Tag Archives: reading

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.”

Bright Sided

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Barbara Ehrenreich. Picador, 2010.

Twenty seconds before I sat with this book for the first time and saw the opening chapter’s title, ‘Smile or Die,’ an acquaintance walked by and saw me in my harried, just come in from the cold state, and said – “Hey, man, Smile!”

So the context I’m working from is one where I have a very immediate sense that Ehrenreich is looking at real attitudes that exist everywhere around me: Smiling is Happy. Happy is Good. Good is Mandatory. 

I was attracted to ‘Bright Sided’ because I knew it would take on ‘positive psychology,’ and propose that ‘thinking good thoughts’ is more delusional than anything else. As I’ve written before, I have personally benefited from learning about positive psychology – the ‘What Went Well’ exercise had a tangible effect on my life. 

Ehrenreich believes that focusing on what’s good and going well is selling ourselves short – whether it be through academia, as in the case of positive psychology, or whether it’s through an American megachurch, a corporate team-building exercise, or even a breast cancer support group. 

Books like ‘the Secret’ and motivational coaches like Tony Robbins are identified as the latest manifestations of a long-held American tradition of optimism, going back to the refutation of Calvinism in the 19th century. ‘The Secret’ draws significant reproach, for its blatant resemblance to magic and mysticism – its central tenet that ‘desire’ leads directly to ‘ownership’ leaves Ehrenreich incredulous that such crap could receive acceptance and be celebrated by the American public. While ‘the Secret’ and several of her other targets are probably worthy of some ridicule, I was also frequently left thinking… “What a grumpy woman!”

Ehrenreich spends hundreds of pages hacking away at the foundations of positive thought-groups, beginning with her personal experience of breast cancer diagnosis, which piqued her interest in whether or not ‘staying positive’ had any real or lasting purpose. She dives into the science, brushing off what discourages her argument and championing any studies that support it.

The book finishes by blaming the economic crash of 2007 on the positivity-fueled and motivational-poster-dependent managers of corporate America, who had they not been busy with motivational speakers, life coaches, and positive thinking would have surely anticipated and prevented the housing bubble that caused market collapse. 

A succinct summarization of Ehrenreich’s theory is written in the closing paragraph: “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” 

In other words: She is very positive about how bad it is to be positive. 

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.’

to Fiction or Not to Fiction?

The Daily Post asks – which do I prefer, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve been reading much more non-fiction lately than its counterpart, but an admission of habit doesn’t consummate an endorsement. Instead of my undergraduate idols like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Calvino and Delillo, now my reading pile is full of business and political biographies, philosophy, psychology, and software development manuals.

What gives? I can’t explain the transition, other than hinting that I don’t get paid to read novels, whereas skills or ideas I pick up from non-fiction have a chance of application in my working life. It’s a cheap premise, and I shudder to think I’ve unwittingly given up on the textured experiences of reading make-believe for the slim chance that I might find better financial rewards elsewhere. Reading non-fiction doesn’t also conclude I’ve disowned creativity – the best works of non-fiction can expose an unbelievable universe just as well as Tolkien can.

Fiction might be a little more ‘dangerous’ to read, in the sense that I don’t know how deeply affected I’ll be by the time I turn the final page. That could be why I’ve been skimping on it.

Non-fiction feels safer in the way of its predictability. A work of fiction might promise a simple narrative, but underneath the story of a kid floating down the Mississippi on a raft is a byzantine world of emotions, culture, desires and fears.

With some exceptions, non-fiction doesn’t usually offer characters that might confront my understanding of the world and run contrary to it. In fiction (good fiction) characters are explored beyond black & white existence, inhabiting a murkier grey area in which good and bad can cohere. Characters make decisions that expose moral puzzles, and the reader can be left confused about where to place sympathy. Non-fiction is usually much clearer about who its villains are.

