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Brendan Schlagel

Writing as Meditation and Pressure-Release Valve

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One from the archives! It’s always fun to revisit old drafts and surprise myself with the weird stuff I wrote way back when. Some is just weird; some I still enjoy quite a bit! I like the blend of free-associative rhyme and musings on writing-as-meditative act here…

Should I disentangle the angle or embrace the entangled bangles, clang and mangle the fangs that rankle and rage and shake the shackles that crackle and enact a bashful pact to pack a basket of rapid or rash irrational apertures that capture apps and apples through camera slats and hapless jackals?

Sometimes I think of writing as a pressure valve or gauge or energy release, a sort of button I can press, a pillow I can punch or scream into or run circles around like a manic child, when I feel myself coursing with directionless energy or filled with a vague and mild yet festering sense of panic.

I pace and push pushups and spin around and dispense a kiss or shoulder rub, sit and stand and sit again, refill my water bottle, break off a square of chocolate, read an article or six; finally then I open a browser tab, head where I need to go, start placing words down in, as Annie Dillard says, a line.

Sometimes I feel like I’m thinking too slow; sometimes I feel like I’m thinking too quickly, or that my thoughts are just adrift, a jumble, strewn about one too far from the others, from the rest, reaching tentacles toward me and toward its siblings, hoping to bring the family back together, back home, make sense of it all. It works, and then it doesn’t.

I can’t always determine or describe or detail or derail or depict or disburse or dispense denouement or detente or direct or divide or derive or devise, but I can try. It’s always within my power to try.

I see that my above paragraphs sum to three hundred words, and I think of the movie of the same name, I think of the Beyoncé album-closer coursing through my closed-ear phones, I look at my water bottle and I ponder the direction of this sentence, hesitating and correcting typos, and wonder how my mind can be in so many places at once.

Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate — how it can be in so many places in such rapid succession, how it can make leaps through space and elide time and jump through wormholes at warp speed, performing perform impossible feats, entangling particles, when human teleportation is still a distant dream.

Do you like doodles of poodles? How about oodles of doodles of poodles? With the whole kit and caboodle, the mood’ll improve a little, ooze and elude the Rubik’s cube denuding rubes and prudes, the feudal feud’ll do the deed and move the luminous ludicrous carousing dudes, scoot the soot and foot by foot let loose the flue and deduce the prudent move, remove from view a few jejune jujubes.

Can the act of writing be also the process of meditation?

I think that it can be, that it clearly, obviously can be, so perhaps that is not the question.

The question is, how can it be, and why should that be attempted, what can we do to make it a successful attempt at restoring order and harmony of the mental kind?

I think that writing can be used in many ways; it greatly depends on the intent of the writer going into the writing session. Coming to it with a very concrete prompt or idea in mind, it can feel like work, albeit an easier and more productive variety than if one enters the fray empty and grasping; but going into the writing act with a conscious emptiness, a desire to fill it but in a natural and instinctual way, now that I think is where this may start to arrive at the border of the therapeutic.

This is mostly a private act, or rather a private process because it is not one act at all but a state of mind or being or consciousness; as with meditation, this sort of writing that I’m thinking of is a space you inhabit, an orientation of mind, a disengagement and also at the same time a reengagement, but an engagement not with any fixed or concrete specific thing — there is no “must” in this process, no “goal” to achieve — but rather with the right sort of frame; your goal is to turn yourself around, stop your body from spinning, face again that direction which makes you most comfortable, points you toward home. It’s about allowing distraction to recede, about calming down, letting your fingers dance a bit, an abstract modern dance punctuated by subtle gesture, a dance in a small corner of your writing space, your room, your home, your block, your world, one which goes unobserved.

The observation, that’s your job, to sit back and turn inward, mirror-ward, repose and align your eyes and typing and even your breath to the movement of your thoughts, to consider what you’re doing and what you’re writing about, but not too much, to filter but only a little, only enough to keep out the garbage, the noise, and leave room for the grace notes to filter through.

Can this act — yes, this process, this meditation — be effective as a public one as well? I intuit that it can, in certain situations, though I’m not quite sure what those might entail. I think it must not be performative, but communal and generative and collective, propelled not from one individual to the next, but by the group as a whole; I think it would work best as a practice amongst a small group of people already close, unafraid of one another.

That seems a low threshold, to be unafraid of someone, but it isn’t really. I’m afraid of everybody, at least some of the time. But that fear can be lifted, for moments or even majorities of one’s personal experience of time.

Books that Have Influenced My Thinking

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A list of favorite books, particularly ones that have had a long-term impact on how I think about or interact with the world.

Sparked by this discussion on books that have influenced your mental models. Plenty more good suggestions there, but I’m partial to my own list! Really this is basically just a brief overview of my favorite books of all time, the ones that have left the most lasting impression.

Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand

  • For the concepts of deep time and the long now; appreciating a sense of how we experience time and our place in history
  • See also: Time and the Art of Living

Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott

  • Creative parable that’s very helpful for conceptualizing abstract concepts of topology and higher dimensions

Thinking in Systems, A Primer, by Donella Meadows

  • Great introduction to systems thinking, which is a useful lens for appreciating the complexity of all sorts of complex phenomena

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander

Oulipo – A Primer of Potential Literature

  • Nice introduction to the Oulipo and ideas of constraint as creative / poetic device
  • See also: Exercises in Style; Eunoia

Impro, by Keith Johnstone

  • Great primer on improvisation, really made me appreciate its impacts beyond just the theater, for example the importance of status in social relations

The Power Broker, by Robert Caro

  • Unbeatably rich and compelling look at how power and politics actually work, for better (power gets things done) and for worse (power blinds and corrupts)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

  • Beautiful, meticulously observed study of the natural world close at hand; made me appreciate the power of looking deeply and persistently

Le Ton beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter

  • Remarkable exploration of language and translation, in all its magic and complexity…both deeply personal and deeply researched, a must-read for lovers of language
  • See also: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

  • For really hammering home the grand, powerful potential of great literature and well-wrought language
  • See also: Don Quixote; Infinite Jest

The Pleasures of the Pangram

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Have you ever tried coming up with a really great pangram? It’s surprisingly difficult!

