Failure

The Fyre Festival is all over the internet today.  I’m not hip, or particularly young, so I didn’t hear anything about it until today, when it failed, spectacularly.  The gist is this:  Ja Rule (the rapper who I presumed dead after the first Fast and Furious, where he played an important role) and some entrepreneur teamed up to make a music festival on an island in the Bahamas.  Then they did some marketing for it on social media, mostly just attractive women in bikinis wandering around beaches.  Then they announced the prices, which were, as you’d expect, not cheap.

And then the time for the actual festival rolled around, and it seems it went… poorly.  Nothing was ready – Luxury villas turned out to be FEMA issued disaster tents, many of which apparently blew away.  Food was bad.  There was no beer. Bahamian customs, at some point stopped allowing people out of the airport, telling them the island was at capacity.  The whole thing has now been essentially cancelled, and they’re working to get everyone back off the island.

And honestly, it’s pretty funny.  Really funny, actually. Twitter is having a field day, because no one is a safer, easier target to mock than young people with money (bonus points if you already vaguely hate them because #millenials).  Also because if you wrote this script as a comedy, it would work, with almost no changes – from Ja Rule being in charge, to the fact that the other guy is apparently a tech entrepreneur, to the terribly dumb promotional videos.  And it actually happened.  As has been said over and over on twitter, it’s Lord of the Flies with rich millenials.  I’m sorry, it is funny.

Anyway, in spite of all that rambling, and the 2 hours I just wasted on twitter following this (seriously, give it a look), it did make me think about more than just laughing at other people’s misfortune (which I’m apparently totally cool with).

This whole deal failed spectacularly – and, by all accounts, it did so because of negligence, laziness, or incompetence on the part of several people in charge of it.  However – from here, in my comfortable chair, in my house, where I’m doing nothing, it’s so easy to mock.  It’s so easy to listen to the internet and see how this was never going to work, and how every single person involved – from the people who came up with the idea, to the people who were paid to promote it, to the officials on the island, all the way down to the people who paid money to fly on a chartered plane to an island for a music festival – are all morons, and deserved what they got.  It’s too easy.

When faced with this kind of situation, deep down, I think most of us are putting ourselves in the shoes of the festival goers, or the organizers, and trying to distance ourselves, to figure out how we’re superior, and we’d never have ended up in the same situation.  We see something going terribly and see, in hindsight, all of the things that went wrong, and how stupid the organizers must have been.  And we internalize it: “They failed, because they’re dumb.  I don’t want to be dumb, I don’t want people to think I’m dumb, I need to avoid this.”

Maybe they were dumb.  Clearly the organizers weren’t prepared, and maybe ignored some pretty solid advice and now they’re paying for it.  But I worry that when I look at this and other high profile failures, what I hear, what I’m told, what I decide deep down is actually to never try, to never do anything big, because I don’t want people to discover that I’m a moron too.    And it’s not just huge public things – it filters all the way down to how I interact with people, how I approach problems at work, how I choose to spend my free time.  The message is always “Just don’t end up announcing to the world that you’re a moron, because look at all these average people that have the good sense to know better”.  And we listen to it – we assume that the average person (who conveniently is working with the advantage of knowledge of the outcome, and hindsight) would not make dumb mistakes, so we shouldn’t either, lest we advertise our below-averageness.

So here’s my part to help:  I’m a moron.  I do dumb things.  I make mistakes that some people can see coming a mile away, and other people can clearly make sense of (and mock) in hindsight.  I’m probably not going to plan an expensive music festival on an island with little to no infrastructure, but I’m sure I’ll do something else obviously stupid, likely on a smaller scale.   And it’s ok.  I hope I never stop doing dumb things and making mistakes.

Afición

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with afición stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back. The good ones came each year. In Montoya’s room were their photographs. The photographs were dedicated to Juanito Montoya or to his sister. The photographs of bull-fighters Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of bull-fighters who had been without aficion Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk. They often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket. He did not want them around.

We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about bulls. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full. Montoya introduced me to some of them. They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have afición. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. **When they saw that I had afición, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent,**

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises  (p. 115)

This may surprise you, but I’m not particularly into bullfighting.  Even so, I like Hemingway’s description of afición.

There are topics, ideas, and activities that I hold dear. I think the things – ideas, activities, whatever – that a person really associates with, really feels, make up who they are.

Sometimes, when you’re talking with someone about something close to you, something important to you, it’s apparent that they get it too.  And it’s meaningful – it’s meaningful because as Hemingway says, there’s “No password, not set of questions that could bring it out”.  It can’t be faked.  And it’s not about talent, or fame, or money.  A person could be the best in the world at something, or know the most about a topic, and still not really get it.  Not have afición.

