongside it.

His argument earns its credence from his own experience in capital growth – Graham built one of the internet’s first e-commerce platforms, which was later acquired by Yahoo!, minting him with great riches.

In turn, he founded the Y Combinator, a place for Startups to network, incubate, and find investors. He proves his inequality argument by outlining the way his new wealth helped to create more where it didn’t previously exist.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents – Ellen Ullman

Ullman, author of ‘The Bug’ (Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award) drapes her tales of computer life in savory detail and lucid prose. She finds a way of paying computers their due respect, while concurrently reminding the reader that programs are unnatural, dumb and fragile tools, driven by the peculiarities of the programmer’s mind.

Unlike Rushkoff, Ullman finds solace in placing a distance between herself and the goal of a program. Where Rushkoff wants to insert himself and his ethics and his sense of right and wrong into programs, Ullman wants to back far away.

Describing a project she worked on in which she was tasked with building a registry for AIDS patients, she speaks of the system users and their “fleshy existence” as a distraction, something that must be ignored in order to create the program.

She writes of coding the AIDS registry:

Real, death-inducing viruses do not travel here. Actual human confusions cannot live here. Everything we want accomplished, everything the system is to provide, must be denatured in its crossing to the machine, or else the system will die.

Neither Rushkoff or Graham would seem as ready as Ullman to portray themselves as freaks – while Graham makes ample reference to the history of Nerdism, and takes up personal residency there,  he hints at none the fear or anxiety that Ullman experiences as she contemplates what motivates the programming mind.

I’m upset, so I’m taking apart my computers,” she writes. “If I were a poet, I would get drunk and yell at the people I love. As it is, I’m gutting my machines… there’s a perverse comfort in broken machinery.

Ullman’s focus on physicality between person and machine is unique. Her relationships with the objects carry more significance than any that Graham or Rushkoff mention, and she finds contrast between that ‘closeness’ and the dislocation felt by many who live their day to day lives online.

In one of the books most poignant moments, Ullman tours real estate that she and her sister inherited from their deceased father. One of her newly inherited tenants, a purse shop owner on Wall Street in Manhattan, explains to her that his business is failing, “because of the modems.” According to the shop owner, Wall Street managers who used to stop in and buy bags are all telecommuting from Connecticut now, while the remaining customers are ‘of a different class.

Ullman recoils at the idea her profession, programming, building applications for remote communication, is the root of failure in the businesses supported by her father. She mourns at what feels like her father’s generation’s work evaporating.

In my world, it was so easy to forget the empty downtowns. The whole profession encouraged us: stay here, alone, home by this nifty color monitor. Just click. Everything you want – it’s just a click away. Everything in my world made me want to forget how – as landlord, as programmer, as landlord/programmer helping to unpeople buildings like my very own – I was implicated in the fate of Morty and the bag shop.”

Her resistance to hail computers as mankind’s last savior (a line tiptoed by Rushkoff and Graham) is all the more authoritative given her experience as a programmer.

She writes of her pedigree – “I have taught myself six higher-level programming languages, three assemblers, two data-retrieval languages, eight job-processing languages, seventeen scripting languages, ten types of macros, two objects-definition languages, sixty-eight programming library interfaces, five varietys of networks, and eight operating systems.

In contrast, Graham spends a lengthy chapter huzzah’ing the merits of a single programming language, LISP, while Rushkoff mentions nary a learned language under his own belt.