A pangram — aka a ‘holoalphabetic sentence” (thanks Wikipedia!) — is simple to define; fiendish to devise. It’s a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet at least once.

You’ve probably heard one particularly infamous pangram: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

This is apocryphally used to test typewriters or something. There now doesn’t seem to be much practical use, but of course that’s not the point. The pangram presents a challenge: how concise a sentence can you craft? How clever a turn of phrase can you fold into such a slim sentence? It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, a perfect little puzzle for language lovers.

Wikipedia tells me that, of course, “pangrams exist in every alphabet-based language.” I’ve only looked up English ones, but I’d be interested to see how the flavor of the exercise changes across language context. For non-alphabet based languages…what might be an interesting equivalent?

There’s a great tool here to easily validate a pangram and check its character count:

The above-mentioned pangrammatic classic clocks in at just 33 letters.

The coolest pangram I’ve come across is more impressive both in letter count and language:

“Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.” — packing a wallop of dark fury in just 29 letters.

Of course the shortest possible “perfect” pangram, at least in English, would be exactly 26 characters. As per the examples on the above page, most pangrams that short use obscure words and are semi- (or entirely) nonsensical, which definitely steals some of the appeal.

I spent some time a while ago coming up with pangrams, just for fun. I’m happy with a few, as far as phrasing goes, but I fell woefully short on the rubric of concision. My shortest was initially 48 characters, most were 50- or 60-something. Just now I came up with a slightly shorter one…next time will aim for sub-40!

Here are mine, in ascending length order:

  • Piquant flavors mix: garlic, a dab of jam, key—what zest! (43 characters)
  • Liquid zit juice spurts all over my big waxy face — thank God! (48 characters)
  • Mine champion of world, exquisite major key, zero go above you (50 characters)
  • Bejeweled ghoulish ax murderers victimize fake phantom query (53 characters)
  • Quiz my dear aunt Viv about foreign risk, she’ll wax philosophic joy (55 characters)
  • Hark! What excellent vim and zest — badge of perfection, quotient of my joy (59 characters)
  • The Pequod rocked; the jib swung the ship’s axis; a zephyr leveled foamy sea (60 characters)
  • Zany Ahab cried: “Fuck mate, that ginormous whale vexes me, jump in, kill it quick!” (63 characters)

Want to try your hand at making one? Let me know what you come up with!

Appendix — additional interesting pangram resources:

Secret Secrets of the Pomodoro: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Getting Things Done.

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Everyone knows that just by splitting your tasks into focused 25-minute increments, and like listing them out with proper prioritization, and fixing bum in chair daily — such is the simple key to knocking the wind out of your to-do list and achieving your dreams.

But what you may not know is that behind the veil of effortless productivity lie five hidden secrets…

I donned my investigative journalism hat and went undercover. I did it for your sake. This is what I found.

Secret #1

Here’s how Pomodoros actually work.

When you do the first one, you won’t achieve really anything worthwhile.

The next five or twenty, you’ll feel a vague sense of progress but still, you won’t, say, finish anything important.

After maybe a year or so, long after you’ve forgotten what the hell a Pomodoro is anyway, you’ll look back — and it will suddenly make sense. You’ll see that you have indeed actually Gotten Things Done.

Secret #2

Speaking of Getting Things Done, or GTD, not to be confused with GTL, there’s a secret to that as well.

That secret is: to do lists exist as a way to offload all the dumb crap that you’re just never ever fucking going to do.

Here’s how that works: add around one million items to your to do list.

Then, never do them at all.

Every day when you’re all like “hey I wonder what should I do?!” you should do the following: just think for a minute about what seems important and then do that thing.

Maybe every so often you’ll slip up and do a thing on your to do list. That’s okay. Just ignore or delete the rest, at least a 10:1 ratio of not-doing:doing. This will ensure that you stay mentally fresh and physically spry.

Secret #3

If anyone asks you to do something, first consider whether you give a shit really at all.

If you do, cool, take five and do the thing, unless it’s annoyingly complex or tedious, in which case, hmmm…can you get someone else to do it, or make the progenitor of the task just kind of forget about it completely after a week or two?

If you give no shits whatsoever, stay silent. If anyone hassles you, forward them your new “email policy” about how you have a doctor’s note precluding you from reading or writing more than five words at a time, or some such.

Secret #4

Really and truly, the only way to ever get anything done at all is to use the doing of one thing as the means of procrastination for the other thing.

Even then, results not guaranteed! But, if you have enough things to switch between, given enough time, you’ll start to accidentally make progress on all of them. This will feel like magic and let me tell you, it kind of is.

The more fun ones will progress fastest, which of course is as it should be.

Secret #5

Every so often, say every 20 minutes give or take, you’ll have to take a short break to run over to the mini basketball hoop attached to your bathroom door and shoot a few shots.

And by a few, I mean somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 400 shots on that mini basketball hoop.

This is to clear your mind, and all that. Seriously, it’s one of the best meditation techniques around. Don’t take my word for it, go on and try it out!

(The mini basketball hoop you’re looking for is this one.)

And that’s really all there is to it.

Reading Notes: The Dynamic Library

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Here are my reading notes for an interesting book I just finished reading, all about libraries and the organization of knowledge:

The Dynamic Library: Organizing Knowledge at the Sitterwerk — Precendents and Possibilities

Quick overview from the book’s blurb:

THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY presents essays in translation from an interdisciplinary symposium on the classification and organization of knowledge held at Sitterwerk, St.Gallen, in 2011. Home to over 25,000 volumes on art, architecture, design, and photography, the Sitterwerk’s Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) began with the bequest of book collector and connoisseur Daniel Rohner (1948- 2007). The question of how to systematically organize this idiosyncratic collection into a publicly accessible library was a fundamental concern, and a solution was found in a dynamic system of organization powered by RFID technology, which relies on digital tracking. The essays gathered in THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY contextualize the Sitterwerk’s associative classification system amid artistic and historical systems of order, while pointing to future methods for incorporating subjectivity and serendipity into the organization of knowledge.

