November 17th, 2012

For a while, Budaeli was actively updated. It became the place for my most polished thoughts.

Then I started to lose interest, and slowly let my writing skills atrophy.

To ad insult to injury, Budaeli was hacked from someone in Russia to show porn ads. So I took it offline. And then kept putting off fixing the code so you weren’t bombarded with solicitations for hot teen ass.

But I’ve begun writing again, and have a renewed interest in sharing my thoughts. But Budaeli is no longer the place to post them.  If you enjoyed my writing, thank you, and I hope you still want to read what I have to say. But new ideas won’t be presented here anymore.

Consider Budaeli deprecated as of right now.

So long and thanks for all the bits.

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You call him sissy and I’ll call him stronger than you

May 5th, 2011

The language we use to process our thoughts is a silent determinant in how we frame the world.* So when english-thinking people try to understand gender-related personality traits, we come upon a wall of strong masculine-feminine duality with a haphazard set of words for everything in between. Queer, transgendered, bisexual, pansy, femme, butch, gay – there is no clean spectrum to frame our identity.

And it wasn’t even until quite recently that we broke free from a very strict dualistic dichotomy. Gay boys and girls struggling with their identity had no framework to find their niche. Many felt forced to pick the set of cultural norms for the opposite of their own gender, and those who resisted often struggled with hiding their sexual orientation even if they wanted to be open and out in the greater society.

Since the late-60s we’ve been slowly moving towards an acceptance and understanding of the greater gender spectrum. Just as we have unbridled ourselves to take on whatever kind of profession or interest we desire, just as women have fought to eliminate the male-heavy roles in society, we have become more comfortable with where we lay between completely heterosexual and completely homosexual, and completely masculine and completely feminine. But we still still struggle with it because it requires a great deal of effort to put into words how we think and feel about where we are along the spectrum. The vocabulary available to us is unevenly spread across the shades of identity.

What got me thinking about this problem is what seems like an increasing number of videos, posts, and comments online by effeminate gays defending their right to be who they are. Among gay men, there is a bias against the more feminine men and a greater demand for ‘straight-acting’ gays who have little or none of the affectations of a ‘sissy’ – lispy voice, hyper-attention to outward appearance and use of body stylings more popular with females, etc.

Note that all of the terms I used in that last paragraph are relative – ‘straight-acting’ has no permanent definition, and neither does ‘sissy’ – and the latter is being pulled into words deemed totally unutterable, such as where ‘faggot’ will probably be in a decade or two.

As I began trying to understand the issues revolving the role of effeminate men in gay culture, the reality, as usual, is vastly varied and subtle. Most obviously is the wide range of identity among gay men. There is no common trait with any of them except their attraction to their attraction to other men (providing they are not bisexual to any degree).

But the biggest issue is where a gay man is on their quest to be fully accepting of their own identity. Having a sexual identity different than most other boys just when everyone is having to deal with new and confusing feelings and thoughts is only a catalyst for merely feeling different – an unsettling problem that can persist for a long time after fully coming out to family, friends, coworkers, and everyone else who matters in life. In other words, you may be honest with yourself and others about your sexuality, but you must also accept yourself as a whole because you may not have gotten over the feeling of being different.

(If you even vaguely feel this way, I suggest reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs – and you may want to think about talking with a gay-friendly therapist.)

So what is happening is that gays in varying states of accepting themselves for who they really are, thrown in to the same socializing and dating pool as gays fully comfortable in their own skin, all dealing with gays still coming to terms with their sexuality, plus heterosexuals in their own wide range of acceptance and persecution. And within the gay community the ones getting the short end of the stick are effeminate men who are fully accepting of themselves but who have a hard time trying to find peace and companionship. This is the group who put up with the brunt of the bullying as a teenager, the ones who are often survivors of much pain and suffering, who have fought hard for any scrap of happiness. They are often strong and outspoken – and still have trouble finding acceptance in the community they and their forebears built. It should always be remembered that among those who fought the hardest for gay rights were often the swishing, lisping ‘screaming queens’ that defined the stereotype. It was the drag queens who fought back during the Stonewall Riots, and never forget that.

That should be enough to give one pause and to think about one’s own gender biases. Our culture still holds onto the idea that it’s the manly men who are the strongest and put up with the grunt work of life – but that’s as much of a myth as the idea that we are the gender we appear on the outside. One of the greatest discoveries of the feminist movement is the role of women in history. The half of the population who stayed home while the man worked, who didn’t strap on a gun and fight in wars – they were often the ones who pushed the men and who fought for what really mattered. As recent as the Iranian election protests of 2009 it was the women who were the bravest in fighting back against the oppressive regime.

