Archive for October, 2011

Meditation: Planning, Control and Awareness

October 24, 2011

(This post is quite personal, so I’m keeping the details pretty vague. Also, for those few of my friends who know what I’m referring to – please don’t take this post as self-blaming. This post is about growth, and change. I’m not looking to assign or absolve blame for myself or anyone I mention.)

This post is the result of a long, complicated meditation, throughout most of which I was pretty unhappy. And then it just ended, and I am happy, so before I forget, I want to write about it. The meditation is about planning, control, and awareness.

I used to be (in some ways, still am) a creature of control. It turns out that there are Good Ways of Doing Things. If you pay your bills on time, you don’t get late fees. If you go to college, you are (more likely to) get a better job than if you don’t. If you say please and thank you to someone, they will be nicer to you. My brain would take these Good Ways and try to apply them to every situation. Unconsciously, I would convince myself that there was a “good” way of handling situations and that if I just found out what this “good” way was, I’d “win” the situation at hand.

This desire for control led to (I believe) a very unhealthy way of dealing with life. I would separate life into two neat boxes: “problem” and “not problem.” The most vivid example of this is my first long-term relationship. One of two things was always the case: my girlfriend was feeling good (“not problem”) and my girlfriend was not feeling good (“problem”).

Let’s look at the second case, first. When my girlfriend was unhappy, it was (to me) a specific situation that there was a Good Way of dealing with; furthermore, since I’d spent so much time thinking about Good Ways of dealing, and such situations in general, the Good Way of dealing with such situations was Fixing them, and the Fixer would be me.

Of course, it often happened that I couldn’t Fix the problem, either because there was no problem, or because the problem had no Fix, or because I had no business Fixing it. My normal approach to failure would be obsessively looking for mistakes I may or may not have made, and planning to fix them next time. If only I could avoid the mistakes, it would be all good.

Now let’s look at the first case. When my girlfriend was happy, clearly there was no problem on hand, so I would not be mindful. I tended to focus on myself, and not on her or on the relationship we had.

I did this for so long it had become an almost ingrained reflex; this attitude of Fixing, mistake-obsessing, and lack of mindfulness persisted long through one relationship, through my graduation from college, through large parts of grad school. But it slowly got better.

I learned about Awareness. Awareness is not about Fixing, or Best Ways, or mistakes or planning. Awareness is not about control. It’s just about taking a look and/or listen, to the world. It’s about extending that boundary between I and World, and paying attention to other people – the way they act, the way they talk. It’s also about paying attention to yourself.

Once I started to pay attention, I realized that the world was messy and complicated. I also realized that, despite being messy and complicated, the world works. People misunderstand each other and make mistakes in relationships ALL the time. And yet, many people make friends, and fall in love, and have long-term happiness in their lives. Being aware really helps.

Being aware is listening to your friend, and realizing why they’re unhappy. Being aware is also realizing that right now, you can’t magically fix them, or the situation. Being aware is knowing that somebody just wants a hug right now, not a thousand dollars or a logical explanation of how to go about feeling better. Being aware is realizing that your significant other just wants to stay in and watch a movie, and that you really want to go out, and talking through that. Being aware is realizing that your feelings, or your goals in life, are changing, and expressing that.

None of these things require planning, or fixing, or Good Ways. They take some time, and some practice, and they *won’t* necessarily solve problems. Awareness is not good-things-only, awareness includes bad and unhappy things. But without awareness, we are alone and blind. Other people don’t exist, except as blurry objects we bump into by chance or clumsiness, or, worse, except as obstacles in the way of our plans, problems to fixed or puzzles to be solved. When we practice awareness, we can still get hurt, and hurt others; but without awareness, we never get to realize what happened, and we keep hurting. Please, please be aware.

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The Old, the New, and the Surprising

October 13, 2011

I was looking through the archives of my friend Max Gladstone, and found a post linking to Everything Is A Remix. The idea behind Everything Is a Remix is, fittingly, not new: everything from Beethoven’s symphonies to your vaccuum cleaner is an adaptation, a remix, a jumble of ideas taken from other places (with or without credit) and mashed together to produce something novel.

As the author of Everything Is A Remix notes, this idea clashes with common beliefs about innovation, whether in the arts or technology, being spontaneous, a stroke of genius like a flame in the night, something out of nothing. The author dismisses these beliefs as simply wrong. I disagree with him, however, and here’s where I think remixing gets interesting: while the core ideas that go into innovations are nothing more than remixes and mashups, their execution often takes us by surprise and comes off as a stroke of genius.

Let’s look at some examples of great execution*. Johann Gutenberg’s printing press was built upon a number of components, most of which had been around for centuries. Gutenberg’s own additions, such as the invention of the matrix to produce metal letters, were definitely important, but it would be silly to argue that Gutenberg invented the printing press. What Gutenberg did was make it possible for people to print hundreds of thousands of books in the span of a few years. What he ultimately enabled was the popular consumption of books. These books contained knowledge and information. Knowledge and information are magic. Gutenberg made it possible for the farmer, and the craftsman to go to a store and buy magic.

Now skip forward about five hundred years. Steve Jobs wants to build a personal computer. He takes ideas like the Graphical User Interface and the Mouse from PARC, and builds a pretty cheap machine – only a couple thousand bucks – that has moving icons and windows. Again, nothing in the Macintosh is fundamentally new, all copied or derived or improved upon. But Steve makes these computers for the middle class families, the farmers and the craftsmen of the twentieth century, and he makes them look like magic.

At first glance, Steve’s invention doesn’t look very magical – if you consider magic just knowledge and information. After all, there were plenty of computers out there in the seventies and eighties that contained knowledge and information. The problem was, these computers had text-based interfaces and obscure commands. Like scrolls in Latin and Greek, they could only be read by an elite, the geeks who had spent years learning about computers. Steve made it possible for a middle-class family to get to all that knowledge, to access the magic. The people who bought Macintoshes didn’t have to know Latin (or Assembly); they had to know how to press and hold buttons, and drag a mouse around. Boom. Magic.

These two examples are all about the power of execution. Executing on an idea is actually a pretty complicated thing. It requires great engineering and logistics, a solid understanding of marketing, and a good measure of luck. If I had to bring it all to a single word, though, “magic” would be it. Take existing ideas and turn them into something that feels like magic.

I wanted to conclude this post with more ideas about what magic actually looks like, but I feel like that’s a long enough discussion to merit an separate post. So, until next time, when I talk more about magical things and how to make them!

*material for this post collected from Wikipedia

PS I realize this post feels like it’s cribbed from Malcom Gladwell. A) That’s kind of the point and B) In my not so humble opinion, I believe I have a few ideas that differ from Mr. Gladwell’s about tipping points and making things popular (all parts of execution)… again, stay tuned till next post

PPS I originally tweeted that this post would be about Diaspora. Sorry. Well, here’s my cop-out: Diaspora is NOT magic. It’s awesome, and a great idea, but magical it is not.

Glow Worm

October 9, 2011

Fresh, mowed grass under my back
The sky is so empty
Its cerulean blue unmarked
By advertisements
By talking heads
By information
There is a single plane overhead
Leaving behind two parallel trails, like skis.

For a while I find nothing to focus on
And I keep drowning without moving.

A point of light appears
It could be a planet, or an early star,
Or a satellite.
I watch it.
(The grass feels soft and warm on my skin)
It moves.
It looks like a glow worm
Crawling through a maze
With walls I cannot see,
Trying to make its way home.

Godspeed, brave glowworm:
The sky may be a dark and dangerous maze,
But you will light the way,
And the rest of us will follow.