Below, find my notes, with varying degrees of detail and coherence (owing to: I read this book piecemeal over a few months). Lots of cool stuff here!

Section 1: Classification Systems

Introduction + The Backstory of the Art Library (p. 6)

  • Retaining an open, dynamic organizational system
  • Retaining collector’s vision
  • Allowing for serendipitous discoveries
  • New tech: RFID tags, custom database, device to record locations
  • Inventory updated daily = dynamic, flexible order, adaptive to users
  • Physical tables to display and save thematic groupings
  • Daniel Rohner: uncompromising vision, immense reservoir of associative knowledge, immersed himself in other worlds and universes
    • Part of an institution’s importance comes from its library
    • Results of table-based search can be stored digitally, as well as printed into a physical booklet (bibliozines!)
  • Knowledge systems depend on individual points of view
  • Classification systems are “knowledge directing”
  • Order is not always very fruitful
  • How can you find out what you don’t yet know? Can encyclopedias / libraries encourage users to ask more complex questions? 

Organizing Knowledge (p. 35)

  • [No notes / TK]

Appendix: A Selection of Organizing Principles Used in Early Encyclopedias (p. 41)

  • Each include a) target user + context, and b) cost-benefit analysis…
  • From general to specific (taxonomic order / tree)
  • According to “nobility”
  • As curriculum or syllabus
  • According to the six days of creation
  • According to the catechism
  • Alphabetical order
  • Slices of life (maintains context / interrelationships…)

Library Organization Systems (p. 48)

  • Form manageable open-access to catalogs / call numbers
  • Emergence of storage spaces designed specifically for books, organized by a combination of formal + subject criteria…
  • Open stacks vs. open shelves
  • Universal classification systems (simplicity; synergy)
  • “Our supposedly clear orders of knowledge…are untenable in practice.” (51)
  • Alternative possibilities for serendipity via tech, search, etc.

New Orders of Knowledge Around 1900 (p. 53)

  • From bound catalogs → card catalogs
  • Importance of uniformity / standardization
  • 1910-11 Bührer published 177 pg. manifesto!
  • “Monograph principle”, calling for maximal modularity…keep information combinable
  • Bookbinders as enemies of information mobility?
  • Precursor to Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 essay “As We May Think”

Section 2: Art

Intro (p. 57)

  • “Archives…are not only places of storage, they are also places of classification production, where systems of organization are devised.” (61)
  •  Staub archive: linguistic focus, but beyond text, lots of images!
  • Leibniz as influential role model in terms of “creative combinations”…e.g. hypothesis of “Theater of Nature and Art” (62-3), prioritizing *intuition*…inspired Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer concepts…
  • Personal archives…cyclical; intentional growth
  • Reading, writing, thinking → discovering, recording, looking
  • Example: Aby Warburg…atlas + library…diffusion
  • Artists + archives…e.g. Hans Witschi…rules / principles…
  • Archive vs. museum…predetermined vs. co-created; added vaue…
  • “Syntax of the past”…variety of systems? (65)

Aby Warburg’s Library and Picture Atlas (p. 67)

  • A “Denkraum” (“space for thought”), private institution, open to the public
  • “Mnemosyne” = his picture atlas, including image “families”
  • “Asynchronous orientation tools” (!!)
  • Words + images “produce a kind of interstitial polarity…”
  • “Human memory works through montage…”
  • Book as “energy storage device” (p. 69)
  • Infinitely generative “semantic fields” and configurations, correspondences…
  • Felix Eberty + 1848 idea of “earth-sky” light ray archive…

Handbook History (Hans Witschi) (p. 72)

  • “Passive diary” based on collecting NYT articles…
  • Eventually leading to…focus on hands – thousands! lots of categories…
  • New online version:;

Notes on the Cataloging of Vienna’s Imperial Library (p. 87)

  • Massive 1780 recataloging effort…
  • LOL @ scholarly debate re: subject-based cataloging!

Section 3: New Orders of Knowledge

New Orders of Knowledge (p. 93)

  • “Traditional book structures and classification systems shape the way we think. We’re rarely aware of it, but to a great extent linearity and hierarchy determine how we see the world.”
  • “Even if alphabetized order seems like the most natural thing in the world, it really is just one tool among many.”
  • “The vast majority of our classification systems are strongly influenced by the physical world…But now, for the first time, the new infrastructure of digital technology almost poses a paradigm shift on us…we believe this will lead to fundamental changes in our ideas, how we organize things, and our sense of knowledge itself.”
  • “In a digital system, content can be displayed simultaneously in a variety of contexts. As a result, such content assumes multiple identities…each user finds their own subjective guides through the system…”
  • [Example] – “The visual language of images has a way of tolerating and preserving contradictions that are otherwise smashed to pieces by spoken or written language”
  • Four tools (or “rules”) exploring content relationships; screen vs. paper:
    • Trails – Firefox extension to “render visible the traces of their reading processes”…transfer image and text into printable booklets [NB – kind of like Print Arena!]
    • Maps – platform that allows users to collaboratively present information on a map
    • SchplitZing – “four fields in which volumes of content can be scrolled through”…contextual…
    • Lines – programming environment and writing interface based on the act of annotation…column-based…
    • These all = works not as finished tools, but basis for discussion!
  • Sitterwerk workshop in 2011…brainstorming various scenarios for the library and material archive…
    • How to bridge the gap between the two?
    • Idea of “The Daniel-Type of Librarian”…dissonance; space for new stories; shifts in perspective
  • Fruitfulness of ongoing exchange between opposing systems…conceptual dialogue

RFID: Applications and Implications: A Foundation for the Internet of Things (p. 103)

