OPW

OPW: “Our Actions Create Our World”

I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve been thinking about bringing it back. OPW stands for “Other People’s Words,” and since I moth-balled Link Banana I’ve been sharing most things I would have previously put there on Twitter. But this mini graduation/commencement/life speech from Hank Green, in the form of a YouTube video, was good enough I wanted to put it somewhere a bit more permanent.

Partial transcript:

Hello, future dead person! I have an uncomfortable truth for you: you are very likely, one of the luckiest and most powerful people who has ever existed on this planet.

Now you almost certainly do not feel powerful. It’s difficult to feel powerful unless you suddenly have more power than you once had or have much more power than the people around.

So, you don’t feel that power all the time. And it’s probably good that you don’t, because it might be crippling. But in terms of absolute, not relative, power you are basically a god. You can hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of your hand. If you’ve ever taken a hot shower on a cold day, you have experienced a luxury that the vast majority of humankind could never even dream of. …

There is one thing that I can definitely say about the world as it exists right now: we are, at this moment, both creating and solving problems faster than we ever have before. So your job—the only thing anyone can ask of you as a human—is to solve more problems than you create. Also, take care of yourself and and have a good time, ideally. But you are very powerful, and you can make your world and yourself better. So, do that.

… I also live in a world that was created by the actions of people. … Our culture is just the collective actions and decisions of people.

And that culture is, at this point, the single most important factor in the health and sustainability our species. And we all get to collectively decide what that culture is.

Now, it might feel like we have no control of this. That we’re at the whims of what has come before. That we’re destined to end up in a cut-throat world of ever-increasing inequality. But not if we decide to not live in that world. Not if we choose compassion.

We collectively decide what world we’re going to live in by being that world. That’s the real power you have. It’s not your job, and it’s not your bank account.  It’s a power that every human has. Every human ever has had. And it has nothing to do with immortality or fame. And yet, I think that it might be the most important thing that every person does.

The reason we educate ourselves and improve ourselves is so that we can be more effective at making these positive changes. At creating more solutions then problems. Because in the end, your actions are what build our world. So don’t take that for granted.

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OPW

OPW: “Testimony” by Rebecca Baggett

I want to tell you that the world
is still beautiful.
I tell you that despite
children raped on city streets,
shot down in school rooms,
despite the slow poisons seeping
from old and hidden sins
into our air, soil, water,
despite the thinning film
that encloses our aching world.
Despite my own terror and despair.

I want you to know that spring
is no small thing, that
the tender grasses curling
like a baby’s fine hairs around
your fingers are a recurring
miracle. I want to tell you
that the river rocks shine
like God, that the crisp
voices of the orange and gold
October leaves are laughing at death,

I want to remind you to look
beneath the grass, to note
the fragile hieroglyphs
of ant, snail, beetle. I want
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse, the ruby-
throated hummingbird, the humpback
whale, the profligate mimosa.
I want to say, like Neruda,
that I am waiting for
“a great and common tenderness”,
that I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.

(via Mary Grace Orr)

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OPW

OPW: Charter for Compassion

I’ve recently decided that I’m gonna play it a little looser around here, which means I can bring back an old feature: Other People’s Words.

The document doesn’t list an author, but it’s pretty deeply related to everything I’ve been trying to say when I’ve used the Life category in the last year. Built from Karen Armstrong’s wish at TED in 2008, I just learned about this document a few months ago when someone posted on reddit that you’d never believe what video was at the URL balls.com (that site has changed since then, but I swear this was there).

Anyway, I can’t find a word misplaced in this document (though the formatting is creative), nor one I don’t agree with. The Charter for Compassion states:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

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OPW

OPW: Anthony Bourdain on Sunsets

I meant to post this last week, but better late then never. In response to my last post and eric’s comment, I had to share this short snippet from a 2006 interview of Anthony Bourdain:

…you’re standing alone in the desert, and you see the most incredible sunset you’ve ever seen and your first instinct is to turn to your left or right and say, “Wow, do you see that?” Okay, there’s no one there, what do you do? Next, where’s the camera? Look through the viewfinder and you realize, you know, what you see through that little box is not what you’re experiencing. There comes this terrible moment when you realize well, this is for me. There is no sharing this.

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OPW, poetry

OPW: “The Summer Day”

This poem by Mary Oliver has a few lines I quite like:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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OPW

OPW: “Man Writes Poem”

I like this one by Jay Leeming, not least of all because it reminds me of something I wrote.

