I think I must have been eleven, and my entire family — Dad, Mom, three little sisters and one little brother — were cramped and sweating in our beat up blue Toyota minivan, tan vinyl seats and panels and blue painted steel everywhere the vinyl wasn’t. We were on the 8-10 hour drive from Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, to its main port (and our home), Chittagong. The highway was a single lane of pock-marked pavement with a yard or two of dirt shoulder on either side, and then a deep, swift drop-off to the water-logged rice-paddies that filled the floodplains ten feet below.
I sat in the front seat, next to my dad, and could see the rising water through a small hole in the blue metal floor. This was monsoon season, when every year about two thirds of the country are submerged in water. Today, that two thirds included the stretch of highway ahead of us. It was hard to tell whether the highway had eroded down to meet the water, or the water had risen to meet the highway, but either way, for the few hundred metres in front of us, there was nothing but the muddy calm of floodwaters. There was no way to tell where the roadway’s steep edges were, but we had to cross and get home, and since there wasn’t much current, other cars were crossing, with passengers getting out to walk ahead and around the cars to test the road as they went.
Since I was the eldest son, my dad did something I’ll always thank him for. He asked me to get out and walk. As my knobby little lily-white knees waded out through the thick brown slurry, feeling out the edges of the road, I was filled with exhilaration by the unknown dangers in front of me, and proud of the responsibility I’d been given to guide my entire family to safety.
My parents showed a lot of bravery dragging their five young kids off to live in a country with a military dictatorship and Guinness-record poverty and corruption rates. I admired the guts it must have taken to stay there through a war where foreigners were targeted, and for not losing their cool when a house across the street was torched by a mob. I admired them for taking their five kids trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas for New Years, and to the Taj Mahal for Christmas, instead of sitting at home on a couch by the TV. Sometimes all we had to eat was rice and lentils (which I hated), and sometimes I couldn’t go outside because I was too much a target for kidnappers or lynch mobs. But though I might have complained about things at the time, looking back, it was worth it.
In 2008, I walked out into the hills and jungle forests of northern Nicaragua with friends, talking to coffee farmers, to workers in the fields, to coffee mill executives in the towns. AK-47s guarded plantation gates while corralled farm-workers slept stacked in tiny stalls like so many KFC chickens. Since coming back from there, I’ve slowly been working toward a goal to build a better way for people to buy coffee and understand the story and the real people behind their beans. Where as a teen I used to hack with ResEdit and Macromedia Director in the evenings building software for fun, I’m now hacking international trade systems.
My project at Ethical Coffee Chain may never amount to anything, but at least I’m still plunging forward. Many days I don’t leave my desk, but I’m risking more and reaching further than I would have in 10 trips to a resort in the Caribbean.
Looking at the best-seller lists on Amazon (or, preferably, the shelves your local bookstore, if it still exists), there’s a world of self-help out there for people struggling to make their lives better. It’s often said, both in and out of those books, that travel is a wonderful way to refresh yourself, to reset your habits, to rekindle energy and interest once you’re called back to the demands of “regular life”.
Though physically moving your body to another part of the world is a wonderful experience, not all of us can do it very much. Something around 95% of this planet’s population have never take an airplane ride, so if you can’t globe-trot, you’re in good company(1). (Some first worlders purposefully do this, in environmental and social solidarity with the large majority of the world.) But having travelled frequently for large portions of my life, and then having not travelled much through the years following high-school, I can tell you, it’s not the distance that makes the experience.
I’ve chosen to start thinking of travelling as more than “seeing the world”, and encompassing much more than “vacation”. Travel can be a mindset. The transformative effect of travel is mostly that it makes it easy for you to look outward and forward, exploring and welcoming the unknown — whether it’s on the other side of the ocean or someplace closer to home.
The benefits of travel might be found by hitting up that place in that corner of your hometown you always felt a bit leery of buying a drink in. Or maybe it’s in getting out of your comfortable habits/places and learning to code. It could be in corners of Wikipedia you never thought to look, or on Tor, or in random conversations with strangers on IRC. It’s in the little details of experiences and knowledge, both fantastic and mundane.
Travel is moving beyond yourself. In it, you can stop constantly worrying about what happened to you, or where you are headed in life, or who said what, and instead look into anywhere you’re not. What you do once your head is out of your habit bubble is your choice. My advice: look for your muddy floodwaters, and walk out into them, trusting that whether you lose your footing or not, you’ll still have gone, and given, and just maybe, you’ll find the other side wasn’t as far away as it seemed.
