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kottke.org posts about working

Lin-Manuel Miranda on The Role of the Artist in the Age of Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2019

In The Role of the Artist in the Age of Trump, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda reflects on how truth inherent in art means that “all art is political”.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of doublethink, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment.

In a 1969 piece, Kurt Vonnegut asserted that art is an early warning system for society:

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

While not specifically about art, here’s a bit of what I wrote in a January 2017 post, How to Productive in Terrible Times.

I’ve always had difficulty believing that the work I do here is in some way important to the world and since the election, that feeling has blossomed into a profound guilt-ridden anxiety monster. I mean, who in the actual fuck cares about the new Blade Runner movie or how stamps are designed (or Jesus, the blurry ham) when our government is poised for a turn towards corruption and authoritarianism?

I have come up with some reasons why my work here does matter, at least to me, but I’m not sure they’re good ones. In the meantime, I’m pressing on because my family and I rely on my efforts here and because I hope that in some small way my work, as Webb writes, “is capable of enabling righteous acts”.

(via laura olin)

101 Things Changing How We Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2019

From the BBC, a list of the 101 people, ideas, and things changing how we work today. I pulled out a few of things I thought were interesting.

5G — So the whole 5G thing seems like a marketing gimmick to me, but I used its inclusion on this list to finally read about why anyone should care. From this PC Magazine article:

5G brings three new aspects to the table: greater speed (to move more data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).

Ok, I get it now. Sounds good.

Adaptability quotient (AQ) — One of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my adult life is that people have all sorts of different abilities that contribute to how “smart” they are, and most of those things have little to do with how well they did in school or what their IQ is.

The good news is that scientists agree AQ is not fixed — it can be developed. Theory U by Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests three elements can help provide a framework: keeping an open mind, so you see the world with fresh eyes and remain open to possibilities; keeping an open heart, so you can try to see any situation through another person’s eyes; and keeping an open will, letting go of identity and ego to sit with the discomfort of the unknown.

The ‘FIRE’ (financial independence, retire early) movement — You obviously need a certain type of job (and likely a privileged background to obtain that job) to do this. And perhaps no children. Oh and maybe a social safety net…one significant medical issue and you can kiss your savings goodbye.

The ‘FIRE’ (financial independence, retire early) movement sees its adherents live as cheaply as possible in their 20s and 30s, squirreling enough money away to retire by middle age. These extreme savers are working longer hours to save up overtime payments while also spending less leisure time out of home to avoid costly activities.

Ghost work — Tech companies employ millions of people who are often underpaid & mistreated to do menial work.

Workers crowdsourced over the internet are paid below minimum wage to label data to train algorithms. Contractors at risk of immediate termination screen our social media feeds to keep them free of violence, hate speech and sexual exploitation. But a technology industry keen to portray itself as based on technical wizardry rather than human labour has kept its crucial contributions hidden, aided by automated workflows that treat humans as just another step in a computational pipeline.

Reverse mentoring — Mentors can and should be found anywhere, up and down the chain of wisdom and experience.

Mentoring used to mean older colleagues guiding younger workers up the career ladder. But the earliest adopters of new technologies are often young people, and so big names like Microsoft, Roche and Atkins have embraced reverse mentoring; harnessing young people to close knowledge gaps within organisations. Other benefits include promoting inclusion, increasing discussion across peer groups, and empowering future leaders.

Office farming — I am in favor of more plants in offices and more urban farms. Buildings in major cities should all have rooftop gardens.

With advances in hydroponics — growing plants in something other than soil — New York firm Kono Designs created an urban farm inside a nine-story office building in Tokyo that harvests over 280 types of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon and passionfruit trees are used as partitions for meeting spaces, salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms and bean sprouts are grown under benches. With support from agricultural specialists, the employees assist in its daily upkeep that contribute to the preparation of ingredients served at its on-site cafeterias.

The Wasabi Farmer

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2019

By some accounts, 99% of the wasabi consumed in the world is not actually wasabi — it’s horseradish + green food coloring. Real wasabi is difficult to grow:

Authentic wasabi, known as Wasabia japonica, is the most expensive crop to grow in the world. The temperamental semiaquatic herb, native to the mountain streams of central Japan, is notoriously difficult to cultivate. Once planted, it takes several years to harvest; even then, it doesn’t germinate unless conditions are perfect. Grated wasabi root loses its flavor within 15 minutes.

Profiled in the short film above, 75-year old Shigeo Iida is the 8th generation owner of a wasabi farm in Japan, where he’s been painstakingly growing the herb in a beautiful valley for decades. He loves his work, but like other aging Japanese responsible for long-lived family businesses, there’s uncertainty about the future. (via craig mod)

The Robots Are Coming for Our Jobs (Thank God)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2019

At SXSW, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked by an audience member about the economic challenge of a significant percentage of our labor force being replaced by automation. She responded, in part, by suggesting we decouple the idea of employment with being able to remain alive:

We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.