So, you know, figure out where your afición lies.  It’s probably not bullfighting.

Instagram and the Brand Ambassador

I’m on Instagram a lot.   I’m not generally prone to getting sucked into social media – I don’t use twitter much, I can honestly acknowledge that I never leave Facebook happier than when I enter it, so I don’t spend too much time there.  But Instagram is a different beast.  I enjoy photography – both taking pictures, and looking at them.  The fact that it’s really difficult to share links, and large amounts of text are pretty unwieldy makes it pretty great in my book – there’s just so little opportunity for you to share your terrible political opinion with me.  People try, sure – but it’s far less common than on other platforms.  I don’t follow anyone who posts anything but photography. Very few memes, or political rants – just original content from people I know, or people I find interesting.

But there’s something insidious to Instagram, if you venture much outside people you actually know.


I like the outdoors.  I like skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and just general exploration and travel.  I’m not alone in this, my tastes are certainly not unique or particularly interesting.  So I follow a smattering of popular instagrammers.  They’re people with at least a reasonably good eye for photography, who spend a lot of their time doing interesting things.

But there are some red flags:  Some people have obvious means of supporting themselves through adventure.  Some are obviously just wealthy – family money, business success, whatever.  Some are professionals doing something interesting – pro skiers, mountain bikers, etc.  Some are photographers or filmmakers, sharing content from their work and adventures.

But some aren’t.  They’re just normal-ish people, who like a lot of the same things I like. And this group has the potential to be the most interesting, because they’re the most relatable.  But with followers come power, an audience – and any time you’ve got an audience, there’s danger.  There’s danger because there’s value in a platform.  And with value comes the opportunity for dishonesty.

So my feed is very often full of brand ambassadors, which is fancy talk for “people who get free stuff, and maybe money, because they’ve got an audience”.  And that’s fine – I’m not really opposed to it, except that it undermines what made these people so great, so enjoyable to follow along and live vicariously through.  Their value, their appeal, is in  the honesty and authenticity of whatever they were doing: having an adventure because it’s exactly what they wanted to do, what they were driven to do.  Coming up with a plan for something – a trip, and adventure, maybe just a particular photograph – simply because they wanted to.  They needed to.

Once there are ulterior motives (money and followers), things aren’t so clear.  Motives are tainted.  Now there’s the question: are they doing this because it was their choice, their plan, a manifestation of their passions?  Or are they doing it because they know people will like it? Because followers mean power?  Because a brand will give them money to do it?  Is it real, or is it a narrative they’re selling?

And I think this is a broader question, just another facet of the question about shoes: Why do we do what we do?  Which motives are real, honest, acceptable, and which are unworthy of praise or attention?  Which motives are acceptable to cultivate, and which do we scorn or hide?

Restlessness

I’m driving, heading up the highway, into the mountains.  It’s morning, and snow is falling heavily.  It’s cold out – probably about 10 degrees – so the snowflakes are light and dry.  The road ahead is slowly accumulating snow, but only on the edges of the road, and in between the lanes – not where the wheels hit.

I always notice this.  It’s not always snow – maybe it’s dirt blowing across the road from a dust storm.  Maybe it’s debris from a car accident. Maybe it’s gravel that fell off a passing truck.  Whatever it is, by the time I see it, it’s always cleared itself out of the tire tracks.  That always strikes me, because it feels like there’s sentience there.  How did the rocks know to get out of the tire tracks?  Why aren’t the rocks just scattered evenly across the road – surely that’s how they fell?

And it is how they fell.  And it’s how snow falls too – evenly across the road.  But even so, it manages to organize itself outside of the tire tracks.  Why?  How?

The rock that is in the tire tracks, unsurprisingly, gets run over – hit, over and over again.  And every time it gets hit, it moves – thrown forward as though it was kicked.  And as it tumbles forward, it bounces randomly to the left, or to the right.  And it keeps doing this – getting hit, moving forward, bouncing laterally, until eventually, it’s not in the tire tracks anymore.  Not by conscious decision, but because by chance, randomly, it happened to not be in the tire tracks anymore.

So that’s where it stays.  Out of the tracks.  Not getting run over anymore Also not moving. Stuck.

And whenever I notice this, I can’t help but assign some deeper philosophical meaning to it.  Tire tracks are a violent, unpredictable place to be. But as soon as you find yourself outside the tracks, comfortable, settled, you’re no longer moving.

Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Damned Civilized

He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.

Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10

Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man.  Totally nuts.  Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion.  His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight.  Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.

