Perhaps the meaning of life is that we have the capability to ask, “what is the meaning?”

This is a question that an artist or scientist tackles every day.
– Why create art when you could do something more “practical”?
– Why do science or philosophy when you could be half as smart, use half the effort and become exponentially richer by choosing a career in finance?
– Why be greedy if everyone around you really just pretends to care about you because they want a slice of your financial pie?
– Why strive for recognition and fame when you’ll likely end up a narcissist surrounded by preening swans looking to steal your spotlight?

What is the meaning?

Answers are inevitably arbitrary. Emotionality (including the suppression of emotion), grandiose ideologies and positive/negative thinking dichotomies provide wrong or inadequate answers. The mental faculty of questioning entails an ability to encounter a full range of experiences, including the possibility of finding a meaning. Even if meaning remains beyond our grasp, the process of extending our knowledge is itself the manifestation of a uniquely human and intrinsically meaningful act.

It may be the case that the art of living begins here, in a process of discovery that ends only in death. This artful path begins with a realization that the question of meaning is an accessible challenge for all human beings, and it lives within us as long as we allow it to move us in whatever direction the path takes for itself.

Emotions

Emotions don’t create meaning. “Happiness” is little more than an interpretation of an emotional perception; the emotional perception is founded in biological sensations that, themselves, have no intrinsic meaning. Sensations and emotional reactions can help keep us alive, and they can just as easily lead to dysfunctional or destructive outcomes. As emotions come, so do they pass. There is no deeper meaning in sensations, inferences about emotions, or evaluations of the imaginary worth of an equally imaginary “self”. The meaning of life is neither emotion, control or manipulation of emotion to create a sustained feeling of “being happy”, nor a lack or suppression of emotion.

Grandiosity

Grandiose pronouncements of some permanent solution tend to lead to fundamentalistic conclusions that necessitate the dehumanization and even murder of those who disagree. Some religious people proudly and piously declare that without religion — no, without their particular religion — life is hopeless and meaningless. From there is only a small semantic hop to the belief that non-believers are not fully human. And from there awaits either repentance and indoctrination or the bullet, the gas chamber, and the furnace. Metaphors can become literal reality all too easily in situations where faith (“faith” is absolute belief despite absence of compelling evidence) overrules or preempts the use of moral reasoning in the march from mindful contemplation to mindless obedience.

Positivity

“Positivity” and happiness are secular terms that are also synonymously meaningless. Some individuals even go so far as to define positivity as some sort of “science of happiness”, which of course means nothing at all.

Most worthwhile activities do not feel “positive” in the moment: studying can lead to a heavy-headed sleepiness. Acts of creativity can be as exhausting as running a marathon. Physical exercise can result in a tired body and next-day soreness. These are crucially useful activities that don’t feel “positive” or “happy” in the moment. Partying and taking drugs can be the most “positive” experiences of a person’s life, yet they offer no sustainable solutions, create nothing that develops or sustains human life, and helps no one beyond the moment of consumption.

Positive without negative is homicide/suicidal mania. Negative without positive is homicide/suicidal depression. Neither holds any value as a method of partitioning human experience in search of meaning.

Arbitrary or meaningful, or both?

Life itself is arbitrary. There is no one “real” meaning to life, just as no one human being is more “real” or “more human” than another. The ability to ask questions of our existence entails a comprehensive sense of self that can extend to the limits of the known universe, and perhaps even beyond it.

Only humans can use complex linguistic forms to explore realms of pure imaginative speculation, such as the notion of an “after-life”, which is absurd by definition — at least, until we find reliable evidence to the contrary. Only we can hear the vibration of a voice or other musical instrument and conceive of cosmic communication with the greater Universe. Only we can look beyond what we have thus far proven capable of seeing, by using curiosity to build questions that drive us to find new answers. Those answers then form the scaffold for new questions.

The wonder of life is at our fingertips at all times. The answer is the question itself. Imagine if you knew the “true” answer. How boring! ;)

To spend a life wondering, maintaining curiosity, learning, creating paths to new ideas and questioning the answers that we find along the way: this is a life that remains challenging, fascinating and constantly renewed at every moment.

This way is a path of science and fiction, emotional art and artful logic, love for life itself and the fulfillment of always maintaining a beginner’s mind.

The question is the answer.
Maybe.

In the modern world, no one can nonchalantly claim to be “not tech savvy”. There are only those who choose to keep up, and others who don’t.

Oh no! It’s a think piece! I might have to think while reading! Someone save us from thinking! Save us all!

The issue is far more complex, of course. Many people, practically speaking, don’t have a choice. For non-disabled populations in countries with ample infrastructure, however, the choice is very real, and becoming more vividly clear every day.

Beyond Disruption

A time of technology-driven social change is nearly upon us, and it will alter the way that we see and experience our world. The word “disruption” is an antiquated cliche compared to the imminent mutation of our collective memetic DNA.

Immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) and various “augmented reality” (AR) techniques can blend human-made interfaces with our awareness of the natural world. These new media are poised to change the cultural landscape with heavy promotion from brands like VR headset maker Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook) and wearable AR devices like Microsoft Hololens and the inevitable Google Glass 2.0.

And then there’s Magic Leap:

Mass media (marketing, advertising, and other types of propaganda) influences our reality via journalism and social activism, or conversely, pop-culture consumerism and mass apathy.

Imagine a world where media messages literally take on a new dimension, pouring themselves from the screen into the space all around us, innocuously befriending us while seductively whispering their carefully crafted suggestions into our ears.

The urge to comply will become nearly irresistible. That world is coming, and once it penetrates our sensorium and envelopes our thoughts, there will be no turning back.

Media itself is neutral; it has no moral component. The most persuasive messages, however, connect to our deepest drives and strongest desires; they prey on the power of our values, hopes and fears.