I’m a big advocate of the value of aged goods. A good patina on an old bowl, a wooden handle worn smooth by years of use, corners rounded off the edges of old bricks. But when I build a website, a few years on, it doesn’t have patina. It doesn’t become better with age. It might start to break in places if not maintained, as browsers and server software march onward. But could those time-induced rough edges ever be seen as pleasant? Will we ever have a digital equivalent to patina?
Sedentary, suck of stale air, stench. Dried up and old, in a corner, cobwebs between your limbs. Cough but there’s nothing moist in your lungs. Stuck in an armchair and you can’t get up. You’ve been there for years, for decades.
Or get up, walk out, and buy a ticket. Sit in a station, board at your gate, sit, sit, sit as you tumble tumble tumble through distance.
You’re somewhere new. You sense something new, you smell something new. You in a place full, full of people. Love, noise, stench. Cool breezes, hot breezes, hot, damp, sweat rolls under your shirt.
Bike down a street, rented as it is. Rented bike, rented place, rented time, rented tastes of a life you could’ve had with different ancestors or a different twist in the turn of decisions made or natural disasters laid. Potato famine notwithstanding, migrations or mitigations of legislation brought down from on colonial high, you look altogether beautiful tonight, oh place I don’t know.
Have you ever felt like if only you could back up far enough, get enough of a birds-eye view of everything in front of you, you could finally wrap it all inside your head?
I sit struggling to map out everything ahead of me and in-step with me — team members, goals, tasks, time zones, dates — and it becomes so much, and me so far inside it that I struggle to keep the overall picture in place.
Generals planning tactical moves in movies always have huge-ass maps with troops and strategic features spread out across them (moved around with billiard-cues, right?) What do we have? Trello. Google Docs. Google Maps?
Well, what if there were an app that let you play your everyday like a virtual world? Not a down-on-the-ground avatar chat room with your remote coworkers (I’ll stick to video-chat, thanks), but something more high-level? After all, those of us who are trying to change the world need to be able to visualize that world, right?
That’s why getting out of the office and moving across the land works to clear the head and make bigger goals more organizable and digestible. It’s a matter of perspective. And as I suggested before, I’ve found I get a bit of that world-shrinking sensation when I pan across Google Earth. So what if there were a way to get more altitude at our desks? What if you could open up an app and see an atlas of your team members, the tasks assigned, the ones still out there? What if you could zoom further up and outward to get back toward the bigger goals and milestones you’re pursuing? What if you could fly even further up into the stratosphere and find, in the very sky, your principles and priorities and vision, mapped out to remind yourself why it is you are mapping out the milestones below? What could this look like?
I’m tired of flat surfaces. Of stacks of cards, of yards of line-entries. They have their place, but there’s got to be more. Apps like Murally and Conceptboard are giving us a little more freedom to extrapolate, like a big ol’ whiteboard. But where’s my big ol’ tactical terrain model? Seems like translated to the digital space, that billiard-cue pushing around toys and strings on a map could get super awesome.
Get onto the map app of your choice. Zoom in/out to the point where you can see your entire city, and now, start panning to the side. Pan until you reach a place you’ve not been. Then pan beyond. Aim for something you think might be a fair distance.
You’ll notice that even though you’re pretty far “up in the air” if imagining your viewpoint as that of a bird flying overhead, in terms of the map app’s settings, you’re actually still pretty zoomed in, and as you pan, it takes much longer to get where you’re aiming for than you figured it would. Sometimes you’ll even get lost along the way and get tempted to zoom out to get a better frame of reference. (Try to resist the temptation.)
For me, I tried to pan to Newfoundland. I was trying to show my daughter how far away England was with a scale she’d understand, but we gave up long before I could make it across the Atlantic.
Along the way I noticed little towns I’d never even knew existed, riverways and coastlines, whole areas completely unfamiliar to even my longtime map-loving mind — and all this not really too far from places I’d often been. All this at my fingerstips for years past, and yet wholy unknown to me.
Our world has seemed to grow smaller, but mostly because we ignore the distances; view things through the macro lenses of wifi-enabled air travel, instant communications, just-in-time delivery logistics, and living in-doors, where a bleak rolling thunder in the openness of the sky can’t make us feel afraid too often. We can hop on Skype and let our kid talk to grandma in England, or zip over to the megamarket for a fresh fruit or two from 5,000 miles away. No biggie.
