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Deep Thoughts
11 February 2009 — Genius and the Creative Muse (4)

Over the past couple of years, author Elizabeth Gilbert has been something of a joke in our house. We read her book The Last American Man for book group, and neither Kris nor I were impressed. It was certainly well-written, but the subject was lame, and we felt as if Gilbert were writing a love letter rather than a biography.

We’ve had friends read Gilbert’s subsequent memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and their reactions have mostly been ambivalent, as if they couldn’t understand the hype.

So, Kris and I are unimpressed.

Yesterday, however, Andy pointed to Gilbert’s talk at this year’s TED conference. (The TED talks are amazing. They’re like little nuggets of brainfood.) Her subject? Creative genius.

My opinion of Gilbert has changed. After viewing her presentation, I have new-found respect for her and her process. What she describes is similar to what I experience. I’m not saying that I’m a genius, but what glimpses of genius I may have often seem to come from somewhere outside myself. (I think of it as possessing a muse, but maybe that’s because I don’t really understand the word.)

Gilbert tells the story of a poet who, as a young woman, would feel poems coming at her from across the landscape. She would run to the house to grab pencil and a paper before the poem would pass her by. I experience something similar. I am not joking.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them the best ones come from mowing the lawn. It’s true. For some reason I cannot fathom, when I am mowing the lawn (or doing other yardwork), I come up with the most brilliant ideas. For a long time, I would lose these ideas. I wouldn’t remember them by the time I was finished with my work. Frustrated, I developed a system. Now I keep a pencil and a pad of paper near the door. If I’m working outside and the muse comes to me, I stop what I’m doing, and I go to my pad of paper to write it down. I capture these bits of genius.

Gilbert’s talk is brilliant — at least to me, as a writer. It captures some bit of writerliness, and for that I am grateful.

(On a sidenote: Kris and I watched Almost Famous the other night. I knew the plot going in, so I expected the film to be “about” rock bands. Sure, that’s a main theme. But I was impressed that this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about what it’s like to be a writer. Capote? That’s a film about a writer, not about writing. Almost Famous is about writing, and I love it for that.)

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Introspection · Writing  → 4 Comments

13 October 2008 — Why I Blog (2)

“Are you watching YouTube again?” Kris asks me nearly every day. Usually I am. She doesn’t get it. But to me, YouTube is just another form of blogging. Both are new forms of community, ways to express yourself and to interact with other people (most of whom are strangers, no doubt, but who can become acquaintances — or friends).

The following video is an hour long, but it does an outstanding job of capturing the mood, the mentality, and the motives behind blogging. Even though it’s about YouTube:

The world is a mess lately: economic turmoil, a contentious Presidential election, and rumors of doom from the corners of the globe. But, for whatever reason, this new interconnectivity gives me hope.

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Geekiness · Introspection  → 2 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been telling everybody about Fred. Instead of repeating myself, I thought I’d make a blog entry out of it.

Last week, Andy pointed to a series of YouTube videos about a character named Fred, writing:

LA Times on YouTube’s Fred — insanely popular with tweens, he has 242k subscribers and a sponsorship deal; here’s an interview.

Because I follow all of Andy’s links, I followed these. The LA Times article is fascinating because it describes how Fred may portend the arrival of truly egalitarian media. (This is a theme I explored in an interview yesterday with Scott Burns, a long-time newspaper columnist. We discussed how newspapers are dying and the web is allowing a sort of democratization of information providers. Though I interviewed Burns for my personal finance blog, there are vast portions of the conversation that aren’t about money. I may post them here.)

But the amazing thing about Fred isn’t that a random fourteen-year-old from Nebraska (Lucas Cruikshank) can rocket to internet celebrity with no traditional media coverage. No, the amazing thing about Fred is that he clearly illustrates some sort of generational divide. Here’s a recent episode:

Do you think that’s funny? Neither do I. But apparently kids love him. Seriously. They think he’s hilarious.

We were talking with Mike and Rhonda last night, and the women were expressing their bafflement over Italian Spider-Man. “It’s funny,” I said. Mike agreed. But Kris and Rhonda were unconvinced. This led to a discussion of humor, and how different people perceive it.

“I can usually see why something might be considered funny, even if I don’t think it is myself,” I said. “But this Fred thing. I don’t get it. There’s nothing funny about it at all.” Because my companions had never seen Fred, they didn’t get my meaning.

