Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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Personal Development

How to Plan for a Change

Planning is an inexact art. Anyone who says different is delusional or a liar.

What this means, practically, is that a plan that makes no allowances for slippage, screw-ups, and unexpected setbacks is bound to fail. A plan that doesn’t account for possible causes of failure damns itself to being, at the very best, inexact.

Continue reading

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big ideas

On the Banality of Profound Truths

If there was one obstacle, beyond laziness, that made me hesitate to get back to writing in more than the few-sentence bursts I regularly produce for Link Banana it was my uncertainty about what of value I could say.

It’s not that I don’t think people need to hear things I think that I know–while there may be merit in possessing that type of modesty, I do not–it’s that they’ve already heard those things I think they most need to hear.

Things about how money doesn’t buy happiness. That understanding is rooted in attention. That the greatest obstacle to your happiness is your waiting to be happy. That happiness is not the same as pleasure, or a lack of sadness. That ignoring the present situation is the worst way to change it. That you can always find something to be thankful for. That anger is never the best way to solve a problem. That an act of kindness is never squandered.

These statements–and many others I didn’t list–are all, at least to my ears, the most obvious of truths. There are hundreds of famous quotations that attest to all of them. Anyone unacquainted with those quotations probably wouldn’t be reading anything I said anyway.

These short and obvious cliches are exactly what conventional wisdom says a writer should avoid.  But anything that takes more than a sentence to express seems overstated to me. While a sentence can’t explain the political climate of Somalia, or what spin means with relation to the bonding of atoms, or how the crash of the US stock market in 1929 was influenced by Germany, none of those things hit you where you live. Between your insides and your outsides none of those things matter.

The only things that really affect your quality of life exist within a radius about the length of your arms from your body. Everything outside of that radius is not acting on you in any direct way, and is thus irrelevant to your true quality of life.

I think that if there’s a single reason that the facts I consider most essential are simple, it’s this: not that much exists between your mind and fingertips. And even the most teeming of minds doesn’t contain much more than twenty thoughts at a time. And chatter among twenty idea’s can only get so complex.

People searching the edges of human knowledge are unlikely find anything there that will, or should, fundamentally affect their life as it’s lived daily. The confirmation of string theory says absolutely nothing to that longing you feel lying alone in your bed for the first time in years. A better understanding of the relationship between modern man and neanderthals, or market demand and labor supply, will not correct your dysfunctional relationship with everyone in your family. The existence or nonexistence of God changes nothing about your difficulty controlling your drinking.

But a single new idea, if it’s strong, simple, and powerful enough, added to the constant mental chatter can fundamentally change the timbre of the conversation in your mind. And that constant chattering is the very substance of your disposition, your life, and your reality. It is you, more than anything else anyone thinks they know about you. And you’re the one I’m interested in.

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ruminations

Habits Matter

It has been more than a month since I posted here. And before a short streak of three relatively-consecutive posts, it had been nearly a month before that.

I say this not to apologize–it’s been far too long for that to be anything but hollow–but to demonstrate my point.

Around the start of June of this year, I broke the habit that had kept me filling words into this space on a regular basis. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which was a loss of time, ideas, and the feeling that it was necessary to write five times a week, Monday through Friday.

Breaking that habit–that constant pattern that didn’t let me escape without feeling guilty about how I wasn’t keeping to the plan–meant that I was free to interact with this space as I liked until such a time as I reestablished a habit of writing with a certain pattern of regularity. This certainly was a freeing act, but it’s also one that makes you suddenly look down and wonder what happened to your former prolific self.

I type this in a state of awe that I was ever able to write so much of, if not top quality stuff, at least six to eight paragraphs a day that I wasn’t embarrassed by. It seems like a stranger has replaced that prolific writer. Or perhaps that that prolific person was himself a stranger.

I don’t have a stirring conclusion, and my purpose isn’t to tell you to exercise three times a week so that you’ll have good health for far more years than you otherwise would. Though I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage you from physical fitness, I’m not in the business of telling people how to live their lives. But I’d guess that someone who is in that business is now trying desperately to convince a roomful of people of this fact that I’ve now learned on my own, through a series of months: Habits matter.

