Why being the creative type sucks, an ironical freeform pwm.

Question to ask somebody:

When you think, do you do as I do

and sing the words a little bit

to a tune you do not know,

nor to which you might not see

the next bars of on the score?

Do you like me swing low

over the phrases of this poem,

thrashing, gesticulating explosively? Continue reading “Why being the creative type sucks, an ironical freeform pwm.”

In Defense of Darkness

My post “JDR Makes A Film” received the comment below:

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This was disappointing. A worthless, somber look at a day that brought many neighborhoods together and gave joy to countless curiously eager and vigorous young people. You missed a great portion of the people’s positive spirits during today’s citywide snow day.

Sorry, I just really didn’t like it.

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This individual, who left neither a functioning email or their name–choosing instead the nome de plume Disappointed–might be a bit, how to say it, misguided in their expectations. What I mean by “expectations” is this: in order to be disappointed this person must have possessed some hope or aspirations for what the video was supposed to be, and that, in posting the video I posted, I let down this individual. I, by implication, failed this person somehow.

And this brings up a sticky issue. Continue reading “In Defense of Darkness”

On Redefining Intellectual Entrepreneurship

The intellectual entrepreneur is one who develops, researches, discovers, or learns in order to fulfill objectives beyond the attainment of credentials, approval of peers, or furthering of career goals in a manner or process primarily outside the bounds of extant educational institutions, systems, and pedagogies.

Based on my current, independent study in entrepreneurship theory and practice, I’ve taken issue with the lack of a formal definition of what, exactly, an entrepreneur is. Is “the function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production,” as Joseph Shumpeter suggested in 1942? Perhaps we should shift our locus of attention from individual “entrepreneurs” to the entrepreneurial process, thus conceptualizing and defining entrepreneurship as a successful act of organizational founding. (see Carroll and Khessina 2005) Perhaps we should do as eighteenth century economists Richard Cantillon and Jean-Baptiste Say did and emphasize the literal translation of entrepreneur as those who “undertake” risks in starting a business or enterprise.

There are dozens of other possible, applicable definitions of what entrepreneurs do, how they do it, and the results of their doings. So, in the spirit of clarifying increasingly varied definitions of entrepreneurship qua entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship as modified by a preceding adjective (i.e. Social Entrepreneurship or Serial Entrepreneurship) I propose a new, radical redefinition of what’s currently come to be known as “Intellectual” or “Academic Entrepreneurship”.

Continue reading “On Redefining Intellectual Entrepreneurship”

5 Einstein Quotes To Which I Owe My Current Sanity & Perspective

Albert Einstein, for reasons too numerous to go into here, is a personal hero of mine. “Avuncular” is a good word to describe him; he is the deadly-smart uncle with crazy hair we all want… that is, until one learns about his personal life. But, nonetheless, his public persona is one I respect immensely. His words, in their simplicity, their sagacity interpolated or genuine, are powerful. Here, I will post the quote, and under it I’ll give a one or two sentence explanation of my interpretation of it.

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“In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep.”

Einstein was never what one might call a “conformist”. Especially in the context of academia, his iconoclasm provided inspiration for my own dissidence since early high school. This quote, if I had to guess, might have been in reference to 4.0 GPA’s… but that’s just my best estimate.

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“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Although I believe Einstein (and F. Scott Fitzgerald) cribbed this line from Mark Twain, I nonetheless say this quote–some agglomeration of Einstein, Twain, and Amory Blaine’s versions–to myself when the going gets tough at school. I have it written on an index card I keep thumb-tacked next to my door knob. I see it every day.

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“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

I’m in the middle of breaking away from the majority of these prejudices… of which there are many.

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“…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”

This, of all Einstein’s quotes I will mention here, is the one that affects me most right now. I am torn between business and writing fiction and nonfiction, between international relations, systems theory and neurology, psychology, and cognitive science. Although I believe I am suited for the world of “innovation” (God, what an awfully hackneyed word) in the world of entrepreneurship, I know, at some deep, visceral level that the only way I would ever be truly happy would be to recluse myself from the harshness, the brutality, and (more often than not) the soul-crushing banality of day-to-day life to craft and curate worlds of my own: perfect recreations of the “real world”, where crushing denouement, its resultant ache plays synecdoche for realization.

