Sidney Morgenbesser is Dead

Heidegger: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Morgenbesser: “If there were nothing you’d still be complaining!”

So, nu? I’m coming up on the year anniversary of hanging in New York City, living out my childhood fantasy  in a brownstone neighborhood with a stoop and a cafe on the corner and fuhggedaboutits, all of which, in 2012 means, of course, Brooklyn. Which is to say the NYC that I came to live in is gone and I’ve known it’s gone for decades but I’m OK with living one more lie in the name of a romantic adventure. I’ve gotten pretty good at that and it serves me well and no one is directly killed or injured by my doing it so here I am.

Of all the things Fran Lebowitz is right about, the relevant one here is that everybody, always romanticizes earlier eras in New York. There can be no doubt that new arrivals in 1812 were greeted with nostalgia for the glory days of the 1790′s. Like Lebowitz, I don’t miss the crime of the 1970′s but I miss something and Lebowitz’s litany sounds close: it was less boring, you could smoke, you could find a butcher on Times Square, and it was affordable for folks besides the super rich. “You can not say that an entire city full of people with lots of money is fascinating. It is not.”

I’ve been casting about trying to figure out what’s changed for me and I now suspect that it involves Lebowitz herself: a smart, deliciously witty secular Jew. I can relate. I mean, I can aspire. And, my God, New York was the best place on Earth where I might have a shot at being the best version of that. Here was a place where being all the things that I was born into was valued. There was never a question of whether I would “fit it” in the NYC of the 1970′s.

The trouble started when the cabal of “three guys” as Lebowitz describes, set out to save New York from bankruptcy in 1980′s and decided to turn New York into something to look at, into one big tourist attraction. They were on a mission to strip away actual New York and leave the idea of New York. Naturally that idea would not be Scorsese’s dystopic nightmare, but instead a version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Holly was a party planner at Barney’s, not a $20 whore. If they were to make NYC an “attractive” place for American tourists they have to get rid of the “icky” parts. Welcome to Epcot New York.

And really, what could be more icky than a city full of blacks who speak Yiddish. You could say that Giuliani’s cabal finished the job that Travis Bickle started.

Yes, New York was more dangerous and icky for most of Americans, but it was safe and a haven for a “stupendously Jewish” Columbia professor and ex-yeshiva bocher Sidney Morgenbesser who summed up the whole of Jewish ethics and philosophy with “If P, so why not Q?”

Professor Morgenbesser died in 2004. The New York City that made him a star died 20 years before that. I’ve spent the last year celebrating the memory of both and basking in some downwind version of what used to be and grateful for the little nuggets that float by.

Van Jones

In Rebuild the Dream (Nation Books, 2012) Van Jones explains exactly how story trumps facts. He should know.

In the fall of 2009 I was overwhelmed with dread and sadness. How could I tell my son about events I could not face myself? I finally explained that Van, his mentor and role model, was about to lose his job at the White House in a spectacularly hurtful way thanks to Glenn Beck. Van, the brilliant visionary who took on social injustice and the withering planet had been bested by a bipolar carny barker that Chayefsky could not have invented. The best of us brought down by the worst of us. WTF.

This story was part of a larger strategy designed to drive the left insane by refashioning political discourse into a verbal tick at the level of trying to order a deli sandwich from a deaf man with Tourette’s Syndrome. Political success is bound to a good story, not solving hard problems and therefore does not require intelligence, facts or civility. Knowing this well, the right flooded the conversation with oppressively dumbed down, wickedly untrue zombie-memes that could never be killed so people like me, lefty intellectuals with resources, would be forced to spend our time explaining the shape of the Earth and defending gravity. We were robbed, very effectively, of our core strength: inclusive, intelligent analysis of the facts. FML.

The strategy worked. My Obama-inspired hope peaked the day he hired Van. That hope was vanquished the day Van was run out of town by a torch and pitchfork lynch mob (deliberate word usage) unfettered by a cowering, silent left. After 40 years of following politics and 10 years of activism, I unplugged, unfriended, unfollowed, unsubscribed, turned off Maddow and Stewart and closed my checkbook. FTW.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

In Van’s telling of the road to the “post hope era,” every progressive micro-cause was buoyed by the siren calls of Hope and Change that were equal parts loud and vague. As each of those micro-causes were compromised or ignored by post-election reality “frustration, disappointment, and bitterness sidelined millions of once-enthusiastic Obama voters.”

