Stupid enough to be right

A big inspiration for this (almost) daily blog is Austin Kleon. He wrote Steal like an Artist and Show Your Work, and his latest book, Keep Going is right around the corner. But more importantly, he writes almost every day on his own blog.

And when I had trouble writing today, I went to Kleon’s blog for an adjustment. Of all the endless topics we could write about, I found it incredible we were sharing a wavelength - chasing stupidity. In a post entitled A fine line between stupid and clever, Kleon wrote:

Every artist knows the truth in this. I often know an idea is worth working on if I honestly can’t tell if it’s incredibly stupid or absolutely brilliant. (“This idea is so dumb,” I’ll think. “I bet everyone will love it.”)

I need to consider stupidity my new compass.

Especially because what I wanted to write about was what Jerry Seinfeld said on the topic. Reflecting on the two years he spent writing a joke about a pop tart, Seinfeld told The Times:

It’s a long time to spend on something that means absolutely nothing. But that’s what I do. That’s what people want me to do, is spend a lot of time, wastefully, so that I can then waste their time.

Later on, he continues:

I know it sounds like nothing. And it is nothing. You know, in my world, the wronger something feels, the righter it is. So to waste this much time on something this stupid, that felt good to me.

Kleon, you’re in good company.

What are you, fun?

Almost more bizarre than the very statistical hail mary we call consciousness is our ability to just straight up swallow it. Somewhere along the line we stop being amazed that we wake again and again in this world.

I don’t want to take it for granted. I want to understand more about what people think is going on. And with that being said, I found some giggles and thoughts in an episode of the You Made It Weird podcast, where comedian and host Pete Holmes sat down with comedian and former talk show host Craig Ferguson about higher powers.

Craig: I think it’s Descartes that said all societies no matter who they are have a deity. All societies - Aztecs and Chinese, and people that have no connection at all, but they all have the idea of a deity. And one of [Descartes’] proofs of God was that for for every appetite there is a cessation. For the desire to procreate, there is sex. [For] the desire to eat, there is food. The desire for war, there is, you know?

Pete: Right.

Craig: So for every appetitive, there is a cessation. The proof of God is the fact that humans have an appetite for God, proves there is a God.

Pete: That’s interesting.

Craig: Because if you didn’t have an appetite for it, it wouldn’t exist.

Pete: But we also want to fly and stuff.

Craig: We do!

Pete: Yea, but I mean I want to take off by clenching my butt.

Craig: But that’s not how it works. How it works is, I mean, the fact we fly in the air, we fly in the air, so just because it’s not the way you planned it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exists. Of course it exists.

Peter: To that logic then, God very much so, following this logic, might not be clenching my butt to fly, it might be an airplane.

Craig: Of course!

Pete: Which means it might not be the God the Aztecs were worshipping, or my Jesus, or…

Craig: Or it might be the exact same God at a different point in time. But because God and Time don’t have to be the same thing. If, for example, you say the Aztec God or the Hebrew God, or, does Confucius have a God? Yeah, whatever it is - whatever God in whatever society, that God takes the form of what input you give it. For example, you plug the toaster in, it’s a toaster. You plug the sauna in, it’s a sauna.

Pete: I love this. We quote this all the time - you can dig a bunch of different wells, but it’s all after the same water.

Craig: Right!

Pete: You plug the sauna in, it’s a sauna. What are you, fun? You’re like a fun guy?

Craig: Yeah, I like the sauna.

Questioning the hunt for one-shot answers

My father is turning 67 in a few days. And despite his first-born son, ahem, working during the day as 3D product support, and during the night on a personal blog, he couldn’t tell you how to use the Internet beyond pecking in the letters for to watch the music video for Skid Row’s 18 And Life.

But, to my surprise, when he was gifted an Alexa last Christmas, he found a new way to rock out.

My one year nephew, AJ, isn’t far off either. He barely knows how to speak but he can certainly yell “Alexa” while shaking the hockey puck shaped device in his tiny baby hands. And, yes, it is adorable.

The future is here. We’re talking to robots. And, as James Vlahos writes in this month’s Wired magazine, “it’s going to upend our relationship with information”. Because we want answers and we wasn’t them now. We don’t want to rifle through pages of links. We want the undeniable facts. As always, we want the speed.

But what becomes more interesting is the other part of the equation, the question. You’d think we would need to train ourselves to talk to robots, but they are already a few steps ahead. Before Amazon released the Echo, William Tunstall-Pedoe developed True Knowledge - a website offering one-shot answers. Vlahos explained in Wired:

Most exciting for Tunstall-Pedoe, True Knowledge could handle questions who answers were not explicitly spelled out beforehand. Imagine somebody asking, “Is a bat a bird?” Because the ontology had bats sorted into a subgroup under “mammals” and birds were located elsewhere, the system could correctly reason that bats are not birds.”

True Knowledge was getting smart, and in pitches to investors, Tunstall-Pedoe liked to thumb his nose at the competition. For instance, he’d Google “Is Madonna single?” The search engine’s shallow understanding was obvious when it returned the link “Unreleased Madonna single slips onto Net.” True Knowledge, meanwhile, knew from the way the question was phrased that “single” was being used as an adjective, not a noun, and that it was defined as an absence of romantic connections. So, seeing that Madonna and Guy Ritchie were connected “at the time” by an is married to link, the system more helpfully answered that, no, Madonna was not single.

But can technology always grow to understand what we’re asking? Are there limits to the one-shot answer, or is it that we’re already living in a miscommunication world? Is there a single, correct answer for when to say “I love you” or how to negotiate a salary?

Life can feel messy but could there be a one-shot answer after all?

A funny train ride home

I thought about being a stand-up comedian on the train home tonight.

It wasn’t a serious thought, just an experiment. I’ve been diving so deep into the scene lately I didn’t even realize how wet the water was around me.

A week ago, Cynthia True’s American Scream - The Bill Hicks Story found me on the dollar rack at a local bookstore. Last night’s Netflix choice was Tig Notaro’s special Happy to Be Here, and I was not disappointed by her ten-minute tease whether or not the Indigo Girls would perform to close out the show.

And right before my train home, The Fighter and The Kid podcast hosts, Brendan Schaub and Bryan Callen, were talking shop with comedian Andrew Schulz in my ears.

But just toying with the idea of being a stand-up was an interesting shift. Instead of getting lost in the show, I started to excavate anything around me for laughs. Was someone wearing funny shoes? Was it weird how fast we’re hurling as a crowd at break-neck speeds through a very dark and narrow tunnel? Who approved all this? Some idiot with funny shoes?

And it might sound simple to you and me, but it’s something not everyone can tap into. David Foster Wallace said it best with one of my favorite quotes:

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

Wherever you pay your attention, you start the process of making meaning. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we’re not even trying. We think we know what things mean. This is a train. This is my commute home. It’s boring. End of story.

But if you take a second to choose a different reality, all with the single second of a thought, you can find some new meaning, and maybe some new life.