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“If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.”

I needn’t say more.

A Quick Thought On Awesome

I want to find something awesome, you know, in the 19th century sense of the word ‘Awesome’. I’ve never really sat in awe of anything before. In finding what I find awesome, I will find what I want to do with my life.

I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine, Ted Gonder, about the end of autumn quarter, the inexcusable humanitarian atrocities perpetrated against students during finals week by the University of Chicago, and our plans for the Christmas holiday. Somewhere in there, conversation drifted to one of those very collegiate “what do you want to do when you grow up?” kind of exchanges. I am to a certain extent envious of Ted, because he knows, or at least has a ballpark estimate, of what he wants to do.

I don’t. I’m interested in approximately fifty bajillion things, ranging from 19th-20th century British and American history, astrophysics, cosmology, American literature old and new, psychology and cognition, and, for good measure, some finance, entrepreneurship, and not-for-profit work (because I like to pretend I’m a good person every once in awhile). I came to the following realization:

“I want to find something awesome, you know, in the 19th century, romantic sense of the word ‘Awesome’. I’ve never really sat in awe of anything before.  In finding what I find awesome, I will find what I want to do with my life.”

Unfortunately, for me, for now, I am not easily impressed by much. That will have to change.

A longer post, along The Halcyon Days’s vein of early summertime college apathy, is in the works.

Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

I believe this is one of those conversations that people can have only in college… specifically, as undergraduates. It must have been the mounting pressure of final exams, because within a three-hour time frame, just over five-pages of single-spaced text was produced.

A big thank you goes out to Ted Gonder for providing a voice of reason over the discussion.

Names have been obfuscated to protect the innocent and/or quixotic.

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Patrick Ip ‎posted

“Never, ever, for the rest of your careers, hire someone who had a GPA of 4.0. Ever. Because the definition of a 4.0 is that this person buys the act; they don’t screw around. Tommy Jefferson, Al Hamilton, and Georgie Washington, they were screwing around. This was a dinky doo-dippy country and they said, let’s go after that George dude. Now that was not smart. If they had 4.0 grade point averages, they would not have started this revolution.” -Tom Peters Continue reading “Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?”

On College, Critical Thought, Cattle, and Baking

I’m not afraid of expressing my misgivings with the “education” I’m receiving at the #4 ranked institution in America. UChicago possesses a certain self-righteous rhetoric pertaining to its general, or Core, curriculum. Founded in the constructivist school of learning theory, the Core’s teaching methodology consists of reading “primary-source” text documents and leading students, like cattle through the slaughterhouse chute, to the captive bolt of stunning revelation. Unfortunately, unlike a slaughterhouse, where livestock are funneled one by one to their end through hard-walled chutes, the texts are deployed thematically and without guidance. This fosters “critical thinking” skills, enabling students to draw connections between sources toward a prevailing image—not theory—of the time.

In UChicago’s Civilization courses, students are given texts and encouraged to make assertions about overarching historical themes. Without the benefit of a critical, theoretical framework any assertions made skitter across the trite surface of the vast intellectual sea.

I approached my professor today and asked why there isn’t more structure in the class, why mention of larger theoretical frameworks is verboten, why whenever I try to probe deeper in class discussion she stares at me as she calls on another person. Why, when I “zoom in” argumentatively the natural inclination is to deflect and remove conversation to the rarefied atmosphere of platitude and placate me with a vaguely patronizing, “A poignant observation about the corporate nature of the Catholic church, but let’s shift the focus to how women are presented… B—, why don’t you go?” B— answers. “They are portrayed, as you say, ‘to be bad.'” Astute.

