Radical Creation

I’ve reached saturation point with consumption. I’ve become buried in books, movies, articles, Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, documentaries, podcasts, Wikipedia pages. All of them are excellent and are only getting better. I have come to a point though where all that amazing information and content is dead-ending in my brain. Clearly there is value in the good conversations I’ve had about all of those things. Cultural literacy is an important and probably under-appreciated pursuit. Also, apart from any educational benefit, there’s value in the human experience of enjoying the experience of someone else’s creation. For now though, it’s time to restore some balance. Consumption has almost succeeded in pushing out all creation for me.

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolical. I’m a software developer and spend most of my days writing code, which is a very creative act, for my employer. I blog here semi-regularly and keep a journal. Something is missing though. So, to try to figure out what, I’ve started an experiment in radical creation. Starting about 5 days ago, I have cut out all consumption except for work-related reading and the occasional time spent with my family watching a TV show. For me, this means that there has been no reading books or listening to audiobooks, no podcasts, no articles and no games (almost, I have still been playing some trivia games). I’ve even cut out music with lyrics, but still use instrumental music to increase concentration.

It has not been easy. At all. Consumption is a habit and an escape mechanism. I’ve realized how often I’d pick up a book or article rather than take time to prioritize my actions. Catching myself has been tough and when I realize that I’m about to go in for more, it’s very easy to make justifications of how tired I am or how hard I’ve worked and hey, don’t I deserve to just chill for a bit?

After just a few days though, I have had some promising results. The most notable result is that I’ve been writing more. I’ve made brief forays into fiction in the past, but I feel like my approach this time is more systematic and deliberate. I’m not sure what the result will be, or really even what the goal of my writing is, but it has already been very rewarding. I feel like doing some writing myself gives me more permission to be a better critic of what I consume once I go back to reading in a more balanced way.

It’s been surprising how, once I get past the initial resistance, I can get myself to go into a creative mode at times when before I would have written off the possibility due to distractions or fatigue or whatever other justification I needed. In small chunks of time, like walking to lunch or to the bus stop, when I’d normally have headphones in listening to someone else’s ideas, I’ve come up with some pretty good ideas for my own writing or coding. I’ve also spent more time meditating, journaling and exercising and I’ve picked up an old side project and started thinking about it and working on it some. All this in just a few days!

I can’t say I’m not excited to pick back up the books I was reading and there are a few shows that I am really looking forward to, but this experiment is just beginning and I can already tell it’s one that I won’t regret. If you’re feeling a similar over-saturation with consumption, try your own experiment in radical creation and see how it goes.

 

An Ideal Day

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a trend in books and conversations dealing with the day-to-day routines people follow. Whether it’s writers or artists and their rituals or people from other cultures, we seem to be fascinated with what people do with their time. Despite the fact that it’s often people with semi-celebrity status whose routines get published, I think this trend is healthy and in a way, anti-celebrity. It shows that even the most accomplished people tend to have a day-to-day ritual they follow, or try to follow, and that often it’s not too far off from what is achievable by almost anyone. In that way, I find that sharing daily routines is something that brings people together and motivates us to live better lives.

So, with that prelude, I’m going to diverge a bit from the trend and and not share my actual daily routine, I’m going to share the one that I aspire to. Each part of this has been in my routine one time or another, but I haven’t had the full thing all at once for any sustained period. Here it is:

6:30 – 7:00 Wake up and meditate for 20 to 30 minutes. I like Samatha and Vipassana style meditation.
7:00 – 8:30 Actively read literary fiction or non-fiction. For me, this is reading and taking notes with the mindset of eventually summarizing what I read in written form.
8:30 – 9:00 Breakfast.
9:00 – 12:00 Write code for either work or a personal project. I love the combination of creative and technical satisfaction I get from writing code. I also love the immediate feedback. This is how I most easily find “flow.”
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch. I like to take long lunches at one of the amazingly varied restaurants around Seattle.
1:00 – 3:00 More writing code. This could also easily be substituted for writing prose or researching work or project related ideas.
3:00 – 3:30 Catch up on the news. I don’t like to be immersed in news, but I like to have a time-limited period of the day where I can indulge my tendency to keep up to the minute with the latest in technology and other news.
3:30-4:30 A long walk or swim. I love going on long walks either around my neighborhood or the city. This can be with friends, my wife, with an audiobook or just enjoying walking alone. I’ve never had swimming as part of my daily ritual, but if I ever get back to living close to the ocean, I’d love to do that. This could also be some other form of exercise. I’ve never been one to go to the gym, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it.
4:30 – 7:00 Family time and dinner. This sometimes involves board games or card games, drawing or just chatting with my wife and boys.
7:00 – 7:30 Playing music (I try to play banjo), ideally with someone else.
7:30 – 9:00 If I could somehow pre-arrange to have an awesome conversation with my wife or friends or someone I’d like to meet every day, I’d love that. Those types of conversations tend to be memorable, life-changing and some of my favorite moments.
9:00 – 10:30 – Reading, fiction.
10:30 – Sleep

That’s it! Feel free to share your routine if you’d like to. For others, check out the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, Tim Ferris‘ podcast or pretty much any biography or autobiography.