Considering how the 2D TV shows are used to constantly pound viewers’ minds with endless advertising, you might quickly realize that televisionland imbued with artificial intelligence and 3D sex appeal may not be such a harmless place.

There’s so much exciting new territory to explore — film, media, systems design and programming, data visualization. It goes far deeper than acting in a hit movie, racking up Internet popularity points, or aspiring to be a hot Instagram model or the next big Hollywood star. Several industries may be born within the next decade surrounding these new media, from NASA Mars Rover simulations and 3D printing, to sustainable city planning and architectural design.

No one really knows what direction these technologies will take. That’s what makes it such a fascinating area of study; there are so many possibilities that we haven’t even begun to explore…

Right now, most technological innovations on the Internet depend not on building a science-fiction future, but rather old-fashioned persuasion taken to an instantaneous worldwide scale.

Mass persuasion has another name. This is the shadowy art and psychological science known as “marketing”.

Internet Marketing

Marketing is an essential, yet oft-misunderstood creature within the continuum of creativity.

Internet marketing is its own discipline, separate from any other. In related realms, acting is separate from screenwriting, screenwriting is distinct from directing, and directing is dissimilar to the role played by a film producer. Marketing, too, has its own set of rules.

As in most areas of life, you tend to get what you pay for. If you see marketing as a peripheral aspect of your work, you’ll pay for it by obtaining generally subpar results. Vice versa is also true — in some cases. Remember that a marketer’s job is to sell their services to you, not necessarily to help you succeed in marketing yourself and/or your products to the world.

When it comes to marketing, there are at least three general options:

1. Hire a pro. Pay as much as it takes to receive the best quality and highest return on investment.

2. Study and learn until you attain the skill (and most importantly, obtain the level of results) comparable to a professional marketing team. This will require about the same amount of time as learning any other skill to an undergraduate level or beyond.

3. Wait for Lady Luck (or Scooter Braun) to bless you when the right person or people happen to stumble upon your self-made marketing attempts. Unless you plan on being the next Justin Bieber-like Youtube superstar, this may not be an efficient or effective route to professional recognition.

In any of the three options, you are spending money (option 1) or time (option 2). Or, you might as well play the lottery and hope for the best like other improbable popstar phenomena who were “discovered” essentially at random (option 3).

According to Silicon Valley hype, Youtube and most social media sites seem like ideal places to spread the word about your work. After all, they’re free and easy to use. Before going all in for the free-and-easy route, one question might change your mind.

Ask yourself: what does Youtube really want?

Youtube (owned by Google), and any Internet service that pretends to be “free” or “cheap”, is almost certainly collecting your personal information and selling it. The Internet runs on real computers, and yes, this includes “The Cloud”. Someone has to pay the electricity bill for the free ride that you’re enjoying by using their machines. Likewise, Internet companies care more about their users in the aggregate rather than any individual user.

Lightning in the Cloud

As long as they can drive more eyeballs to Youtube overall, Google can gather more data, serve more advertising, and make more money. None of their profit motive has anything to do with helping you compose or promote an effective marketing campaign. This principle applies across all “free” social media giants including Facebook and Twitter. The number of “Likes” and upvotes and pageviews can be a completely misleading metric that means the social network is doing well, while signifying next to nothing about your ability to succeed while using that service.

Marketers will try to sell you on the idea that the social media numbers game translates to results in the real world. If that were true, artists wouldn’t be in up in arms about how services like Youtube and Spotify pay abysmally small fees for gargantuan amounts of playback.

Resist the social media numbers game. It’s a rigged gamble that plays on users’ narcissistic need for attention while in the meantime, the website takes the money (and by the way, they now own all of the personal data that you’ve so willingly “shared” with them).

No Bigger Picture: Society Is In Each of Us

This blog entry is part of the “big idea” of studying media’s effects on society. Society, of course, is comprised of individuals like you and me, most of whom are attached to the idea of being “special” in some way or another. Narcissism is the thumbscrew that compels people to overshare on social media sites, to buy items that they don’t need or even want, and to ignore the implications of companies like Facebook that try to make the idea of personal privacy into last season’s passe fashion accessory.

Over the past few years, an ongoing project has been underway to look at these issues. More specifically, the purpose has been to create an alternative to the small cartel of media companies that dominate nearly all of today’s social Web: Google, Facebook, and Apple, among a small number of others (Yahoo still fits, but only because they own Tumblr and a stake in Alibaba).

What if independent artists and creators could build an Internet marketing platform that was effective, ethical and profitable? What if that approach could run like a non-profit or a utility, rather than as a for-profit corporation? What if the creators could retain 100% (or at least, the lion’s share) of the profits from the exposure received while using this new service? And what if this could all be achieved without harming anyone’s human right to the privacy of their personal data?

The borderline human-rights abuses openly engaged in by companies like Apple and Amazon (with the requisite amount of impassioned CEO denials and public relations spin, of course) only make the case more urgent.

In the age of the Internet, the few who control the networks also control the messages that the rest of us are immersed in all day and night. Website and smartphone interfaces are precisely designed to show and hide information, creating an illusion of choice that carefully guides our eyes and fingertips. Using the power of the Internet and emerging technologies, though — from simple browser pop-up blockers to proxy servers and privacy-enhancing VPNs — it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to succumb to some dystopian near-future scenario, even though that’s the path down which we’re being (mis)led. The average person is expected to be a comfort-seeking, attention-starved sheep craving fifteen seconds of cheap fame at any cost to their long-term digital identity. This is one of the many moments when conforming to average or “normal” behavior is a very bad idea.

Society Is a Hologram As One Part Contains All

The Internet was originally conceived as a nuclear-proof way to connect people around the globe. As sending and receiving payments becomes easier by the day, it only makes sense that individuals can work for each other and get paid for it directly — without the lumbering, meddlesome moneychangers and middlemen who may have been a necessary evil in a previous era.

