By MATTHEW B. CRAWFORD NY Times, Published: May 21, 2009
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.
The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories ofgifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?
There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.
An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.
Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.
- then poor the rest of the water and press, not pressing all the way
- then serve. simple!
- 17 grams of coffee (light roasted fresh crop washed Sidamo from Heart roasters) - fine filter grind on a Mahlkönig Tanzania - paper filter rinsed with hot water - water from Maridalsvannet (brought in glass bottles from my flat in Oslo, Norway) - inverted brewing method - preheat aeropress for 10 sec - 96 Celcius pour temp (gives ca 90 C actual brew temp) - 260 grams of water - no stiring - 50 sec steep time - 20 sec press time – slow enough to get a clean brew but also some fines (yuck) and oils (yum) - stop pressing before air comes out - wait for the fines to sink and temp to cool, then pour but hold back the last part with the fines (taste sample for yourself!) - The cup: a clean brew with floral notes and taste of sweet lemons.
On Christmas Day, my wife and I walked into downtown Portland’s Regal Fox Tower, one of many such multiplexes Regal Cinemas operates. It’s a nice theater, with comfy seats, sharp screens, and friendly staff. I’m told the local owners are hip people, and this is evidenced by the oddball/artsy films they often run. Overall, however, this in not in any essential way different from other similar, big-name, popcorn-and-soda theaters.
Which is why it was downright shocking to me when, upon entering and seating ourselves, having chatted away the fifteen minutes we had until the screening, we watched the house lights dim down and the screen turn on—yes, it had been off until now—and the very first thing we saw was a grainy shot of some desert rocks, and the first thing we heard was a twangy guitar riff that opens Luis Bacalov’s theme to Sergio Corbucci’s Django, now repurposed as the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
You read that right. The theater showed no house ads, no local ads, no previews for TV shows, no featurettes, no trailers. At 7:45 PM, the advertised screening time, they showed the movie we came to see.
It was magnificent. It felt like watching a movie, as opposed to going out to see a movie.
I’m sure that those local ads, TV previews, and trailers make money for the theater (by the way of making money for the studios etc.) I’m also quite positive that if this theater decided to show every movie this way—if that were even possible, because I imagine that the reels (hard drives!) they receive from the studios have some of this baked in?—they’d suffer financially and, potentially, legally. I don’t even know why it happened this time. Other screenings of Django Unchained definitely included all the advertising detritus. Was it because the movie is long-ish? Because it’s, uh, offensive to advertisers? Because, gosh darn it, it’s Christmas?
I wonder if there’s a business to be gotten into where one shows movies the way everyone wants to see them: just the movies, from the very first second you start watching. It’s a naive thought; I understand that. But I can’t forget that when those lights went down, when that screen went up, and when that twangy riff kicked in, there were audible gasps and cheers in the audience, and someone behind me yelled out “whoa, awesome!”
I want to believe that there’s a business to be gotten into that capitalizes on “whoa, awesome”.
1. Never repeat the same—or even similar—thing twice. A genius artist need to have a mind and spirit so fresh that they seem to be suffering from repeated amnesia every single second.
2. Just like how your own past doesn’t matter much, the history of the human race is equally unimportant.
3. Artists have no concept of schedules and deadlines.
4. As far as being able to speak English goes, you should work towards a point where you can handle a banal everyday conversation while still doubting your own linguistic talents. If you really want to while away the hours speaking a language other than your own, choose something more interesting — ancient Sumerian, or dog talk.
5. You don’t need a passport. If you feel like it, go ahead and welcome the guests who come to you, but it’s inconceivable that you would become a “guest” yourself.
6. Stay away from money. If you touch it with your fingers, your soul will start to rot.
7. Even if you get to meet the power players, big shot collectors, curators, galleries and critics, forget about them right away. The next time you meet them, say “Eh? What’s your name again?” Even better, go ahead and punch them for no reason whatsoever.
8. Keep taking all sorts of drugs, stimulants, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, whatever you like, including harmful mind-altering and psychotropic substances. It is nonsense to filter those substances through your liver, too, so go ahead and have that useless organ removed beforehand.
9. It’s good to have passionate affairs and duels on a regular basis.
By JOHN TIERNEY NY Times Published: January 3, 2013
When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.
They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
Other psychologists said they were intrigued by the findings, published Thursday in the journal Science, and were impressed with the amount of supporting evidence. Participants were asked about their personality traits and preferences — their favorite foods, vacations, hobbies and bands — in years past and present, and then asked to make predictions for the future. Not surprisingly, the younger people in the study reported more change in the previous decade than did the older respondents.
