Creating v. Consuming

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 2, 2019

Back in the 1970s when I used to visit New Age seminars I met a woman who claimed there were two types of people in this world: those that create and those who consume. I thought that was an interesting distinction, but probably bullshit. But every now and then I think about it. Most people read books, few write them. Most people listen to music, few play it. Yet, even a brilliant writer is a consumer when it comes to music, television, music, and even books too. And being creative doesn’t mean being an artist. Anyone with a job creates.

Since retiring I’ve thought about this insight differently. Without our 9-to-5, we spend a whole lot more time consuming and less creating, unless we have a hobby, volunteer, or pursue some other creative outlet. Cleaning house is creative – you’re making order out of chaos, but do you feel that when you do your chores?

I realize much of my happiness comes from waking up and thinking of something to do each day. Yesterday I wrote “Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)” which involved making almost 200 links to the web and the gathering of many facts. In the big scheme of things, this tiny bit of creative effort isn’t very important, but it gave me something creative to do. Creative not in the sense of Picasso, but in the sense of not consuming.

It made me happy. I know retired people who are restless, and even unhappy. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Even knowing what I’m saying here, it’s very hard to just pick something to do. Creativity, no matter how mundane, requires a drive. Having a drive to blog makes me lucky. I can’t tell my restless friends to start blogging. It won’t work if they don’t have the drive.

The morning, The New York Times presented “The Queen of Change” by Penelope Green about Julia Cameron and her classic book The Artist’s Way. Most people who read this book do so because they want to pursue a traditionally creative endeavor. But, could her approach work for finding mundane creative endeavors in retirement? Most people seeking to be creative want to be successful artistically. But is that really important? Isn’t merely being creative at anything worthy in itself? Maybe my restless friends should read it.

I am still a big consumer. I actually love consuming movies, TV shows, music, books, essays, and short stories. It’s just unfulfilling to do it all the time. I think we need a certain amount of time when we’re creating, but I don’t know if it has to ambitious creativity. Piddling at something you love can be all the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a happy person because when I wake up in the morning I start thinking about things I want to do. I worry about my friends who aren’t lucky that way. I’m afraid if I try to judge the worthiness of my piddling activities my happiness will break. I wonder if my unhappy friends kill their drive to do something because they deem it unworthy before they even try?

JWH

621 Ways To Be Happier

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 29, 2017

Each day, the Internet now offers me more lists on how-to-be-happier than funny-cat-videos. That’s ironic since funny-cat-videos make me happy.

In recent years it seems that “12 Ways To …” is the lowest common denominator of journalistic seduction, whether its for newspaper, magazine, webpage, blog, or social networking readers. Evidently the quickest way to grab someone’s attention is to entice them with a list.

Life is Good

I wish I had a computer program that would collect advice lists on various topics and statistically analyze them for the most popular pieces of wisdom. Then I could ignore this whole category of journalism. I’ve theorized that if I stopped reading about Donald Trump and self-improvement lists I’d have time to read two quality novels each week instead.

How many people actually follow self-improvement advice? And if we did, would that advice work? I use a program called Instapaper to track what I read online and have collected 35 essays with 621 pieces of advice. It’s fascinating how many recommendations overlap. You’d think everyone would be 100% happy by now, and very productive.

I’m naturally a happy person, but I have several friends that suffer from depression. I sometimes forward these articles, but I’m not sure if they are helpful. Can willpower overcome genes and hormones? As I read more of them I realized some of the advice did apply to me. I never feel depressed, but I do feel regrets. Emotionally, I’m as happy as a drooling pug reading, writing, listening to music and watching TV. However, I have lingering regrets about not doing more. That’s why I tell people I’m a Puritanical Atheist – I feel guilty if I don’t spend a portion of each day accomplishing something, no matter how small.

Many of these lists appear to equate success, productivity, and creativity with happiness. I’ve often thought my natural state of contentedness keeps me from working harder at my ambitions. So I started reading these lists for tips on improving my productivity. I assume I’d be happier if I got more done, and regret less about not finishing all the projects I fantasize about doing. However, some advice is geared towards unhappy productive people. They are told to relax and do less. That makes me wonder if I did more would I be unhappier?