 

Musings on Learning French

One of my goals for 2014 was to learn French. I went into it feeling fairly confident. After all, I learned to speak fluent Spanish and they’re both Romantic languages. Besides, it’s the age of apps and there are way more resources now than there were back in the late 90’s when I learned Spanish. The big difference is that with Spanish I was living in Mexico for almost 2 years then later got a refresher while living in Uruguay and Argentina for another year. This time around, with French, I don’t have the benefit of being able to pack up and move to a French-speaking country. The other possible disadvantage, as people are all too eager to point out, is that I’m a significantly large number of years older than I was when I started learning Spanish.

In more than one way, the experience has been humbling. Progress has been spotty and slow. I’m nowhere near where I imagined I’d be at the beginning of the year given the time I’ve put in. On the other hand though, it has been exhilarating starting over with learning something new. There have been many moments where I remember just how much real effort I had to put into Spanish. It’s easy to look back on it and think “ah yes. I was young and living in Mexico, the language practically taught itself to me.” But really that wasn’t the case. As I spend time learning French, I’m brought back to the many, many hours spent with my head buried in Spanish grammar books, making and studying flashcards and pocket-sized lists of words, and probably most importantly, fumbling through conversations with unsympathetic interlocutors over and over, just trying to make myself understood.

It makes me wonder, have the 15 years that have passed since then really significantly dulled my language acquisition skills? Had I approached Spanish as casually as I have for many of my efforts to learn French, would my learning have been just as slow? Probably close to it. I don’t feel more forgetful or more hardheaded, I simply feel that I haven’t created the opportunities to cement what I’m learning in my mind by going out and actually speaking French. It seems that the consensus among linguistics experts is that my ability to learn a language has actually, physically, deteriorated. I’m still not willing to believe that though.

Apart from the language itself, a rewarding part of learning French is the chance I’ve had to dive into French culture. I’ve tried some French recipes, which for a practical non-cooker, has been a stretch, but surprisingly fun. I’ve watched tons of French movies and YouTube videos. I’ve tried listening to French podcasts and radio stations with varying degrees of cognition. I’ve read books and poetry by French authors (mostly translated to English). I still have not, as I mentioned before, reached out and talked with real, live French people. Which brings me to the conclusion of these musings.

My goal at the beginning of the year was to learn French in 2014, then Russian in 2015. Instead, I’m going to spend 2015 working more on French. I’m going to try to take some of the lessons I’ve learned, and will write about here soon, to heart and be more deliberate with my practice. Most importantly though, I’m going to get out and speak some French.

 

How to Find Awesome Podcasts

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “wow, I wish I had a great podcast to listen to,” get ready because your mind is about to be blown with this two-step trick.

  • Think of someone you’d love to hear interviewed, preferably someone who is still alive.
  • Google their name + podcast. Click the link and listen.

Seems pretty obvious, right? I bet you’d never tried it before though.

If you need ideas for interesting people, try Stephen Wolfram, Josh Waitzkin, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Twyla Tharp or Evgeny Morozov. If they’ve written a book, there’s a very good chance you’ll find a podcast episode with them in it, and if you’re very lucky, the rest of the podcast will be good as well.

 

Better Design for Developing Markets

There’s a new (to me) trend of companies that are making extremely well designed products that are inexpensive and are selling really well here in the US, but that are also created to help impoverished people solve major problems.

Awhile back I read a design manifesto about this, one that I wish I could find again online but I’ve searched everywhere and can’t find it. The gist of it, as I recall, is that design for charitable purposes often suffers because the designer is focusing too heavily on making a product that will solve the basic need (food, water, education, etc.) but is not designing for elegance or any of the things the market in a developed country would want from a product. These designs often fail because, while they accomplish the task at a superficial level, they are often deficient in important factors like usability, durability or practical considerations.

Here are three companies that seem to be doing a great job at addressing the needs and wants of both audiences.

Their products are marketable in developed countries, but are inexpensive enough to mass-distribute in places where people are unable to purchase them. I’d love to know more about this business model and about similar companies. If you’re familiar with these types of companies, please comment!

