Make Good Art

“Make good art’ is Neil Gaiman’s prescription for whatever ails you. If the job market isn’t there, if your boss doesn’t respect you, if the world doesn’t get you – make good art.
If it’s not working, then make better art.
If you don’t know how to make better art, learn.
If the people around you are sabotaging your art, ignore them.
If your boss stops your art, make different art. If he stops it again, take responsibility and make different art. Keep doing it until your art gets better or you get fired, whichever happens first.
…And then make. more. art.” -Seth Godin

Just a few days ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away. For reasons I’m still trying to sort out, I was rather surprisingly struck by this loss.

Rest In Peace

You’ll be missed.

Firstly and foremost, PSH was a profoundly talented actor. His breadth of perfection is second to few, and entirely his own. He’s given performances that rival those of Daniel Day Lewis and but he’s also got the tenure and breadth of a Kevin Spacey, not to mention the modesty of eschewing the celebrity’s life. And unlike the Matt Damons and George Clooneys of the world, Philip Seymour Hoffman was our everyman, complete only in imperfection.

But beyond a brilliance cut short, there was also the shameful backlash against the circumstances of his death that ate at me. It’s nothing new to know what happens to the light that burns twice as bright, PSH was a recovering heroin addict. To lose a life to addiction is god damn travesty, especially such a brilliant one. And perhaps through wrestling with my own demons, and perhaps through documenting the struggles of comedians, and perhaps even from witnessing a few people in my own life taken by addiction, I’ve got a well of empathy in my heart for the occasion. So my grief was only matched by my disappointment with how quickly so many outlets and people cast him and his canon of work aside as a product of being “one of those people”.The type of people that aren’t people like you and me. They’re sick and weak… fundamentally different. And just as quickly they pat themselves on the back, proud that they didn’t turn out like him… an addict.

I was immediately reminded of the reaction to Adam Lanza’s Autism, Chris Dorner’s “justice,” and Carnell Marcus’ “monsters.” Long before Ted Kaczynski became the Unabomber, he was outcast mathematical prodigy, who would later go on to write the most well respected Neo-Luddite treatise that even some of the most technology forward thinkers can’t help but tip their hat to today. These people acted like animals because the were treated like animals, but at the end of the day, they never were anything less than human. They were sick. Starved of humanity until their lost their own. Of course, in all the bloodlust, we forget how quickly we’ll forsake our own in the name of “justice.”

Art is the expression of our own humanity. More than a reflection, it is essential.

Art is the expression of our own humanity.
More than a reflection, it is essential.

Philip Seymour Hoffman never lost his humanity, but no less quickly were many people lining up to decry his imperfections, assign the blame, and cast him aside. I understand it, it’s evolutionarily advantageous to exile the sick, the weak, the lame, and the handicapped; But at some point we need to start exercising that pre-frontal cortex by extending some empathy to our fellow man. Until we can see our own capacity for darkness, our own capacity for sickness and weakness, and our own capacity for inhumanity, we’re asking for trouble. There are over 7 Billion people on this planet and counting. Technology is accelerating  far quicker than our own understanding of it. Society is the most complex, mysterious, and potentially dangerous invention we’ve brought to this earth. Unless we can learn to extend our empathy to our fellow man and biosphere, then, in the words of Jeremy Rifkin, “I just don’t see… how we’re going to make it…”

All of this is to say that what I really had eating at me was a burning desire to start on my next project, Outliers, as I’m calling it. A culmination of my writing here on empathy, my background in operations management, my non-fiction habit, and my filmmaking addiction. Philip Seymour Hoffman is just the latest victim of a sick society getting sicker. And until we start learning from our outliers, those that fall outside of “normal,” we’re going to be completely unprepared for what comes next as the mean continues to slide down social health scale. (More on Outliers later)

Which brings me to my last disappointment/grief. I was saddled with this melancholy and empathic drive to create on a Monday, at my day job, helping to keep prices low and profits high for a chemical company that had all too recently broken it’s promise to the well-being of it’s people. I was sitting at my desk, mourning the death of a true artist, and I couldn’t bring myself to just leave.