I could have gathered lists for any area of self-help that I wanted. Such lists are overly abundant on the net. I wonder when the trend will collapse? At some point I think everyone will get tired reading about Donald Trump and numbered advice lists.

I realize that by gathering this meta-list of lists I’m only playing into the trend. Gotcha! Well, I hope you find some good advice. My takeaway is I need to go to sleep earlier, get up earlier, focus, avoid distractions, and reduce my goals to as few as possible. I’m not sure, but I did’t Benjamin Franklin make that list over 200 years ago?

The Wisdom of Happiness

JWH

When Do You Get Your Creative Energy?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More and more I’m realizing what it means to be a morning person. I’ve been retired for over two years and have all my time free. Yet, I’ve discovered if I’m not creative before noon, I should switch from output mode to input mode. After lunch I can socialize, read, listening to music, watch TV, cook, exercise, clean house, but I can’t write or program. I can study in the afternoons and evenings, but I don’t know how effective it is.

Yesterday I was flowing with creative ideas, and poured out words before 9am, but I had to go to the grocery story before it got busy. Even getting back by 11am, I realized nothing was coming out of the idea faucet. It felt so freaking strange to be so full of ideas that morning and sixty minutes later feel so completely empty. My brain felt dark. Sometimes I can take a nap after lunch, and I’ll start thinking of things to write, but I can’t make my body sit at the keyboard and type.

faucet

My mind turns on around 5am, but coziness keeps me in my sleeping chair until 6:30 or 7:00. Often I’ll write for an hour or so before showering and exercising, and then eat breakfast at 10 or 10:30. What’s so damn cliché, is showering turns on my idea faucet full blast. I can usually keep working for another hour or two after breakfast, but that’s it. My thoughts slow down to a drip drip drip. No recourse but to eat lunch.

I’ve wondered if eating calms the mind? I’ve read our body goes through daily chemical cycles, and evidently there’s a stage in my chemical processes that stimulate ideas. At other times during the day I can get ideas, and the faucet might speed up to a dribble, but my body is filled with inertia. I wish it was healthy and legal to do artificial stimulants. It’s also cliché how many writers used drugs to stimulate their muses.

I’ve recently read a couple biographies of Philip K. Dick, and he’d write like a maniac all night long. He was also crazy, and he did a lot of speed. Being a night person has its drawbacks, because if you have mental problems, staying up all hours only inflames them. I’m a calm and happy person. Are other morning people that way too? I’ve always wondered if I wasn’t a productive creative person because I’m too even keeled. Elizabeth Gilbert in her new book claims it is possible to be well adjusted and creative, but I’m not sure how many people are.

By the way, I never hear about afternoon people. Are there swing shift creative people?

JWH

All the Time in the World is Still Not Enough

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 7, 2016

All during my work years, while I toiled away at my 8:30-5:00 grind, I endlessly ached to be free. I just wanted time to write. Now that I’m retired, and have all the time in the world, it’s still not enough. I’m writing regularly, devoting hours a day to my task, but I’m not keeping up with all the ideas that beg me to give them birth. Recently I found Big Magic at the library, a lovely new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. I highly recommend this book to those who struggles to be creative, whether at writing, music, art, dance, acting, or even robot design, while holding down a fulltime job and believing they don’t have enough time. Gilbert provides 276 pages of inspiration and advice that’s backed by the wisdom of her success. I know many people who are prejudiced against Elizabeth Gilbert for that same success, but I’m not one of them. Her advice resonated easily with my experiences.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert carefully illustrates that we all have enough time to be creative, no matter how busy our life, or how much free time we can find. She goes on to prove it’s the kind of shit sandwich you’re willing to eat that determines creative productivity. Gilbert explains that creativity always comes at a cost. It’s not about finding time, but paying the price. Writing every day is one of the costs. Whatever shit you have to eat to make yourself write is the cost. People give up on their dreams because they won’t suffer the shit that it takes. Her metaphor is crude, but makes a lot of sense if this is your kind of struggle.

I have all the time in the world, and it’s still not enough. What I’ve been learning the hard way, it’s not about time, it’s about work. There will always be an endless list of ideas I can write about. There will always be a limited amount of time. What determines my creative output is effort, not time. Everything Gilbert writes about I’ve been learning since I’ve retired. Time and again as I read this book, her advice clarified what I’ve been learning on my own without conscious clarity.