I’ve known Van for 10 years and I laid low throughout all this, but when I heard he was starting to come back into the public scene I looked him up. Exactly a year ago, we had a glorious conversation and when he referred to me and mine as “part of the family” I was touched to the core.

A few weeks later I saw him speak in Seattle. In a room packed with thousands of Seattle’s meanest, baddest, hard-core lefty-mcLeftists he dared them to embrace Tea Party members and to accept their grievances as legitimate. He squelched the room’s eager bloodlust to skewer and warned against any form of hate in their hearts. I took a friend to that speech who had never heard of Van before that evening. “No wonder the right is scared shitless of him.” Nailed it.

I do not understand how Van walked away from his White House experiences without a hint of bitterness. I don’t get how, today, he has more hope and is more inspiring of hope than ever.

What I do understand after reading Rebuild the Dream is what every storyteller since Aristotle will tell you about the structure of a good story: in Act 1 we get to know the hero and his quest. In the beginning of Act 2, that quest seems attainable but is then blocked by obstacles. At first it looks like the hero has a choice between giving up or moving forward risking destruction to achieve his desire, but then there comes a time when even the choice is gone and the hero is facing certain demise — the true cost of simply dreaming. Now, at the brink of extinction, our hero’s lowest point of decimation and humiliation is the highest point of the drama. And that’s how you know you’re at the end of Act 2.

Still buzzing from the Seattle speech, I was slowly re-engaging in tiny ways just as Occupy was gaining steam. I went to Zuccotti Park, walked up to the “Info booth” and asked how I could help. Young dude with big hair said “Folding tables.” I said “Er, no. What else?” Sensing he should aim a little higher he said “Hard disks.” I said “Be right back!” Later, I stood at my son’s side at Ogawa Plaza for the heartbreaking candlelight vigil for Scott Olsen’s recovery.

But Occupy (thank god) was never a political solution. Van’s prescription includes a call to combine the energy and inspiration of Occupy with bottom up reforms and pivots into politics. We have a lot of work to do. If you’re feeling disparaged or disillusioned because your pet cause was neglected, consider this: nobody earned their bitterness more than Van Jones but he declined to indulge in it. He’s choosing a different narrative.

Rebuild the Dream is an invitation to write the third act together. Let’s do it. Let’s do it with a great story because that’s how we succeed in politics, let’s do it with the facts because that’s how we succeed in solving the big problems and let’s do it with our hearts open because that’s how we succeed as humans.

Peter Eden

Twenty-five years ago I called a number in a small ad in the back of Dr. Dobb’s Journal to order six copies of Resource Workshop. The guy on the other end wouldn’t let me off the phone for over an hour.

As a self-taught programmer I was ruled by insecurity. But Peter Eden’s love for programmers was so overwhelming that if you came into his orbit and wanted to be his friend, he would be your friend. And what a gift that friendship was. If you didn’t learn something about programming, music or life from being in his presence then you were not paying attention.

My memories of him run deep and wide. I can’t count the number times he let me crash on his couch or saved my ass when I was stuck in a vortex of workplace hell.

There was a period in the 90′s  when his software office was on College Ave. in Berkeley behind the movie theatre.  The office next to him was a scream-therapy clinic. That meant that any conversation you tried to have with Peter would be interrupted every few minutes by a top-of-the-lungs blood curdling scream through the thin walls. Peter would look at you and shrug and say “Welcome to Berkeley.”

But he wasn’t always so nonchalant.  His passion often translated into glorious frustration. When I got to Borland (thanks to his sponsorship) our offices were perpendicular.  I got the shock of my life when an IBM OS/2 manual came hurtling down the hall, past my office, fluttering like a bird that had lost its power, bouncing on the ground several times before sliding to a stop.

It’s not a coincidence that the guy who I couldn’t get off the phone 25 years ago is the last friend I had that insisted on using the phone to stay in touch. (I have more than one voice message from him in my queue as I write this – what was it like using Ruby on Rails? did I ever get my iOS project to build?, and to just, you know, give him a call sometime…)

The last time I talked with him was a few weeks ago when he called and I eagerly picked up because I was in a car passing his hometown on Long Island. He reminisced about his youthful days spent around the Hamptons and , of course, he had very stern advice about the best route to get back into Manhattan.

