Friday, January 11, 2013

Thursday Afternoon

I read about Brian Eno the other day. I bought his CD, Thursday Afternoon, off Amazon. I've never heard anything like it. It's like being simultaneously in an airport, standing on the beach, and sitting in both a forest and heavy traffic. It's sixty-plus minutes of ethereal sonic light, birds chirping, synthetic tones, and a kind of oceanic ebb and flow.

I'm not sure if I'm paraphrasing or basing this off of other words I've read, but the music seems to open new spaces, to stretch each individual moment (second, minute, mundane event) into a vast void, though void isn't the right word, because there's no negative connotation intended. Or maybe it is a void, and voids aren't always such dreadful things, not if you acknowledge them.

Most other music (and I'm paraphrasing here) occupies space, like a solid. It places something somewhere. It imposes upon us, hopefully in a mutually enjoyable way. It demands your attention, feeds you lyrics and traceable melody, and satisfying harmony.

Thursday Afternoon, and successful ambient music, is the perfect inverse. By occupying the outer rim of our thoughts, the fringe of our awareness, it actually gives us more capacity to feel, and think, and understand. By giving us less, it forces us, allows us to expand.

A final observation, which I read in said article on Brian Eno, was this: the greater the volume you use on his ambient work, especially Thursday Afternoon, the more complexity you notice. What does this mean, though?

It's strange. Ambient music usually works best when it's on the periphery. Turn the volume up, and the steady hum diverges into discrete noises and noticeable aberrations; it's complex, and it's interesting, and it's more colorful. It's a view under a microscope. Yet it's also simpler, and more uninteresting.

When you bring it back to where it was, to the borderline between consciousness and emotion, it transforms into something new. Something you may never notice on certain levels, but are glad to have enjoyed on the most important ones.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Time- and progress-based goals don't work

Or, they don't for me. If I say I'm going to write for the next three hours, the connotation is that I'm going to force myself to sit in a hard wooden chair, painstakingly typing words as they come to me. If I say I'm going to run for two hours, it's basically me enduring shin splints and heavy breathing for a tortuous period of time. If I want to work on an essay for an hour for class, I know I'll be glancing at the clock every other minute.

Time is clearly one of the most valuable resources we all have, but for some reason, basing our achievements on time never seems to work. I think it's something to do with the nature of time—namely, that it passes regardless of what we do. While we might tell ourselves we're on the road to mastery by spending X hours per day on a certain activity, really all we're saying is that we want to fill that time in our day with the idea of working on that activity. Saying I'll spend an hour on my essay could either mean I write something moving, or that I write ten words while sporadically checking Facebook. There's no standard of quality to achieve here.

On the other hand, something different happens when I say I'm trying to write 2500 words a day, or one chapter a day, or ten pages a day. Or when I decide to go for a four mile run. Or when I decide I'm simply not getting up until I finish the introduction to this godforsaken essay. When we make goals tangible—and not simply based on whether we show up or not—we're making ourselves do something real. We're not just filling dead air.

But it's still not so easy. Because if sitting in my chair for an hour ripping hangnails isn't useful, neither is writing 2500 useless words on my story. Sure, it feels like I'm accomplishing something, but all I'm accomplishing is much more time necessary for editing once I want to create something that people will actually want to read. So in this way, setting tangible "progress" goals is no better than aiming for "time" goals. But these are the two major ways to track movement through our lives: so is there no useful, motivating way to set goals?

I think the answer is sort of circular, because I think it still comes back to time. I've found that there's a huge difference connotation-wise between the following perspectives:

"I am going to write (run, work on my startup, suffer) for three hours per day, every day, so I will finish my book (reach my running goal, start my business, finish my essay) as soon as possible. This way I will have reached my goal as efficiently as possible, so I can move on to the next one."

"I am going to write for three hours per day focusing on the quality of what I produce, not the speed at which I produce. The goal is not to finish as soon as possible, but to finish with a 'perfect' (or as close as reasonably possible without wasting time) product as soon as possible."

The first belief, which most of us have, focuses on speed instead of results. This may seem beneficial in the short-term, but when you realize you've spent two months writing a bad novel, or two months training for a race and making little to no progress on your PR, or a year planning a business that simply isn't feasible, it'll feel even worse to realize you've simply wasted your time.

By focusing on time as the enabler of quality, and not of results, we not only feel more motivated—because we aren't rushing toward a goal, but instead pursuing perfection and mastery in what we do—but end up with a product worthy of our effort.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Missing short stories & thoughts on blogs

If you noticed the dramatically lower post count in the archive, it's because, after removing some of the past articles I had written that are no longer congruent with my beliefs, I realized I was sort of offering my short stories up for sacrifice.

I believe that if an author truly cares about the writing he (or she) produces, and believes that this writing may offer some value to potential readers, it is then his responsibility to ensure that the writing reaches the most readers in a way that will allow them to extract the most value--but without sacrificing anything about the quality of the writing in attempting to achieve this goal. I no longer think, then, under most circumstances, that a blog is the correct medium through which to share serious short story fiction.

Because a blog is so accessible and instantly gratifying (for both publisher and visitor), I think it encourages a mentality of "act (meaning write or read) quickly and move to the next thing." This couldn't be further from the actual conditions required to produce writing--or anything--of value. I mentioned in a previous post that I'd rather enjoy one piece of art that changes my life instead of ten that don't. As a writer, I would always choose to create one story that tries to do the same, instead of five that never will.

I realized that by posting my stories on this blog, they were not only being hastily written and revised, but experienced in a different way by you, the readers. Reading is all about perception and self-understanding of what an author is trying to communicate. There's a huge debate on whether a book's meaning is about what the author meant, or what the book, analyzed in a vacuum, might mean without authorial context. Regardless of the "right" answer, we can be sure that reader perception is more than half, if not all, the battle.