But imagine actually walking along the line you’re panning in that map app. That’s the real world. That distance will still be there even if the airline industry collapses. And some day, things will likely collapse. That’s why Caesar’s face isn’t on our coins, it’s why archaeologists were sure for some time that there was no such thing as the Hittites of the Bible (until they discovered it had, in fact, been a very large kingdom), it’s why you and I are feeling every day as if time is going faster and faster. Death draws nearer for us all, and all of us have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. Believe it.
And think of this: owing to rates of diffusion and probability, the air you just breathed may well have had a molecules in it that Jesus Christ breathed. Or Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Moses, Mohammed, or the beloved Siddharta.
You may have drank water molecules they once peed out. You may have even eaten molecules they once did. Because as much as we like to set demarcations at national borders and oceans and cities, this world is in perpetual and open flow, all its atoms constantly circulating and diffusing across continents and oceans. And as much as we like to think of dead bodies as things in the ground, our bodies essentially replace themselves every few months. New cells replacing old, water and nutrients flushing out, energy burning, and on it goes, a neverending cycle of renewal and death right inside of us every day of our lives.
At a certain base level, we react to our own temporality and the wide open nature of the world by either clinging to comfort (familiarity) or embracing freedom (openness). This tension leans to one side or another in most people, helping create such broad societal binaries as ‘homebodies’ vs ‘adventurers’, ‘liberals’ vs ‘conservatives’, ‘employees’ vs ‘entrepreneurs’ and so on. Though people are never as set and inflexible as we like to think. You and I blend between these polarities and supposed unbending stereotypes even in different moments of single days, whether we realize it or not.
I’ve usually leaned toward openness, trying to make sure I’m looking out toward things I don’t understand and doing my best to make out what they mean. But I’ll still end up head-down in my office for weeks, worrying the details of a project that does nothing for me, seeing nothing beyond my routine and the worst kind of workaholic myopism.
Case in point: I’ve got a confession to make. I’m the kind who does iOS jailbreaks. I know — I really ought to follow the letter of the law of the United States of America, Apple’s favourite jurisdiction for litigation (not manufacturing though, God forbid.) But something inside of me just gets pumped up about things like wifi sync, video recording and personal hotspot functionality ahead of Apple’s schedule.
I’ve always craved ye olde un-sandboxed, oft-unstable “avant garde” unapproved approach to my digital habits, from the aeons ago of experimental OS 8 Kaleidoscope themes, to the Unsanity Menumaster days of Snow Leopard, to today’s SIMBL hacks and colourized sidebar icons.
And Steve Jobs wept. (Forstall too, maybe?)
In some way, I think this is about a battle for control — a sense that I should be able to choose my own path and fashion my own environment. In the same way some feel the urge to collage the insides of their school locker, build their own house, or fix their own car, I feel the urge to tweak my devices.
But then, usually after a particularly frustrating round of having bricked my phone or screwed up my last stable backup, I step back and realize how much time I’ve just spent moving around bits, not even enjoying the process or the results that much, and certainly not enriching anyone else’s life, or making myself a more well-rounded person. I’ve again lost perspective, indulging a certain kind of digital lifestyle gluttony, and starving myself along the way.
There’s so much out in the world to explore, so many people needing an open heart, conversations needing a clear head, places needing a clear eye. And here I sit, getting sick from getting stressed out looking at my little screens for too long.
So don’t close yourself up like I have. If you do the same, stop, look up and out and open outward — and maybe we’ll all get more chances when you come back and tell us what you found. Because if you get up and out of your beaten micro-habits, you will find something. Because it’s bigger out there than even that panning map app would have us believe.
“Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colors.”—Samuel Johnson in Idleness (‘The Idler’ no. 31, Saturday, 18th November 1758), via James Gowans on ADN and Advice to Writers
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — the trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”—David Foster Wallace, This is Water
We walked under the rail bridge bypass — thundering echoes of cars flying by us drowned out the follow-up response to the sour joke made at the expense of my friend’s municipality.
Joke or not, I wondered to myself:
If it were true, how does a fairly isolated city of a quarter million people become something by having its direction be nothing? How does it escape having a reputation? No defining characteristics, other than its lack of character and definition?
Is this just a case of forgotten history, the way many Brantford(2) residents have no idea their sleepy/dirty city was once the second largest industrial centre in the country? The way they don’t know their decrepit, empty downtown once had 9 theatres? Oscar Wilde lecturing? Alexander Graham Bell inventing and pitching and making? Generals and scientists and industrialists? Even now, the city still has the highest number of millionaires per capita in the nation (or at least did the last time we had a long-form census done), but we’re all shocked to hear it. Because Brantford is a place that lost its place. Lost its sense of its soul.