Please, professor, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you. I am sure you too are frustrated with the somewhat constrained nature of the course, with its “learning objectives” and whatnot. You and I could carp on and on about our shared frustrations at the lowest-common-denominator level of intellectual rigor prerequisite of a Core class, that this like all of ’em are rendered passable even for say, um… the more desultory among us, to be nice about it. I imagine we’d cackle together, laughing at our self-conceptions of our inflated noetic badassery… In some alternate reality, professor, we might be afforded this opportunity, but instead you smiled wistfully, squinting, and said:

“We are trying to teach you how to think. Imagine it this way: we could give you all the instructions for baking a cake, or we could give you the required ingredients and you do it for yourself. We want to empower you, so you can bake that cake.”

There are a couple of sticky issues to address. This statement predetermines that cakes are the goal, and necessarily means that someone measured out the ingredients for a cake, laid them out, and assumed that some unsuspecting person would come along, see the spread, and ineluctably conclude that a cake is in order. Punishment is meted out to those who bake biscuits or cookies or transcend the whole category of baked-goods altogether and instead mix water, sugar, yeast and some flour to distill alcohol, which might be then flavored with vanilla or whatever flavor was intended for the cake.
Those who bake cakes, no matter how lumpy, soupy, squishy, or dense, are commended for baking a cake; because we’re all good postmodern cognitive relativists here, we can’t criticize the craftsmanship of the cake. Cake soup is but an interpretation of cake, and all interpretations, due to their subjective nature, are inherently valid… provided, of course, that they are interpretations of cake. Biscuits and grain alcohol, no matter how well-executed are not cake: you, hapless baker or distiller, fail the test.

It isn’t the biscuit-maker’s fault he didn’t bake a cake when he was given ingredients and told to make the most of them. Without instruction, he can neither be held accountable for his product or the quality thereof. I understand that given an infinite number of tries, some random, novice baker will execute one hell of a cake, but given finite ingredients and some hinting, winking burlesque show of the pinnacle of the cake form, a novice is still a novice.

The best bakers trained with the best bakers. At the kernel level, it disturbs me that undergraduates are doomed to hapless experimentation to autogenously construct the properties of a given set of flour, eggs, sugar, water, etc. and condemned for looking in a cookbook to ascertain some method by which they might come together, some technique: an artistry. That two years of my four are spent in classes teaching me to cherrypick quotes to support baseless, absurd theses, how to render and construe and augment the absurdity of said theses, how “context” “frames” “the lens” of the “text,” how to disbelieve everything, how to laugh at claims of absolute truth—at base, how to intimate, interpolate, and extrapolate bothers me. We are taught to stir and pour when we are smart enough to bake. The details can be figured out along the way, and with the help of a skilled, involved instructor.

En masse we students are funneled toward one moment, a bolt to order the brain, but our handlers failed in one capacity. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal-welfare and autism advocate, intuited that animals being led to slaughter know “what’s up,” they knew viscerally what lay around the next turn. At some basic level, they were aware of the machine’s cogs’ turning.

I demand the same sort of recognition by our professors for all UChicago students. We know what the curriculum is trying to do, and this self-consciousness hinders its ultimate transformative goals. Because of Grandin’s work, meat processing facilities now implement long, undulating passageways through which cows blithely wander to their doom. They don’t need cattle prods. If I were unaware that just around the bend lay frustration, emptiness, and disappointment at the waste of my academic journey, I’d be less recalcitrant. I too would walk blithely. I’d be bovine. I am. But for now you’ll take me kicking and screaming, rhetorically of course.

How I learned to stop learning, gush platitude, and get A’s in Critical Thinking courses…

UChicago prides itself on its hard-Core Curriculum. In theory it’s a pretty great idea. Ostensibly, it puts students through a rigorous liberal arts education focused on reading “Great Books” and “Developing a robust set of Critical Evaluative Methods” by which one can—ahem—critically evaluate said texts. Putting aside the fact that this type of education is a little outdated in our hyper-utilitarian age, and the liberal balking that there are huge selection biases favoring Great Books written by males, “Caucasians”, and the now-deceased, the practical application of Harper-Adlerian notions of A Liberal Arts Education falls somewhat flat.