  • Huge impact on tracking, logistics…labor, behavior, convenience…and now libraries!
  • RFID applications at Sitterwerk:
    • All books and library materials are identified using RFID – taking inventory not just every few months, but all the time
  • Useful not only for inventory and search, but to compile and document *groups* of books and materials…proliferation of bibliographies!
    • And available more widely; via the Internet
  • RFID “merely a background technology” but with huge impact

Design Research and “Mode 2” Knowledge Production (p. 108)

  • Design research…examines whether and how design practices might act as independent modes of knowledge production…
  • Questions like: can the “genius of knowledge” be stimulated by creative techniques?
  • The requirement for knowledge in design and design research are inextricably linked to analysis of their materials, media, aesthetic and technological conditions, and socioeconomic contexts of use.
  • Knowledge always takes material forms… (see: Later + Actor-Network Theory…) > “immutable mobiles” = material carriers of knowledge that ultimately improve its distribution
  • Complex epistemic structure – no longer just form and function but creative practices, objects, tools, institutions, and designers themselves… > “knowledge constructing machinery”
  • No longer individual creative genius but “heterogeneous engineering”
  • Notion of a “design turn” – cultural research shifting from purely theoretical, analytical, historical approach > focus on *practice*
  • Design as playing a key role in interdisciplinary approaches shared by humanities, natural sciences, and engineering…
  • Research as a branch of design, not the other way around…
  • “Mode 2” knowledge production (vs. Mode 1 which = traditional academic knowledge production)…is carried out in the broader “context of application”, in trans- or interdisciplinary ways…
    • [NB – see: the “antidisciplinarathon” model by Katherine Ye and others!]
    • From the mid-’90s book “The New Production of Knowledge”
  • Knowledge as a “socially negotiated and distributed good”
  • Paradox: knowledge dealing more closely with social issues…but also increasing commercialization

The Unbelievable Universe of Unicode

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Holy hell, Unicode is fascinating and incredible! I recently found a list I’ve been keeping of my favorite typographical symbols, then got curious and spent hours today scrolling through the complete Unicode character set and reading up on the project. It was an eye-opening experience.

I used the awesome program Ultra Character Map (Mac, $10, well worth it for type and language nerds) which lets you save characters as “favorites” and I now have WAY MORE favorite characters than I started with.

Some highlights from what I learned:

First, TL;DR on Unicode if you haven’t heard of it before, from the main Unicode website:

The Unicode Standard provides a unique number for every character, no matter what platform, device, application or language. It has been adopted by all modern software providers and now allows data to be transported through many different platforms, devices and applications without corruption. Support of Unicode forms the foundation for the representation of languages and symbols in all major operating systems, search engines, browsers, laptops, and smart phones—plus the Internet and World Wide Web…

There are over 136,000 characters in the Unicode Standard. Which, by the way, is an enormous document, over 1,000 pages long, exhaustively documenting not only the languages / characters themselves, but all the concepts and guidelines and standards that go into making the implementation usable for everyone.

Of these, a little over *half* make up the set of the ideograph characters used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages (collectively called CJK), which all make use of Chinese characters.

Unicode includes not only scripts representing an astounding array of languages represented (currently ~139) but also a ton of interesting symbols and miscellany. Sifting through the whole lot of it was at times tedious, but also full of small delights and discoveries.

Google has an open source project, Noto, which aims to be a unified font project supporting as many languages as possible. It currently supports 90+ scripts, 300+ languages, and 100k+ characters…not quite all of Unicode, but an impressive portion of it! It’s not exactly a single font, since most font formats are limited to 64,000 unique characters, but it’s a family of fonts that aim to both capture the unique character of each language and maintain compatibility across the entire family.

There are lots of weird aspects of how Unicode works, partly for complex technical reasons and partly because of how it’s evolved over time. This article by Ben Frederickson lays out some interesting tidbits, for example:

  • Unicode even includes code points for the Ancient Greek ‘Linear A’ script…which hasn’t actually even been deciphered yet…meaning “there are characters in Unicode that no-one knows what they actually represent!”
  • Unicode has a fair amount of redundancy — for reasons of both semantic distinction and legacy compatibility, there are “lots of different characters that are visually identical to one another. As an example, the letter ‘V’ and the Roman Numeral Five character (U+2164) look identical in most fonts.”
  • I won’t include details here, but there are lots of unexpected behaviors that can happen when manipulating Unicode characters in programming applications…

One important thing the experience of browsing through Unicode made me realize:

What constitutes either a given language, or “language” in general, isn’t static and well-defined. Unicode is evolving, and probably always will be, ever playing catch-up to the realities of how human language is used. I learned there’s a distinction between a “language” and a “script”. For example, Latin and Chinese characters make up distinct scripts, but those scripts are each used by a wide variety of languages. Also, there are all sorts of things in Unicode that I wouldn’t consider part of any language, but also kind of are in a way — things like sets of mathematical symbols, or visual representations of Braille characters, or the universal symbol language we all know and love…emoji!

The CJK characters go on seemingly forever: cascades of characters, grouped first by radical (which, from my very limited understanding, is basically the word root, in both symbol and meaning), then by increasing number of strokes, which made the screen ebb and flow with waves of complexity as I scrolled.

So many languages I never knew existed. So many beautiful, elegant characters in these languages. So many unexpected things where I’d love to know the story of how they made it into Unicode. So many questions on how this whole thing will continue to evolve…

A few remarkable things you probably had no idea Unicode included:

  • Hexagrams (and trigrams and other *grams)
  • “Punctuation lotuses”, “poetry marks” and tons of other symbols I’d never even heard of
  • Mahjong and domino tiles; playing cards
  • Alchemical symbols (a whole section — very cool!)
  • “Private use areas” that apparently are just like empty placeholders in case extra spots are needed

Cuneiform is particularly awesome — super visually dynamic. I hadn’t seen these characters before; some of them unfold like a maze of fractals! Other languages like Arabic and Chinese have some super complex characters but these cuneiform characters are on a whole other level.