Because the primary function of language is to communicate between humans, changing our ways of expressing gender will take time. Sure, a panel of experts could come up with a whole new way of discussing identity, but if no one adopt their decisions the change will fail. Realistically all we can do is lay groundwork for future generations to better comprehend the range of who we are by doing the best we can with the words we have and let the usual mutation of slang, idioms, and clichés push into a more accepting way of thought.

* For more information, see the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis…or for something less dry, try “How does our language shape the way we think?” by Lera Boroditsky, or “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” from The New York Times.

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This post has been done before

May 4th, 2011

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9

There’s a vague point when a human has learned enough about the world that they often begin to despair. We are a species capable of horrific acts, nothing we make will last forever, that even beyond the inevitability of death we all live on a tiny rock in an uncaring universe capable of destroying everything we know.

But there’s the solace of creating something new and brightening the lives of others, right? Yet one of the biggest motivators for creativity is the hope of making something new is negated by all the other inventions, works of art, buildings, and discoveries made by those before us. Not only has that great idea that came to you this morning been thought by someone else, but there’s a 95%* chance it’s already been tried. And if it’s an actionable idea, it’s probably been done better already. Want to tell a story explaining a universal truth of the human existence? Shakespeare’s already covered it and with more style and tact than you could muster. Okay, that’s not exactly a reasonable statement because you’re hampered by the existence of Shakespeare’s work, whereas he didn’t have anyone (in english) to have already covered his ground, even if he stole his plots from other writers.

Even worse, all the ideas with low barriers to success have been plucked. You don’t have to be a technology expert to see that it’s an almost insurmountable task to design and sell a tablet computer now that Apple’s iPad has been out for a year, has tremendous momentum, and has been done with a high degree of style and engineering.

Even the phrase, “Nothing is new under the sun.” has been done multiple times and with eloquent style.  The phrase in English comes from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which was written about 2,300 years ago and was already an old expression. I’m not even going to try to compose something better. The concept works on several levels: whatever thoughts you’re having aren’t original, whatever you made has probably been done, people act the same way they have for thousands and thousands of years, and make the same mistakes.

The one way that’s historically helped those wishing to make something new: forgetting the past. Take the curse of trying to create literature to express the human condition when we’ve already got Shakespeare. He wasn’t the first person to write about teenage love or insanity or murder or thinking too much – but he was the first one to write in English and get wide exposure. It’s important to remember that he took most of his stories from lessor works before him. His gift was to take those nuggets and polish them until they shone with brilliant language.

Sure, this advice only really works for art. You’d be dumb to forget what we already know about scientific principles, math concepts, and productive technology. But maybe it takes accidental ignorance to make a leap – perhaps forgetting that the iPad is so great so that instead of trying to catch up you make a different device that’s equal or greater in quality is all that’s needed.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see that this post is really about writer’s block. I’ve been trying to get back to writing regularly for Budaeli, and I’ve been struggling to come up with something compelling to discuss. Topics I usually enjoy talking about have already been done, and what ideas I’ve had for new posts don’t fit the style I’ve developed. There are a few essays I’m working out but otherwise I’ve been stuck.

So I’m inventing a new rule: everyone is allowed to publicly publish one writer’s/painter’s/sculptor’s/designer’s block work. And I’m using mine up now.

Yeah, yeah, it’s not a new rule. But I did a quick Google search and didn’t find any mention of a writer’s block rule, so I’m claiming it as my own.

* I totally made up that statistic.

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A poor and wretched boy

May 1st, 2011

The other day one of my favorite songs came up on shuffle and I could only remember about half the lyrics. It was “The Chimbley Sweep” by The Decemberists, a fun Dickensian ditty about an orphaned chimney sweep who gets propositioned by a widow. The worst part is I’m not even sure I ever knew all the lyrics.

As I get older I’m starting to notice limits to what I can remember. It’s not that there is a limit to space in my mind (I’m convinced that the brain is malleable enough to store vast amounts of knowledge when needed), but that I’m exposing myself to so much incoming data that I’m letting too much get forgotten. And with music there’s a particular impasse: do I hold onto my cherished favorite tunes or do I relentlessly search for new ones?

Many people give up by my age. They hold onto the songs of their teenage or college years and barely notice anything new except to deride the sorry state of music (the kids keep putting out shittier music, apparently). I know a few who even fill their iPods with music no older than Haddaway’s “What is Love.”

