Saturday, August 23, 2008

The New Reading

It's a well-respected virtue of educated society to be "well read." At the crux of this value is the "pleasure of allusion." When a vague reference to some ancient Greek hero or a madeleine is caught, there is a telepathic wink made between reader and writer. Obviously, the more you read—books of the right sort, that is—the more references you will recognize, increasing your pleasure of allusion… and the snowball of pretension goes barreling down the slope.

Being well read is also heralded for its liberal virtue of introducing new ideas and new perspectives. The premise here is that a person is incomplete to the degree which they haven't judged the ways and beliefs of others according to their own rational faculties. Thus, even if one goes around and around the library to ultimately find oneself back at their original ideological foundation, at least now it's "well grounded."

I suggest there is another sort of human experience which accomplishes the same thing as reading: traveling.

In a coffee shop yesterday, I saw on TV from the corner of my eye a building. It instantly and mysteriously grabbed my attention from other matters because I recognized this building! The volume was off and I didn't know what the program was about, but I knew it was about something familiar. A near-instantaneous process of memory began searching my archives of experience and presented me a picture. This picture-->    Flooded with memories of sights and sounds and sensations and adventures, I remembered my travels in Portland, Oregon. That is where I took this picture, a picture of the building that was just on the television. And now I know where this TV program was filmed. As it continued showing a coffee cup, sack of beans, and latte art, I know what it's about. Even more, I understand it because I know the coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest quite well. Fond memories of happy days! Caught from a peripheral image of a place long left: The pleasure of allusion.

Along with the familiar places, a traveler reads foreign ideas. People in other places simply do things differently. Not all are created equal nor worthy of adoption by every wayfarer who wanders them by, but these concepts mid-westerners find so strange start to take a new form when considered in their native environment. I still sit sandaled sans-socks, but on cold and wet October mornings in Seattle, I admit that my toes were happy to wear SmartWool secured with straps.

So it seems we value traveling for the very same reasons we value reading: Each stretches us beyond our confines, broadens our horizons, and in the end, gives us something of which only we will ever know its value. T. S. Eliot said it so well: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

So a telepathic wink I send to you, dear reader:

Friday, August 22, 2008


For Immediate Release

Ryan Wright
[this blog]
that email address --->

Ryan Wright, literati and blogger extraordinaire, invents an emoticon for eye-rolling.

I, Ryan Wright, hereby invent (actually, I invented it in December of 2006) an emoticon for eye-rolling:


This is long overdue! How many times have we all been in an IM or writing a forum post and needed to express sarcastic underwhelmment, but been stuck without an eye-rolling button on the keyboard? This problem has plagued mankind for far too long and I am happy to share my innovative solution with you, dear blog reader, right now. Go forth, dot your I's, cross your T's, mind your P's and roll your QQ.

To Do: Less

I blame it on a particular college professor I had, that ever since I have shared his obsession with ├╝ber-high levels of productivity. The formula/mantra goes like this:

Your Time = Your Life
-- therefore --
Wasting Your Time = Wasting Your Life

I don't disagree with this; and I still have nothing but the highest respect and fondest affection for my professor and friend. But, some lessons from Ancient Philosophy take longer to set in than others.

For a time, not wasting my time meant always having something to do and making sure that something was productive. So I armed myself with the latest gadgets and other tools to keep productivity and learning close-at-hand. Then I found better ways to organize these things so that they were even more efficient. I cut out the seconds it took to access an item and kept that thing close at hand so I could get to it instantly and waste no small iota of my time/life.

But something happened along the way. Now that I had all these things closer at hand, they were easier to access; so I would. I would access them very quickly. In between answering emails, my efficient system allows me to pop over to Google Reader and see what new articles are posted on my favorite news sites or friends' blogs. Reading an article from there, it prompts me to make a quick lookup on Wikipedia. And before I know it, the half-second it takes for the software to send an email which I was trying to fill productively has degenerated into an hour and a half of research into posthumously awarded Oscars or the latest developments in invisibility cloaks. This would not do.

My goal is increased productivity by decreased time wasting. For me, this meant eliminating some of the "productivity tools" which seduce my attention during those nanoseconds I had to kill. The result has been drastically increased productivity by means of self-imposed sensory underload.

Here's how I'm doing it: I'm starting with the goal of using my time intentionally. So this means eliminating multiple choice from my computing experience. I know where I want to go and don't need my computer reminding me of the other places I could go. 
The links in my bookmarks bar and the programs in my Dock (I use a Mac), like Google Earth, cry out to me to come while away hours in their soft embrace.

No more! I removed the Bookmarks Toolbar from my web browser and set my home page to a blank page. Then I removed all icons from my dock (can't remove Finder or Trash; I wish!). A Mac user who follows me might ask 
how I open documents, programs and websites. My answer: the old fashioned way. I use something of a command line interface. I actually type the address (or start it since Safari will autocomplete it) to the website I want to visit. This forces me to double-consider if that's where I should be going now, not be distracted by other places I could go, and keeps me from instinctively opening up the time-wasting can-of-worms that is Google Reader—unless I really want to spend my time reading news.

For programs and documents, I use Spotlight. This is brilliant! Spotlight is a faster application launcher than almost anything! With a "Command + Space" keypress, I get the prompt. It takes only the typing of a few letters for Spotlight to highlight exactly what I'm looking for. I open it and am off to the productivity races. This also results in instant access to what I need without the distractions of multiple choice along the way.1

Observers of my screenshot examples in this post will notice that I've also set my desktop background to black and the OS X theme to a monochromatic one. What's more, I am writing this post in complete black-and-white. I find these choices help with productivity, but also aide in creativity—a subject for an entirely separate post soon to come.