I think Peter struggled to be happy but in that he showed me how to do it. As a software entrepreneur he often generated success out of an itch he needed to scratch. (And by “itch” I mean a screaming rage at some lame behavior of Windows.) As a person I learned from him that if you want to be happy the answer is fairly simple: surround yourself with the things that would most likely make you happy! In his case: programming, music and friends. In my case: programming, music and Peter Eden.

I am still reeling from the news of the sudden death of my dear friend Peter. I owe so much to him and it wounds me that I’ve been robbed of the opportunity to repay him. He really was a Good Guy, so generous and loving and tender and I’ve been crying or fighting back tears since yesterday when I was told he was dead.

Please honor Peter by doing the following: be unconditionally sweet and lovely to the very next person you encounter – whether on the phone or in person, the UPS delivery guy or your kid or your boss – just be as respectful and kind as you can muster because that’s what Pete would have done.

Annotated Browser History for 4/21/11

I was boasting how much of my love of finding patterns is related to my propensity for music, programming and research in general. A friend warned me that what works for arts and science might not be the best approach for, you know, life – specifically relationships with, you know, people. That sent me seeking some (non-scientific) writings on the current thinking on pattern recognition, specifically: seeing patterns where there are none.

It seems William Gibson wrote a book called “Pattern Recognition” for which the Wikipedia article mentions apophenia which is defined as “seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” That lead to a more recent coinage by Michael Shermer in the Scientific American (Dec. 2008) of “patternicity” which means, ironically enough, the exact same thing as apophenia. The latter is infinitely more marketable, however, and so is Shermer’s definition which reads like a tagline for an indie film:

“The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”

Shermer’s column is a fascinating read about the evolutionary necessity to get things wrong. Is that sound coming from the high grass just the wind? Or a tiger? We are all descended from the creatures that assumed it was a tiger every time whether it was or was not. But really these findings are based on a totally rocking piece of science from a the Royal Society called “The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour” (Sept. 2008) which makes the bigger point that it was evolutionary necessary to constantly make shit up about causality in the world.

One of the keywords on that article was the irresistible “optimality theory” (OT) which (if I understand it) is about how we use a rule based process of elimination to map between what we want to say and the words (and conjugation) that might be appropriate. (To be honest, I don’t know how this slipped into linguistics except by the thinnest notion that grammar can be used as a pattern of expectations – if the plural of cat is cats, the plural of dog must be dogs.) This process of elimination is based on strict constraints which yields the optimal outcome.

What caught my eye is that OT is the outgrowth of Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar. OK, pause. As of this moment, could there be a sexier word in the English language than generative? Awesome. Thank you. Resume.  Just yesterday I participated in an AskMeFi thread on generative art which lead to this Tweet and I recently saw Brian Eno give a lecture where he, balls out, took credit for inventing generative music. (I have no idea if that’s true or it’s just Eno living up to some evolutionary necessity.) So I’m scanning the Wikipedia article and sure enough, there’s section on music but it has nothing (directly) to do with Eno. There was a lot of jabber about music analysis (which I find duller than Jello) but then the “main article” link was to something called “Chord progression#Rewrite rules

Here we get to the work of one Mark Steedman who claims (I think rightfully) that “a set of recursive rewrite rules generate all well-formed transformations of jazz.” All of jazz (and most of Western music period) is a “rewrite” of the blues with just a few set of simple rules (dominant 7th everywhere, ii V I, etc.)

So, I started by looking for miscues in my relationships with people and ended up proving that the world is a blues progression. I think I see a pattern here.

On Subversive Engagement

I was visiting Budapest in the mid-1980′s when a local artist told me he could not wait for the Soviet occupation to end. I said something that let him know I was sympathetic to the repression he must feel for the loss of artistic freedom. He let me know that I was completely off base and that his impatience was related to the fact that his art world was clogged with “crappy underground message art” that would all go away after official freedoms were in place.

‘Message’ art is tough because art is about truth and political and social messaging is often, well, not always about truth. I’ve also noticed that when you don’t like the message it’s called propaganda and when you do like the message it’s called the Sabido Methodology.