This is somewhat understandable. Music is an emotional medium. We attach memories and feelings to songs regardless of whether the actual song is happy or not.* For me, my comfort music is early-90s pop and alternative (even Haddaway). I also have deep attachment to mid-60s pop because it was my obsession during my teenage years thanks to stumbling onto The Beatles just as I began listening to what I was hearing. When I retreat to heal mental wounds, these are what I retreat to for soothing.

At the same time I fall into the other camp, the new music obsessives. The ones who are always searching for a new experience. There’s a moment with some songs, just after hearing it once or twice, before you have every part memorized,  and you play the song again and there’s this feeling of bliss (or melancholia, sometimes the feeling of sadness or nostalgia is just as strong). And then you play the song to death; but like a hard drug its effect diminishes over time, encouraging continuous pursuit of music that makes you high. There’s even scientific proof that I’m not the only one who feels euphoria with music.

This second group is where music lovers start but eventually age and memory slow down the rate of absorption…sometimes. It used to be there rate of new music being produced was low enough that one could go an entire life in pursuit of new music. Diehard fans like John Peel could pull this off when the barrier to releasing music was still high.

Nowadays it’s almost like there’s more musicians than listeners and more genres than words in a dictionary. And the technology that makes it easier to find music…makes it easier to find music and it’s a whole new form of information overload. My Amazon wishlist – one that consists of only music, has 372 items of albums and tracks, and even if I bought them all I doubt I’d listen to every minute of every recording.

So there’s the songs I already know and enjoy, songs I love but haven’t heard enough (like “Chimbley Sweep”) and songs I haven’t heard but may like just as much. And the latter group can be split into songs that have already been released and I may know about, and songs just being released but I just don’t have the time to process yet. Sometimes this means months or even years go by before I get to great songs that everyone else has played to death.

As a result I have an grotesquely complex system for managing my music:

  1. My iTunes library, which has 21,160 tracks, 1,220 of which have a play count of 0.
    1. Playlists of newly downloaded tracks for absorption sorted by year and month,
    2. A favorite songs playlist,
    3. And about 19,000 songs I haven’t heard in over a year.
  2. Channels for finding new music:
    1. Satellite radio
    2. Friend recommendations
    3. Music posted to Tumblr
    4. Bookmarks of music videos on YouTube
  3. Rdio for listening to whole albums or tracks again to make sure they are good, with several dozen albums and tracks queued up
  4. Three Amazon wishlists for music (regular music, showtunes, and comedy albums) used to be in that mix, both for finding new music and for rediscovering tracks I’ve already heard. But I got rid of that for different reasons.**

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an absurd situation. And probably very familiar.

As part of a larger effort to curb my time wasted on sorting the information that comes my way every day, I’ve instituted a few changes:

  • Canceling my Rdio subscription (this was partly a “why the hell am I paying for this?” decision). It was nice to have the opportunity to listen to whole tracks before purchase but it required yet more time to listen to new music. I may go back later after I’ve reacquainted with my existing library.
  • When I had Rdio I would listen to music there and then mark music I really liked as “High Priority” on my Amazon wishlist. So now I removed all but those high priority tracks. And from no on only music that I respond strongly to gets added.
  • In addition to my favorite songs playlist, I also have a “Songs to Sing” list for songs I want to memorize. I also have a heavy rotation list where I dump music I listen to regularly, and a smart playlist that pulls up highly-rated tracks that haven’t been listened to in over a year.
  • More confidence that I’ll still hear great new music through merely paying attention and the acceptance that I won’t get to hear everything and that’s okay.
  • I deleted half of my iTunes library.

Okay that last one isn’t true. The cost of storing the music is far lower than the convenience of having all that music to listen whenever I want.

No matter what happens, music will always play a major role in my life. Most of my waking life will be filled with its sweet sounds, and my job is to be open to new experiences and cherish my favorites – without going insane.

* For many years I thought Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was a happy song, and it made me happy, until I heard the lyrics. And Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” has such an uppity beat it still puts me in a good mood despite being about a new marriage already falling apart.
** As much as I loved going through statistics of my listening habits, only offered cursory opportunities for me to find new music. It might just be how my brain works, but I only occasionally found new music because of the site’s ability to match my listening habits with my friends (Andy McKee’s Art of Motion and Ratatat comes to mind). But that wasn’t why I stopped using the site. It was taxing my attention – I was worrying about things like what music was showing up for my friends to see and what that might say about me to others. I tried to just not care but I couldn’t help massaging the data to improve my image, never mind the likelihood that no one cared anyway. So I deleted all my data and stopped tracking my listening. While I occasionally wish I could go through that data, the freedom to not care is more beneficial.