It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.

Adaptation

I’ve been sick for the last few days.  I’m really bad at being sick.  When I have a fever, I have stress dreams and can’t tell the difference between dream and reality.  Then when I’m awake, I mostly just lay around and moan, reveling in misery, and bringing down anyone within earshot.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the shower.  The hot water is pouring down over me, and it feels good, but also terrible – my fever means that the water is both uncomfortably hot, but I’m shivering because I’m cold.  The fever and accompanied achiness is bad, but what’s worse is my throat – swollen and inflamed, I haven’t really been able to swallow for a day.  So I’m dehydrated and hungry too.  And all I can think is “Normal is going to feel unimaginably good.”

I almost always have this same thought when I’m sick enough to be really inconvenienced, not just mildly uncomfortable.

Today, Sunday morning, I woke up feeling much better.  The fever is gone.  My throat is still sore, but it’s annoying, not debilitating.  And today, every bite – the waffles with peanut butter at breakfast (yes, you heard me.  Try it),  the leftover pizza at lunch – every bite was glorious.  Euphoric.

The difference in quality of life between yesterday and today is palpable.  It’s almost impossible to forget, to miss. But tomorrow or the next day, I’ll be completely back to normal, and the euphoria, the victory over the illness, the acknowledgement of the difference between how poor things were before, and how good they are now will be past its natural expiration date.  I’ll have adapted again, to normal.

Because that’s what normal is:  just whatever has been happening for long enough to kind of forget about what was happening before.  And we’re great at adapting.

What do We Really Know?

The kids and I sat down tonight to watch “Cosmos”, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s acclaimed from the 80s, now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I (gasp) never watched the original, and my son Sam, 7, is old enough to actually have it keep his attention, I think. He likes to delay bedtime by asking me questions about space (“Why is the sky blue?” “Tell me that thing about how time changes if you go too fast again.” “I want a new interesting fact about black holes.”). We both know he’s only doing it to delay bedtime, but we also both know it’s going to work every time. Anyway, it seemed like a good time to start the series.

The first episode spends a lot of time focused on the ideas behind the Copernican revolution, in which western civilization traded the older Ptolemaic model of the heavens, in which the Earth is the center, with the Heliocentric model, where the sun is the center. Specifically, the episode delves into the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher who lived after Copernicus, but died before Galileo made his first telescope.
Bruno’s real contributions, which apparently he eventually died for, were a few ideas:

  • The stars are, in fact, the same thing as our sun, just very far away.
  • The stars likely have their own planets around them, and therefore, likely their own life.
  • The universe is essentially uniform and infinite – not existing as a very large sphere around our sun.

I’m sure there was more to it than this, but keep in mind, my knowledge of this topic is essentially 45 minutes of television, plus some light skimming of Wikipedia.

Of course, prior to tonight, I was aware of all this, even if I really only had the bullet points down. People though the earth was flat, then maybe they accepted it was round, but still believed it was the center of the universe, then gradually discovered the nature of the universe as we understand it now. What I never had really considered was this: How difficult would it have been to challenge these theories at the time?

I think it’s easy to assume, through our historical glasses, that people of the time period were just waiting around to disprove the existing theories of how the world worked. That if you or I had been there, surely we’d have realized how silly it was to think the earth was the center of the universe. Except that that made perfect sense. What else could anyone have believed, given what we can observe with the naked eye, from the ground? And – bonus – at the time make an assertion that didn’t agree with the church’s ideas of how things worked, and you’d be ridiculed at best, tortured, imprisoned, and burned at the stake at worst.

But still, in the face of all the opposition, in spite of the fact that it would have been exceedingly easy to worry about the challenges of the day, how to get yourself a new carriage or the hottest chaperon, and not give a second thought to the prevailing theories about how the universe turned, people did it. People asked questions. Hard questions. They thought about things. And they did it without technology, or invented technology to help answer their questions. They just looked up, observed, and then thought.

Similarly, I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved had I been born an affluent white male in the south in the early 19th century. It’s easy now to look back and recognize slavery as cruel, unfair, evil. But if it was all you knew, what you had been raised around, raised to believe – would you question it? Would you even think to question it? I like to tell myself I’d never have stood for it, but I’m afraid that’s too generous.

But there’s good news: Our lives, our societies, are literally full of assumptions, of unquestioned prevailing theories. Universal truths that we all agree on without a second thought. Universal truths that we all agree on because we don’t even recognize that we’re agreeing to them, because they’re so deep that we can’t even recognize there’s an argument to be made. I think sometimes finding the answers is actually easier than finding the questions.