That’s not meant to judge habits. Some habits–lying regularly and recklessly, acting violently toward others–are galling. Some are undoubtedly bad, but not nearly so ugly. Your habit of having a cookie with lunch may not be doing your waist much help, but it’s hardly as bad as many other habits. And maybe you’ve got some incredibly beneficial habits, like sleeping eight hours a night, exercising regularly, and eating well.

Nor do I wish to encourage dogmatic adherence to your useful habits. Even those can be unnecessarily limiting if you spend too long fearing the impact that breaking them will have.

I just want to write this down so that I never forget: Habits matter.

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ruminations

Consuming and Creating

In school, Sunday’s the day where you have to make up for the procrastinating you did all weekend. Out of school, Sunday’s only the day where you recognize that you’ve done nothing all weekend.

Surely this doesn’t hold true for everyone, but my weekends tend to naturally fill themselves with consumption of media. All the things I didn’t get to read, watch, or listen to during the week become the priority during a distraction-less weekend. As such, the whole weekend can easily be consumed by the act of consuming.

If Clay Shirkey’s assertions are to be believed–and I’m not saying they are–in previous decades all free time went to consuming. In the pre-radio age, it went mostly to consuming alcohol. In the television age, it went mostly to consuming sitcoms. But while Mr. Shirkey’s certainly right that television’s roles as the thing people do with down time is waning, consumption still plays a large part in modern existence.

Today one isn’t restricted to watching what’s on television or listening to what’s on the radio, or reading what’s on paper and in possession, but we still consume a great deal. There’s little doubt that young people watch less television than they used to. But they also have the ability to spend hours in front of YouTube, a different-but-similar dummy box.

The most interesting contention that Mr. Shirkey makes about the future is that we’ll be creating more and consuming less. It’s certainly a possible trend, but it’s doubtful that we’ll move from “all free time being devoted to TV” to “all free time being devoted to creating.” After all, one must consume things in order to create. Things created in a vacuum are usually uninteresting rehashes of painfully common ideas. (Something with which I’m intimately familiar…)

Surely one can go too far in consuming. A quick guesstimation says that of the 15 hours I was awake Sunday, 11 of them were devoted to the act of consuming media. Surely I learned a lot and laughed a lot but by the end I had a bad case of consumption fatigue.

It’s possible that the mythical people who used to constantly watch TV in their free time never had a bout of consumption fatigue, but you can count me a doubter.

They probably didn’t combat consumption fatigue by creating, but it’s possible that did combat it. Because creating was a harder task, people could spend more time doing tasks that were not explicitly either. Cooking from a recipe is both an act of consumption (of the recipe) and creation (or foodstuffs). So too is knitting, sewing, or drawing while watching television an intermediate between the two. Then of course there’s running, hiking, biking, walking, and playing, all of which are neither consuming nor creating by any traditional understanding of the words.

The fact is, we’re not moving from a world of consuming to one of creating. At best, we’re shifting the balance slightly. It’s easier to create and share things today than at any time in the past. Today anyone can write a blog, edit a wiki, create digital art, or mash-up two old things.

But everyone has experienced creation fatigue as “writer’s block.” Or procrastination. Or a general feeling that “it’s just not coming.” We’ll never be able to create infinitely without encountering these roadblock.

People, too, know consumption fatigue. Rarely do they identify it as such, but that general feeling of needing to get out of the house is one of many possible misdiagnoses of the problem. And I’d guess that it’s no more or less common today than it was in the past.

I don’t think the ratio of consuming and creating will change much in the future. Surely more will be publicly shared, but I’m not certain much more time will be spent on non-consuming behavior than has been in the past. And despite some bouts of consumption fatigue, I’m pretty sure I’m fine with that.

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metablogging, ruminations

Some Days

Some days I have nothing planned for this site and start to worry about it far too much. In worrying about it far too much, almost every idea I have feels forced. The ideas feels forced because (1) they are a little forced, and (2) this pointless stress tends to make me hyper-aware of any possible imperfection that can seep into what I’m doing. It’s not until a deadline finally appears to really be approaching quickly that I begin to accept anything that seems the least bit feasible.

