The Creative Society

One of the very best (and most refreshing) books that I’ve read—really read, not just skimmed—in a long while is The Creative Society: How the Future Can Be Won by Lars Tvede. The book sets the American Studies canon on its head taking on “greats” like Jared Diamond. TCS examines not only how, but why we find ourselves where we are now. The root is his argument is that free exchange of ideas and goods constantly demands new methods and new ideas. This, he argues is creativity which fosters unparalleled capacity for moving forward human intelligence, ingunity, and intuition. Tvede makes a compelling case.

Why did Western Europe succeed in the later half of the 20th century, while Eastern Europe disintegrated. Why is South Korea a burgeoning economy, whereas North Korea struggles to feed its people. Why did the British, Russian, Soviet, Egyptian, Roman empires fail? Why was China a rapidly growing society from 1000–1900, but then slowed significantly since? Tvede argues that totalitarian regimes and rigidity in systems of governance extinguishes creativity. This occurs rapidly. The Roman Empire, for example unraveled over the span of 70 short years, after dominating much of the world for nearly 1500. The Soviet Empire collapsed within the span of 3 years after dominating half of Europe and most of Asia for nearly 100. These and other societies collapsed from the weight of creativity pulsing at its door. As the Soviets ushered in perestroika and glasnost, for example, the resultant (and latent) surge in creativity rapidly propelled the system of governance out of order.
Tvede makes a persuasive aruguement for accepting or resisting change and the causal correlations that stem from either acceptance or resistance. Think of the book as a ethnographic and historic underpinning to Florida’s immensely popular, but shallow on compelling argument, Rise of the Creative Class. This text is unabashed in its explanations and suppositions and takes on one prejudice after another and skillfully (and convincingly) defuses each. In so doing, answers the many, many questions that have plagued those of us interested in cultural dynamics and interpersonal dynamics. Tvede is on to something here, and what may be the best and most important book of the decade has received little, if any, press. Well worth a careful read. 

The Long, Lonely Quest to Breed the Ultimate Avocado

Everyone who knows me knows that I love avocados. I had never eaten an avocado until I was nearly 30, and now I simply can’t get enough of them. Until I read this article, I didn’t know much about Haas avocados, but I knew they seemed superior to the larger, greener variety. 


This fascinating story first appeared in Wired, check it out and weigh in with your avocado stories in the comments below.

Winter in the North

A few years ago, I was traveling around Scandiland (that’s what I call Scandinavia) and was interested to find that unlike North America, cold weather didn’t shut the cities down or push life indoors for several months of sequestered living. Instead, our Nordic neighbors embrace the cold weather and dark days in a way that is significantly different from our practices in North America. I’ve often thought about writing a book that features cultural comparisons, but for some reason, I just haven’t.

The notion of cozy, warm, inviting is associated with the Danish concept of hygge. The idea is that hygge (pronounced in a way that North Americans and most other Europeans could never understand but generally in line with HOO-g’ where the end of the word is significantly truncated by turning down the volume of your voice so that it becomes audible only to dogs) warms the dark and cold months and creates a welcoming atmosphere regardless of the miserable conditions outdoors. The Danes take great pride in this notion, perhaps because as a national people, they are among the most aloof and coldest hearted people on earth (and no, I don’t say that lightly or mildly). Like so many things Danish, the Danes are good at exporting and propagating the idea, but short on meaning and actual delivery. Lately, it seems that hygge is everywhere in North America, more as a means to market lap blankets and candles than a cultural phenomenon, and perhaps (given its spurious nature), rightfully so.

Over the years, I have have come to explore this same notion of cosy, warmth in many northern countries—Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, and Estonia. Each country has a slightly different cultural spin on the idea, and from my experience, each does with more authenticity and meaning.