How can anyone learn to function in such a new world order? How can we cope in a mediated universe, constantly nudged and cajoled into new consumeristic behaviors by beautiful, intelligent machines and their facelessly Macchievillian corporate makers?

Merely coping may no longer be an option. Technology moves so quickly that its effects can pass from system to system like an epidemic of the seasonal flu. Our personal and professional wellbeing is increasingly at stake as we become inextricably enmeshed in the technology that enables us. There is no such thing as a “non-physical” person, but plenty of people ignore their health and eventually suffer the consequences. Immersive technologies extend the metaphors of autobiographical personhood and consciousness in ways that are invisible, and often lie outside our ability to completely control. If we decide to be “not computer savvy”, we are not only trying to live in a bygone past; we choose to abdicate the health of our digital selves to those who want to craft our stories in their image.

In this case, the outcome is holographic: the bigger picture and the smaller one are identical in detail. The only difference is the scale at which we are willing and capable of seeing it. And that scale becomes the warden of our perceptual prison, or the shimmering key to our cultural liberation. Each person shares the responsibility of learning how to design, program and continually refine our process and path to freedom. Freedom is fragile and we have no choice but to learn a little more each day in order to nurture and intelligently evolve it. The alternative is nothing short of enslavement in a world where our choices have been planned in advance and served to us by pretty, empty interfaces built and controlled by unseen hands.

Further Resources

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You have no reason to care about what I’m going to tell you, until you’ve finished reading.

Imagine if this page was sent to you by your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband. You would immediately give it priority. So, too, if I was your boss or employer.

Chances are, you don’t quite know why this is the case, or maybe you think you do.

This is a crucial question in writing or reading fiction. “Why would the reader care enough to sit through yet another set of paragraphs, pages or entire chapters written about non-existent people?”

Why would you read this, or really any piece of writing, beyond the fleeting compulsions of random curiosity?

First answering the “why” will help guide the construction of plot and character by looking at how value is construed in society, for which fiction acts as a mirror and amplifier. This “why”, at its deepest level, may also elucidate what makes homeless people seem socially invisible, or why a person might perceive others as being more or less human. Even in casual dating, people construct imaginary classes in which they situate themselves and sigh that some potential lovers are “just out of my league”.

Samples of dramatic conflict that derive directly from everyday life:

– An ugly old male millionaire dates and marries, or even openly cheats on a gorgeous young supermodel or famous actress.
– A beautiful woman plays endless mind games of emotional manipulation against a hapless man who is hopelessly ensnared by her carefully constructed illusion of perfection and mystery.
– A rich older man and cunning young woman battle for sexual and emotional supremacy.
– Someone from the lower rungs of society fights his or her way up to become a defender of justice from the top echelon of the social world, usually by defeating the incumbent “champion” of that world to become a “winner”.
– Two powerful adversaries, one fighting for good and the other for evil, clash in an epic struggle that will determine the fate of humanity. The adversaries can either be Godlike heroes, or two opposing groups that band together as tribes or “teams”.

Most popular stories contain at least one subplot along these lines. (Notice also how, in the first three examples, the plots only make sense using the assigned genders. Though not impossible, switching the genders would make a credible story more difficult to write.)

The best fictional stories are just as “real” as the stories that you see on the news — and the autobiographical stories that most of us tell ourselves about our own lives. The news media is a complete topic unto itself; suffice for now to say that news, especially the kind seen on television, is a type of entertainment rather than “fair and balanced” presentation of fact. The average news broadcast presents factual information similarly to how a Hollywood movie tells the “inspired by true events” life stories of dramatically compelling people. Facts come a distant second to the all-consuming imperative of keeping the reader’s eyeballs fastened to the unfolding narrative spectacle.

Remove the optional emphasis on fact, and what remains is compelling fiction. The structure is exactly the same.

Take another look at the sample plot types in the list above. How many news stories fall into those categories? Answer: practically every single one.

The extent to which a writer understands the machinations of society is the extent to which he or she designs and builds compelling stories. The value of science fiction in particular is to highlight asymmetries of power based on access to, and differential uses of, human technology based on social status (and in terms of character construction, aliens are humans in disguise).

This is the first of a series of entries. By the end of this series, your approach to fiction writing and reading, and perhaps to the “real” social world itself, will never be the same. Or maybe it will be just as it was before, but now you’ll be able to clearly say why (and how). Concrete, step-by-step fundamental understanding of social dynamics forms the basis of any worthwhile story. Most readers know none of this explicitly; you have to hold them by the hand while showing them how to fly.

#Ilooklikeahacker #Ilooklikeanengineer
#Ilooklikeahacker
#Ilooklikeanengineer

For a moment, this blog is being hijacked. It is now “STEM Note Social”. For the length of this entry, at least.

Women in the technology world and STEM fields generally face a continuous uphill struggle against sexism at every level.

STEM, of course, means Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

On Twitter, it’s easy to tap into an endless stream of “feminists” whose specialty is essentially little more than pious whining about the evils of men. Men’s Rights Activists seem to occupy their own little hell far from most sensible technologists’ Twitter feeds; a pseudo-radical, playground bully form of feminism is more widespread and popular.

Those who trade less in shrill accusations love to spout rainbow-hued, falslely cheerful ‘positive thinking’ exceptions to gendered rules. “My Bubbie is an 88-year-old Perl hacker and systems engineer — #ilooklikeanengineer“.

Well, no, in reality, that’s _not_ what engineers look like. The typical engineer is a heterosexual, heteronormative (also known as “cis” in some circles) white male.

There are two clear contributing factors regarding the mistreatment of women in STEM fields.