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Roommate hunting, online relationships, and information asymmetry

October 6th, 2010

A little over a month ago I needed a roommate.

I live in a three-bedroom apartment and I signed a lease with a second roommate stating that we would split the full rent between us, so there was a strong incentive to find someone to live in the third bedroom.

And, just like most every other important decision, I (we) procrastinated.

Two weeks before the new lease was to go into effect I took some pictures of the place and wrote up a nice post for Craigslist. I talked about the roomy kitchen and the dishwasher, and casually not mentioning the downsides (like the lack of a washer and dryer). At the end I deliberately tacked on a very short description of us:

We’re a man and a woman who are both fairly quiet, laid back, and keep to ourselves. Occasionally we’ll have friends over but usually only for dinner or movie watching. We’re looking for someone who’s the same.

We didn’t want someone who expected to become BFFs with us – even though we were totally okay if they turned out to be friendly.

Of the responses, about one in ten responded back to my initial contact. And even fewer of those actually showed up. The first one who came to see the place was a lovely French-Canadian architect we both loved but several days later decided against it because of the lack of the washer/dryer situation. Thus began a series of rejections by nice people of the place for little things: they found a place closer to their work, decided to move in with their girlfriend after all, and so on.

One early response intrigued me. It was from a college student who was moving to Boston from Nebraska. He wouldn’t be able to see the place but it seemed good enough for him and he assumed we weren’t too concerned with meeting him. Now, despite being vague in the posting we definitely wanted to meet the roommate in person so we could size up their potential to be crazy. So I searched for him online, found his Twitter and Facebook pages, discovered his Tumblr sites, and figured he was a good enough guy but it was early in the search so I told him that if he’d wait until we’d get a decision from the other good prospects who actually visited, he’d have the room. I then proceeded to fill in more information about ourselves and asked him to do the same.

No answer.

I found that interesting. He really just wanted a place to crash, even if it seemed like he’d still be home for homework and maybe a party or two. Or did the description of the two of us scare him off? Did I give off the vibe that we were looking for a BFF? Probably.

That was what made me realize that as efficient as internet tools can be to find people for nearly any kind of transaction or relationship, there was still a lot of information that depended on interpretation. The ambiguities, I realized, were inherent in the writing. It’s when two people meet in person that they can better size the other up in both conscious and unconscious ways. When writing an email or a text or even a video chat, there are limitations to what can be presented and opportunities to mask flaws. I didn’t want to say yes to this guy because I still wasn’t totally sure if he was going to be a good fit for me and the other roommate – and he may have perceived my response as different that what he’d expect from someone who merely wanted someone to pay the rent (which, despite the hesitation, was us…but with reservations).

To give this a name, I call it information asymmetry.

Information asymmetry actually can be beneficial. A company can use the limited knowledge of their customers to charge different people different prices; a trader can gain an advantage by knowing more about the product they are receiving than the other person has of theirs and thus make a profit; a politician can count on everyone else not reading all of a law and then tack on a piece that only benefits their constituents or who bribed them the most.

But in most human interactions, it’s better to give as much information as possible – except when one party is trying to deceive the other. And honestly, everyone deceives others even if just a little to give a positive presentation. Finding a roommate, however, needs both honesty and a little deception. If we are going to agree to give someone equal access to the same place we sleep, eat, and store our stuff, we want to know they aren’t insane or won’t cook awful smelling food or allow dangerous people into the apartment. And yet we want to make the place as attractive as possible to get the kind of person we’d get along with on a daily basis, so we have to be coy about a few details in the hope that the person, upon meeting us, is okay with the downsides.

This dance continued for the next week. Good people eventually passed, others turned out to be a mess in person. There were occasionally long exchanges of emails as we traded bits of ourselves to determine if the things we didn’t know where acceptable. One response said that he had just graduated from Catholic seminary. So I responded by asking if he was okay with having a gay roommate. He then emailed me with a long explanation of his stance: he was okay with having a gay roommate, but he still considered homosexuality a sin and immoral (but, he said it was immoral objectively and not subjectively, whatever that means). I decided he thought of being gay as a sin, but there are lots of sins, and we all sin. A cogent Catholic response. But I wasn’t too certain so I never emailed him back.

Eventually (as in two days before the start of the new lease) we found someone. He was coy about his work situation in email but was completely upfront upon meeting us. Plus he seemed like a good guy and was willing to meet all of our and our landlord’s terms. So we went with him. A month later I can say we chose the right guy. Our third roommate is wonderful and turns out to be very friendly too. It all worked out.

