Handwriting a Dying Art, Let’s Kill Truth Too

Purveyor of beauty Khoi Vinh laments the deteriorating state of his handwriting.

I’ve noticed the same with my handwriting.  He and his readers draw the conclusion that beautiful writing is a casualty of technology.  I recently had a related insight, about technology’s impact on beauty in general.

Tim Sneath recently helped the British Library digitize some of the most beautiful handwritten books in history.  The moment of insight came to me several months ago as I was looking through the copy of William Blake’s notebook hosted therein.  As you read through his notes (and those of the other great thinkers represented there), you’re struck by how much effort it must have taken to distill and refine his thoughts.  Looking through the notebook, you realize that this was Blake contemplating and refining insights which would eventually become jewels of wisdom.  This was his thought process, an extension of his mind.

It’s hard to imagine using such crappy tools as pen and paper to do serious thinking today.  If Da Vinci, Blake, and Milton were able to reach such heights of wisdom without copy/paste, search, C-Pen, Amazon.com, and keyboards — what does that say about people today?  We ought to be able to arrive at truth 100x quicker than they did, but we definitely don’t.

Electric Light

AUX 88’s song Electric Light, (from Xeo-Genetic) is one of my favorite electro techno songs.  The intro starts with:

“Momma told me there would be light at the end of the tunnel.  But she never told me it would be …”

Then the chorus, “if you can see, what I can see, then you will come with me — into electric light.”


When the battle of wills between Tesla and Edison transformed the world, we truly entered the “electric age”.  We’re still there.  Growth in electric generation is almost perfectly correlated to a nation’s economic growth; and this picture of North Korea’s darkness relate more than just visually.  More than 10 years ago, I did some work on trading floor systems for the electric “grid”, and have been fascinated ever since by the intersection of economics, computing power, and electricity.  It is no coincidence that top economists are taking jobs at companies that mine human behavior and host massive software “utilities”.  People who have been making predictions about the future of “grid” computing have often been scorned and treated as crackpots (Joe Firmage, founder of USWeb and UFO-hunter; and the folks at Enron among others).  When Amazon first launched EC2, the reaction was similarly skeptical.  But it wasn’t long before people realized something was up.


Last month, I ended up sitting next to Dr. Albert Schweitzer on a few hours flight.  Not the nobel prize winner, a living breathing Albert Schweitzer.  I saw his passport, and that’s his name.  He’s a retired chemist from Exxon/Mobil who now advises former central economies on building chemical production plants.  I picked his brain mercilessly for three hours and learned many things, but he had some really interesting data relevant to this discussion.  In mass production of a chemical like Ammonia, it is a competetive necessity to build next to a coal source and generate your own electricity.  In fact, for a number of chemical processes, the company will generate electricity, and feed that electricity back to the electric company when it’s more profitable than using for chemical processing.  In making certain types of polymers for which hydrocarbons are input, the chemical plant takes product from the oil companies and processes — but there is always a risk that new technology would enable to produce those chemicals cheaper and they would transfer a lot of profits from the chemical company to themselves.  Projections of electrical generation technology lifespan play a big part in deciding whether or not to build a particular chemical plant.  Tiny fractions of pennies per gallon make the difference between life and death for the plant.

I’m fascinated that something which might as well be free can exert such leverage indirectly.


Of course, electricity is a commodity.  Computing power (on the server) is about to become a commodity.  One beam of light shooting up into space like a beacon, maybe two or three.  When that happens, then what?  For the past two hundred years, knowledge about human economic behavior in aggregate (economics) has been a public good; available to all.  But this is incredibly valuable information, and our wealth of knowledge is exploding dramatically.  We have unprecedented ability to test, mine, and model.  Who owns these models?


Dawkins is an Ass

Dawkins and Collins, two preeminent geneticists, are arguing God vs. Science.  I think Collins makes some flying leaps and panders slightly, but Dawkins is out of control.  He’s close to understanding the entire universe in his own mind.  I have a little parable from his own field of study to instruct those who care about “truth”.

Imagine a million or more years of evolution, where we now know that humans evolved for monogamy and equal division of labor between male and female.  By the time we develop language, perhaps 150,000 years ago, there is no question but that man and woman are meant to be equal partners.

But humans have always been scientists — people who seek to understand the immutable laws of the natural world, and who want to use those laws to better themselves and their society.  Perhaps the greatest first victory of these scientists was agriculture.  With agriculture, mankind was at last free from scarcity, and was able to accrue abundance and argue about how to distribute that abundance fairly.