That I think some of my work may have been interpreted or judged differently because it appeared on a blog is not at all the reader's fault; to the contrary, it's only my own fault: for not considering the presentation of my work, for not making it available in different mediums, for placing some of my stories (the ones in which I saw some value) alongside humorous or less-intense blog articles, and for not realizing all this earlier.

Moving forward, no short stories will appear on this blog, though I will continue to work on polishing the interesting ones for possible publishing in the future. Again, I don't want to create anything below what I consider to be my greatest potential. I'll also post updates about other projects I'm working on as they become more relevant--and look out for a website in coming months that should serve as a more balanced portal.

While I think blogs are a great invention and usually a very positive thing, they can easily turn into something selfish and inwardly-focusing, which, hopefully, is not the idea for most bloggers. I hope to move away from this mindset by making this blog more about relevant updates, and also about certain things I think or notice with which others might be able to relate.

These posts may not always be perfect (as I'd rather spent my time on the work that matters most), but they will, at the very least, always be honest.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Multitasking: Cause, not Effect

Many, if not most, believe multitasking to be a symptom of our frenetic, instant gratification culture. All the new bits of information that travel to us each day in the form of texts, emails, and pictures seem to demand our immediate attention, superseding whatever it is we've currently decided is worth our attention. And so multitasking appears to be a normal response to living in our type of society.

And it is. But just because we have the easy inclination to react mindlessly to a certain stimulus, it doesn't mean it's the the best, or the most honorable, or the most satisfying way to react. Multitasking, then, is not an inevitable result of new technology, but the easiest, most intuitive result of new technology. Because we have the choice to power through or eliminate distraction, we cannot heap blame solely on the outside world for our attentional deficit and increasing inability to complete longer-term goals without external incentivization.

Multitasking is a cause of: dissatisfaction in work, lack of time and effort to understand more complex arguments that might enrich our lives, disruption of the way we experience time and form meaningful memories of our life, increased feeling of life as a "constant flow" without discrete important parts, and much more. 

But it's really, really hard not to do it. I've seen arguments that technology has started to outpace cultural growth, meaning we're not even sure as a civilization how to handle what we've ourselves created. 

Technology and media creators and operators also probably deserve some of the blame, in how many of their personal rewards depend on making their inventions the most addicting and distracting and intrusive in order to maximize advertising effectiveness.  Every commercial on TV wants to be the commercial you remember, so each tries to be utterly unique and memorable. Meaning you end up having ten different unique, and memorable, and distracting experiences over an hour of television.

It's only useful to view multitasking as a cause because it shows us that we have control over ourselves, still. We can still turn off the TV and set our phones to silent, and work on creating something valuable. We aren't to blame for the way society nags at us, though we might choose to hold ourselves responsible for attempting to break free.

But it's not easy, and, rather than a single moment of epiphany, it's more of a life-long struggle: because, when you think about it,

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thought Experiment: Nature vs. Nurture vs. ?

I was thinking about the whole nature-nurture debate yesterday, when my girlfriend and I started talking about how our lives might be different if we changed just one thing: What if I had had a dog growing up?  What if I lived in the South instead of the North? What if she hadn't decided to be an English major? What if she hadn't made the mistake of meeting me?

We've all seen the Butterfly Effect and know that small changes can end up creating huge future consequences. Personally, I've been a huge video game player in one way or another since I was five; I think my interest in each game's storyline led me to read, that my reading led me to being more self-aware, and that this awareness, for better or worse, was probably the biggest input in creating who I am today.

Anyway, we somehow ended up talking about nature versus nurture, in that it's "easy" to change a nurture variable and come up with some probable difference in your modified life, as we did above, but that we still don't really have a strong concept of genetics. Not just which genes affect our specific characteristics, but also how these characteristics determine who we end up becoming.

So how would you test for the difference between nature and nurture? The way I see it, the only way to isolate the "nature" in us would be to ensure that there wasn't any variance in nurturing. And that's a pretty tough thing to control. If it were ever possible, though, this type of test might be a way for science to start approaching a question that only religion has really asked, at least in a useful way, before: do we have a soul? Because if you could hold EVERYTHING constant and you still had a different result, well, then all guesses are valid.

Here's how I think this experiment would go in a fictional futuristic society with advanced technology and even less ethics than we have today:

- Create a birthing habitat with completely standardized appearance, operations, and everything. I'm talking the same clock on the wall, everything painted white, no chips or flakes anywhere.

- Observe a baby growing up in the habitat, and make sure to keep a sample of the DNA for creating an identical clone of the child. Have all interaction with the child be done via professional actors (better than the Truman Show) or humanistic cyborgs--just make sure everything is completely standardized.

- Keep the person in captivity until they are old enough to display unique reactions. Observe these reactions.

- Do all of the above with the second child (the cloned one). See if these unique reactions are the same or different.

If the reactions are different, and every single variable was held constant, would this not be a valid start to investigating the existence of something beyond nature and nurture? I'm not really sure, and I hope we never have the opportunity to find out, because the experiment would violate pretty much every moral/ethic code there is. That, and the fact that it's trying apply the scientific method to spirituality, which, no matter how interesting, I don't always find very useful.

Then again, all this controlled misery could just prove the existence of true randomness, but I still think it'd be a worthwhile result. Because even if Stephen Hawking can prove to us quantum randomness on the subatomic level, it feels completely different when it's something we can see with our own eyes.

New test: devise an experimental setup that doesn't involve the ruination of multiple lives.