Some days, yes today is one of those some days, I like to try odd devices that I wouldn’t usually use. Repetition is a favorite. I start consecutive paragraphs with the same word or sentence. In school, I learned that authors sometimes use this to emphasize a point. I just use it because it makes it easier to start the next paragraph.

Some days starting that next paragraph is the only thought in my head. Though the hardest “next paragraph” is usually the first one, it’s sometimes the third. You see, with the faintest spark of an idea the first paragraph is probably already written before one begins writing. There’s usually at least enough extra from the spark that launched the first paragraph to fill up a second. But by the third paragraph, if that idea really was just a faint spark, it’s likely that the idea’s dead.

Some days I push through that difficult third paragraph. If I can manage to make a third paragraph that feels alright, there’s a good chance that the next paragraphs will all come out all right and I’ll be able to sew the thing up into a nice enough package that I’m satisfied.

But some days that third paragraph doesn’t come. Some days the idea I had really was only a two-paragraph idea. In my time writing I’ve at least learned that a two-paragraph idea doesn’t get better if you try to make it look like an eight-paragraph idea. When teachers gave you back papers with a C or below, there’s a good chance it was because you tried to write your whole paper with a few-paragraph idea. Teachers have a keen eye for ideas stretched too far.

Some days I wonder what a teacher would give me for this. This short essay whose sole excuse for over-stretching an idea is that that idea is what the whole thing is built on. From the title down through every paragraph you clearly see an idea being stretched and stretched and stretched. I think that some teachers would think it’s clever, this stretched-out idea. Others would probably give it a D and a curt note about trying harder next time.

Some day I’ll win those teachers over. Perhaps with a device like I just used there. I broke the repetition. Maybe now that teacher who gave me a D would say, “Oh, he knows he’s stretched this idea very thin. A+.”

Then again, maybe not.

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ruminations

The First Draft

Syma Sees (AND)Cartwheel

Finding Forrester was one of those movies. The kind that I enjoy, but can easily see why so many others don’t. It’s the kind of movie light on logic or reality, and heavy on the emotion. And Sean Connery’s character is, well, odd.

However you or I feel about it, there’s one thing I do remember. Sean Connery’s character looking up from the typewriter and saying, “You know what the best feeling is? When you’ve finished your first draft…” He goes on to say that it’s reading the first draft that he likes. That leads me to think that whoever wrote that doesn’t write or at least doesn’t write like I do.

It’s not reading the first draft that’s “the best feeling,” it’s right after you’ve done it. After you’ve gotten all the thoughts out but haven’t gone back to determine if they’re all in order and said as well as they can be. The reality that your writing is flawed, which is what the first reading always unveils to me, is usually a time of disappointment.

The first draft–most of the time–is the easiest to write. If it’s a good topic–one about which I have something to say–it comes quickly and easily. And afterwards, there is a warm afterglow that might merit, well, a cartwheel.

After a first draft, at least one that comes easy, there’s a certain confidence. A self-assurance that comes from knowing that you said what you wanted to say exactly as you wanted to say it. Perhaps, later, you’ll realize that many of your phrases are awkward and that your message is a little muddy, but before you read it you’re not aware of that.

For now, all you know is that it’s done. That deed that at other times takes all the time and effort you’ve got has been completed. That weight that made you pick up the pen or keyboard in the first place is gone, and you have the opportunity to relish the new-found lightness.

But those are the good first drafts. The first drafts that come easy. There is another kind. And the other kind are, I would contend, the kind of first draft you shouldn’t be writing. The kind of first draft that takes studious effort and prodding and pulling and suffering. If the first draft doesn’t come easy, it shouldn’t come at all. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a deadline and no control over your topic.)

Perhaps I’m being unrealistically absolute. No, I am being unrealistically absolute. But after you finally write the first first draft that comes easy after fifty that come hard, you’ll know why I’m so willing to be unrealistically absolute.

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ruminations

Writing is Useful

This is the second part of a two-part argument that I seem to be constantly having with myself. The first half, Writing is Wasteful, was posted on Tuesday.

bookish in north park (CC)Shakespeare

The idea that all writings a copy of a copy of a copy is easy and convenient. And because of that, we should be especially careful about accepting it without careful thought.