But when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead.
Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.
And the discrepancy did not seem to be because of faulty memories, because the personality changes recalled by people jibed quite well with independent research charting how personality traits shift with age. People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.
Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.
“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”
Or maybe the explanation has more to do with mental energy: predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past. “People may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” the authors wrote in Science.
The phenomenon does have its downsides, the authors said. For instance, people make decisions in their youth — about getting a tattoo, say, or a choice of spouse — that they sometimes come to regret.
And that illusion of stability could lead to dubious financial expectations, as the researchers showed in an experiment asking people how much they would pay to see their favorite bands.
When asked about their favorite band from a decade ago, respondents were typically willing to shell out $80 to attend a concert of the band today. But when they were asked about their current favorite band and how much they would be willing to spend to see the band’s concert in 10 years, the price went up to $129. Even though they realized that favorites from a decade ago like Creed or the Dixie Chicks have lost some of their luster, they apparently expect Coldplay and Rihanna to blaze on forever.
“The end-of-history effect may represent a failure in personal imagination,” said Dan P. McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern who has done separate research into the stories people construct about their past and future lives. He has often heard people tell complex, dynamic stories about the past but then make vague, prosaic projections of a future in which things stay pretty much the same.
Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze forTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.
“She resisted the idea of change, as it dawned on her at age 4, because she could not imagine what else she would ever substitute for the Turtles,” Dr. McAdams said. “She had a sneaking suspicion that she would change, but she couldn’t quite imagine how, so she stood with her assertion of continuity. Maybe something like this goes on with all of us.”
Google published its annual Zeitgeist survey a couple of weeks ago, which tracks the year’s most popular searches in different countries. It breaks them down by category—people, movies, shopping, etc.—and for most countries, one of the categories is “How to…?” We took the top result for each country that had this category and translated them where necessary. (In a couple of cases, we weeded out spurious results caused by quirks of language.)
There’s some interesting variation. The most pressing challenges for many nationalities are kissing or slimming, but the Japanese are evidently obsessed with making their cellphones last longer, Colombians with cupcakes, and Russians with not being quite so mean to each other.
Most popular Google searches beginning “How to…”
Argentina: how to update Facebook Australia: how to love Brazil: how to remove Facebook Canada: how to rock Chile: how to make a family tree Colombia: how to make cupcakes Czech Republic: how to lose weight Denmark: how to kiss Finland: how to get a fever [for the purposes of sick leave] France: how to lose weight Hungary: how to kiss Ireland: how to draw Israel: how to make money Italy: how to have sex Japan: how to save [battery] power Kenya: how to abort Mexico: how to vote Netherlands: how to survive New Zealand: how to screenshot Nigeria: how to love Norway: how to write Poland: how to delete Facebook Portugal: how to lose weight Romanian: how to kiss Russian: how to become nicer Senegal: how to address an envelope Singapore: how to rock Slovakia: how to pick up babes [i.e., women] South Africa: how to kiss Spain: how to install WhatsApp Sweden: how to make out [i.e., kiss] Ukrainian: how to lose weight United Kingdom: how to draw United States: how to love
This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”
Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest places — casinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.”
Seinfeld likens his fine-bore interest in jokes to his longstanding infatuation with Porsches, of which he owns “a few dozen.” “People ask me, Why Porsches? A lot of it is the size, same as with bits. The smaller something is, the harder it is to make, because there’s less room for error.” In high school he took shop classes, even after a counselor told him that collegebound kids didn’t need to, because he wanted to know how machines fit together. “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door. Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.” Mark Schiff, a veteran club comic and one of Seinfeld’s oldest friends, told me: “He’s a scientist. When you watch him, he’s in the lab, concocting. I feel that way, too, to a degree, but with him every little nuance is so valuable.” Sarah Silverman, who has shared bills with Seinfeld and long admired him, agrees: “Whereas most comedians are lazy bastards, he’s the ultimate craftsman.”
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
Seinfeld’s work habits were stringent from the start. Studying communications and theater at Queens College, he arranged an independent study in stand-up, trying club sets, analyzing others’ sets and writing a 40-page paper. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” in 1981, he practiced his five-minute set “200 times” beforehand, jogging around Manhattan and listening to the “Superman” theme on a Walkman to amp up.