1 For my friends suffering on Windows computer who might want a similar experience, Google provides Desktop Search which will deliver almost the same experience as Spotlight.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Features of Habit

It's amazing to me how much of life is directed by habit!

I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule—being self employed—so I am acutely aware of and masochistically guilt-ridden by how unproductive I can be. It goes deeper than that, however. Since moving out of my parents house, I have been my own man. I do what I want when I want. My life is ruled by my desires.

A great example of this is with food. I always eat exactly what seems most desirable to me at that moment. When faced with the perennial question, "Where should we eat lunch?" I quickly take stock of my mood and my options, then choose exactly the dish that will best suit my fancy. (In my mind: a restaurant = my favorite dish there) Missing from this description is any outside will. I might capitulate slightly to a friend who strongly prefers a certain place, but even then, only if I have good reason to think that location will satisfy my momentary urges. But all in all, every culinary experience is preceded by this internal taking-of-stock of the whims of that moment.

I thought this was where it ended. I thought that I was just rather picky and self-centered and that I wanted what I wanted, every time. Recent experiments have modified this perception.

I have recently started a self-directed program I am calling "A Week Without." In this experiment, I choose a certain feature of my life's experience and simply go without it for a week. The purpose of this exercise is to challenge the behavior directed by my desires and hopefully grow as a person. What I have discovered is that there is force behind my desires: habit.

Let's continue the example of eating. Almost without exception, following a meal, I wanted something sweet to finish it off. This is the "dessert" my health-teacher mother never let me have as a child. (Since moving out, I've hardly missed an opportunity.) I didn't think this was that complex. I finished dinner; I want dessert. But after further reflection, I noticed some other patterns behind this. After what was generally a salty dinner, I wanted something sweet. Then after something sweet, I would often want something salty again—to be followed again by the urge for something sweet. (This is a viciously American cycle, I'm afraid.) There was a recurring pattern of post-salty desire for sweet, and post-sweet desire for salty.

Enter: A Week Without. I decided to take a week without sugar. Even more, I wanted a week without anything sweet! This meant no artificial sweetner: no Splenda, no Nutra-Sweet, no polysyntheticsianoacrisugarate. Take it a step further: no natural sugar either. Nothing that tastes sweet. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life!

It was one of the most enlightening weeks of my life! I made it. I did a whole week without anything sweet and I learned several important lessons: First of all, sugar is everywhere! It is really hard to find a weeks worth of food that doesn't include sweet morsels—especially in the bachelor's lifestyle—but it is possible. Second, I learned that some foods are very sweet which I never noticed, like bananas and beer and Saint Louis City water (ok, maybe I was a little delirious).

I also learned that behind my momentary culinary cravings were years of accumulated habits—in particular, this salty/sweet pattern. I had never before stopped to ask myself, "Why do I want that bowl of ice cream?" or "Why do I want that candy bar?" The craving goes back further than just a desire, it goes back to habit. In the last 10 years, I've built the habit of alternating between the two. When I took a week to break the cycle, I found that I didn't want sweet things any more. At the start, I expected to finish my Week Without on the couch with a half-gallon of ice cream, a spoon, and no bowl. The opposite happened. I went more than a week without. Day 8 was sans-sugar. So was day 9. I just didn't want it very badly, and the experiment was more interesting to continue than re-establishing my high-caloric carbohydrate intake.

By Day 10, I started back in with sugar in my coffee (coffee without sugar was really tough!), but not my usual dose of 4-packs-per-six-ounce-cup. I took a single pack-per-cup and it was really sweet! Almost too sweet. Since this experiment, I've gone back to eating sweet foods, but to this day, I don't have but 1/10 the amount of sugar I used to; and I don't miss it. I don't desire it. I don't crave it.

My desires were shaped by the habits I had built, and this week taught me that overcoming those desires was mostly an issue of breaking the habits. I think this is true across the board. Our lives are determined by our habits in great degree! Why is it hard to wake up early? Habit. Why don't I read more? Habit. Why do I waste so much time on the computer? Habit. Why are my social interactions always the same? Habit.

Therefore, I'm continuing my Week Without programs and applying it across the board. I've done a Week Without Music and a Week Without Video. I'm currently in the middle of a Week Without Skipping a Workout (with only moderate success. This may take a few tries.). Each one tells me more about myself and works wonders for growing as a person. And what's behind each of these behaviors that I wish would change is some deep-seated long-standing habit. Want to change a behavior? Challenge the habit.

POSTSCRIPT:  On a side-note, a side effect that I've found from my Weeks Without is that, depending on what I'm going without, it often feels like traveling. When you take a vacation, the whole idea is to get away from your normal routine. A Week Without gets you away from your routine. For example, when I did a Week Without Video, I had all this extra time. It was time I couldn't while away with movies or TV (by self-determined fiat), so I had to find other ways to relax. I read more. I went out more. I called old friends. I explored things around my city that I always wanted to, but never took the time. I went to the Art Museum. I drove through unexplored neighborhoods. I walked around my neighborhood for entertainment. And it all felt new and adventurous, like I was a stranger in this new land.

My! How much we miss when shackled to our own habits!