What if the universe is just a simulation? Do you actually agree with your supposed views on political issues like abortion, LGBT rights, or do you just accept what people similar to you say on Facebook? Do you really like chocolate milk? (spoiler: I really, really do)

These are lame questions, but the point is that the interesting questions are the ones that are hard to find, because people aren’t asking them. So, try thinking hard about what you take for granted. The things you’ve never even thought to question. It’s hard. If doing so, even in your own head, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not digging deep enough.

 

 

Header image by Bartolomeu Velho – Own work, Public Domain

But Why These Shoes?

I’m back on shoes.  I guess I really like shoes.

I’m really interested in shoes, and what they say about their owners.  In theory, they’re inconspicuous, out of the way – as far away from the head, with its facial expressions and speaking as possible.  We pay attention to faces, to upper bodies.

Down there at the lowly Cape Horn of the body sit the shoes, functionally tasked with keeping our oh-so-tender feet safe.

So as I sit in the park, watching the many people go by, I can’t help but wonder about the choices everyone made.  Why those shoes?  What possessed the wearer to choose this shoe instead of any other?  Why does the market support such a wide variety of footwear?

What do my shoes say about me?

When I buy shoes, it’s an almost unconscious decision.  I’ll browse online, or go to a shoe store (gasp) in person, and see what they have.  If asked what I’m interested in, I’ll say “I don’t know”.  I don’t know.  And yet, I’m guided by an invisible will towards specific styles, brands, and types.

The reality is that I’m very specific about what type of shoe I’ll buy and wear, I just don’t like to admit it, even to myself.  Whether or not I like it, whether or not I’ll admit it openly, I’m buying shoes in large part in order to tell you something about myself.  Yes, I have some baseline requirements that don’t relate to other people (do they fit?  Are they comfortable enough?), but the majority of my shoe buying decision comes down to you, and what I want you to think of me.

What do people’s shoes say about them?

Are they comfortable looking?  Are they inconspicuous?  Are they bright and obnoxious?  Are they so obviously ugly that the wearer is either blind, or making some sort of statement about how little they care about what you think? Do they match the wearer’s shirt? Hat? Are they athletic shoes, in spite of the fact that the wearer is not currently doing anything athletic?  Are they leather? Are they not leather, but brown anyway? Are they very obviously brand new? Are they dirty?  Are they all white, but amazingly not dirty?  Can you imagine how much work it is to keep all white shoes clean?  Seriously, think about it, I’ll wait.

So, I don’t know, go look at your shoes.  How much of the decision to buy that particular pair of shoes was about telling people about yourself?  Are you happy with what they say?

Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll undoubtedly talk more about shoes.

 

Other people

A few days ago I wrote about the phone, and my general desire to not use it.  Ever.  But there’s a little more to it than that – barely under the surface, there’s a general disdain for other people, for human interaction.  I fall into this trap easily, and willingly, fully aware of what I’m doing.  And it’s fine.  I like being alone, and I don’t often feel lonely, or compelled to seek out interaction with other people.

I mentioned a phone call that kicks off the podcast S-Town.  A phone call I would have blown off,  avoided, because the very premise of the call was all wrong – it was obviously not the transactional interaction that I would have wanted it to be.  Of course, the reporter, being a reporter, followed through with a call, and what followed was a wild and baffling exchange that eventually evolved into a long and involved relationship (no, not _that_ kind of relationship) with one of the most interesting people I’ve heard or read about.  Really a fascinating person, the kind that makes you question everything about yourself, or maybe all about the world, _even if_ they’re difficult to be around.  (I’m only 2 episodes in, so maybe by the time I finish the series, I’ll have discovered it wasn’t a real person or something.  Don’t spoil this for me.)

When we interact with no one, or only with a small group of friends and family that we already know well, it’s easy to stay comfortable.  To exist safely in a cocoon of our own ideas and philosophies, safely protected from the difficulty and discomfort of facing interactions and people who don’t share them, might have their own.  This is safe, comfortable, and boring.  To rehash a quote:

When the outcome of a game is certain, we call it quits and begin another. This is why many people object to having their fortunes told: not that fortunetelling is mere superstition or that the predictions would be horrible, but simply that the more surely the future is known, the less surprise and the less fun in living it.

Watts, Alan W | The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Other people are wildcards.  Other people _can’t be controlled_. Other people force us to re-examine our beliefs, and introduce us to new ones.  It can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.  Sometimes it’s useless, because lots of people are actually terribly boring.

But if you want to life the kind of uncertain, adventurous life Watts refers to,  it’s probably worth picking up the phone on occasion, and talking to the clearly crazy person on the other end.