Musicians participate at ccMixter because it’s a great place to share in each other’s musical output in a way that is uniquely enabled by the Internet. Of course the level of sharing is contingent on liberally licensed music samples. Free-wheeling sharing enables better music and the licenses enable sharing on the Internet. After you think about that for a while  you can’t help but notice that licenses are directly responsible for making better music (!) Watching this light go on, day after day, week after week in many musicians was a great joy of working on that site.

The politic of sharing is what Creative Commons wanted to illustrate by creating the site in the first place, however they knew what the licensing is not at the core of the activity (making music), it is an enabler and that in order to get people thinking about licensing they would have to focus on the activity in a form of subversive engagement which is the online version of subversive messaging in art. (I use the term ‘subversive’ not in a judgmental way – I mean it as implied rather than explicit.)

The Games for Change blog is featuring a game co-designed by the UN gender-based violence group called Breakaway (warning: music starts automatically) that buries a very explicit “message” of non-violence deep into a game about soccer.

I have not played the game but it does sound like an interactive version of what we used to call “after school specials.” I’m looking forward to the games and online interaction that is closer to the ccMixter model where the activity is the activity and if there is a truth behind that activity being promoted the users will come upon it.

Reality is Boring

Gamers really are a defensive lot. This is not unlike my previous life in which I spent a whole lot of energy explaining and defending remixing and sampling.

Reality Is Broken is the career premise, website, and bestselling book by Jane McGonigal. She’s become the latest gamolographer* that is riding the Csikszentmehalyi coat-tails along with Raph Koster, Scott Rogers, Jesse Schell and just about everybody else in the field that looks to Flow to explain (and justify) a gamer’s intensity about gameplay.

The idea is pretty simple and McGonigal just happens to be saying it the loudest and clearest: compared to gaming, “real life” is freaking boring. She uses the term “broken” perhaps because that sounds more like a situation an engineer can fix as opposed to, say, boring. Actually, I just made that part up. The truth is, the word “boring” has significance in Flow terminology where the idea is to keep your attention between the boundaries of boring (too easy) and frustrating (too hard.)

So it’s something like: why can’t the world be more like gaming? No, seriously. Why can’t bosses and politicians make the world a more challenging set of well-defined tasks with loud and constant feedback as to how I’m doing, all dynamically tuned to be just above my current skill set so that I’m not bored or frustrated and everything is set up for me to be in Flow, all the damn day. The world is broken – fix it!

I like McGonigal. I think she’s really smart and her street game cruel 2 b kind is not only one the coolest things I’ve ever heard of, it almost has all the broader serious significance she would like it have.

The only quibble I have with her book and ideas is she is putting the onus on the grown ups to put us into just the right quadrant of the Flow diagrams when even Csikszentmehalyi suggests it’s up to the assembly line worker to make her job as mentally challenging as possible. (Not to get all Godwin but he even suggests that Nazi concentration camp prisoners could invent mental exercises that approximate the detachment induced by Flow.)

Flow is work. That video games make the work fun and sexy is groovy but the initial impetus to get into some discipline and then stick with it, long enough to generate Flow is going to be a drag. A boring and frustrating (i.e. broken) drag. Ever do diatonic scales to a metronome? How about Couch to 5K? That shit sucks – until it doesn’t. Until it generates the most peaceful, ordered state of mind humans can hope for.

Gaming is great. Life is great. No reason to pit one against the other.

*a term I just coined for professional game designers with an eye toward the psycho-punditry behind gaming

The “Gaming as Art” Debate Settled

Follow me for a moment or two or ten:

  • Story telling is the closest video gaming will get to “art” as we know it
  • All art, especially storytelling, is a process of sharing – it is an outward energy
  • Gameplay, the verb in video gaming, is really all about reaching, fostering and maintaining Flow
  • Flow is an internal growth process
  • Flow is possible (required?) to create art in the artist, as opposed to…
  • …the beholder/consumer of art is not in flow when reacting to art. (Notable exception to this is when consumer has an expertise in the art and can experience flow when consuming the art while applying that expertise.)