My retired next door neighbour talks about how when he was in his twenties, he used to walk out his back gate and hop on the electric trolley to head down to the beach for the weekend. On the way back to town, they’d get the conductor to lower the lights in the back of the trolley so they could canoodle with girls.
Now, you’ve got to get your own car and concentrate on rural concession roads for 45 minutes to get to the beach.
Maybe that’s a part of why we forget our history — it’s too depressing to think about what we’ve given up along the way. (3)
There’s a freeing thing about having no momentum: everything was once the same — inert, unenergized.
And when you look back at human history both recent and ancient, every age had its no ones and its celebrities, its misers and its saints.
And at every point of every sort of life, you can find examples of transformations, of folks who finally got the right thought, pulled the right punch, found the right niche, or met the right circumstance to change their life and world forever. It happened at every age, and to any one and with every disadvantage.
Everything started sometime. Some great, culture-changing icon is only beginning middle school this September, while another potentially great life was snuffed out last month, and will never see the opportunities you will a week or a year from now — small chances to shift tracks and snowball things into whatever effect you may well yet have on this planet.
Our expectations can hamstring with anxiety, sure, and our prior history can carve a likely-to-be-followed rut for each of us, yes. But our oddly human propensity for noting the patterns in and around us and changing them, or using them — it is what makes humanity so interesting and unpredictable, particularly at the single-life level.
So take mark of where and who you are, and believe the truth that tomorrow your life starts again, with new chances for nearly everything, and better chances than many have had.
No one really knows the bends and turns ahead. You can go big or go small or go medium, and all of it can have beauty and success and failure and joy and sorrow, because nearly all things do have all those things. So free yourself from the past armed with that.
That, and maybe the more bitter comfort that in the end even the greatest lives amount to not so much. So all you can do is all you can do. There’s no telling, just a shot in the dark. Every day, until you die. The important thing is that you take your shots in the dark if you want them, and remember that in the end, just like every other little speck of a soul’s journey that went before, it’s all going to end up a beautiful wisp of nothing. Only the arc of creation and cosmos will go on, and you will be part of that story no matter what you do.
And that is why you, my inert friend of whatever age, are still free to spring forward and accomplish great things. That is why you, like me, can transform and start, bit by bit, to snowball.
Stories are better than doctrine, at least in the way we have come to state doctrines. Over the course of my ministry, I have constantly fallen into the trap of thinking that being able to state a doctrine means that one has mastered its meaning. It’s great to be able to rattle off what we believe, to explain it, advance it, defend it. To be sure. To have it nailed down.
I don’t really think the more propositional teachings of the Bible are like that. They function more like a snapshot of a majestic mountain range. Doctrine to some extent accurately represents the truth, but stand there before that awesome vista and hold your little picture up against the backdrop and you can see the difference.
Let go of expectation. Edit only afterward — after pooping it out.
Produce for production’s sake, letting joy of release and sheer weight of volume drive you forward, packing crap and carbon-pressed diamonds into the same outgoing trucks until you find, amid the refuse, moment after moment of worthwhile work that escaped the previously inescapable prison of a mind afraid of producing inferior work.
That’s how you’ll get to your best stuff. Not by holding back ‘til it’s perfectly formed in your little bowel of a cave. Quantity first. Quality as a byproduct.
The warm sun baked the pavement under my shoes in Chittagong’s dusty, yellow heat, and I looked at the old man lying in a puddle on the sidewalk about 15 feet in front of us. He was naked except for a ruined pair of shorts, and his rough, dark brown skin looked more like a filthy, crumpled canvas draped over nothing but bones than the flesh of a real body. Behind him was the cement railing of the sewage-filled canal that ran behind our house, so there was no real way to get around him without stepping into traffic. My mom turned toward the street, looking for an opening so we could cross. I kept looking at him.
His long hair and beard were matted with what I took to be his own shit. I guess It could’ve been mud from the canal, though. Wouldn’t have made much difference in the smell.
I was 10, and we crossed the street so we could walk on the other side. I thought of the story of the Good Samaritan, and how I wasn’t him. I thought how whoever the Good Samaritan helped probably didn’t smell so bad.
· Pause ·
7 years later, I drew a picture of that old man. It got me an “A” in my Grade 11 correspondence art class. It also made me think about where that man might be. Dead, probably.
I thought of how I fell into a sewage gutter once while playing tag with the other kids after church, how I lay stunned in a puddle at the bottom of that cement trench, “canal mud” mixing with wet blood in my hair. It occurred that as a kid I was nearly as skinny as that old man, really. I had nicer clothes though. And I had a mom to wash the blood and shit from my head in the church bathroom sink.