For a large segment of the population of the developed world (and a big share of the developing world too) we depend on the internet to handle our personal affairs (like banking, finding a roommate, etc.), to keep in touch with old and existing friends, and make new ones. Often these new friends come by accident, other times we find them through dating websites or simply actively looking for like-minded people to find. I have personal experience that the social tools available right now make it easy to find great people who match your interests, disposition, even sense of humor in ways not bound by geography and distance.

But that pesky information asymmetry pops up again and again. Misunderstandings, arguments, even feuds develop because of the murkiness of expressing ourselves through text, imagery, and videos. You might think if only we all were honest and clear in our intentions and the things we do, but not even the most upstanding can do that all the time. Like a blindspot, little discrepancies develop between a person’s online persona and who they really are. This is done both consciously and because online communication cannot match, say, spending the day with someone in person. You can say more in an hour than a year of texts. And because we may only have access to online content, we can only assemble an incomplete picture of someone.

I was involved in an online friendship that I’m pretty sure disintegrated because of information asymmetry (being an optimist I hope it really isn’t over). Both of us had incomplete information about the other and were unwilling or too coy to fill in the blanks. One dumb comment, two dumb comments, a couple of bad choices, and suddenly one isn’t talking to the other. Or are they? It’s hard to tell with most online communication: are they deliberately ignoring messages or are they desperately trying to come up with an honest response and failing and thus not saying anything at all? Maybe out of some sort of cowardice they are hoping the problem will just go away. There are no checks and balances of a physically close relationship – no third parties to stop on the street to get some answers, no chance of getting the truth on the more public forums without making it obvious to everyone else that something is going on. Whereas a meeting at a coffeehouse, for example, while public, is masked by distinctly separate conversations. Posting in the same forum as they and lots of mutual contacts, has the same weight as saying what’s on your mind to every person in the coffeehouse.

It’s situations like this that make it clear that online relationships still require traditional connections. When all you can do to talk to someone is to write a letter and wait days or weeks for a response, the physical distance is obvious and tactile; when you can text someone anywhere in the world and get an immediate response, the mind is tricked into assuming a close proximity. People still need to meet in person – in fact, often when I meet someone in person after knowing them online for a time, the relationship becomes more real, even if we only met for a few hours and never again. But to really feel close there needs more contact and continuous conscious acknowledgement that the person you are communicating with is still far away.

We keep making more powerful tools, but we’re still social animals who have spent most of our time evolving on the African savannah.

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Working to end gay suicides

October 1st, 2010

I don’t place much value on protests, nor do I consider token donations to charitable causes as little more than an attempt to feel better about oneself. I do believe in action and, barring that, vocal support and standing by one’s convictions.


Despite all the advances in gay rights and acceptance in the last fifty years, gay teens are still being pushed to suicide. And for every one that kills themselves, there are many more contemplating it. People of all kinds driven to suicide is a serious issue, but those who do it because of social stigma for an attribute for which they have no control over, it is all the worse because everyone in our society is to blame.

Being gay is not a choice. It is not immoral. It is not something that can be condemned by anyone professing to be a member of any faith or religion founded on love and kindness. What matters is your happiness and whether you are harming someone or they are harming you. If you are gay, lesbian, transgendered, or questioning and are being told otherwise by people you trust, you need to find other people to trust immediately. Easier said than done, I know.

“Be patient and tough; some day this pain will be useful to you.”
- Ovid

Life is hard. Very hard. We are given inadequate tools and too quickly forced to fend for ourselves. And those who are charged with raising us and teaching us were also given inadequate tools and may not give you the best in return. One must be forgiving but also must seek the truth.

Sexuality of any kind is fraught with issues. There’s awkwardness and confusion and exploration and some people are telling you it’s bad and others are telling you it’s good and sometimes you’re told it’s an important and a fun part of life but don’t worry about it too much.

One could look at coming to terms with one’s sexuality as a trial. It will be hard, and it may make you unhappy, but you’ll get over it. And if you can’t there are helpful people who can guide you to accepting who you are.

I know this because I am gay and I spent years untangling the subtle and not-so-subtle things said and done against me to make me feel like my sexuality was wrong, immoral, and woefully condemned. As far as I can remember I never considered taking my life as an option, partly out of egotism and partly because of an quiet but persistent voice saying something not unlike Ovid’s line. “You’ll get through this,” it seemed to whisper, “Life goes on and you’ll want to be around for the better days.

More importantly, we need gays who survived adolescence to help others along the way, because as more accepting as society may become, we all experience life afresh and need all the support we can get.