Non-fiction opens slowly before it presents a challenge, and usually attempts to uncover a solution or display rationale before it finishes. Fiction often does the opposite; it begins with picture of stability, then transforms it into chaos, quitting haltingly just after the highest point of drama and leaving me to come to conclusions independently.

The authors of non-fiction (at least the kind I’ve been reading lately, and not the creative non-fictionists of the Wolfe and Mailer school) indirectly impress upon readers the idea that their subjects are under control, figured out, and ready for clear-eyed examination. The writers of fiction don’t dare to be as presumptuous, they are more likely to say ‘here is what exists, judge it as you wish.’

Of course there are exceptions to my generalization. There exists non-fiction which is just as challenging and open to interpretation as a novel, and there is some very bad fiction which is utterly thoughtless and predictable. The problem is that when non-fiction leaves its thesis open to analysis, it is much less entertaining than the same experience or idea presented in a fictional format – and when fiction is predictable, the time spent with it could have been made more prosperous by examining the monotony of the real world, instead.

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.

 

 

Identity is the New Money

Thoughts on Identity is the New Money, by David Birch. 126 p. London Publishing Partnership, May 2014.

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Despite its provocative title, I didn’t finish this book with a precise understanding of how money will be replaced by identity; but along the way there were several interesting points regarding the advancement of mobile technology as a payment mechanism, and the implications for digital identity and privacy. The brief case studies indicate international efforts to make digital identities are further along than the USA’s, but no one is making great strides in adoption just yet.

I was left with questions about the book’s central idea, which is not a necessarily a bad thing when reacting to this kind of abstract premise. Was he saying I’ll be able to buy goods and services based on how many facebook friends I have? That the social graph alone will prove my ‘credit-worthiness’ and earn me whatever I need that I would otherwise have to pay for with dollars? How does being a part of the social graph actually increase, or enable wealth, from a technological perspective?

I think the book would have benefited from a different title, like ‘mobile phones are the new money.’ To me, the mobile examples were the most interesting futurist perspective offered, and the ones that made the most sense. Instead of cash, mobile phones should communicate without exchanging a great deal of identity information, only that I am Person A who has X number of dollars, and I would like to exchange them for a thing or service. No cash needs to change hands, or even exist, I suppose.

One of the most compelling ideas was that the economy can now support ‘infinite currencies.’ With physical money, we are limited by what we can carry – only one type. But with digital, it can be an infinite number, assuming an infrastructure is there to support it – not unlike the dozens of credit cards some people carry. So I could issue ‘Brian Dollars’ and you could carry them with your regular dollars, and when your phone initiated a transaction with me, I would tell it to use Brian Dollars only and it would comply.

The practical examples for this ability aren’t completely clear, but it seems like a logical idea. Maybe I will only give Brian Dollars to people who are nice, and you can exchange them for a cup of coffee. Or maybe my Apartment Manager will give me ‘apartment dollars’ when I pay my rent early, and I can exchange them for a ceiling fan. This kind of personalized exchange wouldn’t work with standard currency, since standard currency could be exchanged for anything – but with personalized currencies, the scope of transacting is easier to control.

The book’s historical references to ‘giant stones’ and ‘tax collecting sticks’ of centuries old illustrated that payment technology isn’t static. People haven’t been using credit cards or checks forever. Ancient systems were in place before what we have today, and therefore, what we have today will someday also be ancient and replaced by new things. A good way to get people on board with adopting new things is to point out what the old things were, and how much room there is for improvement.

Without a finance background, there were macro concepts behind the cash replacement idea that I didn’t really understand. My interpretation of the argument was that cash is expensive to produce and manage, and permissive of anonymous and potentially illicit transactions, therefore the financial system could be reformed and benefit from operating without cash. I agree with anonymity being undesirable, but I don’t think creating and managing a cashless technology infrastructure will be any simpler than maintaining a cash-based one, nor immune to hacks and corruption.