The blood kept coming long after my mom washed the mud away, but luckily I had that friendly nurse who lived in the flat under the church, who brought out a first aid kit. And I had that lady surgeon, travelling through Asia by motorcycle, who happened to stop by that night for the church service. She sewed up my head on the nurse’s kitchen table, and I was good as new.
After the stitches were in, we probably still went out and bought chicken tikka from the barbecue stands the way we did every Friday night after church, and all was good in my life as I gorged on the flesh and bones of a creature that had to be more well-fed than that old man was.
As I thought over the mental picture of myself crumpled over in the bottom of that sewage gutter, I started to see myself in that old man. It made me stop remembering him as a sack of stink and bones and instead, as an alternate version of me. Somewhere deep in my head, a gear went *click*.
I’d like to say making that connection between myself and the old man made him become more human to me. In a way, it did, but, mostly it made me become more human.
· Pause ·
The parallel visuals I recognized between myself and the old man might have been superficial, but making the connection was important, because ultimatelly it lent me a glimpse of deeper truth.
We think and feel with variety and complexity because we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that variety and complexity in nature and culture, and in our interactions with other people’s minds and craft. Yes, creative flow is mostly drawn from abstractions, but it is abstraction of what’s been absorbed from our world. It’s a mingling and extrapolation of the truths and impressions and deceptions and outright perversions of experience. Creativity is breadth making depth.
Only when experience collides with unconnected experience does an idea form, birthed by conflict and common ground. It awakened me. It can awaken you. It can give you an idea for something new; it can make you a different person (for better or worse) and allow you to produce things you could never otherwise have thought of.
· Pause ·
We’ve all experienced this creative awakening to one degree or another, and it’s addictive, especially when it’s your job to be creative. But the resulting, continual thirst for inspirational fuel can also lure us into a trap. We can start to depend on downcycled inspiration.
I’ve found that my creative concepts can only go as deep as I’ve already gone in my absorption of the greater environment around me. Interaction with all possible angles of space and time and argument is what gives richness and nuance of creative expression, so if my ideas are shallow, it’s almost certainly because I’m drawing from shallow experience. And of course, even where I’ve experienced deeply, memory of experience fades.
So, when I reach inward to draw from “the well” and come up dry, I run to the easy fix — the shared scrapbooks of our social web. I flit across flickring pools of images and ffound artwork, tumblring streams of words and gif animations, and as I do this, my brain is either moving within that shallow experience and cultivating equally shallow creative capital, or it’s delving into those merely as portals to a richer thing that I’ve already experienced in more fullness.
A tidbit of media can either be a memento, triggering deeper experience and therefore deeper abstractions and extrapolations and revelations, or it can be a mere postcard, doing little more than making me frustrated and jealous.
Getting inspired takes getting out of your seat and out of your head. It’s in that same large world outside that all of the greats of history lived and walked and created, and it’s there that you’ll meet things solid enough to sustain your creative spirit. Until we’re rooted in deep breadth, the addictive tidbits of experience our favourite media outlets funnel at us are just saccharin in place of sun-ripened fruit. Whatever you’re baking won’t be good unless you can draw from what’s real.
· Pause ·
So my resolution is this: stop chasing digital saccharin. We can’t experience it deeply enough to find revelation. We’ve got to go into the real world among imperfect places, hurting/hurtful people, stupid logic and awful situations. We must flounder, stretch, breathe, argue, and absorb. It may not be pleasant. In fact, if we’re really getting out there, it definitely won’t be entirely pleasant. But then, and only then, will you have the raw fuel needed to create something really worthwhile — and more than that — to live a life worth your while.
It gives a fantastic rundown of real interaction problems Apple’s various software products have — the bulk of which very obviously have nothing to do with the presence or absence of skeuomorphism in the products, and will not be fixed by any aesthetic-level-only rehaul.
First, it presents to the wider masses the ongoing design battle over the appropriateness and usefulness of Apple’s (or more pointedly, Steve Jobs’) fondness of real-life metaphor in their software’s visual style.
[W]ithin the circles of designers and technology executives outside Apple who obsess over the details of how products look and work, there has been a growing amount of grumbling in the last year that Apple’s approach is starting to look dated.
The style favored by Mr. Forstall and Mr. Jobs is known in this crowd as skeuomorphism, in which certain images and metaphors, like a spiral-bound notebook or stitched leather, are used in software to give people a reassuring real-world reference.
That this pretty obscure design wonkery tête-à-tête is getting mainstream attention is another sign of the growth in significance that interaction design is being given in our society. A welcome sign of it, regardless of which side of the argument you’re on.