We also need people of all kinds to be angry. Angry that our young are taking their lives because of hatred and misunderstanding. Angry that persons of power and influence continue to be hypocritical over who can be loved and who is equal. Angry that the gay community is largely uninterested in helping, nay, fighting for our young members to survive. Be angry and use that anger to protect those who need protection and fight back against those who harm the weak.

I know it sounds hypocritical to espouse actions in a blog post, but I am doing my part to help those in need. I don’t want anyone to experience the mental prison I was pushed into, or worse. I am angry. I will fight.

There are resources like The Trevor Project that help those who are gay and contemplating suicide.

And if you need someone to talk to, you can email me (correspondence at budaeli dot com), contact me on Twitter, or leave a comment on this site.

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Try the patented Ideamizer (not really patented)

June 17th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, another on market efficiency, and one about filling your life with well-designed objects.

No idea comes out of an invisible ether. Whatever thought you may have about something new, it came from your experiences, articles you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, jokes you’ve heard. People say this all the time but it bears repeating:

No idea is new.*

That’s not a disappointing realization. Rather, knowing how your thoughts come about can be a powerful tool to harness.

You should build and nurture a library of ideas.

Why? You need a cultivated collection of information to help you connect disparate pieces of data and come up with new ideas: new stories, new business opportunities, new ways to live your life.

Books used to be dynamic objects. Readers not only collected them but they wrote all over the margins and on blank pages (alright, we still do). They also collected favorite passages and pasted them into a scrapbook for inspiration. Somewhere over the years scrapbooks morphed into artistic expressions and collections of life memories.

Sometime after the proliferation of the copy machine, the filing cabinet became the store of collected ideas. Usually poorly organized if organized at all, they became a stereotype for the absentminded professor.

Fortunately those of us currently living have access to cheap storage mediums, powerful computers, and the internet. Scanners too. We can suck up as many thoughts as we have time and energy to procure.

There’s a lot of different ways to build your library on your computer:

  • Save web pages, PDFs, scanned documents, etc. into folders on your computer and search them with Spotlight. If you take advantage of the file folder system this can be just as powerful as a managed database.
  • Use a document management application like Evernote, Yojimbo, or my personal favorite…
  • DEVONthink. DEVONthink’s strength is that it can find semantic relationships between documents, meaning it will find documents with similar collections of words (not necessarily similar sentences or phrases), and the more information in the database, the better the connections.

Use whatever feels comfortable, as not every option is ideal. I still don’t have my library organized to my satisfaction, but because it exists I can at least use it.

What should go into your library? Whatever interests you, inspires you, makes you contemplate, makes you want to learn more, makes you agitated. Most certainly the library needs articles and ideas from your areas of interest and work (e.g. a gardener have tips on growing, stories about other gardeners, etc.). But to really be useful it needs seemingly unconnected articles, information from areas that don’t normally interest you. For example: Wikipedia historical pages, biographies of athletes, mathematical mysteries, Mongolian wrestling, you get the idea.

Also consider content you think might be useful later, for when you are in a different place in life. You probably already have big enough hard drive that you can be reckless in your saving. You don’t need everything, in fact you shouldn’t have everything, but you should at least devote 15% of the library to subjects which you wouldn’t usually have an interest. For serendipity. That’s the whole point of a library.

The screenshot above was taken from my own library. There are very few things in this world that don’t interest me, so my library is pretty far-reaching. I try to organize whatever I’ve collected into folders based on subjects I use to mentally organize. I started out grouping by general topics, but I realized that there are certain subjects that I separate from others. For example, I could have one folder for business and economics, but I think about those subjects along different lines: the technology industry is one solid subject, with enough to say and dwell upon Apple Inc. for it to have several of its own folders, some business ideas I group with economics concepts while others group into an entire industry, and still others into individual companies (you can see IKEA has its own folder). It gets even more complicated for cultural ideas.

But if I want to write an essay on city culture, all of the articles related to urban life are grouped together, and can be used to quickly move to related topics (city economies, neighborhood dynamics, the culture of specific cities like Los Angeles) if needed.

My library, combined with good old-fashioned thinking and conversation with people smarter than me, gives me fertile land for a crop of new ideas. And it couldn’t hurt to start your own.

* Wrap your mind around how to make new ideas when nothing is new.

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Throw away all your poorly-designed tools. Seriously, throw them all out.

June 14th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, and another on market efficiency.

Can you point out all the hand tools, power tools, light fixtures, remotes, software applications, and furniture in your life that you’ve learned to live around the quirky and inefficient design choices that on a good day give you good joke fodder but on a bad day make you curse the children of whoever made that deathtrap?