Unicode also includes a whole set of dope hieroglyphs. These, I realize, are basically the original emoji, but with really a shocking quantity of bird representations.

The whole of Unicode is organized into a complex structure of code blocks, and given all the legacy structure it’s evolved with, it’s no surprise this organization doesn’t always make sense. For example, there isn’t one single “emoji” section, ordered like how you’d find them on an iPhone keyboard. Rather, some emoji are found in the “Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs” section. Faces and related ones belong in the “Emoticons” block; others in “Transport and Map Symbols”. And the section called “Supplemental Symbols and Pictographs” is home to most of the newer emoji, for example the beautifully rendered avocado.

As I initially mentioned, this whole excursion came about as I began to explore the actual names and typographical representations of favorite characters and symbols I’ve come across — things like the pilcrow (¶), schwa (ə), asterism (⁂), komejirushi or reference mark (※), interrobang (‽), fermata (𝄐) and more.

I want to figure out some fun side project sort of thing to continue researching and celebrating all these fascinating and beautiful characters and symbols. I have a couple ideas in mind to play with! I may continue adding more stuff here as I learn…

Art History; Art Future

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Why do I so often feel like art is broken? When it comes to how we conceive of arts education, and how we’re taught to practice and recognize art and creativity, I think there’s a whole lot we can do better.

One problem to start with: creativity is still fairly ghettoized in early childhood education — and most all education, for that matter. Kids of all ages thirst for creative guidance, thrive on exploration and imagination; this should permeate the entire stack of learning time and activities, not be tacked on in a twice weekly time-slot.

This may never happen in our current climate, but let’s imagine: in some future world all teachers will have advanced expertise, and make more money than bankers or lawyers. They’ll all be active in some creative field, and skilled at eliciting curiosity in their students, guiding them to explore ideas wildly — not just academic ideas, but creative ones: initiatives to improve their communities, experiences they might design for their friends, mind-blowing experimental meals to cook for their parents.

The biggest problem I see with arts education, art history, and the general public conception of “art” at large, is that it’s regarded as a domain somehow separate from the ecstasy of everyday being and living.

The truth, though, is that most great creative work doesn’t live in museums or galleries, doesn’t come from art schools or artists’ studios. No — it’s put out into the world by regular people who have an itch, who are dissatisfied with how the world currently looks and take it upon themselves to imagine, and then create, something new.

I’ve been to a lot of art galleries, and a lot of art museums, and so much of what fills them — not all, but really, most! — is bullshit. Maybe not at the MET…but your average gallery? Banal, boring, useless, masturbatory, unimaginative. And even the stuff that actually is great and interesting, even that art often feels sterile,  decontextualized from the vitality of real lives and concerns.

As I see it, the future of art is in connecting people, changing how we perceive ordinary experiences, shaping the ways we hold ideas in our minds, and how we form relationships. This future is one of integration, consilience, immersion — bathing everything we think and feel in rich creative plasma.

Art future is not museums and galleries. It’s not even sculpture parks or weird video installations or processor-taxing websites. Rather, it’s a network of creative experiments available for anyone to encounter, explore, and modify. It’s a world where organizations are infused with such creative energy that to separate out business metrics from creative goals would be meaningless.

In this future, kids learn skills and knowledge, sure, but the focus of their learning is synthesis: how to look at the world with wonder, and use this vision to create new and meaningful things. In this world, the highest work of humans is in those areas that can’t be automated — creativity, critical thinking, complex inventions that have the power to reshape of the fabric of reality.

This will entail reshaping our social, political, and economic fabrics too, and these changes may not come easily — but when they do, the world will continue to improve, and we’ll be free to practice creativity in all we do. When that time comes, there will be people who wield these creative powers particularly well. But I don’t know if there will still be those we refer to as “artists”, separate from the rest.

Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.

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The title of this post is a quotation from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The entire book is incredibly compelling. But this phrase, and the section it comes from, struck me on reading it and lodged itself in my memory as an idea worth thinking about further.

This is from a part where Malcolm talks about his self-education in prison, and how he spent hundreds of days reading and meticulously hand-copying the dictionary. He describes how it not only enhanced his vocabulary but also taught him a lot about the world through its inclusion of information on people, places, historical events and more. That’s where this line comes in — his realization that, yes, a dictionary is actually an encyclopedia in miniature.

“I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying. […]

“I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. […]

“I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet — and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.”

The moment is the opening of a world of knowledge, the slow-burn burgeoning of reading and learning as urgent life priorities. The dictionary is a lens bringing into focus a new relationship with these processes:

“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors — usually Ella and Reginald — and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

I should maybe stop there; I am now about to trample over this elegant passage with analysis. But…a perfect storm swells, of topics that tug my interests: learning, information, systems, knowledge…a collision you might expect to find discussed at great length by Umberto Eco. Too late! The writing is already done!

This idea struck me because it encapsulates something really interesting about the structure of information and knowledge. It makes clear how there can be layers of hierarchy in meaning and organization, how it’s possible to find within one structural shell another, deeper layer, another way of perceiving or interpreting  information.

The conceptual framing of “dictionary as encyclopedia” is interesting  partly because of how each of these structures — dictionary and encyclopedia — are both familiar to us as some kind of Platonic form, and have variously manifested and evolved through the years.

The specific conceptions surely vary a great deal from person to person and culture to culture. Personally, my image of a dictionary is as a contained, if evolving, reference compendium, designed to both document usage and serve up definitive meanings for as many words as may be captured in a given language. I see an encyclopedia as a collection — aspiring to be comprehensive, yet inevitably less contained — outlining factual knowledge, the basic informational shape of everything that can be imagined, though largely lacking insight and analysis and extrapolation.

But these are merely the archetypes; both dictionary and encyclopedia have changed enormously, even over just the past decade. They’ve metastasized to a phenomenal degree, exploding in definition and form, fragmented themselves into infinite subdivisions and niches. Witness the proliferation not only of entities like Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, Genius, Wolfram Alpha — but also, say, topical wikis for fictional universes.

