virtualDavis

\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Blogger, storyteller, flâneur. G.G. Davis, Jr's alter ego…
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Hannah Brencher on Letters, Strangers and Love

“I posed a kind of crazy promise to the Internet: that if you asked me for a hand-written letter, I would write you one, no questions asked.” ~ Hannah Brencher

Hannah Brencher‘s (@hannahbrencher) phrasing, and the idea it sums up, struck home. First, there’s that opening phrase.  The Internet for those who’ve grown up with it is an entity. A being. Like the universe. Or a god.

More Love LettersFor me — and I suspect for many others too who watched the Internet’s birth, that first spank on its still wet posterior, that first gasp of air followed by a global yowl — the Internet is a communication infrastructure, a virtual web connecting beings and entities. But I find Brechner’s notion immensely appealing. And accurate. The idea that I could make a promise to the Internet might have seemed trite in another time, another context. But Brencher’s story and her promise kept, More Love Letters, is proof positive that the Internet is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. The Internet is a being. A universe. A god.

And then there’s the tribute to handwritten correspondence.

Many of you who know me personally (and even some who don’t) have received a handwritten note from me at one time or another. Usually written with green ink and barely legible handwriting. For no reason other than that I love green ink, and — though my penmanship is poor — I wanted to share some words with you. Smudges and all. Don’t get me wrong, voice mail and email and text messages and social media updates and pokes and tweets all have their important roles to play, but increasingly rare handwritten notes are special. They are real and enduring and intimate in a way that digital notes are not.

Last but not least there’s that exciting gulp feeling you get when you watch Brencher’s TED Talk. Maybe even a joyful tear. And it’s not because she kept her promise or the Internet’s a god or you’re getting sepia-toned nostalgic about paper and ink. It’s a gulp because what she’s built is good. Really good. So good that it’s gone viral and created a global tribe of benevolent love letter planters.

I tip my proverbial hat (or fountain pen?) to friend and frequent inspiration, Athena Roth (Pinterest) who shared Hannah Brencher’s “Love letters to strangers” with me. Roth’s song and aesthetic sensibilities are gifts not altogether unlike Brencher’s love letters.

Monday Morning Meander

English: Meander on the River Dee just west of...

Monday Morning Meander (Image via Wikipedia)

My Mondays typically are energetic, frenetic, anxious. All weekend I’ve been building up To Do lists and massaging my timelines, and by the time I crawl out from under the comforter to share breakfast with Griffin, my Labrador Retriever, my mind is already off to the races.

I suspect that there’s a Monday Morning archetype with lots of other caffeinated-before-your-caffeinated folks who know exactly what I’m talking about. Which validates my suspicions that we all need to break pace for a few moments and meander to refresh the dreams and go juices. If you’re understanding me so far, this post may be for you. Let’s meander together for a few minutes before we pull back into heavy traffic or return to slaying dragons or charming venomous snakes.

Are you social? Digitally social? Plenty gab to be had of late regarding merits and demerits of social networks, but GigaOm‘s recent post, “Do authors have to be social? No, but it helps.“, is worth a look.

Mat Johnson described the people he follows on Twitter as his “dream party guests — interesting strangers whose wit keeps me coming back.” But Johnson also put his finger on another reason that some authors like him have taken to social media like Twitter: the ability to connect directly with potential readers. As he put it: “I’ve never had a single ad for any of my novels, had a movie made or been given a big budget push by a publisher. Usually, they just throw my book out to reviewers and hope it floats. Twitter lets me hijack the promotion plane, sidestep the literary establishment and connect directly to my current and potential audience… It’s a meritocracy; if you’re interesting, you get followed.” (GigaOM: Tech News and Analysis)

I’m borrowing Johnson’s Twitter/dream party guests analogy the next time I try to explain the joys of skinny dipping in the tweet stream to a perplexed (or dismissive) audience. And while I’m thinking about dream party guests, what happened to Kevin Smokler? Was he abducted by aliens? Or is he just giving kevinsmokler.com a fall/winter rest. Back in the spring?