We’re accustomed to the cliché of the stand-up as sad clown: a racked soul on a dim stage, salving psychic wounds, craving approval. When audiences yell, “I love you,” at Seinfeld, he likes to reply, “I love you, too, and this is my favorite type of intimate relationship.” He told me: “That’s the wiring of a stand-up. This is my best way of functioning.” But he sees himself more as exacting athlete than tortured artist. He compares himself to baseball players — putting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: “What are they doing that for? It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.” He said: “I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.”
“Actually, Antifragile feels like a compendium of people and things Taleb doesn’t like. He is, for instance, annoyed by editors who “overedit,” when what they should really do is hunt for typos; unctuous, fawning travel assistants; “bourgeois bohemian bonus earners”; meetings of any kind; appointments of any kind; doctors; Paul Krugman; Thomas Friedman; nerds; bureaucrats; air conditioning; television; soccer moms; smooth surfaces; Harvard Business School; business schools in general; bankers at the Federal Reserve; bankers in general; economists; sissies; fakes; “bureaucrato-journalistic” talk; Robert Rubin; Google News; marketing; neckties; “the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature”; regular shoes.”—Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example—any old food. An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.
You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.” “But it was delicious.” It drives him crazy. All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.
My other source of daily pleasure is—but I wish I had a better way of putting it—”other people’s faces.” A red-headed girl, with a marvelous large nose she probably hates, and green eyes and that sun-shy complexion composed more of freckles than skin. Or a heavyset grown man, smoking a cigarette in the rain, with a soggy mustache, above which, a surprise—the keen eyes, snub nose, and cherub mouth of his own eight-year-old self. Upon leaving the library at the end of the day I will walk a little more quickly to the apartment to tell my husband about an angular, cat-eyed teenager, in skinny jeans and stacked-heel boots, a perfectly ordinary gray sweatshirt, last night’s makeup, and a silky Pocahontas wig slightly askew over his own Afro. He was sashaying down the street, plaits flying, using the whole of Broadway as his personal catwalk. “Miss Thang, but off duty.” I add this for clarity, but my husband nods a little impatiently; there was no need for the addition. My husband is also a professional gawker.
The advice one finds in ladies’ magazines is usually to be feared, but there is something in that old chestnut: “shared interests.” It does help. I like to hear about the Chinese girl he saw in the hall, carrying a large medical textbook, so beautiful she looked like an illustration. Or the tall Kenyan in the elevator whose elongated physical elegance reduced every other nearby body to the shrunken, gnarly status of a troll. Usually I will not have seen these people—my husband works on the eighth floor of the library, I work on the fifth—but simply hearing them described can be almost as much a pleasure as encountering them myself. More pleasurable still is when we recreate the walks or gestures or voices of these strangers, or whole conversations—between two people in the queue for the ATM, or two students on a bench near the fountain.
And then there are all the many things that the dog does and says, entirely anthropomorphized and usually offensive, which express the universe of things we ourselves cannot do or say, to each other or to other people. “You’re being the dog,” our child said recently, surprising us. She is almost three and all our private languages are losing their privacy and becoming known to her. Of course, we knew she would eventually become fully conscious, and that before this happened we would have to give up arguing, smoking, eating meat, using the Internet, talking about other people’s faces, and voicing the dog, but now the time has come, she is fully aware, and we find ourselves unable to change. “Stop being the dog,” she said, “it’s very silly,” and for the first time in eight years we looked at the dog and were ashamed.
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem. Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else.
Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. It is hard to arrive at generalities in the face of such a small and varied collection of data. The uncertain item is the nightclub, and because it was essentially a communal experience I feel I can open the question out to the floor. I am addressing this to my fellow Britons in particular. Fellow Britons! Those of you, that is, who were fortunate enough to take the first generation of the amphetamine ecstasy and yet experience none of the adverse, occasionally lethal reactions we now know others suffered—yes, for you people I have a question. Was that joy?
I am especially interested to hear from anyone who happened to be in the Fabric club, near the old Smithfield meat market, on a night sometime in the year 1999 (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific) when the DJ mixed “Can I Kick It?” and then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the deep house track he had been seeming to play exclusively for the previous four hours. I myself was wandering out of the cavernous unisex (!) toilets wishing I could find my friend Sarah, or if not her, my friend Warren, or if not him, anyone who would take pity on a girl who had taken and was about to come up on ecstasy who had lost everyone and everything, including her handbag. I stumbled back into the fray.