Then she went on to say:

We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.

Her full answer, including a bit about “automated inequality”, is worth worth watching in full, starting at ~55:15:

In a 1970 article in New York magazine, the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller wrote about the collision of technology and “this nonsense of earning a living”:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

(thx to @claytoncubitt for the AOC-Fuller connection)

A Writing Shed of One’s Own

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

In the first couple of minutes of this video, Roald Dahl introduces us to the writing hut behind his house that he used to write all of his famed children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World. Dahl describes his working routine and details how he’s designed his writing environment, his “nest”, to be as free from distraction as possible.

The Guardian used to run a series about writers’ rooms and in 2008, illustrator Quentin Blake, who worked with Dahl on many of his books, wrote a piece about Dahl’s shed.

The whole of the inside was organised as a place for writing: so the old wing-back chair had part of the back burrowed out to make it more comfortable; he had a sleeping bag that he put his legs in when it was cold and a footstool to rest them on; he had a very characteristic Roald arrangement for a writing table with a bar across the arms of the chair and a cardboard tube that altered the angle of the board on which he wrote. As he didn’t want to move from his chair everything was within reach. He wrote on yellow legal paper with his favourite kind of pencils; he started off with a handful of them ready sharpened.

I like that he tied the footrest to the chair to keep it from sliding away when he rested his feet on it.

As someone who sits down daily to write, nothing seems so luxurious to me as a separate writing hut that is off limits to everyone and everything else. George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain both had separate houses in which to write; Shaw’s shed could even rotate to catch the light throughout the day. Someday I’ll have one of my own…

P.S. Ernest Hemingway used a standing desk, as did Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, among others. I got this one a few weeks ago and am still getting used to it. (via @ftrain)

The Explorer and The Hermit

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2018

In a piece called I’m the Food Expert But My Kids Love My Husband’s Cooking, Amanda Hesser talks about food, tradition, and the differing cooking styles between her and her husband Tad. When she was younger, Hesser’s approach was to experiment relentlessly with her cooking, moving from one new dish to the next. But her husband took a different approach:

One of my other nicknames for Tad is Mr. Efficiency. He obsesses over the shortest route to a destination, orders everything in bulk, is always on time, writes thank-you notes within a day, and absolutely detests standing in line. Especially for food.

When it came to cooking, Tad was characteristically economical. Once we had our kids and our schedules went haywire, he set about mastering a handful of dishes he could pull off on a moment’s notice: fish tacos, pasta alla vodka, and Daddy’s pasta.

Mr. Efficiency…that could be totally be me. I do occasionally enjoy trying to find new stuff to cook, but their mom is way more adventurous in cooking for the kids. I always come back to my go-tos of caldo verde, taco salad, smoky corn chowder, the world’s best pancakes, burgers, and even the occasional tater tot hotdish.

But Hesser’s approach to cooking has shifted towards the familiar in recent years after noticing the downside to always pushing the boundaries:

Meanwhile, I continued to roam and experiment, rarely making the same dish twice. I enjoy the hunt for a new great recipe, the push for something better. But it comes at a cost; cooking new things is more stressful because the unknowns are many. Tad would chat with the kids while making his pasta; I would cook distracted, with my nose in a recipe. Even after focused cooking, things don’t always work out well, and no one around the table is happy. And it’s hard to expect anyone to build an emotional connection to a dish if they’re only seeing it a few times.

I am really feeling that tension between novelty and stability lately, and not just when it comes to food. Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. The Explorer craves new experiences, finds routine boring, and wants to learn new things or he’ll feel brain-dead. The Hermit needs the stability of a comfortable routine, finds exploring exhausting, and doesn’t want to have to think about what’s next all the time. Should I go to my favorite restaurant or try a new place? Regarding travel…should I re-experience somewhere I’ve been before or head somewhere new? (For my last trip, I did both: a repeat trip to Berlin with a short stay in Istanbul after.) There are certain types of books, movies, and TV shows I like to watch — their reliability is comforting but when I do venture from those paths, the results can be very rewarding and horizon-expanding. Should I spend time with old friends or work on some new relationships?

The part of my life in which I’m feeling this most acutely is in my work. Editing kottke.org is a constant exercise in balancing the familiar with the new. My approach is: “here’s something you haven’t seen before but packaged in a familiar way” and then do that 9-to-5, day-in and day-out, 52 weeks a year. I bury you (and myself) in novelty, but in a clockwork fashion.1 I never know what I’m going to find on a particular day and you never know what you’re going to read, but by the end of the day, every single weekday, there is (I hope!) an interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and awe-inspiring collection of things to explore.