1. Technology is a perpetual carousel of learning new skillsets to either deepen or replace old ones.

A programmer or other engineer may spent as much (or indeed more) time per day studying as he or she may spend actually doing the work.

Consider also the abstract nature of the work itself, and you have a strong disconnection between the average male engineer and the average female human being. It is true that women are typically more emotionally attuned than men, if only because girls are indoctrinated to fight using their minds rather than their fists.

2. Egalitarianism is a myth in _every_ field, including STEM.

Part of the fabled advantage of being in a STEM field is that no one cares what you look like. If you can write the code, you can get the accolades. Do the work, get the pay. No matter if you’re a biracial transgender woman born in Calcutta or a white cis man who grew up in the midwestern suburbs — we’re all equal as long as the code runs and the proofs pass muster.

Is it true, though?

Of course not.

Gender aside for a moment, ageism is legendary is the programming world. Beyond a certain age (say, thirty years old), it’s easy to find stories online about the difficulties programmers face when seeking work compared to when they were younger. Why? There is a practical element: many older people have families. They don’t want to live in a “permanent startup culture” of 80-100 hour workweeks. The “adult” responsibilities of older workers generally center around keeping a house in order (and often a spouse) and raising children.

In that respect, ageism and gender are quite similar. Most young women want to have children, whether they consciously realize it or not.

Consider three facts: First, nearly half of all pregnancies are not planned in advance. Second, women must have children prior to age 36 in order to ensure the child’s optimal health. Reproductive technologies (such as egg-freezing and in-vitro fertilization) are primitive at worst and unreliable at best. Third, a woman should space her pregnancies approximately two years apart to give her body time to recuperate and prepare for the next pregnancy.

What do these three facts add up to? They add up to the reality that by the time a woman is in her late twenties, she will most likely be close to having her first child. As we see with ageism, the responsibilies of properly raising children will cut into the time and energy available for incubating a science and/or technology career. In that light, it does make at least some sense for employers to screen women out if the work requires the grueling, often unpredictable schedules that are typical in software and other techie fields.

Hence, egalitarianism falls apart when confronted by biological reality.

Plus, there is a pyschosocial element: our minds do not function in absence of social cues. Anyone who has interviewed for either a job or a consulting gig has heard one of these phrases: “we want to see if you’re a good fit”, or “we think you’ll be great in our ‘corporate culture’.” Every organization is first and foremost a group of human beings interacting with one another. If you don’t fit the profile of the group — that is, if you’re a heavily-accented foreigner, an older person out of touch with pop culture, or a woman who takes offense at sexist “bro” humour — you’re probably “not a good fit”.

Every social group has cultural norms, rituals and biases. Social expectations and typed behaviors do not disappear just because the ostensible goal is to complete a software project (open-source or otherwise), or deploy a rocket on trajectory to Pluto.

Women are also partly responsible for sexism in STEM industries.

This is the part that most people leave out for fear of incurring the rabid Radical Internet Feminist banshees’ wrath.

The problem isn’t so much women inside of technology as it is the other 99.9% of women outside the tech world.

It was mentioned above that many male engineers are relatively unskilled with women. Most men in or out of technology are fairly inept at dealing with the feminine gender. What about a guy who spends most of his waking life around other (male) engineers, doing abstract and emotionally detached work? That’s a perfect storm of unpreparedness when dealing with women in any capacity.

Imagine, then, a guy who has relatively little skill in dealing with women on a daily basis, forced to “adapt” to a feminine communication style that is completely alien to him. Combine that with the repressed sexual desire that often is inevitable between heterosexual people — and remember that techies are often not habituated to dealing with it.

Then we add in the influence of women outside the tech and science industries. The average woman is steeped in emotional gamesmanship from puberty onward, if only to deal with her social and sexual rivals. Even for men who have an average level of experience with the opposite gender, the emotionally-driven behavior of women is a bafflingly strange and at times cunningly manipulative experience that he learns to tolerate in varying degrees and extents.

Much of the gamesmanship of both genders occurs largely outside of conscious awareness (body language, voice tone, dress style, etc.) and is therefore invisible to the person herself. This is why women accuse men of “playing games” and men fire the same recriminations back at women in a comical merry-go-round of miscommunication.

In the STEM world, consider the average woman who is emotionally intelligent and skillful in ways that she either cannot consciously articulate, or has learned to plausibly deny. Place her next to the average male engineer who does not operate in that mode at all in his daily life. It’s quite understandable, then, that he might feel estranged or even threatened by the presence of such an alien way of forming alliances, approaching social problems, and communicating something as simple as professional warmth and friendliness as opposed to nascent sexual attraction.

Without descending into “asexual, virginal nerd” or “evil woman” stereotype, the points sketched above hopefully shed light on at least a few of the starting points for sexism in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The issues raised here will not be solved by punishing men or enticing more girls to become scientists and engineers. Although some Radical Internet Feminists (and their male apologists) might like to see all-female offices or enforced “affirmative action”-style regulatory mandates, the core issues are not ones of gender dominance or legal wrangling.

The real answer may be at the same time more simple, and more complex: men and women need to understand each other better _before_ becoming workmates in the laboratory, or as fellow hackers working on the next great advance in technology. A key roadblock is the portrayals of gender in popular culture itself — sexualized portrayals that benefit women in ways that academic feminists often disingenuously deny.

Such portrayals also mask the truth that we can’t simply ignore gender and sex. Sexual desire is perfectly normal and gender is as real as the teenage throes of puberty. Transcendence of sexism may be found in accepting ourselves and each other rather than shaming and blaming the “other” for real or imaginary transgressions. And that’s a task that starts far before anyone dons a lab coat or writes their first line of code.

The genesis of this entry was a simple question:

“Ten years from now, what will I most regret not having started today?”