Most of the men were topless, and most of the women, like me, wore strange aprons, fashionable at the time, that covered just the front of one’s torso, and only remained decent by means of a few weak-looking strings tied in dainty bows behind. I pushed through this crowd of sweaty bare backs, despairing, wondering where in a super club one might bed down for the night (the stairs? the fire exit?). But everything I tried to look at quickly shattered and arranged itself in a series of patterned fragments, as if I were living in a kaleidoscope. Where was I trying to get to anyway? There was no longer any “bar” or “chill-out zone”—there was only dance floor. All was dance floor. Everybody danced. I stood still, oppressed on all sides by dancing, quite sure I was about to go out of my mind.
Then suddenly I could hear Q-Tip—blessed Q-Tip!—not a synthesizer, not a vocoder, but Q-Tip, with his human voice, rapping over a human beat. And the top of my skull opened to let human Q-Tip in, and a rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over: You feeling it? I was. My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that “Can I Kick It?” should happen to be playing at this precise moment in the history of the world, and was now morphing into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I took the man’s hand. The top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.
Years later, while listening to a song called “Weak Become Heroes” by the British artist The Streets I found this experience almost perfectly recreated in rhyme, and realized that just as most American children alive in 1969 saw the moon landings, nearly every Briton between sixteen and thirty in the 1990s met some version of the skinny pill head I came across that night in Fabric. The name The Streets gives him is “European Bob.” I suspect he is an archetypal figure of my generation. The character “Super Hans” in the British TV comedy Peep Show is another example of the breed, though it might be more accurate to say Super Hans is European Bob in “old” age (forty). I don’t remember the name of my particular pill head, but will call him “Smiley.” He was one of these strangers you met exclusively on dance floors, or else on a beach in Ibiza. They tended to have inexplicable nicknames, no home or family you could ever identify, a limitless capacity for drug-taking, and a universal feeling of goodwill toward all men and women, no matter their color, creed, or state of inebriation.
Their most endearing quality was their generosity. For the length of one night Smiley would do anything at all for you. Find you a cab, walk miles through the early morning streets looking for food, hold your hair as you threw up, and listen to you complain at great length about your parents and friends—agreeing with all your grievances—though every soul involved in these disputes was completely unknown to him. Contrary to your initial suspicions Smiley did not want to sleep with you, rob you, or con you in any way. It was simply intensely important to him that you had a good time, tonight, with him. “How you feeling?” was Smiley’s perennial question. “You feeling it yet? I’m feeling it. You feeling it yet?” And that you should feel it seemed almost more important to him than that he should.
Was that joy? Probably not. But it mimicked joy’s conditions pretty well. It included, in minor form, the great struggle that tends to precede joy, and the feeling—once one is “in” joy—that the experiencing subject has somehow “entered” the emotion, and disappeared. I “have” pleasure, it is a feeling I want to experience and own. A beach holiday is a pleasure. A new dress is a pleasure. But on that dance floor I was joy, or some small piece of joy, with all these other hundreds of people who were also a part of joy.
The Smileys, in their way, must have recognized the vital difference; it would explain their great concern with other people’s experience. For as long as that high lasted, they seemed to pass beyond their own egos. And it might really have been joy if the next morning didn’t always arrive. I don’t just mean the deathly headache, the blurred vision, and the stomach cramps. What really destroyed the possibility that this had been joy was the replaying in one’s mind of the actual events of the previous night, and the brutal recognition that every moment of sublimity—every conversation that had seemed to touch upon the meaning of life, every tune that had appeared a masterwork—had no substance whatsoever now, here, in the harsh light of the morning. The final indignity came when you dragged yourself finally from your bed and went into the living room. There, on your mother’s sofa—in the place of that jester spirit-animal savior person you thought you’d met last night—someone had left a crushingly boring skinny pill head, already smoking a joint, who wanted to borrow twenty quid for a cab.
It wasn’t all a waste of time though. At the neural level, such experiences gave you a clue about what joy not-under-the-influence would feel like. Helped you learn to recognize joy, when it arrived. I suppose a neuroscientist could explain in very clear terms why the moment after giving birth can feel ecstatic, or swimming in a Welsh mountain lake with somebody dear to you. Perhaps the same synapses that ecstasy falsely twanged are twanged authentically by fresh water, certain epidurals, and oxytocin. And if, while sitting on a high hill in the South of France, someone who has access to a phone comes dashing up the slope to inform you that two years of tension, tedious study, and academic anxiety have not been in vain—perhaps again these same synapses or whatever they are do their happy dance.