But secondly, this line of thought attributed to University of Washington design professor Axel Roesler stood out to me:
Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture.
This architectural comparison is apt, and it immediately recalled Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. I’ve been reading some of Rand’s works as part of an attempt to better understand the outlook of that part of the population who seem to hold her books second only to the Bible in importance. Like the capitalist zeitgeist of Atlas Shrugged, the ideas in The Fountainhead are also reflections of a dominant stream of twentieth century power shifts — in this case, the urban and architectural design schools most often generally referred to as Modernism.
Rand’s protagonist, an undervalued and misunderstood Modernist architect, fights against an architectural old guard who only see value in designs that incorporate heritage styles. The book’s argument against traditional architectural styles is much the same as the one against skeuomorphic software — that function, purity, and efficiency trump warmth, comfort, or culture.
Now, Modernist and brutalist buildings have their own beauty and place in our history (and as many of the best examples are now being torn down, I’m one of those lobbying for better preservation), but a look at 1940’s to 1990’s before/after photos of nearly any downtown core in North America immediately exposes that we swung too far toward supposed Platonic ideals and too far away from values of human scale, liveability, walkability, and respect for history and place.
Thankfully, our architectural and urban design disciplines seems to be slowly swinging back around to a more nuanced pairing of innovation with the human cultural stream, moving beyond the extremes of the Modernist schools and back toward a newly synthesized point of view that values heritage and cultural aesthetics as not just obstacles to progress or nostalgic crutches clung to by the out-of-touch, but as essential tools for creating quality of life.
So the question is: is this same pattern now repeating in software? Will we swing too far toward Metro vectors, white space and “Minority Report” gestures, eschewing all old-world interaction metaphors in favour of unadulterated forms, and then find we’ve lost something? We are, after all, merely highly-molded mud that barely a few hundred years or so ago were doing little more advanced than molding other mud into pottery. Will our search for ideal function and design purity cost more than we’ve bargained for?
I wonder if this part of Steve Jobs’ ghost will end up haunting us a little more than most.
Last night I saw multi-instrumentalist songwriter Owen Pallett play at the wonderful Supercrawl art festival in Hamilton, Ontario. I’d sort of lost track of him over the years, so almost didn’t go, but it turned out he was spectacular. Suddenly, I remembered why I loved him so much after seeing him play my beloved Ford Plant in 2005. Anyway, it prompted me to look him up today, and I noticed this on his Wikipedia page:
Now there’s a solution. I have no in-depth knowledge of the situation, but it appears a little sense, creativity, and willingness to not hold grudges and to work with others ended up getting all parties a lot further than getting adversarial would have. And instead of lawyers getting the main bulk of benefit, musicians got paid, fans got value, and even the business who made the original mistake ended up with additional benefit (and probably an amazing project to have been involved in).
Think of it. Someone wrongs you, and instead of hiring lawyers and “suing their ass”, you take an “enemy” and make them a friend and collaborator. More of this, please.
P.S.— If you don’t know Owen’s stuff, I suggest you watch this live video of him playing in a rainstorm.
People often complain of a lack of decent coffee while traveling, but there’s really no need for this to happen to anyone, even if you’re hundreds of miles away from the nearest espresso machine.
If you have coffee beans and can get hot water (ie. at least 80ºC — whether that’s gas station tea-water or campfire pot-water), this grinding and brewing combination is really all you need to brew fantastic coffee to your own taste. (Incidentally, also toning those forearms and keeping your wallet nice and fat.)
I’ve written pieces for both the “Creativity” and “Travel” issues of the brand new, gorgeously formatted Read & Trust e-magazine. Available issue-by-issue or as a monthly subscription, it’s taking over for the Read & Trust premium email newsletter we were publishing before. Lots of fantastic writers and well-crafted content.
An excerpt from the Travel issue article, “Walking in Floodwaters”, where I talk about the effect my risk-taking missionary parents had on me:
I admired them for taking their five kids trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas for New Years, and to the Taj Mahal for Christmas, instead of sitting at home on a couch by the TV. Sometimes all we had to eat was rice and lentils (which I hated), and sometimes I couldn’t go outside because I was too much a target for kidnappers or lynch mobs. But though I might have complained about things at the time, looking back, it was worth it.
Because of their choices, I grew up with a capacity to live with little, and to take risks…
And later, on the nature of travel and its benefits:
Though physically moving your body to another part of the world is a wonderful experience, not all of us can do it very much. Something around 95% of this planet’s population have never take an airplane ride, so if you can’t globe-trot, you’re in good company(1). (Some first worlders purposefully do this, in environmental and social solidarity with the large majority of the world.)