In order to live well as an artist, the art itself is one part of a far larger context called “your life”.

What about the distorted positive-thinking mythology of the superhuman “genius” overcoming all odds?

That actually makes life harder. Instead of focusing on the positive (and ignoring the other half of reality), the whole picture will show you how to anticipate problems while reaching for success.

Here is an outline for a creative life that goes farther than starvation-wage “survival jobs” and the “work hard, work harder, become a genius, get lucky and strike it rich” idea that so rarely [if ever] works out in the real world.

A person with an entreprenuerial mindset is always looking for new opportunities.

At the core of this mindset is a practical consideration that’s so obvious, it’s hidden from view — much like the sky being so vast above us that we rarely think about it.

1. The 25% Rule

Never allow any one source to provide more than twenty-five percent (25%) of your income.

Immediately you see the mistake that the typical person makes. The typical worker has one client — called “the boss” — and is perpetually scrambling in fear of being fired by The Boss.

By contrast, the entrepreneur thinks about streams of revenue. It’s needlessly risky to allow any one client to control your ability to eat nutritious food and have a decent place to sleep. If you want to ensure that you can survive the next global “Great Recession” in good shape, make sure that you can lose at least two of your largest clients without causing any undue difficulty.

This means that you keep track of your cash flow — how much is coming in and how much flows out.

2. Live far, far below your means.

Who are you trying to impress?

Hopefully, the answer is “nobody. I live for my art.”
Right?

Well, if that’s not your answer, you may have considerations like young children or old parents or other dependents who need your financial help.

They all need to be factored into the basic amount required per month.

Remember above where the “25% Rule” was introduced? This is where it becomes real.

If you can’t live on fifty percent of your current income, you’re over-spending and under-saving.

Note that this is a ratio, not a law of nature. It’s a place to start from — find four sources of revenue, none of which is individually responsible for more than 25% of your income.

From there, you can find more sources. This means that if you have ten clients who bring in steady monthly revenue, you can afford to lose five clients.

This all depends on first knowing how much money you’ve decided that you “need” in order to finance your lifestyle. Look at the basic needs of life and work — not the “need” for a new phone every six months or the desire for fine dining and an evening at the theatre at least three times per week.

What are your bare essentials? This is what you need to know. Food, housing, transportation, utilities, materials, communications. Start from there. When your total income is at least double what you need to survive, you can weather a tough economic time as long as you save and stick to your financial plans.

3. Basic Financial Intelligence

You do know the difference between “gross” and “net”, right?

If not, you need to learn.

Financial intelligence is a survival skill. If you buy a car or mortgage without realizing that those are liabilities (not assets), you quite likely will regret it later. If you don’t know to never invest your retirement savings in the stock market unless you’re willing to lose the money, then you’ll likely die broke.

The world runs on money. I know, all us artists were fed a fine line of bologna as kids, and as adults. A consumerist society demands that we spend more and buy more, and think very little about anything else. You have to fight the urge to impress your friends and feel like a “winner” because you bought the new shiny toys that will become disposable trash in a few months or years.

Much of this knowledge is not taught in school. Find it and learn it.

4. Sources of Income: Skills, Products, Services

“How do I find _four_ sources of income?”, you ask. “It’s hard enough to find one job. Now I need four?!”

First, remember this shift in thinking: revenue streams, not “jobs”.

This is the M-word comes in: Marketing.

Very briefly, you can think of income revenue streams in terms of three categories.

Skills: do you have four skills that you can use to make at least twenty-five percent (25%) of your income? Are you a writer, musician, illustrator, and graphic designer? You can use each skill to generate revenue by creating products and services.

Products: you can create four products to sell. For example: this can mean different types of art, writing a self-published book about art, or using different media to reach different audiences (galleries, blogs, films, etc.).

Services: services here mean expertise that is intangible. Public speaking is a service. Monthly webinar classes are services. Mentoring is a service.

Figure out how you can help people do what they want to do, and you’ll be on track to creating valuable services.

There can be overlap between products and services as well, for example if you give a talk, record it and then sell that as part of a web series on art.

The key underpinning all of this is to do your homework first.

4. Do Your Homework: Research Your Market

Many artists start with a passion and go from there.

The hard truth is that some forms of art are rarely (if ever) profitable. Writing novels, illustrating comic books, and creating fine-art paintings will generally not provide a liveable income in the early years — if ever.

Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Do your own homework. Research your target market.

You may find that some of your work occupies a profitable niche. If you started out writing erotic short stories, you might find that romance novels are massively profitable compared to mainstream fiction. From there, you can research the structure of the romance novel and take a pseudonym for experimentation in that form.

Or you could find that you art is better pursued in the nights and evenings, at which point your life might need a bit of redesign from “starving artist” to “person with a second job that is an avocation and pays in life satisfaction rather than money — for now.”

Tip: Never think of your art as a “hobby”. Hobbyists end up saying things like “life got in the way” and de-prioritizing what they love to do. After survival, make art your top priority if you truly are passionate for it.

One day, if you work on your craft for at least two hours daily, you will find yourself near the top of your field. Why? Because most people are too disorganized to do _anything_ on a regular basis. This is why the average person needs a Boss to tell them what to do.

If you’ll have to spend at least nine hours of every day working for someone, you might as well work for yourself. Learn the skills and be willing to make mistakes. We’re all going to die, sooner than you might think. Life is too short to wait for retirement before pursuing your passions. Start now with a mindset of practical, flexible resilience, and you’ll never regret a single moment for the rest of your days.

On the Internet, many people seem to take literally the old saying, “sharing is caring”.

The more you share, the more you care.

Online, that can mean essentially anything: from artistic works in progress to prettily filtered selfies to disarmingly candid thoughts and sometimes shockingly personal stories.

