What If All Your Work Disappeared At the End of the Day? : The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau writes:

What If All Your Work Disappeared At the End of the Day? : The Art of Non-Conformity.

No comments section, so I thought I’d respond here: what he describes in his blog post is why I was a musician.  The attraction of music and other performance art for me was precisely the ephemeral nature of the work.  You perform it for a group of people, it goes up into the air and disappears, and just leaves some sort of impression that might last anywhere from a few minutes to the rest of someone’s life.  Recorded music, on the other hand, is really a whole different art form, revolving around permanent artifacts that can be revisited, like painting, literature (the analogy might be to conversation) or (especially) photography.

When I wrote music, I started with the distinction between recorded music and performed music.  Quite different ways to work.

How to negotiate

2008 or so: Iran, declaring itself the enemy of the US is building a nuclear weapons capability.  The US administration under Obama gathers a coalition of like-minded nations and imposes sanctions, then offers negotiation with the opposing government.  A deal is hammered out over years, with the result that Iran stops building its offensive weaponry.

Candidate Donald Trump and the Republican Party declare that the deal is terrible for the US.  Trump swears to rip it up and start over when he’s president, because he’s famously good at negotiating deals.

2017: North Korea, declaring itself the enemy of the US is building a nuclear weapons capability.  The US administration under President Trump resorts to yelling at the North Koreans and whining that other states (China) haven’t done their utmost.  Tension rises.  No negotiations under way.

What happened to the Great Negotiator?

Collaboration, reputation and a new economy

The idea of an economy posited on recognition is not new, but I found an interesting description of a precedent: scientific research.  In Chapter 8 of “The wisdom of crowds”, James Surowiecki described the publication of the first issue of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, wherein the editor worked to persuade scientists to forgo sole ownership of ideas hatched in secret in exchange for recognition amongst one’s peers.  This was a radical change from the way discovery and invention had been carried out in the Middle Ages, where it was confined “to a secretive exclusive few”.  He makes the point that this was possible because of the near-zero-cost nature of replication of scientific knowledge.  Unlike physical things of the time, copies of knowledge were effectively cost-free.

As many have noticed, lots of things are becoming cost-free to replicate.  So what has worked so well for science could well work for other fields, and that’s what we see in, for example, the open-source software world where people work for reputation.  The missing element which is just starting to happen is the institutional support that recognizes the ultimate commercial value in such work.  Large companies are seeing the value in reusing chunks of other people’s work, and in releasing chunks of their own employee’s labors to the public domain, often simply in exchange for attribution.

As more and more human artifacts become amenable to zero-cost replication, the idea of the reputation economy becomes more relevant.


“Beatriz at Dinner”, factions and the Republican Party

John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, “Beatriz at Dinner”: he’s not bad, he’s wrong.  He’s established a set of principles based on his view of the world, and then assiduously pursued action guided by those principles, and the world has rewarded him.  He engages with Beatriz because she directly challenges his view of the world, unlike the sycophants in the room, and he wants to convince her of his rightness.  It’s a tribute to Lithgow’s acting that he can show me the sympathetic aspects of Strutt’s character and make him into more than a cartoon villain of the normal Hollywood variety.

Coincidentally, I listened to a podcast by Michael Goldfarb this morning about factionalism, and as a consequence I’m reading Federalist Papers #10.  Here I read:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

Factions are the same disease within a society as is displayed by Doug Strutt: a willingness to trample the rights of others in the pursuit of some (ideological, material, …) good.  And, as Madison points out, factions (and people like Strutt) are inevitable in a society that respects property, difference of opinion, and liberty to think and act.  Madison’s solutions are to control the effects of such factions, such control being possible for him by the size and consequent diversity of the Republic, and the institutions of representative, not direct, democracy.

When I watched the movie, I felt that the morally bad characters were the sycophantic supporters, especially the young lawyer on the make, because he understood that he was doing wrong and did it anyway.  Over dinner he brings up all the problems with the real estate deal they’re consummating: protected wildlife, angry protesters.  He reacts with disguised disquiet to Strutt’s enthusiasm for hunting.  He has too much to gain to listen to his conscience.