Enter the “hate the father” scientist.  These are scientists who look back at the past as if it is a mistake, who seek to erase it and replace it with the new “truth”.  They attribute negative motives and seek to debunk, rather than rooting out the deception or error in their own ways.

Soon, one scientist observed: All life springs from the earth.  All life springs from woman.  Thus woman is the life-bringer, the superior of man.  Clearly, this was the only logical explanation, with our new understanding of agriculture.  The old way was an evil aberration; a naive mistake.  Enter the Gaia cults.  Hierarchy was necessary to manage larger societies, and priestesses ruled the new order.  Thank Goddess for science!

But man’s animal nature is to lek.  And soon, some scientist perfected the theory of “seed”.  You see, the earth is dead — it does not live.  The plant consumes the soil and makes it alive, so the plant is superior to the earth.  In fact, the seed is simply the plant’s mechanism of replicating itself!  It is a curse that man needs woman instead of earth to replicate; this half-alive temptress!  At last, a superior understanding of the laws of nature gave us a reason to overthrow the priestess cults and establish male-dominated hierarchies.  It was a very short time before we had kings with harems numbering in the thousands.  Thank God for science!

The male-dominated cults relied on the concept of “transubstantiation” — the living makes the dead alive by consuming it.  So instead of the female cults of life-giving and cycles, we have male pyramids of domination.  It is only natural that cults of animal sacrifice (the gods must also consume!) and human sacrifice (especially virgins, who are as dead as earth with no seed) and cannibalism sprung up.

It took a very long time before people rejected the idiocy of the death cults, pyramid cults, and inequality.  In fact, the death blow probably came when Pythagoreans and Dualists combined and we saw the premier seed-oriented male pyramid cult inverted — it’s messiah a man who was born without a y-chromosome, refused to have children, and died to save those of other races than his own.

This didn’t exactly end the nattering about whether “the laws of nature” intended man or woman to be boss.  Scientists and philosophers have made convincing arguments on both sides for the following 2,000 years.  Amazingly, it’s only with an understanding of DNA and very modern approaches to evolutionary theory that you can *prove* to the idiot scientist that men and women were meant to be equal partners.

Dawkins, in fact, started this revolution; with his observation that “humanity is just DNA’s mechanism for replicating itself”.  (Of course, I note that all human societies develop idols and idolotary — and Dawkins so eloquently argues that a blind watchmaker could easily recreate humanity by setting a few variables.  So cleary, DNA is idols’ way of replicating themselves.  Soon all of the matter in the universe will be transmutated into a massive golden calf.  The idol cults were right — DNA may sit above man, but idols sit above us all.)

In any case, you cannot help but be stunned by the power of DNA theory to prove every other debunking scientist of the past wrong.  In fact, there is no possible way to refute the arguments of those earlier debunkers without DNA theory.  You would have been laughed out of the scientific establishments to make such a declaration, since there was no scientific proof.  Someone prior to 1965 saying, “you know in your heart that men and women are meant to be equally yoked” would only attract scorn from someone with the rigorous doubters method of Dawkins.  He won’t believe what he hasn’t seen with his own eyes.

So we’ve suffered from several thousand years of nasty cults because people like Dawkins urged us to ignore our hearts and focus on what “logic” and “science” said; and he wants us to assume that this time, he’s got it all figured out?  He’s observed the whole universe?

This is my beef with people like Dawkins, Sagan, and Chomsky.  They discover one universal truth (out of perhaps an infinite store), and they spend the rest of their careers trying to prove how stupid God and everyone else are.  Maybe if they would spend a bit more time looking at the beam in their own eyes, God would let them in on some more universal truth.  If I’m betting on who gets further revelations, my money’s on Collins.

Frothy Bubble Chambers (the Tao of hot)

What do the following three recent phenomena have in common?

All three of them are using old-school thinking to understand hotness.  They all seem to think that the world is one “superclub”, with “hot” being whatever the emcees (a-list) today are playing.

Another camp takes the opposite approach.  It says, “hot is whatever my little subculture finds cool.”  And if Oprah is recommending it on her book list, it must be mass-produced crap spoonfed to the sheeple.

But do we really have to take sides?  Everyone has some creative product that they love simply because everyone else does.  And everyone has creative product that the love because of it’s relevance to a much smaller social circle.  The people who insist on either extreme tend to be minority fringe on either side.

Both sides of the debate will claim that their side captures the lion’s share of audience adulation.  But if you pay attention, you’ll see that (for the vast majority of people), the split is about 50/50.  Look at the songs in rotation on the average person’s ipod.  About half will be “hits”, and half will be songs of much more localized significance to the listener.  Dolphins like to play in their local pod, and they love to party once or twice a year when the pods come together and form a superpod.  People tend to keep one foot in the supercommunity and one foot in their “local” community.

