An Underground River

Author Steven Johnson:

Looking back now, I realize that beneath all those surface obsessions, a theme was running through my interests like an underground river, and it didn't fully surface until my mid-20s: the sense that the most fertile and engaging space in our culture lay at the intersection between new technology and the humanities.

In a funny way, the Mac played the same role for me that "Catcher in the Rye" or "Easy Rider" played for earlier generations: Experiencing it expanded my consciousness in ways that took me years to fully understand. Almost all my engagements with the technology world since then—the books I've written and the websites I've created—have been animated by the basic principle that digital machines work better when they are crafted and interpreted by people whose sensibility is shaped by the world of culture as much as that of technology.

This passage from Johnson’s essay has resonated with me for a long time. It might seem a little silly to refer to a computer as consciousness-expanding, but the Mac’s (and in turn, Apple’s) relentless focus on simple design played a formative role in shaping the way I see the world.

Johnson goes on to mention Steve Jobs’ discussion of technology and the liberal arts at the iPad’s unveiling, which is worth watching:

Our cultural conversation around the intersection between technology and the humanities has evolved a lot since 2010, particularly in the wake of the social impact that smartphones and social networks have had on our world. But the core argument remains the same: The devices and services we rely on everyday are better when they’re designed with a liberal arts perspective.

(As an aside, Johnson’s books are worth checking out. I’ve read a couple of them, and his work is both extremely accessible and fascinating to read.)

John MacGaffey
Metal Tubes and Impressionism

Rohan Silva writing for The Evening Standard:

It turns out that until the mid-19th century, European artists kept their paint in pigs’ bladders, which were a nightmare to carry around, impossible to close properly after opening and liable to burst at any moment (much like my own bladder). 

These limitations meant artists were largely confined to painting in their studios — and even then, paints would often dry out before they could be used. Thanks to the invention of the paint tube, artists could easily work in the open air, for the first time enabling them to paint anywhere, and making it possible to explore the effect of natural light like never before. 

We often take older technology for granted, but everything around us that wasn’t created by nature had to be invented at some point. In this case, metal paint tubes enabled Impressionism – something we don’t necessarily think of as a technologically-motivated movement.

But as Silva points out: “At its best, technology can broaden the boundaries of human expression and creativity, making it possible to do new things.”

I’m reminded of the ways in which the electric light, microphones, and speakers paved the way for modern musical theatre, which wouldn’t be possible without those inventions. We barely think about those things today because they’re so pervasive.

(Via Richard Shotton on Twitter)

John MacGaffey

I stumbled across this short film by Erik Wernquist a few years ago and have returned to it from time to time since then. Everything about it, from Carl Sagan's narration to the music, is exquisite.

"The Universe is Vibrating"

This video, produced in partnership between Apple Music and NASA, is absolutely gorgeous. It highlights the ways in which art and science intersect to make the Juno mission possible.

This quote from Scott Bolton, the Principal Investigator on the Juno mission particularly stands out to me:

The whole spacecraft is set up to send down tones during this critical maneuver when we go into orbit. What they really are is musical notes, that based on what musical note is sent, [communicate] how something's doing. Is it working well or is it not? And it's kind of interesting that it all comes down to musical notes, basically."

Tim Cook on Augmented Reality

I’m excited about Augmented Reality because unlike Virtual Reality which closes the world out, AR allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what’s happening presently. Most people don’t want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can’t do that because you get sick from it. With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance.

– Tim Cook

My thoughts exactly.

The Flow of Ideas

There is a predictable flow to the way technological advances change society: ideas trickle out of science, into the churn of commerce, after which they drift into the less predictable eddies of art or fashion or philosophy. But sometimes they venture upstream: from aesthetic speculation into hard science.

– Steven Johnson

Hold Fast to Dreams

The full text of the Langston Hughes poem that Tim Kaine cited in his concession speech:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Inner Imperatives

I recently read the commencement address that Bill Waterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) gave at Kenyon, and the story he told about recreating Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting stuck out to me. After completing the project, he finally asked for permission to do it, but was rejected and had to paint over it. Waterson writes:

Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.

The sense of joy he found in pursuing that "inexplicable inner imperative" is prevalent throughout Calvin and Hobbes, particularly in Calvin's infinite appetite for building elaborate snow sculptures. I suspect the zealousness with which he commits to making those snowmen (despite their inevitable demise once the temperature rises) resonates with a lot of creators.

The process of creating something is often just as important as the final product. This is in part because the time and effort required to make something truly extraordinary isn't justified by what you've accomplished. As such, it's important to listen to those inner imperatives.

Get the Cookie
Cookie Monster figurine stands next to birthday cake

One of my friends recently asked me why I like Cookie Monster so much. After all, I wear this goofy hat I found on Amazon multiple times a week and have a little Cookie Monster figurine proudly displayed in my kitchen.

At 23 years old, I'm what some people might describe as "a little too old to un-ironically love a character used to teach kids self restraint and the letter C." Fine. I get that. And I'll be the first to admit that there can sometimes be a fine line between fun personal quirk and bizarre obsession.

But Cookie Monster embodies what we all, deep down, want to be. He is our id in its purest form, desperately craving external pleasures and completely unencumbered by those pesky social norms. I mean just watch him in this video:

Cookie Monster wants to get the cookie, and he will let nothing get in the way of that goal. Plain and simple. His clarity of focus, his passion, and his uncontainable joy for cookies is, frankly, inspiring. There is something truly delightful in his unabashed, eternal quest.

The educational messages of his character are important for kids: You can't always get what you want. Patience is a virtue. Instant gratification isn't always possible.

As we grew up and internalized those lessons, we also learned to play it cool. Don't act too excited. You're an adult – act like it.

But Cookie Monster's most important lessons are for adults. Maybe you can't always get what you want, but if you're passionate about something, don't be afraid to pursue it with the reckless abandon of a child. If you have a goal, don't let anything get in your way. Get the cookie.