Assorted links

Claude Shannon, father of information theory, separated information from meaning. His central dogma, “meaning is irrelevant” declared that information could be handled as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness…It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.

Freeman Dyson, in his review of James Gleick’s book on information, in NYRB

Inspire yourself

I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I'll talk about what I found -- and still find -- inspiring about them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tm5Ikl1AXw&feature=BFa&list=PL1B723A83ACB43835

[vimeo.com/31922652](http://vimeo.com/31922652)

Good golly, where do I start??

Let's start with the fact that I picked two performing artists -- not sports figures (don't like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes -- dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we've not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.

Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.

These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing "Ghost Dance" and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I'd call this the "iceberg principle" of success, except that I'm sure someone's already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?

Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport's motto: Be so good they can't ignore you.

My banjo teacher has me say the syllables "e-ven" with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, "The other musicians aren't going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They're just going to keep playing."

Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn't stop and the rhythm doesn't slow down if he's having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he's calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they're controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they've put in the work that makes the hard look easy.

In life, we don't have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn't pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.

Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it'll all look easy to anyone who hasn't done the work.

I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I'm flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.

Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.

Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won't be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do -- a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation -- with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.

My first year in graduate school, I took a course in structural mechanics taught by Bob Eubanks, a remarkable man who combined highly theoretical research with a very down-to-earth personality. He was powerfully built, bald with a little moustache, and had a habit of making noises as he breathed that combined humming, growling, and snorting. The impression he gave was that of a bull.

During the final exam, he sat at a desk at the front of the class, reading the newspaper and occasionally looking out at us. About an hour into the test, he must have seen something in our faces or our frantic scribbling that bothered him, because he got up and walked around the room, stopping behind each of us and giving a little grunt as he looked at our test papers. This was not a confidence-builder.

When his tour was complete, he returned to the front desk. “Gentlemen,” he said, “if I might make a crude suggestion… If sex is a pain in the ass, you’re doing something wrong.”

He went back to his newspaper. We all looked at each other and then at our test papers. Most of us decided to put our pencils down and rethink whatever problem we were doing. Thirty years later, when I find myself struggling with a problem of any sort, I remember Bob Eubanks’ advice, put my metaphorical pencil down, and try to rethink the problem.

Try this meditation: Imagine that you are the wood and the fire that consumes the wood. First, focus your awareness on the part of you that is the wood. You may tremble or gasp, feeling the jolt of your solidity disintegrating, your form changing. As you shift your attention to the part of you that is the fire, you may exult in the wild joy of power and liberation. It may be tempting to favor the fire over the wood, to love the burning more than the being burned. But if you’d like to understand pronoia in its fullness, you’ve got to appreciate them equally. Can you imagine yourself being the fire and wood simultaneously? Is it possible for you to experience the deep pleasure of their collaboration? * The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.

How I rate songs in iTunes

I never fiddled with iTunes before I bought my iPod 5G in 2010 as my birthday present to myself. I found -- and still find -- iTunes to be both useful and maddening. Kirk McElhearn's Take Control of iTunes ebook is a great resource for the music fan who just wants to get things done in iTunes and I recommend it. But I daresay that one of the things within the ken of even the most novice user are rating music tracks. You can rate an album or each track of an album from 1 to 5 stars. Ratings are most useful in conjunction with smart playlists, where you can specify that only 5-star rated songs can be included or exclude any 2-star songs, and so on.

Jason Guthrie had the best selection of non-standard advice, with two ideas that I began using right away: use one-stars for punishment and rate tracks by intensity. So here's how I rate my tracks:

  • One-star tracks are songs I don't want to hear at all, ever again. One-star tracks are excluded from my smart playlists. And though I haven't done this yet, I could view all one-star tracks and simply delete them from iTunes so they never darken my earbuds again.
  • Two-star tracks are slow, haunting, somewhat melancholy songs -- Barber's Adagio for Strings comes to mind. These tracks evoke a  reflective mood. I tend to listen to this smart playlist in the morning, drinking my first coffee of the day, when the rest of the world is quiet.
  • Three-star tracks are a little more upbeat but medium tempo; the pace of a relaxed heartbeat, perhaps. Not surprisingly, most of the tunes I rate fall into this bucket and I can listen to this at any time; it's like a personal radio station of easy listening music and includes classical, pop, world, lounge, and other genres.
  • Four-star tracks are the upbeat, fast-paced tracks with a driving beat that put a silly grin on my face. "Jaan Pehechan-Ho" is the go-to example here, but so is "The Intro and the Outro." I tend to play this late in the day when my energy flags and I want a pick-me-up.
  • Five-stars ... I haven't come up with a need for five star ratings yet. So I'm reserving this classification until a great idea comes my way.

I don't rate absolutely every track in iTunes, as that way lies madness. I only rate those tunes I like well enough to want to listen to again. So my 2-, 3-, and 4-star playlists hold only a fraction of all the music I've recorded or downloaded so far, yet they're the tracks that give me the most pleasure.

The ratings by intensity reminds me of a tip I read from Michael Neill, I think, where he recommended creating playlists based on your mood. So when you're in a bad mood and want to feel better, create a ladder of playlists that take you from low to high. Start by listening  to the playlist with songs that resonate with your sad or angry mood. Then, move to a playlist with songs that are less dark, more bright. Then, move to a playlist of songs with happier associations. In this way, you can use your iPod to make yourself feel better just by listening to music.

And if you don't want to go to all the trouble of creating moody playlists, well, there's an app for that.