@ This is why we need your #TED talk. Tyler Cowen takes a cynical, skeptical look at stories http://t.co/413wn3jy #gagreflex
@karlsprague
Karl Sprague

Are you familiar with narrative pollyannaism? Fellow optimist Karl Sprague just introduced me to its antithesis, died in the cloth story skepticism. Economist Tyler Cowen’s TEDxTalk distills the dark, devious, dangers of storytelling in his warning, “Be suspicious of stories“.

Cowen admits a weakness for compelling narratives, but he’s concerned that stories oversimplify our messy lives. He reminds us that stories distort complex human nature, interactions and institutions potentially misguiding us and fueling bias and self-deception.

He’s right, of course.

As Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics at George Mason University and co-author of economics blog Marginal Revolution and an avalanche of economics books, Cowen is right about a lot. And despite taking a few laps to warm up, his dry, self-deprecating sense of humor prevails, gradually softening his admonition. And his nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Living to Tell the Tale ultimately won me over.

“Life is not what one lives, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Stories do distort and oversimplify. But so do street signs, the nightly news, education, modern medicine, music and virtually every other human invention. His bottom line?

Be more comfortable with messy. Be more comfortable with agnostic…” (TEDxTalks)

I can live with that.

And what better way to wrap up than a digital recap of Sunday’s meander? Yesterday John Davis (@trekeast) and I escaped with our brides and progeny for a Parch Pond adventure. This Eddy Foundation wilderness holding includes a handsome pond which was frozen and snow-free, perfect skating. Here’s a clip shot by Mr. TrekEast on his iPhone:

For additional images from the outing, check out “Skating Parch Pond“.

The technology of storytelling

I mutter on and on about storytelling in the digital age, but storyteller Joe Sabia (tumblr/facebook) whips out his iPad and geeky glasses for a waltz with Lothar Meggendorfer. Sabia’s quirky narrative quickly, deftly demonstrates how storytellers have always leveraged innovative technologies to improve their craft.

No doubt Meggendorfer shook up the book world when he launched his storytelling technology, the pop-up book. Bibliophiles, teachers and book printers/publishers/retailers must have ranted and raved. “Three dimensional images? Are you crazy. That’ll be the death of imagination! That’ll be the end of reading…”

But his history-altering technology was a hit. It still is today. And yet we’re still imagining, still reading. Bravo, Lothar!

Sabia’s TEDTalk, “The technology of storytelling” reminds us that technology — from the walls of caves to projected iPads — have long served creative storytellers. Bravo, Joe!

I’m curious what you think of this video. Several commenters on the YouTube video have suggested that Sabia’s performance wasn’t TED caliber. I disagree, but I’m a storytelling pushover obsessed with digital storytelling. What’s your opinion?

Sarah Kay: Seth Godin’s Last Domino

Seth Godin's Last Domino: Publication of Sarah Kay's poem "B" marks the end  of the year long Domino Project.

Seth Godin is turning the page on The Domino Project following publication of Sarah Kay's poem "B".

“Projects are fun to start, but part of the deal is that they don’t last forever.” ~ Seth Godin

A year after Seth Godin launched The Domino Project he’s calling it quits. He summed up the takeaways in his post, “The last hardcover” which merits more rumination (preferably with several friends including an author, a publisher, and editor, an agent and a bottle of eighteen year old Laphroaig,) but absent the minds and the bottle of Scotch at 9:00am in my study, I’ll limit myself to an invitation and a few amuse-gueules.

First off, why’d he quit? What did he learn. And why’d he do it in the first place?

“The plan was to build a publishing imprint, powered by Amazon and filled with thoughtful books by inspired authors.” ~ Seth Godin

Right. So it was an experiment, Godin’s a laboratory for testing “what could be done in a fast-changing environment. Rather than whining about the loss of the status quo, I thought it would be interesting to help invent a new status quo and learn some things along the way.” (“The last hardcover”) Did you catch that? Godin stepped away from the traditional publishing world which had become increasingly bogged down in neigh saying and resisting the rapidly evolving publishing industry in order to help reinvent the publishing industry! That’s an ambitious experiment by my yardstick. And by his own estimation, it was a largely successful experiment.