But having travelled frequently for large portions of my life, and then having not travelled much through the years following high-school, I can tell you, it’s not the distance that makes the experience…
By the way, the #00 “Creativity” issue (with my “The Creative’s Chemotherapy” article) is absolutely free, so give it a shot!
“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces — to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it — and makes it burn still higher.”—Marcus Aurelius
My old housemate wrote this — good look at another terrible situation in Canada’s north. Surely, things don’t need to be like this? Canada has a resource economy based largely on harvesting the north of diamonds, oil, metals, and more, yet its only inhabitants profit nothing. Sea to sea to sea?
“The imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects […] All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”—Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human (1878)
It was the last week of January, 2008 and the harsh beep of an alarm pulled me out of sleep. Groggy, I looked up at the peeling cement ceiling three feet above me.
I was on a top bunk in the room of a small inn. ($9 a night didn’t seem like a bad deal.) On the bunk below me was my friend Yoani — a Holland-born boy raised in the tobacco country of southern Ontario (we’d met at university) — and our cameraman, Mike, who we’d dragged all the way from his urbane Toronto haunts to the mountains of northern Nicaragua.
Stepping out into the courtyard, I could see clouds hanging a couple hundred feet above our rooftops. Neighbourhoods of huts drifting into barren, stump-filled openness drifting into heavily wooded hillsides vaulted up the slopes of the mountains surrounding this highland vale-town. Those treed verticals rose into the mist and gave the low-hanging clouds the look of being a blanket pinned to surrounding peaks, like a child giant’s living room fortress.
The chatty guide we’d hired told us the clouds used to often come right down into the city, but with the effects of deforestation and rising year-round temperatures, they didn’t anymore. This was as low as those clouds would get — hovering over our heads, it seemed a layer of cotton you could reach out and pluck from.
I hadn’t had a coffee in a couple days. (Of course, at this point I didn’t drink much coffee. Sure, I’d moved on from the strict straight edge-ism of my high school years to a policy of erratic, moderate consumption of coffee, alcohol, tobacco and other evils, but I tried my best to keep those closer to casual relationships than consistent habits. For the most part, I’ve kept that moderation steady up to the present day. Except for coffee. Coffee has slowly grown into a daily practice. Now I drink at least three cups a day. But it’s become a big part of my creative and professional future. At least I hope so.
I alternate between testing out various brands and blends as necessary for “field research”, buying from a friend who owns a local roastery, and on occasion, roasting my own beans at home, though I recently got rid of the electric pan I used to use for this, owing to it’s being muddied when a sewage line backed up into our basement. Terrific experience. If you ever feel like testing the waters of sewage system disaster, I highly recommend it for purposes of “building character”.)
But getting back to Nicaragua and 2008 — like I said, it had been a couple days since my last coffee. But it seemed I was in good company, for as far as we encountered, people in Nicaragua (at least the working classes) seem to not drink much coffee. When they did, it was crappy imported coffee, the closest cousin of which you might find brewing itself to death in a neglected corner of a truck stop in someplace like Idaho.
This was particularly odd considering we could’ve walked a couple miles in virtually any direction and found a coffee farm. For a country dominated by its participation in the volatile, abusive and multi-nationally dominated coffee industry, and for a region that produces a lot of the world’s highest quality arabica beans, they seem to really take to heart the long-standing drug dealer adage, “Don’t get hooked on your own dope.”
But it isn’t so much that. The reason there’s not much coffee is more insidious. Coffee is the tool used to keep the people too poor to afford coffee. The industry their saggy economy is built on is one of systemic and systematic abuse of people for the sake of money. And who makes the money? North American coffee companies, for the most part. This is because the coffee industry allows a mask of anonymity to its buyers. They don’t know where their coffee came from, and their customers don’t care. Just knowing the country of origin is good enough for even the more astute coffee drinker. Forget the working conditions. Forget the local environment. Forget whether the children of workers get an education, or even adequate food. That’s someone else’s problem.
We headed further up into the mountains, travelling from farm to farm down back roads. I’ll never forget what we saw.
“The people live like rats,” said a young man at the first farm we visited, walking up to the worker barracks in the dead of night so guards or farm managers couldn’t stop us. Entire families packed in stalls smaller than ones I’d seen used for pigs. “This is not a life for anyone,” he said. I agreed.