Oddly enough, we see something similar in the US Government at the moment.  The majority of Republican members of Congress hold back from approbation of bad behavior by the President, by their leadership, even though they know that they’re doing something wrong, because they stand to gain their objectives thereby.  McConnell subverts the norms of representative government with his manipulation of parliamentary procedure, Ryan approves of King Trump’s abrogation of the constitution, Susan Collins wrings her hands on the sidelines and expresses “concern” rather than acting to punish Trump or her leadership, so the party can achieve it’s legislative goals, Orrin Hatch, a man who has been in the institution for most of his life, says nothing when the norms of the institution in which he serves are violated by his leadership.  This sort of craven behavior is the real moral bad.

Also, oddly enough, I see traces of Madison’s correctives in the inability of the ruling party to pass legislation.  While we theoretically have only two “parties” of consequence in our government, the Republicans encompass a wide range of political views that would in other systems be expressed by membership in minority parties (Libertarians, religious parties, Greens, …); this divergence of principle makes it very difficult to make legislation without accommodating the rights and opinions of those with whom the majority disagree.  The institution is working, in some sense.

Toaster love

A couple of weeks ago, I decided an overt expression of love for my wife of 32 years was in order.  For months she’d been complaining about our $20 Costco toaster.  Some of the elements were out; I’d had to repair the electromagnet that holds the toast down a couple of times, and my repairs are slapdash at best; the “eject” button had gotten smooshed in a fit of rage at some point.

I decided the thing to do to best express my undying love was to find the best toaster and buy it as an unexpected present to replace the accursed, damaged mechanical dud we’d put up with for all that time.  Of course, the best toaster would come from the best kitchen store, Williams-Sonoma, and be outrageously expensive for a toaster.  So, a little online research in the parking lot, a quick inspection of the display model in the store to confirm how gorgeous it looked, and I plonked down the more-than-3-figures amount and walked out with the Breville 2-Slice Diecast Smart Toaster.  I wanted high-tech, beautiful and indestructible, so I bought Canadian.  An aside: retail is hurting so much right now that Williams-Sonoma had a 20% just-for-the-hell-of-it sale; way less expensive than Amazon.

This toaster has a motor; you don’t push anything, you indicate you want the bread raised or lowered using the 5-button control panel.  The panel includes a button labelled “A Bit More®”, so if you pop your toast up and decide you need, well, a bit more, there’s a button for that.  There’s a button for doing Bagels, and a button for doing Frozen breads to “activate additional toasting time”.  There’s a “Lift and Look®” button so you can check the status of the toast “without interrupting the toasting cycle” and to adjust the volume of the toast-ready alert.  It’s built of die-cast aluminum, not cheap plastic.  It has many, many levels of toastiness, selectable by an LED-illuminated analog slider.

This morning, I inserted two pieces of bread in the machine and selected the “Toast/Cancel” button, and felt a little flutter in my stomach as I watched the bread slide down into the toaster’s inards, as I have most days for the last two weeks.  The LEDs gradually moved to the position indicating things were done.  Then, the toaster issued a periodic click, but refused to raise the toast.  After tapping the “Toast/Cancel” and “Lift and Look®” buttons a few times, I turned the unit upside down to retrieve the toast and set it back on the counter.  It continued to click at me, and finally all the illuminated buttons started flashing.

I unplugged the toaster and plugged it back in (too many years of working with Windows-based computers).  More clicking; more flashing.  Images of flaming toasters spontaneously pushing their way into my consciousness.

Some research on the web led to finding someone else who had the same experience.  They determined that a crumb somewhere was disabling the mechanism, and took care of the problem by dropping the front of the toaster precisely two inches to the counter.  I disconnected the toaster, dropped it, reconnected it and voilá, the motor smoothly returned the toast “carriage” to its off position.

Canadian firmware at it’s finest.  A potential hazard is detected (“there’s a crumb in the mechanism!  It may not be safe to engage the motor!”) and disaster averted.  And the fix is: drop the unit from a modest, Canadian-sized height.

My wife now finds me even more adorable than I was.  Able to hear and act on her mild expressions of discontent without requiring specific instruction.  Willing to spend ridiculous amounts to lavish upon her the pinnacle of modern kitchen engineering to ensure her morning toast is just the right brown-ness, and with the manly nonce to deal swiftly and decisively with the complexities that engineering injects into our life.  I can’t wait to install the smart front door lock®.