But even though I enjoy editing the site and learn about a lot of new things along the way, the work itself sometimes isn’t that challenging. There’s a lot of repetition, sitting in a chair, and willpower — not insignificant things when trying to accomplish something — but it increasingly feels like I’m on autopilot creatively. Has the site gotten better in the last 5 years? I think so. But have I? What creative boundaries have I pushed along the way? In what ways could kottke.org be better or different that would provide new challenges for me? Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but my desire to “roam and experiment” (as Hesser puts it) has been on the rise lately for sure.

  1. When I think about how I approach my work on the site, two references come to mind: 1) the Dunkin Donuts guy (“time to make the donuts”), and 2) what the doctor in Gattaca says about regularity of Ethan Hawke’s character’s heartbeat while exercising (“Jerome, Jerome, the metronome.”).

25 Reasons to Keep on Making Stuff in Times of Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

In an epic GIF-laden thread on Twitter, author Chuck Wendig lays out “25 REASONS TO KEEP ON MAKING STUFF IN THIS TIME OF RAMPANT ASSHOLERY”.

1. Because you need to escape the fuckery, and what you make is a door. A book, a piece of art, even an excellent meal — it’s a doorway out. It’s the tunnel dug out behind the Rita Hayworth poster in your prison cell.

3. Because creation is #resistance. Making things is additive. And in a subtractive time such as this, you must balance the void with its opposite. That is an act of defiance. And we need more defiance.

9. Because it’s therapy. It’s therapy first for you, and if you share it, eventually for us, too.

20. Because when you make stuff, you improve yourself. And we need you in fighting shape. YOU MUST BE A WHETTED BLADE READY TO SLICE THROUGH SHENANIGANS, CHICANERY, AND GARBAGE.

24. Because art is beauty. Stories, poetry, craftwork, food, it’s all beautiful and this ugly world needs a dollop of beauty. There is beauty in both the act and the result of making stuff. So kick the shitstorm out of the sky with an aggressive rainbow counterattack.

See also Austin Kleon’s upcoming book Keep Going (and related talk) and How to Be Productive in Terrible Times.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Role of Artists in Society

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2018

In times of turmoil, it can be tough to feel like the work you do to support you and your family is also nourishing to society, if you’re doing “enough”. For artists and writers at least, Kurt Vonnegut had a compelling call to duty as messengers from the near future. As part of an address to the American Physical Society published as “Physicist, Heal Thyself” in the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1969, the author wrote:

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

He said something similar in a 1973 interview in Playboy:

Writers are specialized cells doing whatever we do, and we’re expressions of the entire society — just as the sensory cells on the surface of your body are in the service of your body as a whole. And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down into the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists — all artists — should be treasured as alarm systems.

(via nitch)

If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2018

In a thought-provoking essay, Umair Haque asks the question If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, Then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

Some systems are self-perpetuating. Like a forest. Like a river. Like an ocean. But some systems are self-annihilating. Like a fire. Like a storm. Like an epidemic. They burn themselves out. We tend think of capitalism as the former — but we are wrong. It is the latter — a self-destroying, not a self-sustaining, system. If we’re all really just trying to escape it — then what else could it be? After all, that means there will probably come a day when we do make our escape — and on that day, poof! — capitalism, at least in the sense above, winks out, like a storm, or a fire. So if we see for a moment through the great lens of human history — first there was tribalism, and we escaped it, then feudalism, and we escaped that — today now there’s capitalism, which we’re currently trying to escape, all over again. But while kings and knights might have not been so keen on escaping feudalism, what’s striking about capitalism is that we’re all trying to escape it — even most of the capitalists — because it makes us so miserable, mean, and foolish.

Humans don’t want money — that’s never been the goal — they want freedom from exploitation and the freedom to pursue meaningful lives free from fear and anxiety. Haque then argues that given humanity’s current levels of wealth, technology, and social structures, it is not only possible to provide everyone with those freedoms without the need for capitalism but it’s inevitable.

These three things, technology, finance, and public goods, have finally matured and developed to a degree that freedom from capitalism isn’t just possible. It’s becoming inevitable. What’s really happening as these three forces intersect? Society’s surplus is being reinvested back in precisely the very things we are really after — instead of being skimmed off by predatory elites. Freedom from exploitation, freedom from control, freedom to find, realize, and develop ourselves. We haven’t had the means, mechanisms, or tools, in the long history of humankind, to ever really achieve those on a mass scale yet. But we have them now.

Read the whole thing — it’s not that long and it’ll give you something to think about as you work.