The significance for tech is simple.  For the tastemakers, technology makes it easier for hits to move from the “long tail” to the supercommunity (superpod).  And for artists, technologies makes it easier for local communities (pods) to form around shared interest communities (IOW, you can share mixtapes with people who have similar interests, and you can go beyond your high school walls to find them).

In general terms, I think this split between community and supercommunity (pod/superpod) comes close to being a universal.  The two are very different, yet they depend upon one another for existence.

First, all true hotness originates in a local community.  Hotness within the pod is a very specialized thing.  Within your small, localized community, influence is very fluid, social, and unstructured.  Imagine kids in a high school trading and evaluating mixtapes based on the “objective” criteria that the people in the NYT example above are using.  The idea is ludicrous — it would be like the average extended family using “Roberts Rules of Order” to govern their social interactions.  If we were autistic, this is probably how we would make art, but then we would make art that only autistic people could appreciate.  The way we detect “hot” in our pods is very local, very decentralized, and defies conscious/logical understanding.

As you get to larger and larger group sizes, emotional intuition beomes less useful, and conscious/logical structures take hold.  Somewhere (maybe around 1000-2000 people), you have no choice but to rely on conscious logical processes to introduce tastes that the whole supergroup can share.

Enter the tastemakers.  They know how to bring a hit to the supercommunity.  They provide filtering function, audience, logistics, packaging (in the general sense) and much more.  They don’t often create art/beauty (and when they do, it sucks); but they are experts at what they do.

Now, people like to think that a tastemaker is just a failed artist, or an artist is a resentful wanna-be tastemaker.  But these are two completely different roles; and absolutely interdependent.

The way they (should) work together is simple.  Artists appeal to a local community, and create beauty/value that is appreciated instinctively/emotionally.  At some point, the tastemakers discover/identify the beauty/value and bring it to the supergroup.  This transition point is sometimes called “selling out”, but only by artists who get confused about their function in life.  Before you “sell out”, you need to have a product that people instinctively see as beautiful/valuable.  The people who are trying desperately to “get noticed” by Scoble/Malik/Arrington are often the people who think that you can “sell out first, make beauty/value later.”   They dream of being the next “Twisted Sister”.  And “sell out” implies that it’s all about money.  It’s true that “hits” make a lot of money today.  But I argue that “hits”, or the superpod phenomenon is absolutely essential to human nature; therefore, even if there were no money in tastemaking, we would have tastemakers operating for different motives.  And the “hits” are going to be chosen from the pods anyway (the alternative would be to have Scoble/Malik/Arrington writing software :-)) whether the artist wants to be a star or not — the superpod needs creative product, and if you have creative product that works, you’re going to get taken (and please don’t play the reluctant star; Bob Dylan is boring).

So in summary, I postulate that the skills of tastemaking are very different than the skills of creating stuff that people love. Tastemakers job is to find beautiful work that the whole supercommunity can appreciate, and use it to remind us that we’re all one supercommunity.  And artists job is to create beauty using the only standard that really matters; instinctive relevance to a local social community.  And both sides need to appreciate/support the other.  When tastemakers start thinking that they can create beauty without a pod, or artists start thinking that they can sell beauty directly to superpod, we swim in a superheated sea of excrement.


P.S. I get more traffic to this blog from StumbleUpon than I do from Digg or Google now.  This should be cause for thought to people who think success is about whispering pillowtalk in the tastemaker’s ear.  Such strategies (i.e. secret keyword sauce and SEO) can lead to success, or it can just lead to a lot of backstage promiscuity and a squandered life.

Pope and Israel

Lebanon, the model of diversity, democracy and peaceful prosperity in the middle east; is being bombed to smithereens by Israel.  And Pope “I was NOT Hitler Youth!” Ratzinger says “Bad Israel!”.  Iran and Syria are licking their lips.  India and China are probably puzzled by all of the hooplah, but for everyone else in the world (Arab, Jew, and Christian), this is looking a lot like the big party we’ve been waiting more than 2,000 years for.

So it’s really incredible to me that some Irish backhoe operator would turn up a previously unknown 1,200 year-old religious manuscript from the cadre of monks who scribed Book of Kells, and that the book would “happen” to be opened to Psalm 83.  All the experts say it’s not a hoax.  What do you think?

Maybe somebody is trying to remind Benedict about the debt he owes to the Schottenkloster.  The Pope may be German, but the religion isn’t.