Yeah, you should seriously consider throwing all of that junk out.

Realizing how much time and energy you are wasting on inefficient design is so hard most people only notice poor design for a few moments before moving on with their day. But if you were obsessed enough with the problem to time your tasks you’d see the glaring problem, especially when compounded over the course of your life.

It’s more than wasted time. Think of the mistakes made, both minor and major, that are made because of poor design. Have you turned on the wrong burner on a stove top? Was a recipe in a cookbook too ambiguous or missing ingredients so you had to rely on guesswork to finish the dish? And they can even be deadly – think of dull knives and hard-to-understand food processors.

How’s that chair you’re sitting on while reading this? Comfortable? Will you be sore later? Is your footrest high enough? How about that desk height – is it better for writing by hand or for typing on a keyboard? You may not even realize how uncomfortable some of your furniture really is if you’ve used it long enough to adapt to the pressure points and discomforts.

All of this adds up to a giant drag on the happiness in your life. Material possessions aren’t everything but the objects that populate your world contribute to your well-being. Being mindful of the tools you use and the dwelling you assemble for yourself only helps you to concentrate on the more important things in life.

I’m not saying to throw everything out now. That’s likely too cost prohibitive. Here’s a few suggestions to follow:

  • Replace anything inefficient or uncomfortable in the order of what you use the most. Start with your bed (that’s six to eight hours of use every day!), if you work from home consider your desk and chair, then work on your kitchen supplies, and so on.
  • Spend the money and get a Mac or any other Apple device. Computers play too big a role in our daily lives now for you to be using a machine that doesn’t respect the user. This rule applies until another company starts selling a computer with a similar caliber of design.
  • The best advice I’ve received on furniture and home decoration is to not buy everything at once. Fill your home piece by piece over years. The hardest thing avoid is decorate a room in one sweep. By staggering your purchases you can give your home a more organic look. But most importantly, get rid of those poorly-designed tools.
  • Buying things that are aesthetically pleasing to you should be a given. You could find the most comfortable chair in the world but if it looks like a claw and gives you nightmares, keep looking.

One big positive externality for replacing your poorly-designed tools is you are helping to encourage manufacturers to produce better designed products.

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More efficient markets

June 10th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction and an article on artistic movements.

A market at its simplest is a place where two or more parties trade goods and/or services. Sometimes it’s not even a physical place – something that’s becoming much more common. Parties in a market trade one good for another good, usually in exchange for money.

Your life is made up of many, many markets. You’re even participating in a market when you discuss gossip or news about mutual friends with another person. With a market, you can make use of whatever wealth you have accumulated: monetary wealth, material good wealth, knowledge wealth, a wealth of trust, and so on.

A free market, one which is least burdened by regulations and restrictions, tends towards the most efficient trade possible. That’s how we can enjoy cheaper food, clothing, and other goods than previous generations – many of the things we consume are made in places where the raw materials needed are far less than if they were made in our own country (assuming you live in the United States or some other developed country).

But enough of the economics lesson.

We each individually have resources that can be exploited, to increase our wealth, that may not necessarily be obvious. There are our hobbies, our gained supply of knowledge, our learned skills, even our accumulated possessions – all can be exploited when needed to increase our wealth in other ways. The obvious is to exchange them for money – by giving our time and expertise to an employer, for example – but one can utilize less apparent means of exchange to free up more resources.

What I’m trying to say is that we can be more efficient with the things we have. Let’s build new markets to exploit our untapped or underutilized resources. A great example of this already in action is Etsy. By creating a central location for individuals to sell their handmade products, it lowers the barrier for consumers desiring such goods. In return, the creators receive a benefit for utilizing their skills – be it sewing, woodworking, glassblowing, or any of a number of other talents. Etsy has singlehandedly untapped a vast reserve of craft making, eliminating the old barriers of location and decentralization. This is on top of (slightly) older innovations of Ebay‘s auctions and Craigslist‘s ads for housing, jobs, and other local resources. Also consider knowledge markets like Yahoo! Answers or Mahalo.

These and the many other markets are only the beginning. I’m sure there are other tools waiting to be developed to unlock underutilized resources that individuals, small businesses, communities, large corporations, and governments have lying around. It’s the same concept behind what most people think of when they hear ‘recycling’ – giving your discarded cans, bottles, paper, etc. to a third party that turns them back into new goods again for you to repurchase.

