in defense of generalism

For my birthday last fall, my brother gave me a copy of Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I finally got around to reading it a month or so ago and really enjoyed it. Turns out my big bro knows me well! Since I thought of his books more than once while reading it, I wondered if Austin Kleon had shared any public opinions about the book. And he did

Here are a few sections that resonated with me.

On the relationship between cities and creativity:
Between deep political divisions in this country that seem to run along urban/rural lines, and the fact that the coronavirus hit the former areas first and, still I'd argue, hardest, cities have been getting a bad rap lately. But consider this: "A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn't ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative." And later: "...despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand."

In short, "cities...are environments that are ripe for exaptation." Furthermore, the "shared environments" of cities "often take the form of a real-world public space, what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously called the 'third place,' a connective environment distinct from the more insular world of home or office." Of course, at the present moment, finding and benefiting from a "third place" is virtually impossible (but possible virtually?), but the ability of cities to inspire innovation and change, even in the midst of a global pandemic, can certainly be evidenced in the protests about racism and police brutality.

On Capitalism:
"The connection between capitalism and innovation is more subtle than we often make it out to be. Yes, free markets introduce new forms of competition and capital accumulation that can drive the creation and adoption of new ideas. But markets should not be exclusively defined in terms of profit motive."

And again, toward the end of the book: "Collective invention is not some socialist fantasy; entrepreneurs like Edison and de Forest were very much motivated by the possibility of financial rewards, and they tried to patent as much as they could. But the utility of building on other people's ideas often outweighed the exclusivity of building something entirely from scratch. You could develop small ideas in a locked room, cut off from the hunches and insights of your competition. But if you wanted to make a major new incursion into the adjacent possible, you needed company."

The Slow Hunch
If you're wondering how to cultivate hunches, Johnson has three words for you: "write everything down." Charles Darwin's use of "the notebook platform," he writes, "creates a cultivating space for his hunches...His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper." The notebook (and, I'd argue, the sketchbook for more creative types) follows in the tradition of the "'commonplace' book...'Commonplacing', as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one's reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations."

Sabbaticals, Deep Dives, and Long Strolls
Similar to how Lewis Hyde writes about the sabbatical in 'The Gift,' Johnson cites the example of Microsoft founder Bill Gates taking "annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material - much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft - and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they've stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it's easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago." 

Associative Links and the Adjacent Possible
Another example Johnson uses to illustrate this history of innovation is Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, specifically for the importance of making "associative links" owing, in Gutenberg's case, to his "ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology," the older technology here being a wine press. Johnson continues, "Thanks to his training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg made some brilliant modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system, but without the press itself, his meticulous lead fonts would have been useless for creating mass-produced Bibles...An important part of Gutenberg's genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem."

Making the case for generalism?
"Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities - a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity - but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies. The historian Howard Gruber likes to call such concurrent projects 'networks of enterprise,' but I prefer to describe them using a contemporary term that has been much aligned of late: multitasking...In a slow multitasking mode, one project takes center stage for a series of hours or days, yet the other projects linger in the margins of consciousness throughout. That cognitive overlap is what makes this mode so innovative. The current project can exapt ideas from the projects at the margins, make new connections. It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes."

But don't forget about the importance of genres!
"Genius requires genres...Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world."

When I finished this book, I resumed reading Jerry Saltz's 'How To Be An Artist,' opening to this page about, as if proving Johnson's hypothesis, genres. 


pandemic diaries: week 14

Here's what we did last week, week 2 of #momcamp!

On Monday, in part for National Nature Photography Day, and after seeing it on the summer bucket list 510 Families updates every year, I took the kids to Point Molate beach near the Richmond Bridge to search for sea glass, a first for me.

It was so fun, like an Easter egg hunt, and we only saw two other families the entire time we were there.

On Monday night I started reading Jenny Odell's 'How To Do Nothing.' Early on she mentions Oakland's two most famous trees: the Jack London Oak in front of City Hall...

...and Old Survivor just up the hill from where we live. 

So on Tuesday we checked out both. Later that afternoon, we watched this short documentary about Old Survivor.

On Wednesday, seeking more redwood goodness, we went for a picnic lunch and hike in Redwood Regional Park, which recently reopened some of the lots accessible from the Redwood Road entrance.