In the meantime, with what free-time my life affords me, my only recourse is to make good art.

“There are two kinds of sufferers in this world: those who suffer from a lack of life… and those who suffer from an overabundance of life. I’ve always found myself in the second category. 

When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? 

Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks years ago were just as advanced as we are.  So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? 

The answer to that can be found in another question, and that’s this: Which is the most universal human characteristic–fear or laziness?” -Robert Mackey

Let us hope, not too silently

Let us hope, not too silently

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The Great Empathy Conspiracy: Influencer

So I’ve been reading this book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which has actually been incredibly fascinating to me in terms of reshaping the lens with which I view the world’s behavior and it’s actually given me alot of hope and excitement, both from an analyst’s and a documentarian’s perspective, that not only are the worlds biggest problems, systemic issues (which I and hopefully everyone already knew), but that given the right lens, the problems become much simpler and approachable.

I’ve struggled with the notion for a long time about whether or not we can actually exert any meaningful influence over others, or whether they are largely just a product of their genes and all of the moments that lead up to that moment in time where they were already either prepared to change or not, when all we did was add a single grain of sand.

In documentary this manifests itself when the reality sinks in, that in attempting to change minds, the only audience reached is largely one that already believes or is inclined to believe your message. How does one do more than affirm a friend, but to convert an ‘enemy’?

That feeling had grown both out of previous struggles with the notion of freewill as well as specifically a comment by one of the comedians who was asked by his therapist, what makes people want to change? His only answer was ‘pain’… and in that moment I couldn’t help but agree with him….. but that doesn’t bode well for humanity if our only hope for redemption is brinksmanship with destruction.

But basically, I had a sort of epiphany while reading the book and what it boils down to is that you can’t change people, but you can change their conditions, and if you change the right conditions, they will change themselves. Dealing with free will head on is a slippery slope, but you can ignore that altogether when instead you only need to shape an external set of conditions.

I don’t know, it seems obvious now, but I feel like that’s the way everything goes with me. I take a long walkabout, sometimes years in the making to fully understand a simple truth most take for granted. I always find the worlds of T.S. Eliot bear repeating in moments like these: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

On to the book though, there are 3 “parts” to a successful influence program:

1. You must be crystal clear about the objective you are trying to accomplish and measure it zealously. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a “soft” measure, and in fact, many times it is a soft measure and should only be treated as such. If you’re not exactly on target with your objective and measure, you risk undermining your entire effort.

2. You must identify the vital behaviors that drive towards your objective and measure them zealously. This is where things start to get hairy, because it seems simple on the surface, but when they say vital, they mean vital. You should never have more than 3 vital behaviors to focus on, otherwise you’ll spread yourself too thin. Look for moments of disproportionate influence to find your vital behaviors, the moments that either set in motion a chain of success or topple into a downward spiral of failure. Changing behavior at those moments will be key, and require a great deal of creativity, insight and refinement.

3. To lead a successful influence program you must marshal all six sources of influence. Influencers make a habit of overdetermining the requirements for change. There can be no half measures if you have any hopes for success, but if you do conquer all six, your likelihood for success increases ten-fold. The six sources of influence are as follows:

Personal Motivation – Getting them to love what they hate.
Personal Ability – Helping them to surpass their limits
Social Motivation – Harnessing peer pressure and opinion leaders to work for you rather than against you
Social Ability – Building and Enlisting Social Capital as a support mechanism
Structural Motivation – Change their economy with rewards, praise, and (sparingly) punishment
Structural Ability – Change their environment to facilitate change and provide tools

The book takes each one of these parts, including each source of influence and further breaks down the strategies, opportunities, and obstacles relevant to each one in such detail, backed by research and smothered with examples that you can’t help but feel like The Influencer Model is the lever that Archimedes had been looking for all along, and now all you have to do is find a place to stand. 