Busytown 2018 - Bitcoin Miners, Mansplainers, and Dog Whistlers

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2018

In 2014, Ruben Bolling created an updated version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown (as seen in What Do People Do All Day? and Busy, Busy Town) populated with workers with job descriptions like climate change denier, content aggregator, and rage pundit. At Topic, Bolling has updated the activities of Busytown residents for 2018.

Busytown 2018

Busytown 2018 residents include gig economy worker, fake news troll, good guy with a gun, and swamp drainer. Still no Goldbug though…I thought he showed up just about everywhere? (via david jacobs)

What a musical conductor actually does on stage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2018

I love hearing people talk about how they work. In this quick video, conductor James Gaffigan explains what it is he does on stage and how different composers like Leonard Bernstein shape and enhance the performance of the musicians they’re leading.

If you’ve ever seen an orchestra perform you’ve probably had a difficult time looking away from the person dead center on the stage — the conductor. It’s hard to miss someone as they swing their arms around pointing at the musicians that seem to be focused instead on their music stands. So what exactly is the conductor doing?

Open offices result in less collaboration among employees

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2018

In a recent study called The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, a pair of researchers tracked the digital and real life interactions of workers at a company that shifted to an open office plan before and after the shift. Here were the two key findings of the study:

Contrary to what’s predicted by the sociological literature, the 52 participants studied spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face after the shift to an open office layout. To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the office redesign, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to the open layout, the same participants dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day.

At the same time, the shift to an open office significantly increased digital communication. After the redesign, participants sent 56% more emails (and were cc’d 41% more times), and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67%.

That’s a pretty dramatic shift…and productivity suffered. The authors theorized that the lack of physical boundaries in the open office made constructing social barriers necessary.

Like social insects which swarm within functionally-determined zones ‘partitioned’ by spatial boundaries (e.g. hives, nests or schools), human beings — despite their greater cognitive abilities — may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality.

This jibes with my experience working in open offices. For almost 10 years, I worked in an open office plan at Buzzfeed. In the beginning, when there were just a few of us, the level of IRL interaction was high. But as the number of people in the office increased past a certain point, people spent more and more time at their desks, headphones on, ignoring everything but their screens. And yet companies keep doubling down on this…

This Nonsense of Earning a Living

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2018

From a 1970 issue of New York magazine, Buckminster Fuller on the massive economic lever of technology:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

That was written almost 50 years ago…the capability of technology to generate wealth has increased greatly since then.

These Oklahoma teachers are now permanently on strike

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2018

Earlier this year, 30,000 teachers in Oklahoma walked out of their classrooms to protest teacher pay and education budget cuts. The walkout ended after nine days with the teachers’ goals partially met. Vice News talked to 18 Oklahoma teachers about why they’ve decided to quit teaching after this year, essentially making their walkouts permanent.

Eric Weingartner worked two side jobs in addition to his role as a full-time 4th grade teacher to make ends meet. Chemistry teacher Becky Smith’s monthly paycheck rose just $300 in sixteen years. Aimee Elmquist spent her own money to stock her biology classroom. Mary West did the same for high school art.

One of the biggest realizations I’ve had in the past few years is that while Americans talk a lot about the importance of children and education, those things actually are not that important to us. You can see it in how we approach our educational system and you can see it in how we our government uses the abuse of children to attempt to curb immigration with relatively little outcry. You can see it in our governance…the people we elect do what’s best for voters, not for future voters. The enthusiasm of hobbyists and desire of gun companies keep our children attending school in fear. Healthcare costs are soaring and coverage for children isn’t guaranteed. Our parental leave policies, maternity care, and all-around treatment of mothers & women in the workplace lags behind other so-called “developed” countries. Children are a priority for the US? Yeah, no.

Philip Glass: “I expected to have a day job for the rest of my life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

I enjoyed reading Lolade Fadulu’s interview with Philip Glass about the composer’s early life and how he made a living in NYC before being able to fully support himself with his music (which didn’t happen until he was in his early 40s). As a boy, his mother made sure he got a musical education and his job at his father’s record store exposed him to the idea that people paid money for art:

To this day, among my earliest memories was someone would give my father $5 and he’d hand them a record. So the exchange of money for art, I thought that was normal. I thought that’s what everybody did. I never thought there was anything wrong about making money.

As an adult, Glass worked odd jobs (plumber, mover, cab driver) to have the independence to work on his music:

I had an ensemble at the time. I would go out and play for three weeks. We would come back from the tour, and we usually had lost money so I had to make money immediately. I put an ad in the paper. My cousin and I ran the company, and I moved furniture for about three or four or five weeks. Then I went on tour again. Again, we lost money.