Wednesday was also Global Garbage Man Day, which probably needs an updated title to be more inclusive. Surely there are female-identifying waste management workers, no? Anyway, we were going to watch Trashed but opted for A Plastic Ocean instead. Minimalism is another related title I'd recommend if you're generally interested in accumulating less stuff (and garbage).

On National Apple Strudel Day I made apple strudel for the first time (with what was essentially pie dough, not puff pastry). It was OUT OF THIS WORLD, get it?? And yes, mostly vegan.

On National Go Fishing Day, I was looking for some sort of documentary about fishing that did not involve men taking pictures of themselves holding up really big fish. I wanted to watch Leviathan, which is available via Prime Video but only along with a Fandor subscription. So instead we started Atlantic, but the kids got bored about halfway through. 'Atlantic' is narrated by Brendan Gleeson, who will play Donald Trump in this upcoming CBS show called 'The Comey Rule'. Weird, right?

For Juneteenth, now officially a company holiday at my day gig (so I had the day off), we first looked at the Emancipation Proclamation documents on the National Archives website, then listened to the reading of the proclamation on NPR that aired earlier that morning. After that we watched the 2019 retrospective episode of Juneteenth Jamboree, produced by Austin PBS. Later that afternoon, before and after dinner, we tuned in to the Oakland Museum's virtual Friday Nights Juneteenth program. I especially loved learning the dance routine set to Alphabet Rockers' 'Someday' as choreographed by Samara Atkins from Destiny Arts

It was a day by and large reserved for listening, learning, and reflection. But a hopeful toast doesn't hurt, right? I didn't have all the ingredients for Edouardo Jordan's Juneteenth Red Punch but I did have strawberries, ginger, and vodka, so I made the syrup and used it in a special martini for National Martini Day.

Saturday was the last day my kids will ever be ages 7 and 11 at the same time. So they were allowed their annual quota of Slurpee (more about my son's birthday in a second). Also on Saturday, the first day of summer, we tuned into the livestream Stonehenge solstice sunset event. Overcast as it was, it was somewhat anticlimactic, but still pretty cool to use the opportunity to teach the kids about Stonehenge, the summer solstice, etc. The British Heritage's related interactive webpage Skyscape is pretty cool for kids to explore as well.

Of course, having a son born on June 21st, he already knows a bit about all that. Saturday night we hosted a pandemic-friendly backyard viewing of E.T. for his 12th birthday. He invited three friends. One set of parents stayed for a socially distanced drink, then left. So between us and five kids total, there was plenty of room out back to stay 6 feet apart...or at least keep masks on. Ideally both but that didn't always happen. 

When it was dark enough I had the kids sanitize their hands and then distributed pre-sorted goody bags of popcorn and candy and got the movie started. The kids loved it. Even my 7 year old daughter was so thrilled to be in the company of other kids again, even if they were all older boys who were friends of her brother. 

For the next two and a half weeks they'll be at the one summer camp that didn't cancel or pivot to virtual. It's 100% outdoors, they're in a small group of 10 kids plus one counselor, and they'll stay with that group for the full 3-week session. They do a quick health check and temperature scan at drop-off, they have to wear their masks all day except while eating and the few times they get to play in a huge field, and they have lots of opportunities to sanitize and wash hands. Even after just a day, I can't accurately articulate how amazing it was, after 14 weeks of distance learning and mom camp, to have 5-6 uninterrupted hours to work. And for them, to be able to get a break from us, from our house, and interact, even from a distance, with other children - amazing. For me right now, this situation, extending as it is into months, not weeks, with no real end in sight, is all about harm reduction and risk assessment. I think folks underestimate how adaptable kids are, able to comprehend the importance of modifying their behavior. Should we ever cram 30+ kids into a classroom? Probably not, to be quite honest. Like so many issues in this country, COVID has exposed much of what's less than ideal about public education in the first place. We'd do well to take advantage of this opportunity to rethink how we do things, like public education and healthcare, but we should also give kids a little more credit. They know how to keep a mask on and if you're having honest conversations with them, they know why. But I guess I'm of the camp that feels we should at least acknowledge and weigh the downsides to keeping them out of schools indefinitely with the risk of contracting coronavirus. For now, I'm going to enjoy the next two and a half weeks and hope I get caught up on some of my longer-term project based work that's suffered over the last three months so that I can switch gears back to four weeks of mom camp that follow.