It’s no longer possible to conceive of there being one definitive dictionary and one definitive encyclopedia. I mean, really there never was, but at one point you could at least squint and put on blinders and pretend like the factual world was more or less captured by the OED and Britannica. Now…now we’re irreversibly tangled in some strange quantum environment where the scaffoldings of information and knowledge are legion.

And many of these structures have multiple forms and interpretations, forming a much more confusing tangle, perhaps, than the dictionary-as-encyclopedia relationship articulated by Malcolm X.

Situationally, Instagram can be a reference resource. Facebook and Twitter serve as the news. Google Maps is the most vivid and comprehensive atlas the world has ever seen. Your favorite forum is a guidebook to a self-contained world. SciHub is an open library and Jstor is an archaic lockbox for knowledge. We have massive data sets being open sourced by major governments, crowd wisdom being harnessed like never before, and vast infrastructures of knowledge being made available in all manner of weird and wonderful ways.

My new favorite platform for knowledge organization and storage is Arena — neither centrally-managed nor entirely crowdsourced, but a blend of personal and collaborative, a place for weaving webs between the corners of your own mind, and those of others. I haven’t used the platform a whole lot to create my own idea-networks, but I’ve browsed it extensively, and see it used as both dictionary and encyclopedia — and also as scrapbook, to do list, even as library.

(I will almost certainly use Arena a lot more, and probably write about it more, in the not-too-distant future.)

With the relationships of all these networks and platforms shifting so rapidly before our eyes, it’s no wonder that we connect things in unexpected ways, actively creating (and at times stumbling into) new ways of learning and knowing. Sometimes this is accidental, emergent behavior of a chaotic landscape. But sometimes we know exactly what we’re doing when we use a service or platform in a way orthogonal to its original intent. And, often enough, that’s what keeps us moving forward.

Adding Hidden Layers to Websites via Secret Subdomains

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Random fun idea: adding layers of content and modes of interaction to one’s website — say, for example, mine! What might this look like?

This line of thought was inspired by some convoluted test I did to confirm that my site was up and running after switching hosts a while back. This process had me add an extra test subdomain and do some link shenanigans, and I ended up making one called “” — it was the first thing that came to mind besides “test” and I liked the idea of a hidden space, accessible only to people in the know. Similar to how any city functions differently, and means different things, to visitors and locals, it seems like it would be cool to have a part of my website that reveals itself in layers, perhaps a repository for things I don’t want to be fully public but still would like to share in some capacity.

Or perhaps it isn’t exactly another part of my site, but an entirely different version of it, that only reveals itself in certain contexts or interactions. The concept of responsive web design is simple yet powerful; perhaps this line of thinking could be extended further, and we just don’t play with it enough. Typically it means adjusting page layout based on device size. I’ve seen some that do get more creative, like Liz Danzico’s “Bobulate” which switches color theme from dark to light to match the actual day / night patterns in the viewer’s location — a fun twist that you don’t see very often.

It might be useful to spend some time thinking of other ways a website could either interact with the user and their specific context, or simply provide a greater variety of ways to navigate and interact with it. And yeah, subdomains…a cheap and easy way to create new sites-within-sites; a rich vein for nerdy fun. So, a list of some that might be fun to create for my site(s), as yet entirely hypothetical: — a semi-private, hidden area revealed perhaps only to close friends/family, or to newsletter subscribers; I could post cool links or half-baked ideas or personal reflections that I don’t share elsewhere. — somehow presenting / theming the site in a different way; perhaps displaying a different content structure, or the same basic structure but with extra stuff inserted at the margins, or even certain things rewritten from a different perspective. — could be either parlor trick or highly useful and innovative networking device! I could, after meeting someone interesting, quickly put together a one-pager with a personalized curated list of articles or other resources, links to more of my work, and other fun things. I could even have a template for this, making it super simple to make a new one for favorite new people I meet. — similar to parallel, except explicitly devised for the purpose of creating some sort of alter ego, or sly paradoxical quasi-refutation of my individual character; a public persona, refactored — this could be interactive; a place for people to engage with things I’ve written, ask random questions, query my personal API (a thing that, to be sure, also does not exist yet, but would be interesting to consider!)

What’s the difference between implementing these sorts of things using subdomains (e.g.,and simply creating additional pages on my site (e.g. It’s semantic, but I think an important perceptual distinction — implies more of a root-level branching of the site, whereas feels more pedestrian, indicating a page named “secret” on the regular main site. Partly it’s just convention; I like the subdomain implementation because it’s less commonly used, especially for this purpose…but I’m not sure the details matter much.

The more general point I’m getting at is that there are a lot of tropes and expectations when it comes to websites, in both form and content, and there’s always more we can explore in experimenting with the medium. Not just on a technical level (though that’s great too) but in terms of weird content structure, subversion of expectations, hidden delights, added layers of meaning…all kinds of potential!

Cataloging My Personal Micro-Habits

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An idea I had a while back — catalog my micro-habits, my movement patterns and granular choices, the small things that make up my daily routine. I figured it might be interesting to aggregate this information in one place, to make myself more aware of the effects, to optimize the flow and activity of my life, or at least the mundane parts (of course not everything should be optimized).

I thought: this should be a good way to find where seams are stressed, where I can improve, insert more life or more fun in to things. At the very least, it’s a form, a shell, a space for poetry.

Also — I wrote this a while back, too, roughly three — no, four? — years ago. I’m taking a quick edit pass now, in 2018, newly motivated to revisit old blog drafts. Just for fun, current me will annotate with any fresh observations and / or flippant remarks in brackets. Here goes:

I wake up, my alarm ringing most mornings at 8:30. More often than not, I’ll pick up my phone, glance at it, put it back down on the nightstand [still my normal wakeup time; the phone now lives in the other room; I usually pick it up, turn it off, and doze a bit more] and waffle on the wakeup, rest for a few more minutes, not (usually) going back to sleep, but delaying things, hugging the warmth. Area number one to improve: make this a regularity, a punctual start to every day. Weekends included. Militant, even — that could be good for me. And 8:30 is an okay time but really it would be nice if it were earlier. This is contingent on the flip side, bedtime regularity, but I think midnight to 7:30, or 11pm to 7:00 or something around there sounds healthy and reasonable.