That went on for years. I thought it was going to go on for the rest of my life, actually. It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living, really, from writing music. That happened kind of by accident.

I was interested in jobs that were part-time, where I had a lot of independence, where I could work when I wanted to. I wasn’t interested in working in an office where everything would be very regimented.

As his musical career took off, Glass continued to take his other work seriously. From a 2001 profile of Glass in The Guardian:

Throughout this period, Glass supported himself as a New York cabbie and as a plumber, occupations that often led to unusual encounters. “I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo,” he says. “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

But after Einstein on the Beach dazzled critics at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass’s days in the driver’s seat of a cab were limited:

The day after the performance, Glass was back driving his taxi: “I vividly remember the moment, shortly after the Met adventure,” he says, “when a well-dressed woman got into my cab. After noting the name of the driver, she leaned forward and said: ‘Young man, do you realise you have the same name as a very famous composer’.”

Glass is my favorite composer, but as much as I love his music, I might appreciate the way he has approached his work and career almost as much.

The storytellers who read aloud to Cuban cigar rollers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2018

In a practice that started in 1865 and still continues today, lectores (storytellers) in Cuban cigar factories read to the workers while they roll cigars. They read the news, novels, horoscopes, recipes…it’s like a live daily radio show or podcast for the workers.

I’m not just a reader; I’m rather a cultural promoter of sorts. I usually try to bring topics that can influence their day-to-day, and help them face certain issues.

(Gee, that sounds like what I do here!) The practice started as a way to educate and entertain workers and eventually helped fuel the Cuban independence movement…a little knowledge goes a long way. Nowadays, the practice is less revolutionary. From a piece in The Economist about lectores:

The workers themselves choose the lectores. “This is the only job in Cuba that is democratically decided,” says an employee. The audience is demanding. Torcedores signal approval by tapping chavetas, oyster-shaped knives, on their worktables; slamming them on the floor shows displeasure. They vote on reading material: Ms Valdés-Lombillo recently finished “A Time to Die” by Wilbur Smith, a South African novelist, and “Semana Santa en San Francisco”, by Agustin García Marrero, a Cuban. When the readings get steamy, torcedores provide an accompaniment of suggestive sound effects. They laugh when a horoscope suggests that someone might inherit a fortune.

This piece in Mental Floss also contains some interesting tidbits:

One lectora, Maria Caridad Gonzalez Martinez, wrote 21 novels over her career. None were published; she simply read them all aloud to her audience.

Update: Anna in the Tropics is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz in which the main action features a lector.

And a 1909 photograph by Lewis Hine, a lector reading to cigar workers in Tampa, FL.

Lector Lewis Hine

(thx, aaron & jason)

Freelance achievement stickers

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2017

Freelance Stickers

Jeremy Nguyen imagines a set of achievement stickers (or perhaps merit badges) for people who freelance or otherwise work from home and need a fun way to mark their accomplishments.

The struggle is real. Today, I earned the “put on pants” and “went outside” stickers but sadly not the “talked to someone in person” one. Will try to do better tomorrow.

Information Age automation is coming for your job

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2017

This new video by Kurzgesagt examines automation in the past (“big stupid machines doing repetitive work in factories”) and argues that automation in the information age is fundamentally different. In a nutshell,1 whereas past automation resulted in higher productivity and created new and better jobs for a growing population, automation in the future will happen at a much quicker pace, outpacing the creation of new types of jobs for humans.

Their two main sources for the video are Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

  1. The German phrase “kurz gesagt” means roughly “in a nutshell”, so this is a pun. Laugh now!

Systemic racism in America explained in just three minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2017

This short video shows several ways in which systemic racism is still very much alive and well in the United States in 2017. See also Race Forward’s video series featuring Jay Smooth.

“What Is Systemic Racism?” is an 8-part video series that shows how racism shows up in our lives across institutions and society: Wealth Gap, Employment, Housing Discrimination, Government Surveillance, Incarceration, Drug Arrests, Immigration Arrests, Infant Mortality… yes, systemic racism is really a thing.

The reason why this matters should be obvious. Just like extra effort can harness the power of compound interest in knowledge and productivity, even tiny losses that occur frequently can add up to a large deficit. If you are constantly getting dinged in even small ways just for being black, those losses add up and compound over time. Being charged more for a car and other purchases means less life savings. Less choice in housing results in higher prices for property in less desirable neighborhoods, which can impact choice of schools for your kids, etc. Fewer callbacks for employment means you’re less likely to get hired. Even if you do get the job, if you’re late for work even once every few months because you get stopped by the police, you’re a little more likely to get fired or receive a poor evaluation from your boss. Add up all those little losses over 30-40 years, and you get exponential losses in income and social status.