It really comes down to sticking to a project until it’s finished. It doesn’t matter how important the art, or how ambitious the scope, or whether it will make money or not. All that matters is getting into the zone and working. You work at what you like, and you don’t worry if anyone else will like it, buy it or judge it. Time isn’t an issue. It’s not about what I’ve done, or hope to do, it’s only about the project I’m working on at the moment. And at this moment, I’m reviewing this book.

Essay #995

By 2020 Robots Will Be Able to Do Most People’s Jobs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 17, 2014

People commonly accept that robots are replacing humans at manual labor, but think they will never replace us at mental labor, believing that our brain power and creativity are exclusive to biological beings. Think again. Watch this video from Jeremy Howard, it will be worth the twenty minutes it will cost you. It’s one of the most impactful TED Talks I’ve seen.

What Howard is reporting on is machine learning, especially Deep Learning. Humans could never program machines to think, but what if machines learn to think through interaction with reality – like we do?

But just before I watched that TED Talk, I came across this article, “It’s Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists of the Future” over at MakeUseOf. Brad Merrill reviews robots that write essays, compose music, paints pictures and learning to see. Here’s the thing, up till now, we think of robots as doing physical tasks that are programmed by humans.  We picture humans minds analyzing all the possible steps in the task, and then creating algorithms in a computer language to get the computers to do jobs we don’t want to do. But could we ever tell a computer to, “Compose me a melody!” without defining all the steps?

The example Jeremy Howard gives of machine learning, is Arthur Samuel teaching a computer to play checkers. Instead of programming all the possible moves and game strategy, Samuel programmed the computer to play checkers against itself and to learn the game through experience – he programmed a learning method. That was a long time ago. We’re now teaching computers to see, by giving them millions of photographs to analyze, and then helping them to learn the common names for distinctive objects they detect. Sort of like what we do with kids when they point to a dog.

What has kept robots in factories doing grunt work is they can’t see and hear like we do, or understand language and talk like people. What’s happening in computer science right now is they can get computers to do each of these things separately, and are close to getting machines that can combine all these human like abilities into one system. How many humans will McDonalds hire to take orders when they have a machine that listens and talks to customers and works 24x7x365 with no breaks? As Howard points out, 80% of the workforce in most industrialized countries are service workers.  What happens when machines can do service work cheaper than humans?

Corporations are out to make money. If they can find any way to do something cheaper, they will, and one of the biggest way to eliminate overhead is to get rid of humans. Greed is the driving force of our economy and politics. We will not stop  or outlaw automation. Over at io9, they offer, “12 Reasons Robots Will Always Have An Advantage Over Humans.”

Now, I’m not even saying we should stop all of this. I doubt we could anyway. I’m saying we need to learn to adapt to living with machines. A good example is playing chess. Machines can already beat humans, so why keep playing chess? But what if you combined humans and chess machines, to play as teams against other teams, who will win?  Read “The Chess Master and the Computer” by Garry Kasparov over at The New York Review of Books. In a 2005 free for all match, it wasn’t Grand Masters with supercomputers that won, but two so-so human amateur players using three regular computers. As Howard points out, humans without medical experience are using Deep Learning programs to analyze medical scans and diagnose cancers as well or better than experienced doctors.

harold1

When Jeremy Howard talks about Deep Learning algorithms, I wished I had a machine that could read the internet for me and process thousands of articles to help me write essays. So I could say to my computer, “Find me 12 computer programs that paint artistically and links to their artwork.” That way I wouldn’t have to do all the grunt work with Google myself. For example, it should find Harold Cohen’s AI artist, AARON.  I found that with a little effort, but who else is working in this area around the world? Finding that out would take a good bit of work which I’d like to offload.

Imagine the science fiction novel I could write with the aid of an intelligent machine. I think we’re getting close to when computers can be research assistants, yet in five or ten years, they won’t need us at all, and could write their own science fiction novels. Will computer programs win the Hugo Award for best novel someday? And after that, a human and machine co-authors might write a more thrilling novel of wonder.

JWH