We certainly don’t need to be neuroscientists to know that wild romantic crushes—especially if they are fraught with danger—do something ecstatic to our brains, though like the pills that share the name, horror and disappointment are usually not far behind. When my wild crush came, we wandered around a museum for so long it closed without us noticing; stuck in the grounds we climbed a high wall and, finding it higher on its other side, considered our options: broken ankles or a long night sleeping on a stone lion. In the end a passerby helped us down, and things turned prosaic and, after a few months, fizzled out. What looked like love had just been teen spirit. But what a wonderful thing, to sit on a high wall, dizzy with joy, and think nothing of breaking your ankles.
Real love came much later. It lay at the end of a long and arduous road, and up to the very last moment I had been convinced it wouldn’t happen. I was so surprised by its arrival, so unprepared, that on the day it arrived I had already arranged for us to visit the Holocaust museum at Auschwitz. You were holding my feet on the train to the bus that would take us there. We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy. But it’s no good thinking about or discussing it. It has no place next to the furious argument about who cleaned the house or picked up the child. It is irrelevant when sitting peacefully, watching an old movie, or doing an impression of two old ladies in a shop, or as I eat a popsicle while you scowl at me, or when working on different floors of the library. It doesn’t fit with the everyday. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?
A final thought: sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.
The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.
Pretty much everything I’m doing now falls under the broad umbrella that I’d call collective intelligence. What does collective intelligence mean? It’s important to realize that intelligence is not just something that happens inside individual brains. It also arises with groups of individuals. In fact, I’d define collective intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. By that definition, of course, collective intelligence has been around for a very long time. Families, companies, countries, and armies: those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent.
It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence. Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity. But in whatever form, either intelligence or stupidity, this collective behavior has existed for a long time.
What’s new, though, is a new kind of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. Think of Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create web pages, and link those web pages to each other. Then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google technology so that when you type a question in the Google search bar the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent, at least by some definition of the word “intelligence.”
Or think of Wikipedia, where thousands of people all over the world have collectively created a very large and amazingly high quality intellectual product with almost no centralized control. And by the way, without even being paid. I think these examples of things like Google and Wikipedia are not the end of the story. I think they’re just barely the beginning of the story. We’re likely to see lots more examples of Internet-enabled collective intelligence—and other kinds of collective intelligence as well—over the coming decades.
If we want to predict what’s going to happen, especially if we want to be able to take advantage of what’s going to happen, we need to understand those possibilities at a much deeper level than we do so far. That’s really our goal in the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which I direct. In fact, one way we frame our core research question there is: How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any person, group or computer has ever done before? If you take that question seriously, the answers you get are often very different from the kinds of organizations and groups we know today.
We do take the question seriously, and we are doing a bunch of things related to that question. The first is just trying to map the different kinds of collective intelligence, the new kinds of collective intelligence that are happening all around us in the world today. One of the projects we’ve done we call “mapping the genomes of collective intelligence”. We’ve collected over 200 examples of interesting cases of collective intelligence … things like Google, Wikipedia, InnoCentive, the community that developed the Linux open source operating system, et cetera.
Then we looked for the design patterns that come up over and over in those different examples. Using the biological analogy, we call these design patterns “genes,” but if you don’t like the analogy or the metaphor, you can just use the word “design patterns.” We’ve identified so far about 19 of these design patterns—or genes—that occur over and over in these different examples.
In fact, even though there are other meanings of the word intelligence in English, a very important element or nuance of the word “intelligence” in English is just that it’s somebody who’s good at a lot of mental things, somebody who is good at learning quickly, at adapting to new situations, at doing a bunch of things.
The most intelligent person is not the one who’s best at doing any specific task, but it’s the one who’s best at picking up new things quickly. That’s essentially the definition we used for defining intelligence at the level of groups as well. We said that a group is intelligent if it’s able to perform well on a wide range of different tasks. It was actually performance that we were looking at.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.
When the consumer Web exploded in the mid-1990s, part of the promise was that it would transform careers and the concept of work. Remember the signs on telephone poles and banners all over the Internet? “Work at home and turn your computer into a cash register! Ask me how.” The next generation of Americans would be able to work on their own terms.
It didn’t turn out that way. If anything, digital technology has overwhelmed those who sought to master it. The Web may be a technological marvel, but to most people who use it for work, it functions like an old-fashioned hamster wheel, except at Internet speed.
