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!

My Many Libraries

Reflections on my personal bibliosphere.

By | Life, Reading | No Comments

One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Alberto Manguel’s “The Library at Night”. Manguel writes about the idea of a library from many different angles, arcing from historical to personal and back again: the library as myth, order, space, power, shadow, shape, chance, workshop, mind, island, survival, oblivion, imagination, identity, and home.

I’d like to explore my personal conceptions of a library, starting with the many branches of my own fragmented shelves, digital collections, antilibrary, and beyond.

For me, a library is not a single, central repository, but an array of resources, like overlapping mathematical sets.

I have many libraries:

My personal collection of books, that I keep on several shelves in my apartment. A modest collection, though one I’m proud of, and continually growing as space and budget affords — a few hundred books at present. Read More

10 Favorite Things

By | Life | 2 Comments

I recently made a list of ten of my favorite things, to share with the awesome Uncommon in Common community. This was fun, so I figured, why not share with the rest of the world while I’m at it?

General somewhat-arbitrary self-imposed constraints: these ten things don’t include specific versions of anything (places, people, items, whatever). They’re more like platonic containers of the types of things I most love. And it should go without saying this is a non-exhaustive list! For example, I did not include pizza, or smoothies, or listening to music, or […] but that’s okay. It’s my list and it’s nice and simple and it only has ten things.

Without further ado…10 Favorite Things: Read More

Jiro, Mastery, and Limitations: Philosophies on Work and Learning

By | Business, Creativity, Life | One Comment

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an intimate portrait of mastery, an exploration of the practiced art and craft of one of the world’s best sushi chefs, through the lens of his daily routine and philosophy of training and practice. In many ways, it’s about asymptotically approaching perfection, and the process of constant learning.

Jiro’s approach towards training and education particularly stands out. He’s dedicated his life towards the focused — you could say singleminded, but it’s in fact surprisingly rich and complex — pursuit of mastery and excellence in creating and serving sushi. This includes everything from sourcing the best fish, preparing the best rice, spending hours or even days preparing ingredients, paying incredibly close attention to details of presentation and service before and during the meal — in short, crafting an entire seamless experience that’s as orchestrated and as close to perfect as possible.

His belief is that by working incredibly hard and consistently at a high level for a very long time(a lifetime, let’s say) one can gradually refine a skill and become one of the best in the world. But at the same time: there’s no ultimate pinnacle but rather a continual process of learning and improving. Read More

The Future of Work is Exciting as Hell But I Still Don’t Want to Be Your Wage Slave

By | Business, Life | No Comments

Let’s not forget to humanize the new economy.

This recent Medium article describes the changing nature of work — the rise of the on-demand economy, fragmented freelance work and emerging marketplaces for labor.

It gives a reasonably accurate description of trends in the labor market, at least along one vector. On another level, it’s a propaganda piece (native advertising) sponsored by a platform (Upwork) that perpetuates the commodification of human capital. While I won’t deny that the observed trends may hold significant benefits, I think they also pose implications that are more insidious.

This piece presents the shift from single-employer to a mishmash of “micro-careers” as something revolutionary, a new path for career empowerment. To me, though, it seems more often another way of extracting surplus value from workers and leaving them beholden to those entities that retain most of the keys to the economic kingdom. The main difference: now instead of having one boss, you might have a dozen, or you might have one (e.g. Uber, Taskrabbit) with whom your relationship is amorphous and unstable. Read More

A Personal Niche, An Internet Cathedral, A Networked Empire

By | Creativity, Life, Media, Technology | No Comments

Some people — and no, not the .gif virtuosi that walk among us — really are winning the Internet, sitting several cuts above the rest with really outstanding, intriguing, thought-provoking online presences. Oh, how I aspire to their ranks! It isn’t just that they blog well, or post great links on social media, though both are often the case. Beyond keeping a clean house and communicating with wit and aplomb, they manage to create a place that feels like an online home, a well-curated, carefully built space that shows the heart of their thoughts and creative work, reflects who they are and what they live for. Bret Victor. Derek Sivers. Frank Chimero. Diana Kimball. Lance Weiler. Jane McGonigal. Seth Godin. Robin Sloan. All — to name just a few of my favorites — sharing their musings and explorations and the traces of what they add to the world, built over time, with love and care and generosity and effort shining through.