pandemic diaries: week 13

Before I get into "mom camp" week 1, following our "SIP...elsewhere" vacation, a few things to share about the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day and Black Lives Matter. I took White Fragility with me to read, one of several books I've purchased but will admit to not actually reading yet. I'm still making my way through, pencil in hand, to make notes in the margins. I have a lot of work ahead of me but I also think it's really important to be mindful of compassion fatigue

In addition to continuing to do this work every day, donating to organizations (locally, nationally, and to match a coworker's suggestion), and showing up to protests (like the Kids March, above), I've always been drawn to the power of storytelling and art. I think stories provide access points for even the most woke white person and can also be a great way to reach out to your more conservative family and friends. Read black authors, watch movies by black directors starring black actors, and follow black artists. A lot of movies are streaming right now for free (e.g. Selma, 13th, and Just Mercy). It doesn't get much easier than that. Raising white kids, we need to seek out these stories and make sure their bookshelves and movie nights, not to mention social circles, are as diverse as, in our case, this incredible city where we've chosen to raise them.

That work continues (there are a lot of these but this is one round-up of resources that I've been steadily making my way through over the last couple of weeks; it includes a lot of suggestions for kids as well, which I feel is really important). 

Here are some other things the kids and I did last week, the second week of their summer break. So long as I can fit in a total of 5-6 hours of work each day (I work about 25-30 hours a week), my daily goal with respect to summer break has been to fall back on my schedule and suggestions should they need some direction or structure, but above all to get them out of the house for an hour or two.

We watched The Wise Little Hen on Donald Duck's "birthday" (he made his debut in the cartoon on June 9, 1934).

Also on Tuesday, we did this new-to-us hike that I honestly can't believe we've somehow never done. Can't wait to return next spring to see more wildflowers.

On Wednesday, the hottest day of the week, we went to the beach for a couple hours. I'm not going to lie - it seemed a bit crowded initially but it was never a problem to keep at least about ten feet of distance between us and other people, both on the sand and in the water, at all times.

On Thursday, not at all related to any kind of national day or food holiday, but because it recently reopened (with modifications), I took the kids to play a round of mini golf in nearby Castro Valley. It's a bit pricey to be a regular summer excursion, but I felt safe and I appreciated having something to do other than walk around the neighborhood. If you're local, you can reserve a "tee time" here.

On Friday, for National Red Rose Day, I told the kids about how the red rose has come to symbolize democratic socialism and then we watched Saving Capitalism, which my son said was "too much like history class." Good. After all, you can't dismantle hundreds of years of systemic racism in this country without also taking a hard look at capitalism.

After that we went to see the goats grazing near the zoo, part of the Oakland Fire Department's ground fuel mitigation and vegetation management.

Friday was also National Loving Day. I've already seen Loving, based on the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all anti-miscegenation laws remaining in 16 states. If you haven't seen it you can stream it on Hulu.

Finally, I was very sad to see that one of my all-time favorite artists, Christo, had died. I imagine he and Jeanne-Claude are creating epic masterpieces together in whatever their version of heaven is. Dolores Park's social distance circles kind of reminded me of The Umbrellas, their 1991 work in the US and Japan. Sigh.


pandemic diaries: week 12

Confession: we broke quarantine to go to Joshua Tree. 

More accurately, we relocated our shelter-in-place operation to Joshua Tree. Planned several weeks in advance to create some sort of break between 11 weeks of distance learning and 10 weeks of summer "break" (not to mention the mystery that is the next school year beginning on August 10th), while successful on that front, it was nevertheless a surreal experience to be in the middle of the desert with so much going on in the country and back at home in Oakland. And I have more to say about that in a separate update. For now, while I think you're technically not supposed to travel for non-essential reasons (oops!), here's what we did, what worked well, and what I'd avoid or minimize if I did it again.

We drove down on a Sunday and came home on a Friday so that our hiking days would be weekdays, hopefully avoiding any potential crowding in the park itself. That worked well. More on the hikes in a minute, but I can easily count on two hands the number of other hikers we saw - not even necessarily passed - on any given hike. We packed almost all the food we needed for our five nights in JT, including lunch for the drive down plus breakfasts, lunches, snacks, beer/wine, etc., while there. 