From the LA Times article:

If you’re past a certain age, Fred’s appeal is essentially inscrutable. His antics are Kryptonite for grown-ups, repelling any but the most vigorous attempts to watch an entire episode and keeping us in the dark about why kids seem to love him so much.

“They just think he’s the funniest thing ever,” said Valerie Moizel of the L.A.-based WOO ad agency, which found out about Fred after it conducted kid-centered focus groups for its ZipIt instant messaging product — which later showed up in Fred’s videos. “We watched them watch him — they fall on the floor hysterically laughing. They’re just mesmerized.”

And more than just the zaniness, it’s possible that kids are connecting to Fred on other levels too. He has parental, behavior and girl problems, so there’s a little something for everyone.

“The biggest draw is the subject matter,” Moizel added. “He really knows how to touch on things that are current and that teenagers deal with.”

What do I know? I’m just a middle-aged man. I wonder if my father felt the same way about Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

Curiously, I actually like some of the videos from JKL Productions, which features Lucas Cruikshank (a.k.a. Fred) and his twin cousins, John and Katie. This video of the trio dancing and lip-syncing to Hannah Montana is exactly the sort of thing I used to do with my friend Heather when I was in high school. It’s fun.

But Fred? I just don’t get Fred…

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Kids · YouTube  → 8 Comments

16 January 2008 — Finding the Future (11)

I’m at an interesting place in my life, a place it had never occurred to me I’d reach. My little personal finance blog has taken on a life of its own. It’s a business. It’s a brand. Sure, it’s a small business and a small brand, but that’s a start.

But what do I do next? For a long time, I’ve believed that a book was the next natural progression. But what sort of book? I have three discrete ideas kicking around in my head — which one do I pursue? And how do I find a publisher? (This morning on the drive to work, I found the seed for a fourth idea.)

The answers to these questions have become a little more clear during the past several weeks. I’ve had conversations with about a dozen very smart people, all of whom have opinions on this subject. Some believe a book is The Answer. Some believe a book is A Mistake. All of them are wildly supportive. Whom do I believe? How can I know which path is best?

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide just yet. I have time.

My favorite advice so far has come from the bold Penelope Trunk, who is a force of nature. “You’re fat, right?” she said. Penelope is not one to mince words. “The best thing you can do right now is get fit. If you get fit, you’ll gain confidence. If you gain confidence, and if you look good, you’ll be in a position to do whatever you want. You’ll have flexibility.”

I laughed at the boldness and simplicity of her suggestion.

“I’m not joking,” she said. And she wasn’t. “Don’t do a book. Get fit. Spend all your time working on your site and exercising. In the months it takes to do this, be thinking about what Get Rich Slowly can do for you. Brainstorm ideas. A book is not the way to go.”

Though I’m not convinced a book is a bad idea, I think Penelope’s other suggestions were fantastic. Some of them were mind-blowing, actually. Her vision for my site is even bigger than my own. Talking to her made me realize that perhaps my goals are too modest.

In any event, the next few weeks are going to be filled with a lot of soul-searching and introspection. If you see me deep in thought, it’s only because I’m trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life!

Trivia: I’ve written the word “exercise” (or some form of it) several times over the past few days. Every time I’ve misspelled it “excercise”. Where did that come from? I never used to do that.

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Introspection · Writing  → 11 Comments

13 December 2007 — The Devil in the Dark (6)

When I was a boy, I loved Star Trek. For nearly twenty years, Portland’s KPTV (channel 12) broadcast the series at 4pm every Sunday afternoon. We didn’t have a television for much of my childhood, but most of my friends did. Whenever possible, I would watch Star Trek.

When the series was released on DVD a few years ago, I bought the first season, but I never watched it. It’s been gathering dust.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make some clam chowder. This is a laborious process. Though I enjoy it, the work takes a couple hours, and much of it is mindless. “I should watch something on the computer,” I thought. “I should watch Star Trek.” And so I did. I’ve been watching one episode a night ever since.

Many of the early episodes are truly awful — there are good reasons the show struggled to stay on the air. But by the middle of the first season, things began to click. The writers and producers discovered their characters and figured out how to tell their stories.