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Visions of My Flawed Left Eye

By | Life | No Comments

I haven’t published anything here in a while, and one of my biggest goals for 2014 is to change that. I’ve been writing every day for 3 months straight, and have a lot of drafts and partial posts I’m sitting on — I simply haven’t dedicated adequate time to the processes of organization and editing which are so important in crafting finished products. To start the new year with something offbeat and low-pressure, I’m posting the following brief essay, in which I try to put into words the particulars of a strange ocular defect that has inhabited my left eye for my whole life. It’s something I’ve always been acutely aware of, but unable to articulate well, so this is my attempt to describe what it actually feels like — what the experience is of having a completely screwed one-half of my vision, and not really be able to describe it when I try.

As long as I can remember, so probably my entire life, I’ve had somewhat-flawed-to-decent vision in my right eye (correctable to 20/20 with the minor distortion that glasses can provide), and totally and indescribably crippled vision in my left eye, to the point that no form of corrective lens can make it good enough to so much as read the text of a book from a foot away. The odd thing is, the image I see in my left eye is not a blurred out mass; I know what blurry vision is like from my right eye, and the problem with the left is not just the same thing but to a greater degree — it’s a different phenomenon altogether.

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Mysteries of Small Systems

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I’ve been on a bit of a complexity kick lately—been getting really into books dealing with information theory, emergence and self-organization, networks, and the like. As I’ve been digesting these topics in the substrate of my mind (usually while in the shower) there’s one topic that’s come to mind several times and that I find particularly intriguing: the idea of small systems. What I’m thinking of here are the mysterious microcosms of our daily routines, methods or techniques or patterns that are simple but at the same time opaque, because they tend to be very personal and infrequently shared with others. In fact, they often exist at that fuzzy liminal zone wherein we might not even be wholly cognizant of their existence; they perplex even us, their very inventors and masters, if we’re aware of them at all. Here are a couple illustrative examples to give an idea of what I’m talking about:

By what methodologies, techniques, or maelstroms of confusion and chaos do different people organize their computers? Think—this is the most complex device most people own, but we’re rarely given any best practices regarding how to use it. Instead, we gradually adapt habits, digital tics and unconsciously evolving patterns of doing things, that passively align with our typical modes of thought and procession of common tasks, yet for all we know there are better ways to do almost everything we actually use a computer for. It seems a highly personal process for an individual to figure out optimal methods (developed or organically habituated) by which to structure their file system, organize their emails, arrange their application windows and allocate the space on their hard drive. For both personal and professional reasons, I spend a plurality of my waking hours as a MBP power user, and I’m still discovering workflow improvements and keyboard shortcuts and obscure-but-useful applications all the time. I can only imagine that a cross-sectional view of computer users’ tendencies—not a panoramic demography but a granular, individualized inquiry—would make a fascinating anthropological case study!

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32 Values

By | Creativity, Life | No Comments

I’m a great fan of powers of 2. This hasn’t a mote of bearing on why the following list—my most recent, now passably comprehensive list of personal mandates, guiding principles, and constant reminders, culled from past lists and overwrought attempts at writing about myself—ended up with 32 items. But I appreciate it as a sign of cosmic symmetry nonetheless. These are my own basic values to think, create, play, communicate, work, and live by.

This is a list of simple things, but I think if I can take to heart and truly live by a majority of them, I’ll be satisfied with the way my life unfolds. If any of the ideas on this list resonate with you, please consider sharing them and/or adding your own!

Create value.
Take initiative.
Upend assumptions.
Make concrete decisions.
Think deeply.
Stay playful.
Linger at the contours.
Take things apart.
Leverage what you have.
Keep perspective.
Engineer ideas.
Form partnerships.
Be versatile.
Reject dogmas and biases.
Spread knowledge; seek beauty.
Spread beauty; seek knowledge.
Foster understanding.
Own your vision.
Work hard.
Be a conduit and connector.
Spend time well.
Favor the strange and wonderful.
Earn trust.
Take care in your explanations.
Tell great stories.
Extract the good.
Dream big dreams.
Make things.
Ask the right questions.
Befriend the good and the wise.

Mission Statement

By | Life, Writing | No Comments

Hear ye, hear ye! On this day, a blog is born.

But first, a preamble—to briefly address an implicit set of questions you may be asking, namely, what’s this all about, why did I decide to start writing, and what are my hopes and expectations for the site moving forward:

I created this site (the first iteration of my personal homepage; somewhat traditional; much an experiment) for a few reasons: to showcase my personal and professional creative work, to offer a point of ingress for anyone who might want to hire and/or collaborate with me, to begin the gradual process of building (manufacturing, yes—but I hope organically!) an “online presence”, to share potentially interesting things with those few people with whom I share a wavelength or two. But most importantly: to hotwire a portal into my brain, expose its workings, and therein work to improve it.

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