As undergraduates run to the hyper-specialized margins of their chosen fields to “Carve out my niche, yah know?” the vast differences in skill-sets required for success in their newfound niches leave fewer points of similarity upon which standardized pedagogic approaches to engendering Critical Thinking skills can be built. Biology has to be rendered easily passable for philosophy majors, as does physics for poli-sci majors such as myself. The result are courses that cater to the lowest common denominator of complexity, both in terms of the type and amount of detail given, but also how it’s presented, and—most importantly—how it’s evaluated. The lowest common denominator of critical thinking, making generalizations and applying them to portions of texts, suffices.

It turns out that making generalizations and formulating arguments for their existence is entertaining, mostly because the types of generalizations—called, somewhat self-importantly in educational circles, “Criticism”—ultimately take the same form. People draw connections between shared cultural experiences and texts they’re “critically evaluating”. Because certain types of generalizations and connections are rewarded with obsequious notes scribbled on the margins of graded papers—”Brilliant! Fantastic exegesis of [two tangentially-related things]”—while others are not, students adapt their critical styles to receive more adulatory marginalia and, accordingly, higher grades.

This has spawned something I like to call Cheap Criticism. A good example of Cheap Criticism that makes for well-received literary analysis is to claim a text is allegorical. This is effectively done by assuming that the male protagonist of any book written before 1930 is Jesus Christ, one of his Apostles, or a missionary spreading His message. This, of course, isn’t mentioned explicitly; it’s hinted at. Mentions of bathing or cleaning in conjunction with mentions of water should automatically bring Baptism to mind. (Think the ocean scene in The Plague and use the disease as representation of humanity’s inherent vice, and remember how the plague suddenly left subsequent to Reiux’s swim. Bam! A damned good thesis for a Close Reading assignment is in the works.)

Art criticism basically works the same way. Paintings pre-1750 can have beautiful theses formed about them after playing a game of “Lets Spot the Biblical Reference”. Likewise, “Where’s the clever meta-commentary on morbid secularist interpretations of Biblical references?” yields interesting and universally-applicable frameworks for criticizing art post-1988.

Another way to do this form of cheap criticism is to examine the evils of Victorian-era ideals. Because professors and (especially) Writing Instructors/Underfed-humanities-PhD.-students tend to hold overwhelming personal biases against such destructive, antediluvian notions as “masculinity as power” and have a soft spot for “Marginalized Peoples and Social Groups” it’s easy to form self-congratulatory, ameliorative arguments that “critique social norms” “through the lens of” the “text”. Why? Because people teaching in the humanities tend to be, on balance, egalitarian liberals with a penchant for whining about “injustices” and the “abuses of power” of the “privileged”. (Calling them “rich” or “wealthy” merely “feeds into the reified uncritical self-conception of ‘the privileged’.” It’s “biased speech”.)

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So, we take one of these “insidious social structures” and add an -ism or -ist or -istic to the end. This adds an ideological veneer to some banal overgeneralization about society. Integrate that into an if-then statement to establish causality, and add a flourish of cleverness to the end and you’re looking at a top-shelf thesis, one whose absurdist straw-man is hard to detect.

Here’s a modularized format for a thesis statement one can fill out like Mad Libs:

“In [his/her] work, [Book Title], [Author’s Last Name] elucidates and critiques [{Ideal}-ist/{Ideal}-ism] [synonym for “beliefs”] [represented by] [male protagonist] through highlighting [a stereotypical symptom of aforesaid Ideal], [a quasi-derivative assumption], [when in the presence of] [female protagonist and/or other typically oppressed persons or entities] through repeated mention [of a commonly-occurring refrain/theme/action]. [Clever Twist].”

“In her work, Pride and Prejudice, Austin elucidates and critiques masculinist hegemony represented by Darcy through highlighting his implied fixation with wealth, a paternalistic provider-reflex, in the presence of _______ through Austin’s repeated mention of her frequent sighing, a stereotypically demure and meek feminine response to issues ______, and—implicitly—all Victorian women, perceive to be masculine or the domain of men. Ironically, this attempted critique seems only to condition female behavior to align with masculine expectations.”