Biolite – They make stoves powered by twigs or small, burnable item. You can cook over them but the cool thing is that they also charge a battery that can be used to power small electronics. I’ve used mine several times and it works very well.

Sawyer – Their simple water filters are inexpensive and easier to use than competitor’s products that are much higher priced. I bought a couple and they’ve worked flawlessly. I’ve even seen young kids using them with no problems.

Lifestraw – This is another take on water filtering. You stick it directly into the water source and drink. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

I love these companies not just for their products, but for what they’re doing to improve the world. They seem to be the perfect mix of capitalism and humanitarianism.

How to Create a Creative Cauldron

A couple of days ago I finished the book Creativity, Inc. One section in particular stood out to me:

[Ivan] Sutherland and Dave Evans, who was chair of the university’s computer science department, were magnets for bright students with diverse interests, and they led us with a light touch. Basically, they welcomed us to the program, gave us workspace and access to computers, and then let us pursue whatever turned us on. The result was a collaborative, supportive community so inspiring that I would later seek to replicate it at Pixar.

One of my classmates, Jim Clark, would go on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Another, John Warnock, would co-found Adobe, known for Photoshop and the PDF file format, among other things. Still another, Alan Kay, would lead on a number of fronts, from object-oriented programming to “windowing” graphical user interfaces. In many respects, my fellow students were the most inspirational part of my university experience; this collegial, collaborative atmosphere was vital not just to my enjoyment of the program but also to the quality of the work that I did.

Reading about that group and the environment created by Sutheland and Evans made me feel a twinge of jealousy. How awesome would it be to find yourself in an environment like that? How awesome would it be to create one?
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Let me check my phone.

Lately I am sick of my iPhone. It’s become a crutch to help make sure my mind is constantly occupied and to keep me constantly “doing something.” It seems that just waiting or sitting is socially awkward now, so at the first sign of nothing happening, out it comes. It’s time, once again, to apply some moderation and start using it in a more healthy way.

Here’s what I’ve been trying:

  • Disable almost all notifications. Especially email.
  • Set times of the day for checking the phone and stick to them. E.g. no social media except for between 5 and 5:30 pm and 9 to 9:30 pm (or whatever).
  • Keep a paper list of stuff to look up later. Who is the president of Azerbaijan? Why does the moon look so big tonight? Important questions, no doubt, but they can wait. Save them up, along with questions like “I wonder where Jane is, haven’t seen her in years?” and take care of the list all at once. Doodle some while you’ve got the pen out.
  • Find small, useful things to do on the phone. Sometimes, despite best intentions, the phone is going to come out. Rather than immediately going to a game, I like to have a book of short essays, that wasy I can turn on the phone, read something useful, then turn it back off. Here are a couple good books along these lines: This Will Make You Smarter – the title sounds a little pretentious but it’s really good. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Learning about what creative people do every day to keep their output high is strangely fascinating, even if you’re not an artist. Another more productive technique is to find a good Spaced Repetition (SRS) app and learn words in another language. There are tons of other useful, learning-oriented apps to help you, if you’re going to be distracting yourself, do it in a more meaningful way.

Admittedly, none of that is all that exciting, but there is some very interesting thought going on around this:

This very good podcast with Tim Ferriss (who is a lot of the inspiration for re-starting this blog) interviewing Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, and all around fascinating and wise person who, among many other things, spends time with the Quakers and has some great insights there.

This Secular Buddhist podcast with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang on The Distraction Addiction and this one with Andrew Holecek on Meditation in the iGeneration are great, and very related to the above. Pang has also written a really nice series of articles on “Mindful iPhone.”

The book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Alone Together by Sherry Turkle.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic. Another day.

 

Arjuna and Krishna

This morning I woke up early to try to get my meditation practice going again, and afterwards, to keep with the theme and try to keep myself motivated, I decided to read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s short, I’ve read it a couple of times before, but have never really studied it per se. I’ve found lots of parts that resonated with me, but for some reason, this morning more than ever, just the story of it really struck me as almost overwhelmingly poignant.

Here you have Arjuna, the leader of an army of men on the battle field, facing off against an army that from a human perspective looks just about like his own army.  He is in a chariot with Krishna and they ride out between the two armies, surveying the situation. Not only does he know personally many of the men in his own army, but he recognizes men from the opposition, knows them by name and knows that many of them are related to his own soldiers. It reminded me a bit of the American Civil War in that sense. Upon seeing this, he is struck with crushing sorrow at the impending loss of life of his friends on both sides.
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Constructed Languages – For People and Machines

 

Today’s learning was work-related programming stuff, with a fascinating sidebar into Ithkuil, a constructed language of an entirely different sort.

Programming and Constructed Languages