Here’s a few ideas of new markets I just thought up in a few minutes:

  • Underutilized office space rented out to startups and entrepreneurs
  • Collect and distribute writings or art either online or in another medium. This is obviously what’s been done for hundreds of years by the publishing industry, but there needs to be a new model for distributing information and rewarding the creators. An example of this is And now it’s in print*, a project that’s collecting cool things found on the internet and publish them in a print magazine.
  • Stuff lying around the house that would sell much easier by trade than in exchange for money

You may have even come up with your own untapped market that puts all of what I’ve suggested to shame. Now’s your chance to test your idea.

Aggressively pursuing more efficient markets might just help restore the economic growth that most people are searching for right now.

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Looking forward to the decade which may or may not be called the Teens

June 8th, 2010

Fireweed plant near Mt. St. Helens four years after the volcano's eruption. (Photo via USGS/Lyn Topinka)

This is part of a series on ideas for today. I’ve already published an introduction.

The last decade, the one we are just emerging from, was the least culturally productive in America since the Fifties. In fact, I’d say the last decade was worse than the Fifties, which at least introduced new ideas that would come to fruition in the Sixties. Unlike that period, instead of being stiflingly conformist and Puritan most of the time (or I should say in public), we shared too much of ourselves. We became shameless for attention, and whithered as the Internet gave us too much exposure to every gross, banal thing on the planet. I’m not saying that we were too permissive; rather the permissiveness diluted our ability to limit our options and excel in narrowly-defined ways.

We have a new decade ahead of us and a new chance to forge ahead. We don’t necessarily need to invent anything new, but we should pursue the best of everything. More people are alive right now than any other point in human history. That is a massive opportunity, one we’ve only just begun to exploit – there are more smart and creative people alive now than ever.

But what do the makers of culture have to show for the last ten years? How much music made recently will still be listened to, played, and admired twenty or thirty years from now? I think little to none. Same goes for literature. We did make some great movies and television shows, but we can do so much better.

Before you rattle off a list of your favorite musicians, underrated authors, and other artists – or you invoke the “Great art isn’t usually discovered until long after it’s made”, I want you to understand that oftentimes long before that ‘great art’ is appreciated, there are a few other artists who see its value and are inspired to make derivative works. Enough of those can create a movement. And anyone who watches cultural currents closely should be able to notice a trend in the same way one can see fashion trends (actually art and fashion trends usually move in the same direction). If anything, I’ve seen more of a clearing of the board in the last several years, as if every creative person is unconsciously preparing for a series of new styles and trends. Take popular music – that area is ripe for experimentation and new sounds.

That clearing of the board doesn’t need to go on any further. Now is the time to plant new ideas. It is time to fuck shit up, throw out the rule book, drop out, and other overused clichés. Even if it seems like everyone is making up their own rules and doing their own thing, we’re all slaves to our environment, upbringing, and language in such a way that the way we ‘break the rules’ is the same way as everyone else. Instead, look to the real innovators, that tiny fraction of society that honestly doesn’t give a whit what anyone else thinks and does their own thing, but with integrity. I’m talking about the Jimi Hendrixes, the Allen Ginsbergs, the Philip K. Dicks – the ones who initially appear to come from another planet, but whose works later turn out to be exactly what we needed and love.

So what can we do?

Let’s make a style of popular music to replace rock, R&B, and hip-hop.

Let’s revive the written narrative and make it relevant to our lives today. That may mean a concentration on short stories, or some brand new form.

Let’s forge a new path in philosophy, even if it may be an admission that the teachings of The Buddha are precisely what we need.

Let’s take over the cheap rent of abandoned neighborhoods in cities across the country and start some old fashioned culture engines. If you care enough about art you’ll move.

Let’s make an subculture that has its own norms for personal relationships, fashion, even slang. Preferably one that everyone ridicules at first.

We can even join several of these enclaves together online.

Let’s sto praising mediocrity. Let’s ignore memes and start movements, people copying and modifying rules for creating art instead of copying punchlines. Let’s not use our stars and hearts and likes to give credit to unimportant things and save our praise for the truly great.

Let’s patronize people who have a good chance of creating great art. We all need to eat.

Let’s get some new clichés.

Let’s spread the word about the things we like, and keep our promotion limited to creativity and greatness and not the effort.

Let’s do all of these things and more but with integrity. It’s easy to be a dilettante when consciously changing the world.

We have a collective memory of past trends and movements that may make it hard to try something new. So let’s forget the past: raid the things past creatives succeeded with and make something new. If the pioneers of rock copied and then exceeded the blues performers of the past then we can do the same. See the paradox? We cannot for a moment forget what our ancestors have done, but we shouldn’t let the paths they followed guide us.

Okay. Go forth and make something exciting and new.

Or you can argue with me first in the comments.

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