To understand the entire concept, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of weather, because ultimately, weather shapes who and where we wound up settling on this planet. In both the North and South hemisphere, there are four broad climactic zones: polar, temperate, tropic, and equatorial. Most of the North America resides in the temperate and tropic zones. The temperate zone is marked by four distinct seasons, a day/night cycle of light and dark in relatively equal shares over a 24-hour period, and a temperate that peaks just after mid-day and cools overnight. Tropic and equatorial zones are typically warm (or just plain hot) year round, have a much shorter sunrise and sunset cycle and a less hyperbolic shift in temperature between day and night relative to temperate zones. Polar zones, however are different. Rather than an equal share of light and dark over a 24-hour period, light and dark is precisely better charted over a 365-day period. Temperatures in polar zones typically do not cycle in a 24-hour period, but a 36-to-48 hour period. Though it is somewhat more complicated, the extremes relative to time and temperature are simply more extreme at the poles. While residents in the temperate zones can bank on colder nights and some warm relief during the day, our polar residents can’t expect that same regularity. Sometimes the temperature doesn’t warm up for days, and then, only slightly.

A relatively small portion of folks live in these more extreme regions. Simple survival skills have, over the centuries, persisted which bring not only comfort but also joy to those living in the somewhat less hospitable Northern climates. As technology has evolved, the necessity and significance of these practices of cultural survival have mutated and have become cultural constants though the evolutionary necessity of the practices may no longer be as necessary as centuries ago.

As Northern communities evolved, the notion of commune spelled for most the difference between survival and the bitter end. Unforgiving land was frozen for the better part of the year, and under the cover of darkness, food was scarce and difficult to sustain throughout the harsh conditions. Stockpiling and sharing became enmeshed in the culture of Northern communities. So to did the physical act best described as nesting. A short journey to a neighboring village becomes much longer and arduous in extreme conditions. Rest before and after the journey was necessary under warm blankets to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. The presence of light — particularly candlelight — provided a sense of security. Imagine walking 10 miles to a neighboring village in sub zero temperatures only to return, nearly frozen. You snuggle up under a blanket into a deep and cold sleep only to wake 30 hours later in a pitch black room wondering if you are dead or alive. The candle, which could burn for days, was a reassuring beacon that you were still alive in the dark, still, and quiet of the 6-month night.

The somewhat more dire cultural practices have transcended time and now translate into a peculiar but reassuring melange of cultural practices across the North countries and climates. Lap blankets—foreign to most North Americans—are a quaint curiosity at most restaurants, cafes, and homes across the North. Often placed in glass jars to buffet the harsh and persistent winds, candles are seemingly everywhere, indoors and out. The artificial light making up for the absent sun. Warmth is abundant. Soft textiles and surfaces provide a counterbalance to the harsh climactic extremes.

While we can certainly celebrate the notion of nesting, comfort, warmth, and light, it is easy to take for granted in our have-it-all society. We should, while relishing these comforts, keep in mind a reverence of its life-giving (and life-saving) presence in the lives of the ancestors that preceded us for many centuries.

BBC – Capital – The new, subtle ways the rich signal their wealth

As luxury goods become more accessible, the educated elite are changing how they mark their social position – not with luxury goods, but with less obvious status symbols

Source: BBC – Capital – The new, subtle ways the rich signal their wealth

Creepy Soviet Space Shuttles Are Sitting in a Kazakhstan Desert

Image by Ralph Mirebs, originally published in National Geographic.

This amazing article in National Geographic charts the story of a brave soul, Alexander Kaunas, and his companion, photographer Ralph Mirebs, who broke in to the former Soviet cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Amazing images, amazing legacy, amazing bravery.

Life Outside These United States


I recently ran across a news story about a woman who moved abroad so that her kids would be raised with a greater appreciation for the world and a lesser sense of entitlement. (You can read the entire story here.)

The article is thought provoking and in line with my own observations over the years of my international travel. Life in most other countries is a bit more simple, spaces smaller, less materialistic, slower than in the United States. As a doctor of American Studies, I love the United States—the American love for life and true friendliness is unparalleled in the world. I sometimes wish, though, that we didn’t take it for granted as much as we seem to. Sometimes there is great joy in simple pleasures, and as Americans we’d be wise to stop, consider our bounty and wealth, and be grateful for it. 

Charlotte

Today, I was driving to work and there was this big spider 🕷 that had crawled out of my side mirror and as I was driving down the 400 at 70mph, this little spider was getting really tossed around but was hanging in for dear life. He was getting thrown so violently, I initially thought there was no possible way he could be alive.