This just in a man has begun writing a poem
in a small room in Brooklyn. His curtains
are apparently blowing in the breeze. We go now
to our man Harry on the scene, what’s

the story down there Harry? “Well Chuck
he has begun the second stanza and seems
to be doing fine, he’s using a blue pen, most
poets these days use blue or black ink so blue

is a fine choice. His curtains are indeed blowing
in a breeze of some kind and what’s more his radiator
is ‘whistling’ somewhat. No metaphors have been written yet,
but I’m sure he’s rummaging around down there

in the tin cans of his soul and will turn up something
for us soon. Hang on—just breaking news here Chuck,
there are ‘birds singing’ outside his window, and a car
with a bad muffler has just gone by. Yes … definitely

a confirmation on the singing birds.” Excuse me Harry
but the poem seems to be taking on a very auditory quality
at this point wouldn’t you say? “Yes Chuck, you’re right,
but after years of experience I would hesitate to predict

exactly where this poem is going to go. Why I remember
being on the scene with Frost in ’47, and with Stevens in ’53,
and if there’s one thing about poems these days it’s that
hang on, something’s happening here, he’s just compared the curtains

to his mother, and he’s described the radiator as ‘Roaring deep
with the red walrus of History.’ Now that’s a key line,
especially appearing here, somewhat late in the poem,
when all of the similes are about to go home. In fact he seems

a bit knocked out with the effort of writing that line,
and who wouldn’t be? Looks like … yes, he’s put down his pen
and has gone to brush his teeth. Back to you Chuck.” Well
thanks Harry. Wow, the life of the artist. That’s it for now,

but we’ll keep you informed of more details as they arise.

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OPW

OPW: Stephen Colbert’s Knox Commencement

Since it’s that time of year, and I wanted to avoid another day like this, some word’s from Stephen Colbert’s 2006 Address to the graduates of Knox College.

But you seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers—unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at least you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

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OPW

OPW: Harry Chapin on Tiredness

I recently stumbled upon a spoken track by the folk singer Harry Chapin called “My Grandfather,” and was pleasantly surprised by how much it resonated.

My grandfather was a painter. He died at age 88. He illustrated Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry. And he was looking at me and he said, “Harry, there’s two kinds of tired. There’s good tired and there’s bad tired.”

He said, “Ironically enough, bad tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other people’s agendas, other people’s dreams, and when it’s all over there was very little you in there. And when you hit the hay at night somehow you toss and turn, you don’t settle easy.”

He said, “Good tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you won’t even have to tell yourself, because you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days. And when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy. You sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say, ‘Take me away.'”

He said, “Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to be a painter and I’ve painted. God, I would have loved to have been more successful, but I’ve painted, and I’ve painted, and I am good tired, and they can take me away.”

Now if there is a process in your and my lives, in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife, and God (I hope there is a God–if He does exist, He’s got a rather weird sense of humor…), but let’s just…

But if there is a process that will allow us to live our days, that will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black implacable wall of death to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in!

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OPW, poetry

OPW: Assignment #1

Today’s Other People’s Words was selected mostly because I’m a sucker for clever titles. It’s not that I don’t like Philip Burnham’s poem, it’s that I wouldn’t have payed attention if not for that title.

Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God

And on the ninth day, God
In His infinite playfulness
Grass green grass, sky blue sky,
Separated the infield from the outfield,
Formed a skin of clay,
Assigned bases of safety
On cardinal points of the compass
Circling the mountain of deliverance,
Fashioned a wandering moon
From a horse, a string and a gum tree,
Tempered weapons of ash,
Made gloves from the golden skin of sacrificial bulls,
Set stars alight in the Milky Way,
Divided the descendants of Cain and Abel into contenders,
Declared time out, time in,        stepped back,
And thundered over all of creation:
                                       “Play ball!”

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OPW

OPW: Reallocating Social Surplus

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, has some very interesting ideas about how the internet’s changing society and why. So on today’s “Other People’s Words,” a selection from a recent speech he gave on the topic. Video of the speech is available, as is the full transcript.

He begins by describing the role gin played in allowing the industrial revolution, and the role sitcoms played from about 1950 onward in keeping people with new-found free time busy.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we’re still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity.

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you’re going. That’s the phase we’re in now.

Just to pick one example, one I’m in love with, but it’s tiny. A couple of weeks one of my students at ITP forwarded me a a project started by a professor in Brazil, in Fortaleza, named Vasco Furtado. It’s a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there’s an assault, if there’s a burglary, if there’s a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring.

Now, this already exists as tacit information. Anybody who knows a town has some sense of, “Don’t go there. That street corner is dangerous. Don’t go in this neighborhood. Be careful there after dark.” But it’s something society knows without society really knowing it, which is to say there’s no public source where you can take advantage of it. And the cops, if they have that information, they’re certainly not sharing. In fact, one of the things Furtado says in starting the Wiki crime map was, “This information may or may not exist some place in society, but it’s actually easier for me to try to rebuild it from scratch than to try and get it from the authorities who might have it now.”

Maybe this will succeed or maybe it will fail. The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don’t pan out. But the ones that do are quite incredible, and I hope that this one succeeds, obviously. But even if it doesn’t, it’s illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn’t have imagined existing even five years ago.

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