(An argument about feedback cycles would yield that Pride and Prejudice served to insidiously condition women into behaviors, and a mention of socioeconomic aspirations would argue that because poor women wanted to emulate _____ through frequently sighing, Austin’s work served only to tighten the closed-loop “Cycle of Poverty” among poor women.)

That I’ve only skimmed portions of P&P three years ago isn’t necessarily evident here.

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I’m pushing my theory of banality-mongering in my next Western Civilizations course to something of an extreme. I’ve roughly hashed out some notes arguing that our version of Beowulf is a bastardized version of the original myth; that this one pushes an explicitly Catholic message wherein Beowulf is a missionary and Grendel represents the manifested savagery and brutality of indigenous pagan religion, which Beowulf is supposed to oust from a distinctly cathedral-like hall to save from destruction another distantly-related community. Included is a half-hearted commentary on the relativistic notions of “primary-source-ness” of an age-old oral tradition put to paper in Christian times.

“An extremely compelling argument, Jason. I’m quite excited to see what you make of such an original idea.” Conditioned behavior: a closed loop growing tighter. That I stumbled upon my thesis in an exercise of cynicism doesn’t make the end result any less genuine; an unbelievable argument, to be believed, needs good argumentation, with which no amount of cynicism or genuine belief can assist. “It’s a little off the beaten path, but that’s a good thing. As for any direct assistance with writing, you’re on your own with this one.” That it was called “original” killed me a little, in a gallows-humor sort of way.

Are you too smart for college?

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper.

Over the course of the past week, as I begin to say good byes and good lucks to my friends graduating from the University of Chicago, I’ve been doing some thinking. Why am I going through the process of “getting a college education?” Which I suppose can be rephrased as “what is a ‘college education,’ what’s so important about it, and why do I have to pay so much for one when all I’m doing is writing papers and reading books?” This quickly degenerates into an eggheaded discussion about what, ontologically, “education” is: I am not here to have that discussion, nor do I want to have it. Ever again.

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper. It is assumed by unwitting and idealistic faculty that “critical thinking” skills, among others, are picked up along the way. However, and I am not the first to say it, the internet and its attendant social networks and carefully hidden pockets of clandestine information have fundamentally changed the way that my classmates and I undertake the learning process; to wit, it is easier to get academic work “out of the way” without much intellectual effort in order to develop other projects. In short, we’ve hacked college. Most of us “get it done,” not for its own sake–”to learn and to grow”–but to GTFO, so to speak, and, as one of my fellow economics major friends so eloquently put it, “make shit-tons of money.”

If there is one thing that this year has taught me, it is the two flavors of motivation: does one pursue a goal as a means to some other end or as an end in itself? I, personally, have been straddling both sides of this duality, but as of late firmly decided that I only get to “do” college once, and thus I will devote myself as fully to the academic portion of it as possible. However, it seems that the pedagogical focus of the “modern college experience”–building a social network and padding a resume–is, effectively and convincingly, the cynosure among business-minded students–even at the ferociously eggheaded UChicago.

Consider the following conjecture: If you are the entrepreneurial type, the type who wants to get out there and get something started, or if you believe that academia is holding you back from what you want to do, take it from someone who’s read way too much in his life: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx won’t make you successful. They will, however, help you find significance in your accomplishments. If you’re the retrospective type, one that cerebrates post hoc, you’ll be able to educate yourself later not because society is telling you to, but because you can approach that process with the same zeal with which you approach your current projects. If you have all of these great world-changing ideas, the wherewithal to see them through to execution and are willing to forego the short-term social cache of a college degree, then find an experienced mentor or two, build your network, and get cracking.

Parents often counter their college-bound teens’ assertions that many of today’s most prosperous companies were started by college drop-outs with the fact that their founders were smart enough to get into college in the first place. Bill Gates was also smart enough to realize that if he didn’t start Microsoft, somebody else would.

I’m not making any claims to being too smart for college. I enjoy academic life, and I want the social validation of a degree. I am, in fact, too cowardly to take the plunge into starting my projects in earnest now; few are willing to make that leap, and that’s the point. That said, I am currently researching options for a gap year.