I pulled over, rolled down my window and stuck out my finger to help. He immediately crawled on to my finger and stopped. I brought him into the car and put him on my knee for a moment and let him catch his breath and get his wits about him.

After a few minutes, he started spinning a little web on my knee. We talked about it and decided that my knee probably wasn’t the best place for that, and I suggested he explore my passenger seat instead. He crawled around and found a very nice spot between the center console and the seatbelt clicker thing.

After 20 minutes or so of sitting at the side of the road, we continued driving. I commented how surprised I was that he a survival instinct and how difficult it must have been to hold on despite the wind. He made a good point that the wind for him, would be relative to me being in 800mph winds. I told him how impressed I was that he was able to hang on and he explained that the tensile strength of the silk he is able to spin helped him to hold on. Regardless, I found his will and ability to survive impressive.

We chatted for the rest of the ride and decided that it might make better sense to live inside the car. So for the time being, my car is +1 spider.

Tile. A Disppointing Scam

A few years ago, I became interested in Tile, a little white tracking device that—in theory—helps you to locate and find lost items.

A little over a year ago, I bought four Tile devices through an offer that one of my credit card companies was running — I had wanted to try Tile for a while and was really excited to give it a go. The Tiles showed up in my mailbox, and that’s when the excitement evaporated and the disappointment set in. A year later, I’m more than convinced that Tile is a bit of a scam. Here’s why: The authors of the Tile website are really crafty and the language is parsed VERY carefully. What the descriptions actually say and what they imply are worlds apart. This isn’t a case of things hidden in fine print, indeed all the damning details are spelled out in clear (and large) text. A quick or casual read of the website implies that Tile can: “Never lose anything again.” However, here’s where the whole experiment becomes an exercise in semantics that rivals the intellectual slipperiness of any of my graduate-level classes on Deleuze. Like Deleuzian analysis, reading the Tile website requires excruciating and miserable effort to wade through bullshit and figure out just what it is that is really being said. Let me save you the effort: it’s never what you think it is. 

Let’s do a quick fact check the Tile website.

Front and center the Tile website shows the following graphic:

Now let’s take it step by step.

Never lose anything again.
False. This is a ridiculous and nonsensical claim antithetical to the main purpose of the Tile device. If you will never lose anything again, then why would you need this device. Patently, you will lose things. The implication here is that you will never need to search for things, becasue if you cannot locate them, Tile will help you find them, which incidentally, is also false.

Tile is a tiny Bluetooth tracker and easy-to-use app that helps you find everyday items in seconds.
True and False, but mainly false. Tiny: no. Bluetooth: yes. Tracker: no. Easy-to-Use: no. App: yes. Helps you: no. Find: rarely. Everyday items: no. In Seconds: definitely, positively, not.

Attach to anything. Designed with a convenient hole, easily hook onto keys or stick to anything.
Again, some really slippery wordsmithing here. Could you attach it to anything? Technically, yes. Does it sport a convenient hole? Yes. Could you easily hook it onto keys or stick it to anything? Yes. However, again the problem lies in the implication that by attaching the Tile to something, that you will be able to find it in the aforementioned “seconds.” This claim is patently false.

See it. Ring it. Find it.
See the last place you had it on a map and make it ring when you get close.

Here’s where the BS really gets mixed with mud. The Tile website provides several “use cases.” These include: Keys Finder, Wallet Tracker, Luggage Tracker, Remote Control Finder.

Again, the implication made by the Tile website is that when lost, Tile will help you to locate these items in “seconds.” This is untrue… and here is why:

Though the Tile website implies that you simply open the app and find your missing items, this isn’t at all how Tile works. The app associates a Tile device with a particular object. I put one on my travel backpack, one on my cat’s collar, and one on my keys. The other one remained in the box, unused. Within ridiculous proximity of about 20 feet of any of these Tile devices, I can see in the app that these items are somewhere within 20 feet of me. Where? Tile offers no clues, kind of like the childhood game of Warmer! Colder! … only Tile doesn’t even give you that much information, just a vague “warm…ish.” 