Surely it’s easy to come to this conclusion. Try this: read five random pieces of coverage or commentary on the presidential campaign written in any 24 hour window. You’re more likely to win the lottery than to find that those five pieces are all innovative, useful, and distinct. This problem is only magnified if you try to watch more than thirty minutes of continuous campaign coverage on television.

But–and this is critical–the “conventional wisdom” which all those pieces are likely regurgitating probably came from some speck of innovative writing or commentary. It doesn’t randomly coalesce without someone conceiving of it, translating it in a form that can be shared (read: words), and then transmitting it to others. That is the crucial tool of writing and the crucial thing that your example seems to miss.

And the idea that others may have spoken more eloquently of something in the past by no means says that others are reading what they wrote. It’s hard to argue that Shakespeare–to the extent that such a man existed–wrote some of the best tragedies of all time. But there are only so many people who will read or watch a Shakespeare play. However, reimagined by a modern author in a modern setting, such stories can be–and are–understood by a far larger contingent of people.

Nor is this to say that the only modern writing worth doing are adaption of great works of the past. There is also some value in writing that correctly harnesses something about the times in which we live. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s great historical value in such works.

But they’re also useful for their time. Good writing can be an incredibly useful–if not the only–way to spread valuable ideas about the state of the world. Abraham Lincoln famously called Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the book that started this great war.” Writing has undeniable transformative power, and though not all of it can start wars, all of it can have at least some impact.

All of this is essentially to say that writing is important and useful to the extent that it resonates with others and allows for better understanding of the past, present, and future. Surely there’s value in writing well for a small audience, even if you don’t see it at the time.

It’s easy to get down when you toil without external reward or recognition, but that’s no reason to drag the whole act in which you’re participating down into the mud.

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personal, ruminations

Writing is Wasteful

This is the first part of a two-part argument that I seem to be constantly having with myself. The second half, Writing is Useful, will be posted on Thursday.

D’arcy NormanLandfill

If this site exists for one reason, its for me to write. If it exist for a second reason, it’s so I’ll be listened to. If it exists for a third reason if so I can make a few dollars. If it exists for a fourth reason it’s so that’ll I’ll eventually get to appear on a late night talk show. If it–it’s clear we’ve hit the point of diminishing return on this game, let’s move on.

I have a sometimes-tenuous relationship with this blog. Once I was convinced it would help me change the world. Once I decided that it proved I was an egomaniac. Once I decided that I could do whatever I wanted with it. Once I decided that it was the magazine I’ve always looked for but never found.

Those are just the opinions about it I remember having. I don’t doubt there are more, though they probably either weren’t expressed here, or weren’t expressed very clearly.

But if the variety of the ways I’ve looked at this blog prove nothing else, they make a point of this: I’m wasting words all over this blog. I’ve regularly disagreed with myself–see these divergent thoughts on ignorance for example. What I’m doing, in short, is wasting words and adding to the noise. And we all know how I feel about noise.

My hypocrisy proves this essential point: my writing is wasteful. Even more, writing done in most places for most reasons is wasteful. People elsewhere have said it better, more eloquently, with a larger vocabulary, or greater modesty. There is, in short, no point in your writing anything.

For a less personal example, consider all the strained remakes that Hollywood has made in recent years. Few were memorable, except as reminders of how good some old movies are. In their averageness, these remakes made the most widely-watched case for a complete moratorium on writing by anyone but journalists–who must be allowed the privilege to convey novel events from around the world.

And consider the soon-to-be-forgotten strike by the Writer’s Guild of America. Though doom and gloom seemed to be the picture that emerged when the strike began, the rather quiet resolution proves how little the scribes were actually missed. The late-night comedians proved that not having writers doesn’t make what they’re doing much better or worse.

The simple fact is, with all that you’re thinking of writing, going to write, or would like to writ, someone somewhere has said it better, thought it better, or written it better. Your words do little more than take up space on hard drives across the internet. Few read them, and even fewer would notice their absence. There’s no sense in writing anything.

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fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.

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