Is all this “authenticity” really a good idea in a technological environment where such voluntary disclosure ultimately amounts to self-surveillance?

Sometimes, as a marketing tactic, the “authenticity” ploy works amazingly well. Readers react as if the writer is the star of a reality show, and often chime in with commentary as if the writer’s life were some kind of team sport.

(“Writer” here means anyone posting text and/or imagery to a social networking site. The writer could be a visual designer, sci-fi author, comic book artist or indie filmmaker, for example.)

The main problem with “sharing” is that real authenticity is mostly boring, whereas the fake kind is at the same time compelling and soul-crushingly cynical.

Before you go searching for your “best self” to present to potential new fans, take the following caveats into consideration:

Does anyone really care about your awesomely fascinating life, or would your time be better spent focusing on the art instead?

Oftentimes, self-presentation online has the sense of what some call the Curated Self. As a museum intentionally selects pieces for exhibit on its walls, so do Internet users with varying degrees of care. A rule of thumb might be that with each step away from the work itself, the more likely you are to alienate those who might like your art — but aren’t necessarily so inclined to get to know you as a person.

This is completely fine. If a creative person tries to convert online followers into simulated Internet Friends, it may be time to think twice about why that may be the case.

Is “sharing” an attempt at attaining self-validation or seeking instant popularity?

There is a particular tone that practically bleats, “Hello? I’m here. Please like me!” For an independent artist without specific skills in marketing, it can be difficult to craft a voice that sounds confident without snark or arrogance, and friendly without self-deprecation or appearing overly eager to please.

It can be easy to feel as if social media is a form of competition for “relevance”, where each item has to receive heaps of likes and comments and shares in order for it to be worthwhile at all. This can have the effect of subtly directing the types of items posted, in order to satisfy demand rather than express something real.

Is it ethical to use friends and family members as part of the self-marketing game show called “Your So-Called Life?”

A large contingent of creative Internet users seem to think nothing of sharing information about their friends, family and even young children, almost certainly without prior consent.

Funnily embarrassing anecdotes about your kids are fine at Sunday brunches with other moms who live in the neighborhood. Remember, though, that on the Internet, information never dies, and children have just as much of a right to shape their personal narrative as their parents (and aunts and uncles, etc.) do. The same is true of everyone else in your life who may not want to be used as fodder for gambits toward illusory Internet relevance and popularity.

And yes, quite a few Internet people are creepy weirdos who are using every personal detail as a kind of voyeuristic peep show. If you wouldn’t invite random people to stare into your living room window, why give them the same level of access via Internet for the sake of “building your brand”?

The line between self-expression and self-exploitation can be a tricky tightrope to walk. It only takes one sleepily cringeworthy after-midnight tweet or emotionally overwrought blog post to write something that, once screenshot and saved, can never be unsaid. Share carefully.

Have you ever wondered why creative people always seem to come with the label “crazy” attached?
Isn’t it a little weird how “sanity” seems to entail the bland sameness of conformity to social norms?
Is it possible to for a human mind to be both creative _and_ sane, preferably at the same time?

We can deal with practical considerations first: how to do more creative work in less time.

According to Pareto’s Law or the “80/20” rule, most people obtain eighty percent of their results from twenty percent of their time and effort. I like this idea and have probably mentioned it before. Pareto’s Law (or “Pareto Principle”) describes the amount of “wasted” time that an artist spends daydreaming. Daydreams are the invisible generative work of sketching out new ideas.

That eighty percent also includes time misspent following ineffective advice.

If twenty percent of creativity is visible, how can the other eighty percent be used more effectively?

The Inverse 80/20 Rule

Metacognition means “thinking about thinking”. Someone who designs a school curriculum is thinking _about_ the best way for students to think about a given subject, with the purpose of learning that subject. It may sound confusing because most people rarely question their own ways of doing things. Lack of metacognition may be the largest blind spot slowing your creative development and abilities. Most people blunder about taking advice from authority figures and popular icons rather than learning to evaluate the (possibly flawed) thinking that led to the advice.

Solution: spend eighty percent of your time on the metacognitive skill of learning how to reach better results in the other twenty percent of your time.

Example:
The average writer is often told that to be a better writer requires you to write a certain quota of words per day.

Using a metacognitive approach, you might ask, “instead of just writing more, how do I learn to write better stories?” The task would then be a deliberate, daily study and refinement of the question itself.

Further questions: Do I need to write better stories, or do I need to learn what stories are made of? Are there different types of stories? If so, which types to I want to learn to write? Are there any role models for me to learn from? How do they learn to write? How are those role models similar and different to me in my journey as a writer? How do the parts of their skillsets fit into my approach? If I alter my approach in one way, what effects will that have on my prior ways of doing things?

You will discover masters of the craft. You will find the first principles of your art, and every word you write will stand on that foundation. Look back in a few years and you may no longer recognize those old works as your own.

You may only spend twenty percent of your time writing. Instead of pouring the other eighty percent into the abyss of “consistent hard work”, you can rest assured that every finished piece will echo forward from the greatest sources that you have been able to find.

The real skill development is not the skill itself, but continual improvement of the learning process.

This is true in engineering as well as the arts, and especially in areas where there are no established best practices. Many artistic fields have no obvious blueprint for what’s “good” and how to create works of high quality. You will have to create and continually refine your own set of best practices, and hold yourself to them with each new effort.

Sanity for artists: what your therapist won’t tell you (and why artistry is not a direct route to psychotherapy at all)

In the world of psychotherapy, great emphasis is placed on psychological “abnormality”.

In the non-therapeutic world, the idea of “normal” is a social control tactic used to shame those who deviate from the majority’s consensus on how a “sane” person “should” (or really, _must_) act.