Flow is, by definition, the focus of 100% of the gamer’s attention, therefore this is no “room” in the attention span to be emotionally impacted by a story going on around the Flow. For example: just as a mountain climber in deep Flow to get to the top of the mountain can not break their thoughts with daydreams of how great it will be to reach the top (or terrible to fall off the mountain and die) so a gamer can not be distracted by the internal moral struggles of the character while immersed in gameplay.

So… art is not (generally) related to a consumer being in Flow. That is: art consumption and gameplay Flow can not, by these definitions exist in the same players thoughts at the same time.

Yet… games seems somehow “artistic.” See: 10 artists who use video gaming

Now, here’s a question: when was the last time “art” was truly redefined? Duchamp? Abstract expressionism? Maybe Warhol? Certainly not since. Aren’t we due?

Maybe, to the generation after mine: the art that we all agree is in games, the art that wraps around Flow (with motivation before the fact and reward afterwards) is enough to force a redefinition…. think about how cool it would be if it was taken for granted that generating Flow during consumption was considered as artistic an expression as falling into Flow when creating art?

Personally, when I think game designers accept these tenants (or something like them) we will begin to see and accept stories that wrap around a Flow experience as completely legitimate and unique art form.

“…I think it’s a dream to think that there will be some renaissance, some incredible simultaneous tear through which truly emotionally impactful games will flow forth like rain over scorched earth. Rather, this will be a slow, deliberate process of incremental change.”

Ian Bogost 2003

It may take a while but some of us working and thinking about it can help this “deliberate process of incremental change” take a few steps down the road.

Game Changing Games

I love talking and thinking about (video/computer) gaming because it is a) the most popular form of entertainment today*, b) completely misunderstood and c) just look at a+b (!!)

I love talking and thinking about practical ways for everyday people to push back against the larger forces that inherently work against social justice.

There turns out to be quite a movement kicking up around merging these two in unexpected ways. Listen to Asi Burak at TED Gotham talk about Games for Change (G4C).

G4C is holding their 8th annual conference in NYC in June and I just got my ticket. See you in June!

*Let’s just say it’s the most popular for argument’s sake. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2nd to soccer or 4th behind sex – whatever, everybody games, the people who don’t are too annoying to count.

Subjectivity

I’ve heard investigative journalists, scientists and non-fiction writers say things like “I go where the story/truth/narrative leads me.” Of course that works when tangible hard data refute some popular meme. The rest, however, I find to be pretty damn subjective. The question you ask right after you get the data will determine where the narrative goes and that goes double for something as mushy as cultural issues.

I plan to be writing about just such mushy issues, like story telling, video gaming and how they relate to flow and social causes.

George Carlin is famous for saying “think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize: half of them are stupider than that.” To be totally objective means you expect the results of cultural explorations to end up concluding that things are the way they are “because people are dumb” over half the time. I don’t find that very useful – except for pure comedic reasons, of course.

So you can expect my musings to be coming from a personal perspective of someone who is ruefully optimistic and assumes that, given a choice, some people (a minority, perhaps) would choose to be happy and satisfied.

Did you hear the one about Flow?

The name of the site could be interpreted as a pessimistic self-fulfilling prophecy of how I think the site (and my life) will go. If you are attracted to this site because you’re hoping the name indicates that it will focus on negative, self-deprecating, nihilistic and caustic themes then prepare to be disappointed (which, in a way, should make you happy).

First and foremost, I’ve always loved that expression. The rest is back-filling rationale but then, what in this life is not back-filling rationale?

Here’s what happened:  at the end of ’09 every natural source of dopamine and endorphin fell away. My job, money, marriage, and health were  all fucked. Then the worst: my dad died in June ’10.

By the end of ’10 I had a very simple mission for myself: get happy.

I was convinced that I should be able to do this without talk therapy or drugs. While I remain open to “professional” tactics if I fail on my own, I just don’t believe that I need them to get happy.

The framework I’m using to get happy is a formalized theory around techniques I had been developing my whole life. That theory is called “Flow.” Here’s the TED talk on it:

 

Unfortunately Csikszentmihaly (pronounced “chicks send me high”) is a terrible presenter and the talk, ironically enough, comes off as painfully boring. Really, if you’re interested  then here’s the book at Amazon.

I have zero interest in being an evangelist for Flow or explaining why it would work or not work in anybody’s life except mine. Having said that, it would be awesome if you realize there might be something in it for you by my, er, testimonials.