We ventured out for takeout on three nights and had leftovers the other two. We also popped out one time on the first night, on the way to pick up that first takeout dinner, to buy a handful of perishable grocery items we didn't want to drive with. We even managed to find some totally vegan pie in town!

We wore masks everywhere, obviously. 

Other than takeout and daily hikes, plus a milkshake pit stop in Palm Springs on the way back up from the southern exit of the park, we hunkered down at our Airbnb. 

We stayed at this house for our Spring Break trip last year. The kids enjoyed the hot tub then and this time, considerably warmer in June than it is in March/April, we paid a little extra to fill the "cowboy tub" as well. 

The only thing I'll say about that, while the kids loved it, is that the water was a little murky after about two days. If I had to do it again, I'd pay double to empty and refill once halfway through the week. The inside of the house is roomy, the evaporative cooler worked surprisingly well, and we discovered that if you give a 7 year old access to a record player, she'll play music at every opportunity.

The hikes were magical. It was pretty hot most of the time we were there, so we hiked in the morning and evening (our evening hike at 49 Palms was by far my favorite), when it was cooler (hitting several hikes along the northern edge of the park that we didn't get to last time), and then on the two hottest days we essentially drove through the park, just popping out along the way for shorter 1/2 to 1-mile loops.

The sunsets did not disappoint. 

On our final morning, since I wanted to get an early start anyway, we decided to get up early to watch the sunrise. Because there are no buildings (or fog) blocking the view, sunrise this time of year basically begins around 5 am (although, technically speaking, the sun rose at 5:34 am that morning). Listen to the desert waking up:

As for the drive itself, I recommend rest areas over gas stations as much as possible. Very few people were wearing masks at the latter, while the former tend to be more open and almost everyone wore masks. In short, minimize stops as much as possible. And if you can make it to your destination and back on one tank of gas, even better!


pandemic diaries: weeks 10 & 11

I'm a week behind in posting this. So much has happened in the country - hell, the world - since the kids' final week of distance learning for this school year. And I'll post more about that later. For now, an entry in the pandemic diaries for weeks 10 and 11, up to and including the final day of the 2019-20 school year. 

Eleven weeks of distance learning DONE! Before it was over, on the penultimate day to be exact, I documented a day in the life, from start, around 6 am, to finish, around 10 pm. You can watch the full collection of Instagram stories here.

The last couple of years we've celebrated end-of-year with a trip to Cal campus for the best froyo in the East Bay. Since Yogurt Park is still closed, we enjoyed ice cream sandwiches instead, plus a nice walk from/to frog park.

Randomly, we discovered a rogue tomato plant using a tree in our front yard as a tomato cage. It's produced one perfect cherry tomato so far.

What started as a weeklong experiment has turned into more of a lifestyle change, but I already wrote about our mostly vegan week here.

Speaking of food, after several weeks of recycling 8-10 paper bags each week, I discovered you can bring your own bags and bag your own groceries in the car (at Trader Joe's, anyway). A pandemic pro-tip for you.

In related shopping news, since I had had no luck finding anti-bacterial wipes for several weeks, I finally bought a bunch of these reusable Swedish dishcloths. While I was at it, I bought some reusable Swiffer-style mop cloths and a couple of glass spray bottles as well. When I run out of my current stash of various household cleaners, I might try these tablets. One silver lining of other folks' pandemic-induced hoarding is that we might get a little closer to zero waste yet.

We finished season 2 of 'Dead To Me,' which filled me with added anxiety every episode, but damn that's a good show. I kind of can't stop thinking about how good the writing/dialogue is. We also watched all of 'Never Have I Ever,' which is also such a great mix of humor and genuine emotional range. 

This is a great piece (slide show?) about the allure of practicing a musical instrument during these uncertain times. Personally, I'm still chugging away at the piano, daily if I can swing it. I really struggled with Two Ravens but got Eine Kleine Nacthmusik in a couple of days. 

I've spent very little time in the studio the past few weeks (hoping that changes as we settle into our summer routine). Following up on the excellent origami/folding workshop, I bought Kelli Anderson's 'This Book Is A Camera' but have yet to use it, hoping to add a different dimension to my 100 Days in the Dollhouse project. I did make a couple more of these soft sculptural things, though.

I'll write separately, soon, about what we did for the first week of summer break. In the meantime, I need to finish getting ready for week one of mom camp!