It’s worth noting that even envisioning, announcing and launching The Domino Project was a successful experiment. The impact was real and the aftershocks are still tickling the tummies of the publishing industry. But catalyzing debate, driving change and incubating/publishing “twelve bestsellers, published in many languages around the world” is only part of the equation, you can bet on that. Savant Seth’s projects are rarely so tidy. They have tentacles and afterlives… He’s experimenting again. Authors need closure. Start a book; finish a book. Go on to the next. You can be sure that the phoenix already incubating amidst The Domino Project ashes will rise again, will rise soon, and will awe/shock many.

Prime time to reference Sarah Kay‘s short poem B, The Domino Project’s dazzling caboose and one of TEDTalks’ most riveting performances. Did you see it?

“There are plenty of things that I have trouble understanding, so I write poems to figure things out. Sometimes the only way I know how to work through something is by writing a poem. And sometimes I get to the end of the poem and look back and go, “Oh, that’s what this is all about.” And sometimes I get to the end of the poem and haven’t solved anything, but at least I have a new poem out of it.” ~ Sarah Kay

I understand this as if I’d written it, spoken it, myself. I wonder, wander and write to figure things out, to discover and ponder and sometimes even untangle the mysteries and adventures which swirl around me. Sometimes, not often. But at least I have the poem, the story, the journey. I suspect that Godin nodded his shiny pate when he first heard Sarah Kay explain what compels her to create poetry. I suspect that he realized Kay’s poem was the perfect way to conclude an experiment that had succeeded before it began, an experiment that discovered more mysteries and more adventures than it untangled or resolved. Whether a book, another project or a still unfathomable experiment, I’m confident that Godin’s next experiment will both awe and shock in the tradition of the best poets and oracles.

Until then, I offer you several remaining bite-sized-but-brain-busting amuse-gueules to challenge your own experiments.

“The ebook is a change agent like none the book business has ever seen. It cuts the publishing time cycle by 90%, lowers costs, lowers revenue and creates both a long tail and an impulse-buying opportunity. This is the most disruptive thing to happen to books in four hundred years.” ~ Seth Godin

“There is still (and probably will be for a while) a market for collectible editions, signed books and other special souvenirs that bring the emotional component of a book to the fore. While most books merely deliver an idea or a pasttime, for some books and some readers, there’s more than just words on paper. Just as vinyl records persist, so will books… because there’s something special about molecules and scarcity.” ~ Seth Godin

“If you’re an author, pick yourself. Don’t wait for a publisher to pick you. And if you work for a big publishing house, think really hard about the economics of starting your own permission-based ebook publisher.” ~ Seth Godin

“Publishing is about passion and writing is a lifestyle, not a shortcut to a mansion and a Porsche. Bestselling authors are like golfers who hit holes in one. It’s a nice thing, but there are plenty of people who will keep playing even without one.” ~ Seth Godin

By the time you read this post, the publishing industry will have already changed again. It’s changing that fast. Faster! If we learn nothing more from The Domino Project it is to stop lamenting, denying and resisting. Start inventing.

“This world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to reach out and taste it… never stop asking for more.” ~ Sarah Kay

I invite you to stop whining and start inventing!

Tinkering with Perception

Rory Sutherland: Life lessons from an ad man (TEDTalk)

“How many problems of life could we solve actually by tinkering with perception rather than that tedious hard working and messy business of actually trying to change reality?” ~ Rory Sutherland

Aside from Rory Sutherland‘s native charm (V4VYVUKTS56Y) and compelling storytelling which might have made his presentation enticing even if he were reminiscing the joys of wash-and-wear nappies, this ad man’s life lessons about perception and intangible value are spot-on! Obviously writers and storytellers of all stripes have been trafficking in perception since the beginning, but listening to Sutherland wax on about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Pernod and Shreddies I found myself thinking about publishing.