Brian Lam was both a prince and a casualty of that realm. After interning at Wired, he became the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker Media’s gadget blog. A trained Thai boxer, he focused his aggression on cranking out enough copy to increase the site’s traffic, to a peak of 180 million page views from 13 million in the five years he was there.
He and his writers broke news, sent shrapnel into many subject areas with provocative, opinionated copy and was part of the notorious pilfered iPhone 4 story that had law enforcement officials breaking down doors on Apple’s behalf. I saw Mr. Lam on occasional trips to San Francisco, and he crackled with jumpy digital energy.
And then, he burned out at age 34. He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn’t live like robots.”
So he quit Gizmodo, and though he had several lucrative offers, he decided to do exactly nothing. He sold his car, rented out his house, took time to mull things over and eventually moved to Hawaii because he loves surfing.
This is the point in the story where we generally find out that the techie is now a wood carver, or an oboe player.
But leopards don’t change their spots, and they certainly don’t turn into unicorns. An accomplished technologist and writer, Mr. Lam worked to come up with a business that he could command instead of the other way around.
The problem is that these days, ad-supported media business models all depend on scale, because rates go lower every day. Success in Web media generally requires constant posting to build a big audience. Mr. Lam knew where that led.
With friends — including Brian X. Chen, who now works at The New York Times — he came up with his own version of a gadget site. But instead of chasing down every tidbit of tech news, he built The Wirecutter, a recommendation site that posts six to 12 updates a month — not a day — and began publishing in partnership with The Awl, a federation of blogs founded by two other veterans of Gawker Media, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.
While there are many technology sites that evaluate and compare products, usually burying their assessments in a tsunami of other posts, Mr. Lam and his staff of freelancers decided to rely on deep examinations of specific product categories.
Using expert opinions, aggregated reviews and personal research, they recommend a single product in each category. There are no complicated rankings or deep analytics on the entire category. If you want new earphones or a robot vacuum, The Wirecutter will recommend The One and leave it at that.
“I was tired of doing posts that were obsolete three hours after I wrote them,” Mr. Lam said. “I wanted evergreen content that didn’t have to be updated constantly in order to hunt traffic. I wanted to publish things that were useful.”
He bootstrapped the site, spurning outside investment. “If you take the money, you have to pony up in terms of scale, and I don’t want to do that,” he said.
The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.
But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses.
“Brian’s insight is that in a world of loudest and fastest, he has turned it down, doing it slow and doing it right,” Mr. Sicha said. “And by being consumer facing, he doesn’t have to have monster numbers. The people come ready to buy.”
In fact, 10 to 20 percent of its visitors click on links, a rate that would make ad sellers drool. Mr. Lam hardly invented the model. The Web is full of mom-and-pop shops that live on referral fees for things like pet supplies and camping gear. Many companies also pay for referrals — eBay, Half.com, even retailers like Gap and Old Navy. A business that used to be mired in spam is becoming far more legitimate.
For small businesses like Wirecutter, it’s risky to rely so much on a single company, but Amazon seems disinclined to mess with its very successful model.
“We have been working hard to give publishers of all sizes the tools to work with Amazon,” said Steve Shure, Amazon’s vice president for worldwide marketing.
But it’s not just the little guys. Hearst’s Good Housekeeping has commerce links to Amazon, and Gawker Media, Mr. Lam’s old employer, is building affiliate revenue and other nonadvertising revenue into a seven-figure business by next year. In a sense, it’s back to the future, the days of the Whole Earth Catalog and its compendium of splendid things. Kevin Kelly, its former editor and publisher and now “senior maverick” at Wired, has a site called Cool Tools that will be observing its 10th anniversary.
“Affiliate income is six times as much as advertising by now,” Mr. Kelly said in a phone call, describing the revenue at Cool Tools. “Part of what is attractive about our site and Brian’s is that it is a distillation, a trusted friend. You don’t find out everything, just what you need to know.”
Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.
“I don’t want to get too hippie about it, but surf is bad when it comes in lots of messy waves,” he said. “Our traffic is spaced out in manageable ways that we will grow over time. And even if it doesn’t, that’s fine by me.”
A high school job wasn’t supposed to be a career. But for Nori Takatani, his first job in America turned out to be his lifelong devotion.
“It wasn’t what I wanted to do,” remembers Takatani, the owner of Anzen Hardware in Little Tokyo. “I liked to be outside for sports — I was in track, I was in varsity football.” But when he stepped inside the store in September 1954 soon after arriving in Los Angeles, he was in it for the long haul. “I’ve worked here ever since,” Takatani says.