With that, I’m starting to get excited about my next potential documentary, Outliers, a different perspective on our social outliers, both positive negative, and what they have to say about society and humanity as a whole. It’ll be an exciting mix of my Operations Management background combining with film and an opportunity to really dive into social psychology, to once again raise the mirror to humanity so that we may inspect ourselves from yet another angle. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there’s plenty to do between here and there.

News:

ISTHMUS OF MISFITS IS NOW COMPLETE!!!

That’s right, 2 years, 10 months on the job and I finally called it finished for the first time. Pretty exciting, though no time to slouch, I’ve got a trailer to cut, festivals to apply to, a website to design, a press kit to make, marketing to do, and hopefully a film companion to write… lots and lots to do.

It has also been awhile, since I last posted, so if you missed them, there are some more teasers that can be found in this playlist.

Also, pretty exciting, while I was registering IsthmusofMisfits.com, I figured I’d also register TheUndergroundTreehouse.org & .com. So I got that going for me as well.
Make Art

An Epic Search for Truth

“I am become death, I am the destroyer of worlds.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer

I think I have found the book that has delivered me from hell…. at least for a time. My dear friend Elliott, for my birthday, sent me a copy of Logicomix, which unfortunately has taken me this long to get around to. If only I had known salvation sat mere feet away from me on the coffee table three weeks ago in the depths of my now ending malaise. (Note: I wrote this over a month ago)

Logicomix tells the story of Bertrand Russell, a famous mathematician, logician, philosopher, futurist, among other things, while also capturing the larger pursuit of a foundational logic framework with which universal truths could be proven and articulated involving the work of many other great minds of the last two centuries.

The approach was most fascinating. The story occurs as a humourous recounting of his own life as told by Mr. Russell in a lecture at a university, just as Hitler is invading Poland. The emphasis however, isn’t on the logic principles themselves, which are indeed masterfully distilled for the layman, but the focus is on the passion and personalities that drove this quest for universal logic. The argument, which actually occurs in inserted segments where the creative team was debating how to approach the story, goes something like, if not for the passion, personalities, and even “madness” so present in the world’s foremost logicians, the quest could never have sustained the fervent inquiry it did… that in fact the ideas are subservient by-products of these personalities, and indeed, each turn in the quest seems to spring forth from the psychologically self-destructive experiences these logicians subjected themselves to.

This person-first, content-second approach confirmed for me my own approach to the Isthmus of Misfits. In deciding to forsake the stand-up and focus solely on the comedians, my argument has been that it’s not the jokes that makes a comedian, a comedian, it’s a drive, it’s a passion, it’s in their bones, it comes from their experiences and pain and struggles. That its not about making people laugh, but about finding oneself on stage. For these people it’s not a choice, it’s an imperative, a necessity; Just as Mr. Russell felt his very sanity depended on his pursuit of a higher order logic. Now certainly there is some value in the stand-up itself, as that is what lead me to this point after all, but with only two hours to explore this isthmus of multi-faceted misfits and the availability of stand-up elsewhere, I’d rather leave that part of the puzzle a homework assignment for the audience… to rediscover stand-up with new eyes, to see it the way I see it.

Back to the book though. Poland has just been invaded by the Nazi’s and Bertrand Russell is posing the question, what role ought logic play in worldly affairs such as this. The main thrust of the story Mr. Russell is spinning from his life, was that every breakthrough in the quest, only opened another rabbit hole. That in an infinite universe, the foundations of logic were doomed to an infinitely increasing complexity that could not be sustained, and indeed didn’t, because after decades of work by the worlds brightest minds, finally Godel solved Russell’s paradox, effectively ending the quest with a proof, no less. It was not the proof the logicians had been anticipating, it was a proof of insolveability. And so the entire movement collapsed unto itself, just as several of the logicians did.