I plan to do a full review of season in about a week, but I want to take the time to mention one of my favorite episodes: The Devil in the Dark. On an important mining colony, a mysterious creature is terrorizing the workers. This mysterious beast can move through solid rock, and it dissolves anyone it touches. Fifty men have died in just a few months. The Enterprise is summoned to eliminate the problem.

Initially, Kirk and company intend to destroy the creature. But, as he is wont to do, Spock begins to suspect that there’s something deeper to the problem. He’s right, of course. First of all, the life form is silicon-based, something that is seemingly impossible. Second, it is highly intelligent. And finally, it is merely defending its nest, which has been disrupted by the mining activities.

Watching the episode tonight, it was shockingly obvious that this is where my appreciation of inter-species friendship and communication originated. It was from watching this episode of Star Trek when I was a boy that I developed an appreciation for other animals, and began to suspect that other species might harbor intelligence that we, as humans, could barely comprehend. From there, it was only a small jump to similar philosophical positions.

Many of these Star Trek episodes don’t stand up well upon re-viewing. I haven’t seen them in twenty (or thirty!) years, and what I loved as a boy is sometimes almost unwatchable as an adult. (The Corbomite Maneuver is mind-numbingly bad.) But The Devil in the Dark is as good as I remembered. Amazing that much of the framework of the adult J.D.’s belief system can be traced to one hour of television made in 1965…

Tags: Animal Intelligence · Deep Thoughts · Introspection · Personal History · Television  → 6 Comments

Errol Morris is a brilliant film-maker, but did you know he’s just as good with essays?

Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious – even to them. The use of the word “obvious” indicates the absence of a logical argument — an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder.

Long and involved, but worth it…

[The New York Times: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?]

Tags: Deep Thoughts  → 2 Comments

At Metafiler, Pastabagel writes that he believes some people require constant background noise (where noise is defined not just as auditory, but also visual, etc.) in order to escape self-reflection. That is, some people are so afraid of self-examination that they do everything they can to avoid it by cluttering their life with a chaos of sight and sound:

Have you ever known people who have to turn on a TV or a radio the moment they enter a room, or can’t stand to do work without some sound on? These are people who are desperately afraid of confronting some truth about themselves, so they try to drown it out with constant distractions. And people like this tend to congregate (because they all like the noise the others are putting out), which is why whole neighborhoods are like this. The noise is clamourous and demanding of your attention, and therefore it’s safe. They can deal with the street, they can’t deal with what’s in their heads.

The background noise doesn’t have to be auditory either. Clutter and general messiness are optical versions of the same background noise. People will buy junk and never throw anything away because they are creating a visual garden of distractions. Their eye can dance over a room for hours and see different things in the clutter each of which triggers some superficial memory. But the mind is so busy processing what the eye sees and recalling the seen objects context that theirs no time for thinking the thought “Why do I collect all this stuff?” The classic case here is the suburban family that fills their house with junk, or the teenager who plasters their room with posters, etc.

The noise can also be mental — constant text messaging, video game playing, etc to fill up the isolated islands to downtime in everyone’s day. The point is not simply that they like the noise, it’s that they create the noise. The turmoil they create out here mirrors the turmoil in their mind, and drowns it out.

I know people like this. In many ways, I am one myself. (To some extent, we all are.) But I find that the times I am most relaxed, am happiest, are the times the background noise is absent. Why do I love being alone in the woods? No background noise of any kind. Everything is a blank slate.

Very zen.

Tags: Blog · Deep Thoughts  → 12 Comments

23 August 2007 — The Trouble With Time Travel (1)

And now it’s time for another Geek Thoughts.

Here’s why I think all Earth-bound attempts at time travel are doomed to failure: Unless the time travel also involves some sort of spatial component, the time traveler is going to reappear in empty space. The Earth is in motion. The solar system is in motion. The galaxy is in motion. The universe is in motion.

By the time you finish reading this sentence, the Earth will have moved far beyond where it was located at the beginning of the sentence. If you were to travel back in time (or forward in time) just one minute, what is it that would keep you tethered to the Earth as opposed to some absolute location in the universal scheme of things, an absolute location essentially in empty space? (Or, at the very least, in the middle of an ocean.)

I’m not saying that time travel is impossible — though I believe that’s likely the case — I’m just saying that time travel is impractical, and isn’t likely to produce anything other than a bunch of space flotsam.

Teleportation, on the other hand, might be practical. If it’s instantaneous.

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Geekiness  → 1 Comment