Archive for June, 2010

Try the patented Ideamizer (not really patented)

Thursday, 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.

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

Monday, 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.

More efficient markets

Thursday, 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.

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

Tuesday, 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.

Actions > Description

Monday, June 7th, 2010

I’m aware of the low value of  discussing things which could or should be done. Shutting up and doing what you’ve been thinking about doing is far better than merely talking about it. You may have come up with the greatest sci-fi story of all time, but if you never write it down and share it with another human, that story is worth nothing.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

Over the next several days I’ll be posting a series of articles on ideas I’ve been having about what we all should be doing right now. What kinds of ideas? Well there’s some economics, some art and culture, maybe more (though that’s almost the extent of what I can competently talk about). They may be wrong at times and it may turn out I’ve had my head up my ass the whole time. But if they spur someone, anyone into action, it’ll be worth it. That action could even be a troll-worthy, point-by-point dissection of why I’m full of shit.

More importantly, I’m also writing these for myself. By sharing these ideas with others, they become more real.

In fact, the point of this post is to make it harder for me to renege on the writing.