So, for example, let’s say you misplace your keys, Tile device attached, somewhere in your home… looking at the app tells you “yep… last I checked… your keys are at home.” But, the app gives you no clue as to where your keys might be. That’s a pretty major fail. The “Find my iPhone” app that locates my Apple devices is scary accurate and you can judge from the location of the dot, exactly where the item is in your home. This refined level of accuracy is definitely not the case with Tile.

This is where the “ring” comes in. Allegedly, you can “ring” a Tile from the app. I found that this worked about 8% of the time over the course of the past year. Sometimes I would be standing immediately next to the Tile-d device, but it was under a piece of paper or otherwise obstructed from view, but the ringing feature didn’t actually activate any ringing sound on the Tile itself. So, that, as far as I’m concerned is a major fail.

So, let’s say instead, that you lose something away from home… like your backpack or keys. Again, the Tile app will show you where it last remembers you having it. Now, that in and of itself is a significant problem, becasue the Tile app isn’t constantly in contact with your stuff. It kind of checks in from time to time, and let’s you know where it last remembers seeing it. That is only helpful if you never move. It’s the equivalent of looking for a friend in a small town. Someone might say, “yeah, I just saw her at McDonald’s… but that was about 4 hours ago.” Dashing over to McDonalds would likely not help you to locate your friend (unless she really likes McDonalds), becasue she probably moved since the last time she was spotted there. This is a MAJOR fail on part of Tile, and the part that I feel is most misleading. While you may be able to track some movements of a Tile-d item, the information is not real time, not linear, and not even sequential. Which makes the information not only random but utterly useless. 

Devices also need to be in range of a Bluetooth enabled device. That’s not clearly explained on the website, and means that if you are out to dinner and want to double check to see if your Tile-enabled cat is home or not, that you are out of luck… unless your cat has a spare iPhone sitting around that you have “shared” the Tile with. The only problem is that the “share” feature worked exactly 0% of the time for me when shared with family and friends. So, that was a major fail too.

So at this point, if a Tile won’t ring when I’m standing next to it, won’t actually help me to zero in on the location of a missing item, and can’t tell me where my item is unless I am right on top of it…what is the point of this product?

Allegedly, when something is *really* lost, you can mark it “lost” in the Tile app. That reportedly activates a network of other Tile users and borrows Bluetooth bandwidth and battery to scour the earth for your item. Keep in mind that these unsuspecting Tile spies would need to be within 20 or so feet of your item and have their app active (which most people deactivate, becasue it’s such a battery hog) to have any chance of finding your lost item. Then, once it’s found, you get a message indicating that Tile “last saw” your lost item in a specific location. Again, the location is incredibly vague, comes in hours after the spy app actually pings the Tile-d device and the information is all but useless. Without exaggeration, I tested this feature eight times in the past year, as I traveled from North America to Europe or from Europe to North America. Of eight times, I received two notifications that my “lost” item was located. (Hardly scientific, but enough to know that it doesn’t work.) The problem is that (despite my Tile app being active and working, and within 20 feet of my “lost” item), my lost items were reported “last seen” more than 6,500km away. So, needless to say, not very accurate and not very timely, and again a major fail.

To add insult to disappointment, after using Tile for 6 months, I received an e-mail telling me that my Tile devices were getting old and would expire soon. Apparently, the battery life is poor, and Tile de-activates the Tile devices one year after they are activated. This information isn’t prominently displayed anywhere on the website, and while its unrealistic to expect a Tile device to last forever, it seems like a bit of a scam to disable it exactly one year after activation. 

Not to worry, though, because the constant pop up notifications that you will receive on your iPhone (even when notifications are turned off for the app) will never let you forget that your useless Tile devices are about to be killed by Big Brother. 

So, in short, Tile is a great idea that comes up horrifically short on execution and perhaps a bit before its time. What Tile really strives to be is a GPS tracker AND locator and sadly it is neither, but instead a clever idea that grossly under delivers. 

My advice: hold off until the technology is actually in line with your basic expectations.