So if the foundations mathematics and logic rest on a set of unprovable axioms, that despite being useful, and even observable, were baseless, then what could be said about psychology, sociology, politics, war and other human affairs. Mr. Russell, a well known pacifist, lecturing to an audience of peaceniks, leaned in and said that perhaps we shouldn’t be so certain in our beliefs in anything that we are blinded by it. That even if the ideological extremes he had encountered in logic could be so dangerous, that a similar certainty in human affairs is nothing short of lunacy. And given the emergence of an evil greater than the world had ever known, even Mr. Russell was reconsidering his stance on pacifism, and asking the peaceniks to reconsider theirs. He was not asking that they change their mind, but that they use the tools of reason, and at least once take the time to challenge their own beliefs in a world as uncertain as this.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot

The tagline to this site is, if you haven’t noticed, an insatiable quest for truth, that ends in untimely death. I found this notion fitting in all ways of the word, for the tragedy, for the comedy, for the passion, for the inevitability, for the truth of it, and the beauty. I think it still holds, though the definition may now require amending, and the goal may need broadening. After all, I’ve just had some portion of my world-view upended by the book… and at the same time, merely confirmed.

This is far from the first time I’ve had my life radically altered after finishing a book or movie. 1984 is where it began. Network followed. Atlas Shrugged came after. Poke the Box. Stop Stealing Dreams. And now Logicomix. Each time it comes to pass feels like an exuberant tragedy, a lost innocence in a brave new world, a truth I’ll never be able to rediscover again, but by now I’ve come to learn it always comes again because life is not nearly as simple as can be summed up in just a few books.

Back to the notion of Truth though. A common theme in art is the dangers of extreme rationality. So too in Logicomix, does Mr. Russell encounter those dangers, externally and internally. And in reflection, I wondered about the notion of why humans are inherently irrational creatures, and often times in that irrationality, they’ve arrived at the solution they needed all along…as if nature itself is biased towards irrationality.

But take this notion too, one sometimes encountered in art, typically in the depths of dystopic fare I find myself often gravitating to, that perhaps we don’t deserve life…. that the world, and the universe would be better off without us… rationally speaking, we have very little basis for our inherent value. Given my belief about altruism, in that there is no such thing, it seems to follow that given the unprecedented complexity we introduced in the universe, and our lack of apparent worth, a truly rational creature couldn’t survive a process of evolution, because it would both be deprived of complete rational satisfaction, as well as be burdened with the conclusion to deprive itself of it’s very own life. An imperfect logic seems necessary to the survival of life. Seemingly the closest thing we can find to truth is the law of entropy, a system of inevitability. And who would want a staring contest with inevitability, anyways?

So what does one do when they give up on the ultimate quest for ultimate truth, if there is none to be found? Such a relief it is to return to axiomatic life. To live the little truths, and find the little happiness afforded to us. I think it’s time to start living again. To stop subjecting the worth of every action to ruler of universal meaningfulness. To return to the process, rather than the destination.

“…And the Voice said to me: ‘I want you to tell the people the truth, not an easy thing to do because the people don’t want to know the truth.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding. What the hell should I know about the truth?’ And the Voice said to me: ‘We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth. We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth. I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth, but god-dammit, at least you’re capable of self-preservation!’ And I said, ‘Why me?’ And the Voice said: ‘Because you’re on television, dummy! For Pete’s sake, I’m not asking you to walk the land in sackcloth and ashes preaching the Armageddon. You’re on TV, man.’ So I thought about it for a moment, and then I said, ‘Ok.” – Peter Finch, Network

News:

Just exported and am currently burning my 3rd complete draft of Isthmus of Misfits. It’s down to 107.5 minutes. Trimming should be complete so this should be close to the final time. All that’s left is to rearrange some of the segments, maybe do a little polishing, then work through the color grading, audio correction, and titling. My countdown timer says 60 days remain, so I’m happy with my timing. Looking forward to wrapping this all up.

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

Interesting analysis… I think alot of the effects are on key, but suspect the causes to be a little less sinister. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Homeless Adjunct

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in…

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