The most important argument I gathered from the book was that privacy is increased when digital identity is leveraged to facilitate physical, in-person payments (or ‘mundane payments’, as the author calls them.) Through cryptographic wizardry, my phone can prove that it is me, Brian, who is using it, and anyone who wants to interact with it can be sure they are interacting with me – and I can control what ‘parts’ of me, or which ‘identity’ they interact with and get access to. If I only want them to know I have 20 Jumbo Dollars, that’s all they get to know, but if they also need to know I live on Sesame Street, or that I am not a convict, they may ask for access to that information also, and it can be proven authoritatively via private key infrastructure, mobile phones, and identity management applications.

So, in short – this was a complicated but interesting take on the changing landscape of identity credentials, payments, and mobile technology. Maybe not all that fascinating or useful to people who work outside of the ‘Finance Tech’ industry, but perhaps these ideas will become more prevalent and widely understood over the next several decades as mass adoption grows.

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.

 

Trendy Tech Article Round-up

Half of my cognitive load on any given day is spent fighting the urge to read EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE on the internet. Fortunately, some make it through my productivity filter, and I allow myself to read them. Lately I’ve been using the very cool application Pocket to save things I want to read later.

Several pieces grabbed my attention this week. Each touched on the start-up culture in which I work, but I didn’t feel like the target audience – they all hinted direction at a reader on the outside of the tech world: Rolling Stone’s big interview with Bill Gates, the NY Times Magazine’sSilicon Valley’s Youth Problem‘, and two from the Wall Street Journal – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code‘ and ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code.’

Mr. Gates’ most interesting statements revealed his thoughts on morality, religion, and government, but he also answered questions about the current state of things – massive acquisitions of zero-revenue companies, and the possibility of living in a constant state of surveillance.

The Times article was engrossing, chronicling the division between youth-driven startup culture and the legacy of elder-generation technologists (like Zuckerburg / Gates.) Is it just coincidence that Gates gave an interview to the youth-focused Rolling Stone at the same time as the Times publishes a manifesto on the generational disconnect?

The two WSJ articles also share the ‘young tech’ theme  – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code’ investigates the results of a study on how dressing casually in formal settings can influence opinion (a practice, common among young software developers, which I am happy to rant about) – and the other, ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code’ about how young graduates of all departments are abandoning the academic disciplines they studied in favor of higher-paying software industry positions (as an English major working with a Ruby on Rails development team, this one really hit home)

So what catalyzed this deluge of similarly focused articles? ‘Big Media’ writes about technology often, but something about the tone of this writing seems different – Bill Gates waxing poetic on billion dollar acquisitions and world-saving to the pot-smoking readership of Rolling Stone, the NY Times writer (a young Silicon Valley alumn) broadcasting her concern over whether she should work for a hot young startup like Uber or a crusty old-guard firm like Cisco, and the Wall Street Journal exploring the incongruities of tech culture – how its citizens dress eccentrically and give up their educational idealism in favor of cold, hard cash.

Of the articles, Yirin Lu’s writing in the Times magazine stands out the most. Her personal anecdotes as an intern in Silicon Valley bind well to the concrete examples of age division she describes. She rejects the presumption that older companies are home to “subpar, less technically proficient” employees – she cites the number of patents owned by Cisco as evidence to the contrary. Yet, as the WSJ article describes, tech companies are trying to grab as many young engineers as they can – some going as far as offering signing bonuses to dissuade potential hires from finishing college. If only Mr. Gates had fielded a related question in his interview, he surely could have added a valuable argument to the debate.

The Wall Street Journal pieces are brief, neither explores their territory with the critical and sharp eye that Lu focuses on her topic. But each shares the provocative attitude that a certain kind of delirium resides in Silicon Valley’s money soaked culture. In Gates’s interview, he states: “When you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly what statement these articles are all trying to make, if any. What I’m most curious about is how deeply these discussions will resonate with their audience, or if they are only this week’s flavor of capricious media interests. Perhaps the journalists’ unstated intent in their recent scrutinization of the modern technocracy is to map those “dead ends” out before too many people (without Mr. Gates’ resources) get stuck moving toward them.