From the time of Sigmund Freud onward (actually, Aristotle), it has become fashionable to psychopathologize creativity as a form of madness. Hollywood further nurtures the “crazy artist” stereotype because it makes for a cheap dramatic thrill and easy comedic punchlines. This closely tracks the fallacy that successful artists and scientists are “geniuses”, and all geniuses are also crazy.

There is some truth to the idea — a disproportionate number of great artists have been manic-depressive (and perhaps some familial association with schizophrenia), for example.

The number of mentally ill artists is miniscule compared to those who simply love art and want to create it.

So how can you keep sane in a world where any hint of being “artsy” will prompt the manipulative idiots in your life to whisper, scream and howl about how “crazy” you must be?

Simple answer: realize that they are simply acting in a normal, socially manipulative way, and that’s how people are when there’s more than one human in a room.

Vital Contact

Artistry — and science, and engineering — often requires turning away from the world for extended periods of time. In order to acquire skill in a domain, this “introversion” must be enacted for hours every day, over a period of years. Some estimate that roughly a decade is required to rise from novice to attain practical mastery.

Psychojargon regards this intensive introversion as a “loss of vital contact will reality”. Expert armchair psychoanalysts (like your parents, perhaps) may mis-diagnose an artist’s mentality as a form of psychosis or dissociative disorder.

Many, perhaps most, creatively successful and prolific people have learned to turn inward. This is often due to some involuntary form of isolation from the outside world in their youth or young adulthood.

“Normal” people find other, more ordinary external stimuli: aimless socializing in desperate need of others’ love and approval; materialistic greed for status objects and money; and normal human obsession for sex and reproduction. Creative people somehow re-route that time and energy into artistic and/or scientific pursuits.

In other words, all successful artists, scientists and engineers are at heart, a bunch of hardcore geeks and nerds.

Social Butterflies and Inner Demons

Collaboration is often essential, yet a supremely well-socialized person will be inevitably be constrained by the collective opinions of those in his or her peer group. It’s harder to be creative when you’re balancing other people’s expectations against your own creative impulses. Creative isolation provides oxygen for the spark of an idea to ignite within a well-prepared mind.

The average person recoils at the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts, in no small part because their own minds are foreign resonance chambers of unfounded fears and imaginary enemies. A creative person, however, can choose not to be self-destructive — the abuse of drugs or other people, for example — in favor of accepting all of those “voices in my head” (although if the voices feel as though they are not yours, please seek professional help). Acceptance frees the mind from self-censorship and internal persecution regarding any strange or unexpected thought. This is a separate skillset that I may tell you more about later.

The Perfect Passion Project

The process of rising to a level of creativity where others care about your work may, paradoxically, require you to stop caring so much about what others think of your work.

Re-route the passion for approval, money and sex into the creation of a world that must first become more than real in your own mind.

A science fiction filmmaker doesn’t stare wishfully at the moon or sit on the couch getting high and drunk with friends while watching movies. The filmmaker spends years working on the skills (perhaps using the “Inverse 80/20 rule” above) to make real his or her own vision of Moon, Mars, Pluto and beyond.

A writer doesn’t fret about not having the “right” friends or sit on dating sites wishing for Prince or Princess Charming to magically appear. The writer learns to build fascinating character relationships and construct story worlds so compelling that the reader will never want to leave.

A visual artist or illustrator doesn’t fall into the typical consumer’s traps. Consumerist traps include trying to find mass-produced beauty in fashion magazines and engaging in the endless fool’s errand of shopping in boutique stores. The artist learns to take even simple objects and discover the perfection of what can be seen within them. This requires a re-wiring of the mind from demanding perfection outside, to creating perfection inside and learning to express it in visual form.

“Perfection” here can be the perfect tension of asymmetry or a marvel of the immaculately grotesque. The work itself does not attempt perfection. Perfectionism is perhaps the only truly debilitating illness to afflict creative people. Perfection here is the embodiment of the question: “how close is this work to the vision that compelled me to create it?” and that is the essence of a lifelong pursuit. Perfection is infinite, in that it always lies one step down the path; at the next step and then the next. This is a life in art. If that is madness, why would anyone settle for the consensual hallucination of creativity-deprived “sanity”?

Further Reading:

1. Bipolar Disorder and Creativity. Written by Neel Burton for Psychology Today.
2. Do Creativity And Schizophrenia Share A Small Genetic Link? Maybe. Written by Angus Chen for NPR.
3. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Written by Nancy C. Andreasen for The Atlantic.

I’ve turned to Reddit as an alternative to Facebook, mainly due to concerns about the rampant privacy intrusion that essentially defines Facebook’s modus operandi and revenue model.

Reddit is a hybrid news-sharing site and discussion forum frequented by at least six percent of the Internet’s users.

That’s a decent number of people.

Members of Reddit create niche-based communities. In those communities, they post links to media created elsewhere. Redditors can also add shorter pieces written directly in “text posts” on the site. Other members can vote “up” (approval) or “down” (disapproval) on all posts, creating a dynamic flow of popularity-ranked material; the flow changes as frequently as users post new items and others vote on them.

It makes sense, then, that if you want feedback on a story or other creative work, you might benefit from posting it on Reddit with a request for comment. That’s exactly what I did while working on a variety of fiction-writing techniques over the past two years.

Follow The Upvotes? How Conformity of Opinion is Quietly Crowdsourced

Sitting here today while playing with ideas for a new story, I recognized a dimension of the hidden issue that pervades all communities: all communities subtly indocrinate their members into certain belief systems. That, in a sense, is what gives any group its feeling of being “us” rather than “them”.

On Reddit, you can see that phenomenon in the distinctive type of humour used there versus, for example, Reddit’s arch-enemy, 4chan (or really x-chan considering the number of variants online). Inevitable silliness of Internet-based tribal keyboard warfare aside, the two communities have a very different “feeling” to them, partly based on how they are designed. Facebook (enforced fake authenticity via “sharing”) and Tumblr (scrapbooking and socal bookmarking) have their own approaches to community as well.

