Distraction

I often think of watching TV as a distraction.  

The word itself is important.  Distraction.  It seems like it comes unbidden from somewhere outside of the normal noise of my daily thoughts – below, above, I don’t know – but I don’t think about the activity, and decide on the world “distraction” – it’s already there.

I used to go through long, involved thought exercises, trying to distill out exactly why I was fixated on this idea – distraction – an idea that feels powerful and important to me, but also has been difficult to nail down, to keep in place long enough to actually understand and form an opinion worthy of action on.

Having had difficulty defining what I’m really talking about, all I can do to give it shape is to work backward from practical examples and hope something meaningful appears:

Playing video games?  Distraction.  Eating junk food?  Distraction.  Facebook?  Distraction.  Twitter?  Distraction.

Some things are less clear.  Cleaning the garage? Maybe a distraction.  Reading a book?  Harder to say, but probably not a distraction. Going for a walk?  Watching a good movie?  Somehow, in spite of my judgement of TV, watching a movie often, is not condemned as “distraction”.

Going for a run?  Writing? Working?  Decidedly not distractions.


What about the term I seem to have chosen to describe these things?

distraction

I was reminded of this thought a few days ago when my brother referred to something as “indulgence”.  Indulgence and distraction have something in common – both can only exist in the face of a larger goal.  You indulge in something as a respite from what you’ve identified to be your true goal, your true direction.

Distraction, similarly, can only exist against the backdrop of a larger goal, a greater purpose, or _something_ demanding our attention.


With this in mind, what is the common thread between the activities I deem “distraction”?  Does it even make sense, or is it just an unexamined artifact from youth, or popular culture?  Does it have any value as a concept?

My best guess is that I’ll deem anything a distraction that does not have any benefit beyond the moments that I’m engaged in the activity.  Watching a funny TV show can be enjoyable, but there’s rarely a lasting benefit.  Eating junk food is great in the moments when the food is in your mouth, and terrible immediately after. Facebook… Oh facebook.

On the other hand, cleaning the garage is valuable for a period of time, or at least until it’s messy again.  Going for a run is exercise, and much of the benefit comes after the period you spend in the activity.  Reading a good book can help you understand yourself, or the world, a bit better.  Working  earns money, to be used later.

Essentially, the common thread seems to be delayed gratification.  I’ve decided, on some level, that delayed gratification is good, and instant gratification, at least instant gratification without any lasting (positive) effect, is bad.


Back to the term.  distraction.  If the practical common thread is about lasting benefit, what can be extrapolated from the term _distraction_?  With this criteria, one would call these activities distractions from the _real goal_, which would have to be constant, incessant, improvement.  Or, to take values away, constant, inexorable movement, in _some_ direction.

Humans (or maybe just humans in a similar demographic to me) value constant movement, constant improvement, so deeply, that I don’t think we ever stop to examine it.  Why do we do that?  Is it even what we want?

What if constant movement, constant improvement is just distraction from something else? What if telling ourselves that we value forward motion above all else is a way of distracting from something more uncomfortable?

Forward, ever forward.

Eccentricity

People employed in tech have come to rely on an idea:  Everything can be measured.  Every interaction a user has with a website or application we’ve built – where their cursor goes, how long they last on any given page.  It can all be measured, it can all be tested and compared.

Countless consultants, technologies, entire businesses have sprung up to facilitate the aggregate measure and analysis of this kind of data.  How do users respond to a slight change in verbiage?  Will users react favorably if we change the order of a checkout flow? Does the color of this button matter?

With enough data, with enough users, with enough measured interactions, the shape that materializes is seems to be the average customer, user, human.  The context is often pretty narrow (“How does the average human visiting my site behave?”), but still – people are tirelessly working to distill broad, generic, useful insights into how the average human thinks and behaves from the specific actions of huge swaths of people.


Growing up, I’d classify someone as “eccentric” as a way to put a friendly spin on reality, which is that I thought they were so odd as to deserve to be identified, categorized, as something distinct – outside of the circle of “acceptable social acquaintance”.  I’d willingly interact with them, even be a friend, but all this was done in spite of said eccentricity, certainly not because of it.

People who dressed a little weird – not in a way that demanded attention, just off.  Or who were a little too into something.  Maybe a sport.  Maybe religion.  Or who couldn’t quite get what was acceptable to like, to dislike.

As an adult, I find myself characterizing it by anything that raises an eyebrow.  Or maybe anything that elicits a reaction – a reaction like “That seems like a waste of [time|money|effort]”.  “That seems silly”.  “I can’t believe they did that”. 


I can’t help to start to overlay the same types of big data aggregate analyses onto real life people, people I see and interact with every day.  Why we wear what we wear (shoes!), why we eat what we eat, read what we read, what we choose to spend money, time, and effort on.  How much of what makes me me is really just manifestation of the average human in my demographic?

Against that background, it feels like the only thing that differentiates, that matters in identifying who a person is is where they deviate from the norm.  The scenarios in which one person clicks a link  but very few others do.  Maybe a person’s eccentricities – the collection of behaviors, actions, reactions – which baffle or even concern their peers and acquaintances, are actually the most meaningful things about them.

Most of us manage to fit the norm most of the time – either because we just do naturally, or because where we don’t, we’re trained to avoid sticking out.  As a result, the eccentricities – the rough edges, the pieces that don’t fit – can be identified as being somehow so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t smooth them out, or because we care about them so deeply that we’d prefer to leave them as they are.

And that’s interesting.  That’s all.

The Fireplace

There's a fireplace in my house.  A wood burning fireplace.  It's not particularly grand.   It sits toward the corner of the living room.  An important piece to the feel of the room, but not exactly the focal point.

I use it often in the winter – at night while we hang out in the living room on a cold night, or in the afternoon while I sit and read a book.

At our last house, there was a gas fireplace.  You flipped a switch and you had fire.

It was easy to use.  It was reliable.  It was more effective at heating the room – utilizing a built-in blower to push warm air out into the room. It was safer.  No sparks or flaming embers could hop out of the flames and onto the carpet, as it was completely enclosed. It was cleaner too.  There was no possibility of getting soot from a fire poker on the carpet, or my pants.  There was no ash to carelessly knock out.

The gas fireplace was a better product by every measure.

And yet, we rarely used it.

A gas fire burns the same way every time.  It never changes.  Its reliability – in theory a great advantage – was the thing it got the most wrong. 

Apparently I don't want a fireplace as a way to heat a room.  The furnace heats the house just fine.  It seems I also don't want a fireplace to set the ambiance of a room – thoughtful lighting and interior design can do a fine job of that.

The value of the wood burning fireplace is in all the things that it gets wrong as a useful household appliance.  It is the opposite of sterile, reliable, or predictable.  I watch logs smoke, light, burn, and turn to ash in ways that I didn't precisely plan out, that may require my attention or intervention.  It revels in change, in ephemerality.  And I enjoy that.

The utility we find in products, experiences, relationships is often completely unrelated to what is advertised or assumed.  It's easy to assume then, at a glance, that there is no utility.

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.