And these losses often aren’t small at all, to say nothing of drug offenses and prison issues; those are massive life-changing setbacks. The war on drugs and racially selective enforcement have hollowed out black America’s social and economic core. There’s a huge tax on being black in America and unless that changes, the “American Dream” will remain unavailable to many of its citizens.

Compound interest applied to learning

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2017

How are some people more productive than others? Are they smarter or do they just work a little bit harder than everyone else? In 1986, mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming gave a talk at Bell Communications Research about how people can do great work, “Nobel-Prize type of work”. One of the traits he talked about was possessing great drive:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity — it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Thinking of life in terms of compound interest could be very useful. Early and intensive investment in something you’re interested in cultivating — relationships, money, knowledge, spirituality, expertise, etc. — often yields exponentially better results than even marginally less effort.

See also this metaphor for how cultural, technological, and scientific changes happen. (via mr)

Green Angels: the NYC drug ring run by former models

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

The Green Angels is a group of pot dealers that was started by a former fashion model named Honey (not her real name). Many of the dealers and dispatchers are also former models…or at least possess enough good looks and easy charm to talk their way out of trouble with NYPD officers.

Honey is clear-eyed about the nature of her operation: “I tell the girls, it’s not a club; it’s a drug ring.” The whole business is run via text messages between her, the dispatchers in her headquarters, the runners who do the deliveries, and the customers. “I have carpal tunnel in my thumb from all the texting,” Honey says. Dispatchers get 10 percent of each sale; the runners get 20 percent, which averages out to $300 or $400 a day. Several of them, according to Honey, “are paying off their NYU student loans.”

Just like any other business, there are tricks of the trade and protocols to follow:

One of the Angels suggests using a tote bag instead of a backpack to carry the box. She generally uses a WNYC tote bag, which is given out to donors to the public-radio station. The other day, an old lady gave her a high five after seeing her tote. “I thought, If you only knew what I have in this bag,” she says.

Honey tells the girls to get a work phone from MetroPCS, which costs $100. When buying it, they should pay in cash and have a name in mind to put down on the form, in case the police check. “I like to use the names of girls who were my enemies growing up,” Honey says.

The business is organized and disciplined, which I suspect it needs to be if you don’t want to get tossed in jail:

The Green Angels average around 150 orders a day, which is about a fourth of what the busiest services handle. When a customer texts, it goes to one of the cell phones on the table in the living room. There’s a hierarchy: The phones with the pink covers are the lowest; they contain the numbers of the flakes, cheapskates, or people who live in Bed-Stuy. The purple phones contain the good, solid customers. Blue is for the VIPs. There are over a thousand customers on Honey’s master list.

To place an order, a customer is supposed to text “Can we hang out?” and a runner is sent to his apartment. No calling, no other codes or requests. Delivery is guaranteed within an hour and a half. If the customer isn’t home, he gets a strike. Three strikes and he’s 86’d. If he yells at the runner, he’s 86’d immediately.

The Angels work only by referral. The customers should refer people they really know and trust, not strangers, and no one they’ve met in a bar. If you refer someone who becomes a problem, Charley says, you lose your membership.

Really interesting throughout.

How to Be Productive in Terrible Times

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

In Productivity in Terrible Times, Eileen Webb writes about the challenges of getting things done in the face of uncertain and worrisome times and offers some strategies that might help.

When your heart is worried for your Muslim friends, and deep in your bones you’re terrified about losing access to healthcare, it’s very hard to respond graciously to an email inquiring about the latest microsite analytics numbers. “THE WORLD IS BURNING. I will have those content model updates ready by Thursday. Sincerely, and with abject terror, Eileen.”

It is not tenable to quit my job and hie off to Planned Parenthood HQ and wait for them to make use of my superior content organizing skills. It is not a good idea for you to resign from stable work that supports your family and community because you’re no longer satisfied by SQL queries.

I don’t know about you, but I have been struggling mightily with this very thing. I’ve always had difficulty believing that the work I do here is in some way important to the world and since the election, that feeling has blossomed into a profound guilt-ridden anxiety monster. I mean, who in the actual fuck cares about the new Blade Runner movie or how stamps are designed (or Jesus, the blurry ham) when our government is poised for a turn towards corruption and authoritarianism?

I have come up with some reasons why my work here does matter, at least to me, but I’m not sure they’re good ones. In the meantime, I’m pressing on because my family and I rely on my efforts here and because I hope that in some small way my work, as Webb writes, “is capable of enabling righteous acts”.

Update: Meteorologist Eric Holthaus recently shared how he copes with working on climate change day after day.