On the one hand, much lamentation has been spilled over the inevitable tactile and aesthetic losses in a digital book world. That musty smell of decomposing paper, the crisp swish of a turned page, the decadence of filling the margins with inked notes, doodles and the phone number of that attractive lady you met in the adjoining library carrel. Also much grumbling about the practical nuisance of an electronic tablet, ill-suited to reading in the tub or on a beach towel under the sun… In short, print book folks worrying aloud as we adopt a new vehicle for reading and sharing books.

To be sure, there is much that we’re losing, though I’ve suggested often enough that the transition is not likely to be quite as black and white as most people suggest, nor will print books vanish for a long, long time. Books will remain an important and present part of my world forever. But the inevitable transition to digital for many/most new releases is bittersweet for me. And yet, I understand and embrace this change. Sutherland touches obliquely on one of the reasons for my enthusiasm.

“If you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don’t like, or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value. That actually intangible value in many ways is actually a very, very fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.” ~ Rory Sutherland

This is but one small enthusiasm I share for digital publishing’s eclipse of smells-and-bells print publishing. And yet it’s an interesting one given that this question of perception and intangible value is deeply intertwined in the markets eager move to digital. Buyers are loading digital accounts with books that they may read, hope to read, could read,… Reading is hot again! Or at least owning books is hot again. I suppose that publishers lamenting the appetite for digital books might have mounted more intelligent campaigns cultivating and nurturing our appetites for the aesthetic pleasures of print books. It’s not too late. As print books become the exception rather than the rule, they will become luxury goods. And the opportunity to romance and inflate the value of ink and paper and binding will be ripe for exploitation.

A meandering post, headed nowhere in particular, I realize now. A pensée du jour that I’ll abandon as quickly as I initiated it. But first, two quotations with which Sutherland concluded his presentation:

“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new. ~ Rory Sutherland

So far as I can tell, this second quotation is Sutherland’s adaptation of a smart reflection inherited from Samuel Johnson:

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.” ~ Samuel Johnson

Looking Past Limits


Caroline Casey’s TEDTalk “Looking Past Limits”

“When you make a decision at the right time in the right place… the universe makes it happen for you.” ~ Caroline Casey

Stop what you are doing. Top up your coffee. Shut the door. Turn up the volume on your computer. And watch this video. It may be the most inspiring 20 minutes you experience all week! Perfect match for a Wednesday.

Caroline Casey is the founder of Kanchi, a not-for-profit that works with the media and businesses to change mindsets about people with disabilities.

“Kanchi focuses on the value of difference and the ability of people with disabilities.”

Casey’s TEDTalk is a poignant tale of growing up blind without realizing it, a chronicle of defying limitations and chasing dreams, and a reminder to embrace our true selves today and every day.

“Why are you fighting so hard not to be yourself?”

Casey grappled with this question during the darkest phase of her story. Her answer and the action it provokes are the foundation for her adventures starting with a 1,000 km trek across India on an elephant!

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Carl Honore Praises Slowness

Carl Honore praises “slowness” at TED Talks (video via ted.com)

How I Fell in Love with a Fish


Chef Dan Barber’s inspirational presentation at TED Talks 2010 tackles a complicated dilemma facing chefs, foodies and fisherman today: is there a sustainable way to keep fish on the menu? His delivery and observations are enjoyable, and his conclusions are timely and wise:

“How can we create conditions that enable every community to feed itself? To do that, don’t look at the agribusiness model for the future… It’s high on capital, chemistry and machines. And it’s never produced anything really good to eat. Instead let’s look to the ecological model, that’s the one that relies on two billion years of on-the-job experience. Look to… farms that restore instead of deplete, farms that farm extensively instead of just intensively, farmers that are not just producers but experts in relationships because they are the ones that are experts in flavor too…”

Alain de Botton: A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

Alain de Botton examines our ideas of success and failure — and questions the assumptions underlying these two judgments. Is success always earned? Is failure? He makes an eloquent, witty case to move beyond snobbery to find true pleasure in our work. [ted.com]

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