After getting up, I drink some water. Sometimes the bottle is near-full, sometime empty, my bladder filled instead. Should make it a habit — a full bottle before bed, and another upon waking. That’s supposed to be good for rejuvenation.

I may glance at email in bed, delete a few that don’t seem important. Don’t want to make this a habit that takes much time, but if I get up earlier, then a precise say 30-minute time limit for e.g. scanning news, Twitter, mail etc. could have its merits. Probably best to not get into that sort of thing though. Maybe reading for 30 minutes from a book would be an equally good start to the day. Probably better. [Yes, duh, definitely better. Also should exercise or something. But morning exercise is the worst.]

I use the bathroom; shower. [NB: deleted some TMI details here…] In the shower, I shampoo my hair, then use the suds from my head to wash my body, then rinse my hair and put conditioner in it, then wash my face, then rinse both face and conditioner from hair, rinse the rest of my body, sometimes bask in the warmth a moment or two longer, and step out of the shower. I follow that with application of deodorant, clean my ears with a Q-tip, and (most of the time) brush my teeth.

Sometimes I eat at home, other times I wait and buy something to eat in DUMBO on the way to work. [We moved; I now work in Industry City…still in Brooklyn, similar commute time!] Another area for greater regularity. Not that  regularity rules all…but I think it’s true that removing mundane decisions can ease cognitive overload and give the mind more time to work on the interesting stuff. Making breakfast is actually pretty efficient, even if I don’t do it all the time. I can actually whip up something in just a few minutes: heat a pan, grab some granola and yogurt, crack a few eggs in the pan with some butter, pour the bowl of granola, put away the containers, flip the eggs, grab a plate, plate the eggs, throw on some seasoning, devour the lot of it. Maybe 10–15 minutes for the whole process. I like the feel of efficiency in the kitchen, the kind that comes from having your mise-en-place on point. On the other hand, just buying a bacon and egg sandwich at the deli is faster still, and relatively cheap. [Not the healthiest though! Currently not doing this so much…] Maybe a little variation is okay, but I’d like to try eating a quick and simple breakfast at home every day. And once I finally get to crafting my homemade protein bars that should become easier still. [I’ve done various snack experiments but no perfect protein bars yet.]

So I’m out of the shower — I dry off, dress (jeans, boxers and socks, a t-shirt and sweater, jacket or coat) then pack for work. First my pockets, phone and wallet and chapstick and keys, then my laptop and headphones and mouse in my backpack. [No backpack anymore, unless I’m ferrying gym clothes to / from the laundry.] Then I grab my book of the week and head out, lock the door, walk to the subway, and wait a few minutes for the F to come. I love this reading time, to and from work on the subway, and sometimes the walk from subway to office as well. It adds up to maybe only 30 minutes a day, but that’s enough to get through a book in a couple weeks, and I supplement that with reading at home, too. But subway reading is usually good, uninterrupted reading, save for the occasional annoying passenger. [Still love subway reading. But my subway time is actually shorter now, and I like to bike when I can, so most reading happens at night.]

Once in DUMBO I walk to the office, unpack my bag, set up my computer and things on my desk, and get to work, whatever the day brings but almost all at my computer. Breaks are usually to refill my water bottle and use the bathroom, both frequent and obviously correlated. Around 2pm or so I’ll head out and get lunch somewhere, a food cart or deli/grocery or occasionally restaurant nearby. A fair number of options, but they all grow old, and not a lot of cheap takeout besides the trucks, which can feel overpriced and gimmicky after a while. Would be nice to have some Soylent on hand, or just oodles more money so I can get whatever the hell and not feel guilty…can’t wait until the Calexico truck returns, I could go for their burrito bowl every day and I don’t think I’d grow tired of it. Extra meat, and it’s basically two lunches. [Ha, lots of food options near work now; most still grow old. Daily schedule is mostly the same. I’m resigned to paying a bit more on average for lunch than I used to.]

I leave around 6:30 or so, having worked from maybe 10:15 on, a regular 8 hours or maybe slightly more. Same subway ride back to Park Slope [now Prospect Heights], though if the weather’s nice I’ll bike both ways, which deprives me of the reading time but is a lovely ride in addition to a moderate bit of exercise, so I try to do it often. I’ll get home at 7pm or so, and either cook something with Jinjin or do takeout or something local like grab a banh mi from across the street. Often we’ll watch an episode of a TV show as we eat. Then I tend to retreat to the bedroom for some Internet browsing — one element of the evening routine I’d like to cut down on. I think I need to be more self-critical with my web reading/browsing habits, and also more decisive with my tabs, either making a note or taking an action or reading immediately or saving for later, but not so much leaving-open-for-weeks-on-end. But just generally being more discerning will go a long way to cutting down on the time I spend online. I typically end the night with my daily writing, or maybe that plus a bit of reading from a book in bed right before sleeping. [Yes, the Internet is still one of my top favorite hobbies. I’ve started tracking my reading time; this is now more regimented than my writing time. Though I’m starting to feel it’s time for the pendulum to swing back…]

Sometimes I’ll also enjoy a cup of tea, hang out and watch Youtube clips or a movie with the roommates [no more roommates, thank goodness!], attend a Meetup or other event after work [mostly nah; good Meetups (or meet-ups) are rare; I’m a total homebody], grab drinks with a friend, or hit the gym. These are things that don’t occur every day, but maybe some of them could. I could see a daily tea ritual being fun, either in the morning or evening or both. And some sort of daily exercise habit would be great. Wouldn’t have to necessarily be the gym, but maybe the gym a couple times a week, running or biking some days, a quick home workout some days…would be a great daily habit to get into. [Major benefit of new office location = good gym; I’ve been going more often lately, maybe twice a week on average.]