I’m starting my 11th year working on climate change, including the last 4 in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counselor about it. I’m saying this b/c I know many ppl feel deep despair about climate, especially post-election. I struggle every day. You are not alone. There are days where I literally can’t work. I’ll read a story & shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise & time. The counselor said: “Do what you can”, which I think is simple & powerful advice. I’m going to start working a lot more on mindfulness. Despair is natural when there’s objective evidence of a shared existential problem we’re not addressing adequately. You feel alone.

I also wanted to thank those who reached out on Twitter and email about this post…I really appreciate your thoughts. One reader sent along this passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

(thx, gil)

The seven stages of denial (that a robot will take your job)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.

2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.

3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.

5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.

6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more!

7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

[Repeat.]

I predict that getting to #6 will be challenging for many people.

This is women’s work

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2016

Womens Work

Womens Work

For a photo project called Women’s Work, Chris Crisman made portraits of women who have jobs not typically done by women in the US. In an interview at aPhotoEditor, Crisman explained the why he did the project:

I am a father of two — a 4 year old boy and a 2 year old girl. I was raised to believe that I could do whatever I wanted to when I grew up. I want pass down a similar message to my children and without caveats. I want to raise my children knowing that their dreams have no limits and that they have parents supporting them to dive into anything they feel passionate about.

Crisman shot a short film of Sadie Samuels, the Maine lobster fisherman1 pictured in the photograph above.

  1. What’s the gender neutral alternative for fisherman? Fisherperson? Washington State uses fisher. Interestingly, Samuels calls herself a “fisherman” in the video.

Philip Glass: own your work and get paid for it

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2016

Philip Glass Whitney

From a new Kickstarter publication called The Creative Independent, Philip Glass was interviewed about the importance of artists owning their work and getting paid for it.

My personal position was that I had wonderful parents. Really wonderful people. But my mother was a school teacher. My father had a small record shop in Baltimore. They had no money to support my career. I began working early. You’re too young to know this, but when you get your first Social Security check, you get a list of every place you’ve worked since you began working. It’s fantastic! I discovered that I was working from the time I was 15 and putting money into the Social Security system from that age onward. I thought it was much later. No, I was actually paying money that early.

The point is that I spent most of my life supporting myself. And I own the music. I never gave it away. I am the publisher of everything I’ve written except for a handful of film scores that the big studios paid. I said, “Yeah, you can own it. You can have it, but you have to pay for it.” They did pay for it. They were not gifts.

A lot in this interview resonates, including this:

It’s never been easy for painters, or writers, or poets to make a living. One of the reasons is that we, I mean a big “We,” deny them an income for their work. As a society we do. Yet, these are the same people who supposedly we can’t live without. It’s curious, isn’t it?

And this bit about making work vs performing (italics mine):

What happens, is that the artists are in a position where they can no longer live on their work. They have to worry about that. They need to become performers. That’s another kind of work we do. I go out and play music. The big boom in performances is partly because of streaming, isn’t it? We know, for example, that there are big rock and roll bands that will give their records away free. You just have to buy the ticket to the concert. The cost of the record is rather small compared to the price of the ticket. It’s shifted around a little bit; they’re still paying, but they’re paying at the box office rather than at the record store. The money still will find its way.

Then you have to be the kind of person who goes out and plays, and some people don’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of writing online. Making a comfortable living only by writing is tough and very few independents are able to do it. More successful are those who are able to get away from writing online by speaking at conferences, writing books, starting podcasts, selling merchandise,1 post sponsored tweets and Instagram photos, building apps, consulting for big companies, etc. This stuff is the equivalent of the band that tours, sells merch, composes music for TV commercials, etc. But as Glass said, what about those who just want to write? (And I count myself among that number.) How can we support those people? Anyway, more on this very soon (I hope).

Photo is of a Chuck Close painting of Philip Glass taken by me at The Whitney.

  1. Just this morning, a friend texted me a photo of The Pioneer Woman’s line of products on the shelf at Walmart.

Tracking Homer Simpson’s jobs and salary

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2016

Vox recently took a look at every single job that Homer has ever had on The Simpsons in an attempt to see where his average salary falls on the economic spectrum in America.

Over the show’s 596-episode run, Homer has had at least 191 jobs. They’ve ranged from executive positions to service jobs, and have dotted the entire economic spectrum, from ultra-rich to the poverty line.

In the list below, we’ve compiled the real-life salaries for 100 of these jobs. Seasonal jobs (like “mall Santa”), and jobs that were virtually impossible to find salary data for (“beer smuggler”) were excluded, as were any repeats (he was an Army private twice, for instance). His full-time gig as a safety inspector is highlighted in yellow, for reference.