These days Takatani can be found keeping shop at Anzen, located on East First Street in the Little Tokyo Historic District. Filled with everything from plastic kitchen gadgets to delicate bonsai scissors, the store is difficult to categorize, despite its designation as a hardware store. The longevity of the business owes much to Takatani’s singular work ethics — never one to rely on others, he’s carved a path mostly on his own. “When customers come, I believe the quality of my service will become advertisement — that’s my style,” he says. “They appreciate my experience and knowledge; I enjoy serving the customers.”
Perhaps those were life values he learned as a child in Hiroshima. He was a survivor — he had lived through the atomic bomb, and later lost his mother at a young age. “So my aunt — she raised me,” Takatani says. “She lost her husband from the bomb… I was a lucky one, I survived.”
Takatani came to the United States partly to relieve his aunt from financial burden, partly to escape the rigors of a Japanese education.
“My uncle lived in Morgan Hills, near San Jose, where he was doing strawberry farming,” Takatani remembers. “So I wrote a letter saying that I’d like to come to the U.S. as a student. I don’t know if I was lucky or unlucky, but I got a student visa. That’s the main reason [I came to the U.S.] — I didn’t want my aunt to suffer financially. Besides, I didn’t like to study that much.”
Tabi socks are traditional Japanese footwear with a split toe
It wasn’t easy sailing for a Japanese student arriving in America, still fresh from the effects of WWII. “Maybe I shouldn’t say, but right after the war I hated Americans,” Takatani says, remembering that even as a young boy it angered him to see American Occupation troops arrogantly walking around town, with Japanese girlfriends in their arms.
He came close to returning home without ever setting foot in America. At the time immigration officers weren’t exactly the most welcoming to the Japanese. “They asked me,” he remembers, “are you a communist? No. Are you against the U.S. because of the bomb? No. I think I told them, in a certain way I appreciate that they dropped the bomb because it quit the war sooner.”
The interrogation continued for more than 2.5 hours. “I almost said, ‘send me back,’” Takatani remembers, “but if I did that I’d have felt so ashamed — my friends already said good luck, and sent me off. So I had to gamanshite…”
Soon after arriving at his uncle’s farm in San Jose, Takatani entered the local high school. He quit after one class — an English class. For a student who barely understood the language, things didn’t exactly go his way. After a stint as farmhand for the summer season, he headed for Los Angeles to attend classes.
At Belmont High School near Echo Park, he entered a special program for non-English speakers. It wasn’t long before he found a home away from home in Little Tokyo, where he soon took the job that would become a six-decade career.
Anzen carries a selection of high end Japanese chef’s knives
Inside Anzen Hardware, once you get past the clutter of the shop’s narrow aisles filled with ordinary supplies, you begin to notice things. Hand-crafted bonsai scissors, traditional tabi work socks. Many of the products are imported from Japan. In fact, Anzen currently has one of the best selections of Japanese chef’s knives in the region. “We have things that only we carry,” Takatani says. “We get customers from even out of state.”
Amid the cacophony of colorful tools and supplies, the 74 year-old Takatani can usually be seen standing behind the counter, where a pair of vintage boxing gloves hangs. With a weathered face that resembles Takeshi Kitano in a number of Japanese tough-guy films, it’s easy to sense that there’s more to him than just a gentle hardware store owner.
“I love fights,” he says with a smile. “There was a famous gym called Main Street Gym, between Third and Fourth — I used to go there to watch the boxers. I was always outside the ring, I didn’t fight myself. I had friends in Japan who were into boxing — ones from Hiroshima. They would come to America wanting to do a match. So I wanted to help and arrange them. That’s how I started, and then went too far, too deep.”
What began as a favor turned into a winning side-career as a manager. Takatani says, proudly, “I’ve been lucky when it comes to boxing. Three of the boxers I’ve managed have become world champions.”
Takatani shows a gourd on which he carved a lid in the shape of the U.S.
Nori Takatani is one of the elder statesmen of the community. For the older residents, Anzen is a place of familiarity and comfort, with the reliable presence of Takatani. “Many of the elders, they can go to Home Depot now,” he says, “but even if they did they wouldn’t be able to find a single washer, for instance, having to ask in English, ‘where can I find this washer?’ For that reason, we have to keep the business for those people, for the community.”