Specifically on Reddit, there are a number of science fiction-related communities. Each community on Reddit is called a “subreddit”, or “sub”. The scifi subs range from large to small, and the largest has over 200,000 readers. Although the reader numbers are misleading as to how many people actively participate, there is still a sizeable group who are online at any given time.

At first, it can be difficult to detect the fact that subreddits have their own set of rarely articulated rules governing what’s generally liked and disliked. It may seem like a strange idea, given Reddit’s illusion of “direct democracy” via the voting system. Considering the herd instinct that largely dominates human nature, though, the social reality of groupthink seems to have merely insinuated itself into the digital medium.

Don’t Try To Build A World on Reddit

The example that came to mind while writing today is that of “world-building.” Fictionwriters know this principle. Any story that ventures beyond fan fiction will have to establish an imaginary world for the reader to enter — a world that is in some way more fascinating than their own. The fictional story world suspends the reader’s sense of time and space within its carefully constructed realms of enhanced possibility.

If you seek feedback on Reddit, though, beware of the group consensus that all forms of world-building are bad, and therefore are easy targets for criticism. You can sometimes find conversations in which random users try to (literally) score points by snarking that a novel “started slow, with a lot of ‘world-building’, but it got better as it started to pick up speed afterward.” Even though this is obviously the case in the majority of stories — especially ones that project the reader into a detailed universe — Redditors have made a trendy talking point out of symptomatizing world-building into some kind of writerly deficiency.

Also beware of Internet Attention-Deficit Disorder, which seems to be the norm on Reddit. Most of the written works posted there are fan fiction, even if the subreddit’s self-descrption claims otherwise. Visuals tend to be clickbait images and videos intended to incite a maximum number of upvotes. This means that the overall atmosphere is “click, look, skim, repeat”. Sufferers of Internet A.D.D. will rarely take the time required to critique or even comment meaningfully on a new fictional piece. The exceptions are pleasant, yet exceedingly rare.

Reddit can be useful as a means of gauging the average person’s kneejerk opinion of your work within a chosen niche. If you’re looking for feedback that goes beyond “I took a quick look and got the gist”, other avenues are necessary for eliciting worthwhile review and comment. In fact, I’m presently creating one such avenue based the experiences with Reddit and other social media platforms; there will be much more to say and show about that in the near future.

As a high-concept introduction to this idea, you might imagine “Pitchfork + music streaming” as a move in the right direction.

The previous entry, Steal This Idea: Independent music streaming as a “fair-pay” Internet utility (click here), will fill you in further on details in case you want to be brought up to speed.

An “artists first” revenue model combined with aggregating reviews from multiple reputable sources may be an ideal starting point.

To my knowledge, advances in technology and culture most often come as the result of war between countries and/or deep-pocketed patrons (including governments) paying for passion projects. This is true from the painting of Mona Lisa to the invention of the Internet. Throughout history, the average person has usually been too trapped scrabbling for a few pesos to be able to worry or care about “art”. As we witness now on the Internet, the “common man” still has very little grasp of the value of time or creativity, and so we see a myriad of psuedo-moral rationalizations for what essentially amounts to stealing all forms of digitally creative work.

That’s the key question here, really: when given the opportunity, will people choose to do the right thing?

Tidal’s only apparent purpose is to use streaming as another brand marketing avenue for super-wealthy artists who already have tip-of-the-tongue, top-of-mind name recognition. Stratospherically successful artists (Jay-Z, Taylor Swift) need neither profit to fund their work, nor recognition of their skill, nor do they need fame from new fans to fuel interest and gain visibility. The stated purpose of Tidal is at variance with the multi-millionaires pretending to represent the “little guy”. We see cracks in the shimmering facade due to their reluctance/refusal to divulge details about their revenue model in regard to paying artists.

Jay-Z does say many of the right things, though. And so do politicians around election time. I don’t pretend to know his motives, but if you look at how the available facts fit, there is an incongruity that’s hard to ignore.

Another key difference here would be to attract truly “indie” artists who may not be tied up in artist management issues. This could remove the unnecessary mass of middlemen, as well as the intellectual property gouging artist throat-cutting that was par for the course in the pre-digital era. All of that becomes superfluous when the artist can connect directly with the consumer.

In order for artists (of all kinds) to truly become independent, they/we need to own the rights to our work.

A “fair-pay” approach like this one puts all terms and conditions upfront and in central view, no hype or shifty tactics required.

With the creation of a new music service that benefits artists who are already ridiculously rich, here’s an alternative idea:

Create a streaming service for independent music.

Here’s the idea:

– there is a massive number of sites that review indie music, right? So why not bring their reviews together and create a “metacritic”-type site that initially serves music based on the average review score.

As listeners have a chance to listen (or not), the number of plays on the site can take over as the main scoring mechanism.

– the creators of the service can start out by getting paid a decent salary, but nothing exorbitant. As the service picks up steam, the revenues go to the artists until all artists receive 80% (or whatever is agreed on) of revenues from their music. Beyond that, the site keeps the money as profit. This ensures that artists get paid _before_ the site makes any large amount of profit, rather than the site being based on pimping its artists and giving them left-overs.

I’m not sure if anyone has done anything like this, but if they have, I’d gladly support it. If not, I hope you steal this idea — or better yet, several people can steal it and create an alternative indie music industry on the Internet that actually pays musicians first.

The real question is: how do we eliminate middlemen and create a technology that is fair to the artist — in a way that is transparent to the extent that the artist also feels that their compensation is fair?

Neither Spotify nor the other streaming music services have done that to any satisfactory degree. That’s why this idea matters.