He gets a lot of flack, but Homer is actually the most interesting person in America by a wide margin, even though he’s not well compensated for it.

See also Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics.

Mike Birbiglia’s advice on how to get started on creative projects

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2016

Comedian, actor, and director Mike Birbiglia wrote a short piece for the NY Times with advice on how to get started in a creative career. Much of this you’ve heard before, but Birbiglia’s version is succinct and concisely argued. He and I agree on the #1 piece of advice:

1. DON’T WAIT. Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.

His “small but great” point is right on the money as well. (via @Richie_boy)

The secret to success: take risks, work hard, and get lucky

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

Tech investor Fred Wilson recently gave the commencement address for the very first graduating class at the Academy For Software Engineering. In it, he shared the secret to his success:

So with that, I am here to tell you that the secret to success in your career comes down to three things, take risks, work hard, and get lucky.

I essentially1 agree with Wilson here. Earlier today I was listening to the latest episode of the Recode Media podcast where Peter Kafka’s guest was Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. Gruber recounted how he got started blogging about Apple and eventually turned it into a very successful business. I’ve heard the story before and it conforms nicely to Wilson’s path to success.

1. Take risks. Gruber bet heavily on three things for Daring Fireball: Apple, blogs, and (later) podcasts. None looked that impressive from a business standpoint when his bets were made. In 2002 when he started writing DF, Apple was still an underdog computer company whose partisans had mostly stuck with the company through its lean years of offering products that weren’t competing well and which didn’t exemplify the ideals of the Apple of yore. The iPod had just come out a year earlier and the life- industry- company-changing iPhone was years in the future. But Gruber never viewed Apple as an underdog…to him it was a legendary company in the world poised for future greatness. Professional blogs were just starting to be a thing back then as well, and it was far from certain that you might be able to earn even a partial living from them, especially on your own. And when he started his Talk Show podcast in 2007, podcasting was still largely a hobbyist endeavor. Sure, you could make some money doing it, but 9 years on, there’s big money to be had for the most popular shows. Three risky bets that paid off.

2. Work hard. Tens of thousands of posts and hundreds of hours of podcasts over the past 13+ years, yeah, I think that covers it. Gruber has put in the necessary ass-in-chair time.

3. Get lucky. There’s a lot of luck sprinkled around the success of DF, but perhaps the biggest break Gruber got was Apple’s decision to open up the iOS App Store to outside developers. Suddenly, you had all of these developers, startups, established software companies, and venture capitalists pouring money into the development and promotion of iOS apps. So these companies had money and needed somewhere to advertise their apps, a place where they could be sure all of the most influential and rabid Apple aficionados would see their message. Daring Fireball was the obvious place and the site’s RSS sponsorships were the perfect format.

  1. Although I would assign a much larger role to luck than he might. Being born white and male in the US in the late 20th century is a massive advantage that is often brushed under the carpet in such discussions. “Take risks” can be literally dangerous in an institutionally racist/sexist/classist system.

Wait for The Wolf, who should be coming directly…

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2016

A company called Studio D recently published their corporate end-of-the-year report for 2015. It is unlike most other companies’ year-end reports. Studio D, which was founded by global citizen Jan Chipchase, “specialises in sensitive research topics requiring a very discreet presence; through to working in higher risk environments”.

This year the studio was joined by two four-legged team members: Ramoosh the camel purchased from the livestock market in Hargeysa; and Neyy a goat bought on the road between Harare and Bindura. As is the local norm in a country with limited electricity and even less refrigeration, Neyy was gifted to an interviewee as a small thank-you — anything larger wouldn’t be possible to eat in one sitting and would spoil after slaughter. Both were expensed.

The company also debuted the 1M Hauly Heist, which is a ultra-durable and discreet travel pack that will carry $1 million in US $100 bills and shield electronics from RF tracking. The 1M Hauly Heist made it onto my 2015 holiday gift list.

Leadership merit badges

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2015

Michael Lopp, Head of Engineering at Pinterest, recently gave a talk at the Cultivate conference in which he talks about different merit badges that a leader might earn if there were such a thing. Check the video for the whole list, but here are a few of them:

Influence without management authority
Delegate something you care about
Ship a thing
Ask for help from an enemy
Fail spectacularly

Part of the list made me think of parenting, which reminded me of Stella Bugbee’s recommendation of the book Siblings Without Rivalry on Cup of Jo.

I have a VERY, VERY unlikely book that I often reference as a boss: Siblings Without Rivalry. It’s not about money or business per se, but I’ve found since reading it that I put so many of its lessons into practice managing my team at work. I love the way it teaches you to listen, repeat the issues without taking sides, empathize and then teach the parties involved to solve their own disputes. It also helps at home. (Duh.)