rien ne tient en place

rien ne tient en place. A few of my favorite things: literature, French, JavaScript and Ruby beautifully joined together in this essay about language and meaning.


Conscious Consumption

A couple weeks ago I posted about “Radical Creation”–stopping reading, watching TV, listening to podcasts etc. to re-focus on creating content and move away from constant consumption. It was a successful experiment. I came away from it refreshed and with a more conscious approach to media. I’m no longer cold-turkey, and have moved back toward the middle; toward what feels like a better place. This has resulted in me setting a few informal rules:

  • Give time to think, write and process anything you consume. If you haven’t done that for the last thing you read, listened to or watched, don’t start something new.
  • Write about it. Even if it’s just jotting down a quick note, write something about everything you take in. This is to help remember it later, but more importantly, to remember it now. 
  • Triage. Consume all types of information, but be aware of the relative value. It’s not always easy to put something down midway through, but do a gut check. If it’s not working out, move on.
  • Avoid “The Shallows“. It’s easy to spend all available time reading Twitter or Hacker News, but there is more out there. The best fish aren’t found in shallow water.

Since taking that approach, I’ve been writing significantly more, have re-started some side coding projects and have generally felt more in touch with the present and more conscious of how what I consume affects me. It’s been a good reset.


Tips for Interviewing and Telling Good Stories

Telling stories is hard. Getting people to tell them can be hard too, but once you do, there is nothing as captivating. Recently Tim Ferriss interviewed Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media on how to tell and elicit engaging stories. The interview is specifically geared toward giving advice to podcasters on how to get people to tell good stories, but can also be used to help you relate information in a way that people will identify with.

Blumberg’s goal when editing a podcast is to draw in his audience with memorable stories. We’re “hard-wired” to want to hear a story and if you can do that with your content, people will listen. He suggests learning to “listen to your own boredom.” In personal interactions we try to meet people halfway to understand their perspective and maintain interest, but the Internet isn’t a personal interaction. If you’re feeling a twinge of boredom or drifting while editing your content or speaking, chances are, you have already lost your audience.

In the same vein, when you are reviewing your content, be aware of any feelings of confusion. The axiom applies here as well: don’t assume people will meet you halfway. Even a subtle feeling that what you are working on might be confusing is an indication that it will be very hard for your audience to follow. Stop and clarify.

Blumberg also has a couple specific techniques and questions to use when interviewing to help get you to that moment where someone tells a story with real emotional appeal. A question he finds useful is “what do you make of that?” It is a little awkward to ask, but it is open-ended and tends to draw out people’s feelings on a subject. He also asks “why is this story meaningful to you?” After using these questions he suggests you “sit back and shut up.” Let your interviewee talk, give them time and you will the story you are looking for.

Part of the interview comes from a Creative Live class that I haven’t seen ($99), but looks interesting.

Software tangle Technology

Evernote’s Strengths and its Fatal Flaw

I use Evernote heavily. It is an innovative product with a great design aesthetic from a company that seems to have a very good business model. All this has rightly earned Evernote an avid user base and a growing ecosystem. The problem with Evernote though, is that it was made for storing a specific type of information but in reality, it is used in less effective ways for storing much more than that.

First, let’s talk about the information that Evernote is really good at storing. I’d place this in two categories:

  1. Ephemera. Things like grocery lists, blog entry drafts, quick reminders. Anything that you will keep around for awhile, then be fine with it disappearing forever, either literally (being deleted) or practically (being replaced by other, newer information and only found by search.)
  2. Chronological data. Journal entries, receipts or bills come to mind. Anything that is primarily organized by the date it was created.

For these two categories, Evernote is practically perfect. Its native apps are nice and ubiquitous, its web app is amazing. None of the problems with Evernote stem from execution of its core functionality.

So that’s what it does well, what’s the problem? The problem is that for most things, people don’t think in lists and we don’t want to retrieve information that way.

Once something is saved in Evernote, really the only way to find it is by searching. If you’ve tagged your entries, you can browse by tag, but that is a seldom used feature. If you use notebooks, they can aid in finding notes, but after awhile, the lists become difficult to manage and it is hard to find and surface things you’ve stored further back than the recent past. Evernote has one other feature for premium users that surfaces related notes. This is getting much closer to solving the problem I’m talking about, but it relies completely on their AI (which is pretty good!) and is limited to just a few related notes.

What if you could take the is related notes concept and apply it much more predictably, more rigorously, to all your information? It would make notes easier to find, a feature that is hugely important. After all, why bother writing something down if you’re almost certain to never see it again. Still, as important as discoverability is, an even more important problem that a better connected way of storing notes would solve is enabling you to see patterns in the information that you care about. Patterns are at the root of creativity. Patterns are what enable us to take two or more different ideas and combine them in novel ways. This is where art and business are born.

This very type of pattern finding facilitated by good tools for information storage and retrieval is something I’m very interested in and something I’ll be writing about here more.


books philosophy psychology

The Myth of Staying Forever Young

If anyone understood the human condition, it was Joseph Campbell. This is him in 1949 on what he calls the ‘inverted emphasis’ of staying forever young:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un­-exercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love—which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan…

He is principally directing this criticism to men who refuse to grow up, but also to women for fulfilling the vacuum of finding good men by appealing to fantasy where reality comes up lacking. The youthful reluctance to pull away from the mother that he describes is very Freudian. At the end of life we are faced with another, this time Jungian, conflict:

What is difficult to leave, then, is not the womb but the phallus—unless, indeed, the life-weariness has already seized the heart, when it will be death that calls with the promise of bliss that formerly was the lure of love.

The purpose of these descriptions is to point out the place for myth in our lives. Myth and ritual help us to cease to cleave to our mothers when we are young, then to accept death when we are old. It moves us through life in a way that is sublimely, universally human. Without myth, we go through these transitions alone, clumsily. With myth, we are part of something bigger, part of the hero’s journey. As Campbell says, with his unique and chilling talent for language:

Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, un­predictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

That discovery, that our plight is not unique but is a “series of standard metamorphoses” should be liberating and unifying. It elevates our tribe from being the small group of people we know personally to being the human race.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces p. 10-11