I realize I’m not going so much into the level of granularity and precision that I’d sort of envisioned for this exercise; much of what I’ve written above is kind of journalistic or diaristic in tone but not particularly interesting. Perhaps it would be best to record these things as they happen, reflect on them in the moment, try in that way to capture some of the situational logic or strange physical poetry and personality contained in them. [Yeah, more poetry and personality is always good! Bbut hey, I’m finding this meta-annotation thing kind of fun.]

I think that way I’d be more likely to notice and include and sketch in detail the smallest details, like the way I fold my shirts [probably not that unique TBH], or how I’ll use my foot to sweep dirt down the bed and off the sheet, or how I’ll eat a few squares of dark chocolate every night at my desk [just did that! chocolate is the best], and how I organize that desk and why, and my philosophy on doing dishes [damn I could probably write another thousand words just on this topic, thrilling I’m sure] — that sort of thing.

I’ll have to keep all that in mind, and return to this, and maintain it as an ongoing project, not a high priority but an interesting form of cataloging my daily experience and attitude toward the things around me and the processes and necessary activity that attends everything I do. [Hmm, not sure how interesting this would really be…but perhaps revisiting someway, many more years from now, when more has changed…]

The Great Patreon Debacle, and What it Means for Independent Creators

By | Business, Creativity

I’ve raptly followed the recent Patreon controversy, eager to understand why one of the lifeblood services of so many independent creators inadvertently alienated and infuriated the very creators and patrons they serve.

How did this happen? What does it mean for creators?

What Went Wrong in Patreonland

A few weeks ago Patreon suddenly announced an impending change to the financial relationship between creators and patrons. It sounded reasonable on the face of it — simplifying some complexity in how and when payments occur — but it actually upended some core values of their community, and destroyed an enormous amount of trust in the process. After a swift and strong negative response, Patreon ended up reversing the change, but it’s surfaced a lot of issues around creative funding and the infrastructure that powers it.

I saw Patreon’s initial email announcement and my first reaction was curiosity, not anger. But then, I’m not a creator relying on this platform for my livelihood — and as I realized how big a mess this was becoming I became very interested in the deeper reasons why this announcement sparked such a backlash.

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Canonize: Creating a Personal Canon Template

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I love the idea of the “personal canon”: an encapsulation, in list form, of those things that have most shaped you. A sort of annotated bibliography of influences.

Over the past few years I’ve come across several excellent examples of people using a corner of their personal websites to provide such a snapshot. These range in complexity and number of items included, but all give an intimate sense at the forces that shape a particular mind.

My favorites of these include: Buster Benson’s canon, part of his public Codex Vitae / “Book of Beliefs”. Mandy Brown’s “A Working Library”, a refreshing inhale-exhale of her reading and writing. David Cole’s Personal Canon, the closest model to what I ended up with. And Bret Victor’s “Links 2007” page, an excellent list of books as well as other media items.

Last year I set out to create my own personal canon. I started with a perusal of the disparate lists I’ve kept haphazardly — books I’ve read via Goodreads, favorite articles and websites via Pinboard — and augmented this with some thought and self-research in combing through things in other areas, like music and movies, that have also greatly influenced me. I came up with five categories of material to include: books, media, websites, articles, and ideas. These are somewhat arbitrary, and there’s of course some overlap, but I found most things fell pretty neatly into one of these categories.

I started with a “longlist” of as many items as I could come up with for potential inclusion, which was nearly 250! That’s way too many for one webpage, so I took a pass at whittling it down to a “mediumlist” of more curated favorites, arriving at roughly half the initial number. Finally I played around with organizing / grouping these items, and in the process narrowed my selections down further to a “shortlist” of 80-some items. Ultimately I came up with 10 categories of my interests, each containing 7–9 canon items.

This project was also an excuse for me to actually try using GitHub for a project for the first time. My girlfriend helped with design ideas and creating the icons I used for each of the five item types, and we practiced making commits to a GitHub repo I made. I created an HTML structure for the canon, played around with design until I had a look I was happy with, and then uploaded it to a standalone page on my site. In the back of my mind I thought it could be cool to eventually make this a public template of some sort, but when I launched initially it was really just a project for me.

This year my friend Tom Critchlow asked about the project, mentioning that he was thinking about creating a “/canon” page on his own site. This got me thinking again that it would be fun to write a bit more about the project and flesh out the GitHub repo to make it more useful for someone thinking about making their own canon. I love finding this kind of thing on others’ sites, enjoyed making my own, and think it would be great if more people did something similar — it’s always a great way to both learn about someone on a personal level, and discover a bunch of awesome material for your antilibrary!

Two projects I really like, with similar aims, have helped guide my thinking on this. First is Diana Kimball’s “/mentoring” project, a “distributed mentoring movement” which encouraged people open to being a mentor to post information on their site making explicit how such a relationship might be initiated. The core of it is a simple mission statement articulating its goal, and a template providing structure for how someone could easily fork and adopt it. While Diana is no longer actively working on the project, I’m heartened to see its influence lives on. Second is the “/now” project by Derek Sivers. This started with a blog post encouraging people to post a “now” page on their sites, intended as a more active supplement to the standard website “about” page, to give visitors a concise glimpse into its author’s current focus. This caught on, and Sivers created a directory page that now lists over 1,000 examples of such pages people have made.

I’d love to see something similar with the “/canon” page. The GitHub repository I’ve created for the project, which I’m calling “Canonize”, contains more detail on the process I followed and how to use the files provided. I encourage you to check it out and consider creating your own personal canon and associated webpage. I’m also open to any suggestions for how to make this more useful — feel free to send me an email, or create an issue or pull request on GitHub. And if you create a “/canon” page of your own, please let me know — I’d love to take a look, and perhaps begin to pull together a simple directory list of these, too.

Again, you can check out my personal canon page here!