At another farm, we discovered the workers hadn’t been paid for more than a month, provided with only one serving of food a day per worker — a small bowl of low quality rice and beans. The food caused diarrhea and stomach problems, and going into the wooden sheds the workers had for homes, we saw that children were malnourished, with all sorts of health problems — diarrhea, bronchitis, flu, cough, anemia, parasites, stomach aches, fevers, and more. Almost everyone on the farm had various illnesses that could easily and cheaply be treated.
We only came intending to interview workers (something that’s usually pretty hard to do as armed guards often blocked us from speaking to workers), but this farm was worse than anything we’d seen yet. We went back to the closest town, bought medicines for some of the families we had interviewed, got some bread and coffee (yes, ironically these coffee pickers have no access to coffee, and want it badly for the cold mountain mornings) and came back to the farm. Our guide, Alvaro, who had helped with medical missions in the past, attempted to administer the medication to the individuals we had spoken with. It was a mad-house; thirty-five families or so queueing up for the goods.
One woman came up to us with an 8-month-old girl that had pneumonia for the last 2 months, and the medicine for the pneumonia only costs $7 for a full treatment. She was the same age as my own daughter who was safely back in Canada with her mother, but maybe half the size. It was heart-breaking.
If this were a war-torn nation, or one with no real economic outputs, I could understand this sort of tragedy being the result. But here was one of the best coffee growing regions on the planet, and we were amid farms selling to all the wealthiest coffee brands we love to buy from.
How could anyone do this?
“Who buys the coffee from this farm?”, I asked.
“Oh, we sell to the mill.”
We were told the vast majority of coffee farms (about 70% according to the vice president of one of the local mills) are using what are called “traditional practices”. “Traditional practices” mean worker welfare is no concern, and neither is water source pollution, pesticide issues, lack of education or medical resources, or any of the things needed to have healthy families and healthy communities. Even with relatively high prices on the stock market for coffee right now, many workers and their families are malnourished, some even to the point of starvation, and many without basic access to medicines or even elementary education for their children.
Coffee is grown, coffee is picked and processed and sold on the general commodities market. Buyers don’t care where the coffee is from exactly, or what conditions it was grown under, so the exporters and mills don’t care. They don’t make any more money for caring, so everyone just does what they can.
In fact the hardest hit on these farms, it seems, are the children. Their parents get some food from the owners of the farms so that they can work, but most people don’t even have enough at the end of the day to buy the cheapest food for the children. Food prices had doubled for their local staples in that last year, while already incredibly low wages had stayed the same. It was a painful thing to see, especially set in a landscape that looked close to paradise.
We finished our time in Nicaragua, and came back to Canada. It hadn’t been all gloomy — we’d come across many people that were trying to make a difference there in Nicaragua, including a wonderful family running a coffee mill called Esperanza Coffee, and an Ontario-educated plantation farmer named Gus (both of whom you’ll be hearing lots about in the coming months).
And the journey went on from there. Three long years later (last fall), we launched Ethical Coffee Chain — an effort to create a platform for coffee drinkers to connect with coffee farms and make a tangible difference. It’s been a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and of highs and lows already. Yet, we’ve barely begun.
“I want tools that make me feel like I’m trudging through the mud, tools that require some kind of physical mastery, that feel alive when you use them, like a cowhand’s steed. Why do we have to slouch here in front of these glowing screens? Why can’t the work we do be a higher expression of beauty, both mentally and physically, possess the grace an olympian propelling herself backwards over a wobbling high jump bar? What if web design was a full-contact sport?”—Jack Cheng on The Setup
Even now, after centuries of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intricate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we cannot do one thing without doing many things, or put two things together without putting many things together. Water quality, for example, cannot be improved without improving farming and forestry, but farming and forestry cannot be improved without improving the education of consumers — and so on.
The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this world.
“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”— E.E. Cummings
“What is deceptive, especially in the West, is our assumption that repetitive and mindless jobs are dehumanizing. On the other hand, the jobs that require us to use the abilities that are uniquely human, we assume to be humanizing. This is not necessarily true. The determining factor is not so much the nature of our jobs, but for whom they serve. ‘Burnout’ is a result of consuming yourself for something other than yourself. You could be burnt out for an abstract concept, ideal, or even nothing (predicament). You end up burning yourself as fuel for something or someone else. This is what feels dehumanizing. In repetitive physical jobs, you could burn out your body for something other than yourself. In creative jobs, you could burn out your soul. Either way, it would be dehumanizing. Completely mindless jobs and incessantly mindful jobs could both be harmful to us.”—Dsyke Suematsu from his white paper discussed at Why Ad People Burn Out.