But instead of taking an active role in the community, he prefers to take a step back and offer help from outside the ring, so to speak, as the community fights to retain its legacy while it continues to evolve. He brings up the word meiyoshoku — which roughly translates to “honorary title” — to describe what community organizing precisely should not be.
“It shouldn’t be about wanting to attain meiyoshoku,” says Takatani, “but about getting everyone on board and making things better.”
So why doesn’t he do it himself? “I’ve never been one who wants to be at the top,” he says. “I prefer to give support from the bottom. So if by luck there’s someone at the top doing a great job, I will always be there supporting them with all of my strengths.”
Takatani continues, “When we were all poor and could only speak Japanese, we started a baseball team. It’s still around — it’s called the L.A. Pirates. Our team was the only one started by people from Japan. Now we’ve all become old and can’t play anymore. But little by little we donate money to the team, and now our grand kids are playing in the same team. That’s the kind of work I like to do”
His five children have showed no interest in taking over their father’s business. How does Takatani feel about this? “I’m ok with it… If they decide they want to do it, by all means. I just don’t want to have to keep the Anzen name going by selling the business; I’d rather donate it to the community.”
But he shouldn’t have to worry, as Takatani isn’t ready to quit anytime soon — he’s in it for the long haul. “As long as I’m in nihonjinmachi (Japantown) I’d like to do my best for nihonjinmachi,” he says. “And as long as I’m healthy, I’ll be here at Anzen.”
By GARY SHTEYNGART NY Times Published: September 29, 2012
You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor. Like the country whose name graces the hulls of your flying ships, you are exhausted and shorn of purpose. You need to stop.
Flight 121 from Paris to New York began on a clear autumn afternoon. It ended over 30 hours later. For those of us without miles, it is probably still going.
The initial delay was a mere hour or two. Some were told that our aircraft possessed faulty tires and brakes. Others were told that the crew could not find their way in from Paris. Neither scenario was particularly encouraging.
The aircraft was indeed an interesting one. One of the overhead baggage compartments was held together with masking tape. Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working. Some of us were worried for our safety, but your employees mostly shrugged as if to say, Ah, there goes that altimeter again.
And so you took us to Merrie England for a spell.
At Heathrow, fire trucks met us because we landed “heavy,” i.e., still full of fuel we never got to spend over the Atlantic. At the terminal, a woman in a spiffy red American Airlines blazer was sent to greet us. But the language she spoke — Martian — was not easily understood, versed as we were in Spanish, English, Russian and Urdu.
Using her Martian language skills, the American Airlines woman proposed to take us “through the border” at Heathrow, for a night of rest before we resumed our journey the next morning. An apocalyptic scenario: an employee of the world’s worst airline assigned to the world’s worst border crossing at the world’s worst airport.
The Martian took us to one immigration lane, which promptly closed. Then another, with the same result. A third, ditto. Despite her blazer, the Martian was obviously not the ally we had made her out to be. So, ducking under security ropes, knocking some down entirely, we rushed the border with our passports held aloft, proclaiming ourselves the citizens of a fading superpower.
Come morning, you, American Airlines, provided us with a free, daylong tour of Heathrow Airport. By bus. The bus brought us to our new plane, but the doors of the bus would not open. We stood, pressed to one another, in sweltering heat, as the plane was sprayed down for no reason we could discern. It would have been nice, in retrospect, had you sprayed us down, or at least given us something to drink. After an hour, we were told this flight would be canceled because this plane, too, had caught ill. Back to the terminal once more.
It became clear that the older and more feeble of us would be at a disadvantage. A 70-year-old cannot rush past 140 gates to check in for yet another canceled flight with the same brio as a 20-year-old. Some of us started to cry. Not because the journey was never ending, but because you can be told that you are not a human being only so many times.
And then you stopped telling us. The American Airlines representatives we were promised failed to materialize. One passenger told us this was all part of the union’s strategy to destroy the airline. All I know is that with each encounter, I steadily began to feel that your employees were prisoners just like us, armed only with their little walkie-talkies from which issued tinny instructions, lost communiqués from some distant Oz.
“This used to be a great airline,” one old-timer said as we were sweltering to death on the bus. I know you were. And I know you are not alone in failure. An American diplomat based in Moscow tells me he prefers flying Aeroflot to Delta. But Delta is a futuristic paradise of working altimeters and braking brakes when compared with you, dear American Airlines. So what can you do? Empires rise and empires fall. A metaphor you may need to consider closely.