Topic: Ideas

Such desiderata of desiderata. Many antiquary. So curiosa. Wow.

Francis Peck - Desiderata Curiosa

Desiderata Curiosa: Or, A Collection of Divers Scarce and Curious Pieces Relating Chiefly to Matters of English History. By Francis Peck, M.A., 1779. Thomas Evans, London

Or, what do an 18th Century English antiquarian, an early 20th Century Indiana lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, Commander Spock and an obscure 1970s singer have in common?

Apologies for invoking the faddish Doge meme in the title of this piece, but it seemed oddly and counter-intuitively appropriate for a discussion of desiderata, a strange English word from from the Latin desideratum (plural desiderata), meaning: something that is wished for, or considered desirable. According to the OED, the first appearance of the word “desiderata” in the English language was in 1651 in the religious treatise Act of Oblivion, by English theologian Nathanael Culverwell. Culverwell employs a “book of life” metaphor for good Christians achieving the perfection of divine grace (emphasis mine):

Whereas a Christian’s life shall be set out in a new edition; for all errata shall be corrected. Every iniquity shall be blotted out, and all desiderata shall be supplied; the book shall become perfect, and be looked on as a fair object to all eternity

This is basically the same sentiment that returns nearly three hundred years later in the song “When You Wish upon a Star,” written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

But let’s back up a bit. Francis Peck (1692–1743) was an English antiquary who published the book pictured above, Desiderata Curiosa, in 1779. An “antiquary” is itself a nice piece of antiquarian language, defined by Wikipedia like this: »»»

Describing the color white to a blind person

Einstein and white swan

I have been searching online for years for this story that’s been half-submerged in my memory, with no luck; I finally found it in an old journal entry dated June 8, 1985. It was cut out of a newspaper, but I have no idea which one, and I can’t find this exact version of the story anywhere:

One day Einstein was asked by a pesky reporter to describe his theory of relativity in a few simple words. He responded with the following story:

“A man was asked by a blind man to describe the color white. The man said, ‘White is the color of a swan.’ The blind man said, ‘What is a swan?’ The man said, ‘A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.’

“The blind man asked, ‘What is crooked?’ The man was becoming impatient. He grabbed the blind man’s arm, straightened it and said, ‘This is straight.’ Then he bent it and said, ‘And this is crooked.’

“Whereupon the blind man quickly said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. Now I know what white is.’”

So there’s the first clue why I could never find this story online — I had thought it was one of John Cage’s zen stories, but it’s actually a story told by Einstein. This in itself is a good illustration of the fallibility of memory. Here is another version I found, and this fits the pattern of all the references I found to this story:

Einstein and his blindfriend. This story shows how complex Einstein could be. Not long after his arrival in Princeton he was invited, by the wife of one of the professors of mathematics at Princeton, to be guest of honor at a tea.-Reluctantly, Einstein consented. After the tea had progressed for a time, the excited hostess, thrilled to have such an eminent guest of honor, fluttered out into the center of activity and with raised arms silenced the group. Bubbling out some words expressing her thrill and pleasure, she turned to Einstein and said: “I wonder, Dr. Einstein, if you would be so kind as to explain to my guests in a few words, just what is relativity theory?”

Without any hesitation Einstein rose to his feet and told a story. He said he was reminded of a walk he one day had with his blind friend. The day was hot and he turned to the blind friend and said, “I wish I had a glass of milk.”

“Glass,” replied the blind friend, “I know what that is. But what do you mean by milk?”

“Why, milk is a white fluid,” explained Einstein.

“Now fluid, I know what that is,” said the blind man. “but what is white ?”

“Oh, white is the color of a swan’s feathers.”

“Feathers, now I know what they are, but what is a swan?”

“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”

“Neck, I know what that is, but what do you mean by crooked?”

At this point Einstein said he lost his patience. He seized his blind friend’s arm and pulled it straight. “There, now your arm is straight,” he said. Then he bent the blind friend’s arm at the elbow. “Now it is crooked.”

“Ah,” said the blind friend. “Now I know what milk is.”

And Einstein, at the tea, sat down.

Now the plot thickens. Here is a similar version of the milk story, but with Einstein now completely out of the picture, as told by the Hungarian-British writer George Mikes, in one of his books, which I found quoted in a post to the Pakistan Gardening Forum, of all places:

A blind man asks a young girl to describe milk. The young girl is astonished that he doesn’t even know what milk is. “Milk is white,” she tells him. The old man tells her that he is blind and doesn’t know what white means. The young girl tells him that this is very easy to explain and tells him that a swan is white. The old man tells her that a swan may be white, but he has never seen a swan. “It has a curved neck,” she tells him. The blind man says that he has no idea what ‘curved’ is. She lifts her arm, bends her wrists forward like a swan’s neck. “Feel it,” she says, “that’s curved.” The old man feels the girl’s arm, touches the girl’s wrist and exclaims joyfully: “Thank God. Now at last I know what milk is.”

What of this strange connection between the “white” things called “milk” and “swans”? Turns out that goes back to Hinduism and Sanskrit, according to the swan page on Wikipedia:

Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by this Sanskrit verse:

Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!

(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them? With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)

I guess the ancients required empirical evidence to distinguish a swan from a duck, a task that many modern humans can perform with relative ease.

Of all the versions of this story that might be floating around the universe, I like the original one I clipped from an unknown newspaper all those years ago, because to me the idea of describing the color white to a blind person is much more abstract and interesting than describing what milk is, since milk, after all, is a substance that can be discerned by other senses. But how can you possibly describe “white” without referencing other things? Such is relativity.

Kilian Jornet: the art of running into the sky

Kilian Jornet - jumping mountain

Kilian Jornet is my new hero. The 25 year old long distance runner, skier, skyrunner, and all around ultra-athlete has been winning the longest races and setting new speed records running up and down mountains all over the world. He’s also a very good writer. I just finished reading his book Run or Die, which has a beautiful comparison of what he does on mountains to art:

A great athlete is one who takes advantage of the ability that genetics have brought him in order to secure great achievements, but an exceptional athlete is one who can swim in the waters of complexity and chaos, making what seems difficult easy, creating order from chaos. Creative individuals search for chaos in order to explore all the places they can imagine beyond the frontiers of consciousness, following the irrational forces that come from within themselves and from their environment.

Perhaps I run because I need to feel creative. I need to know what is inside me and then see it realized somewhere outside me. We can explore our inner selves and know what we are capable of, but perhaps we also need to externalize that and separate it out from our bodies in order to view it as spectators, in order to evaluate it and see the defects so that we can do it again, better. It is a pleasure intrinsic to the creation of beauty.

A race is like a work of art; it is a creation that requires not only technique and work but also inspiration to reach a satisfactory outcome. But also, it is ephemeral, because like a Buddhist mandala, the enjoyment comes in the creating of it; at the moment of climax, at the point when it has reached its perfection, it disappears and will be impossible to create exactly ever again. There can be no repeats; we can relive similar emotions and experience familiar sensations, but they will never take the same shape, because inspiration leads us to explore different forms. (Run or Die, p. 177-178)

Killian Jornet is truly a running artist. Not an artist who runs, but a runner whose very act of running is the work of art. People focus on the endurance feats and the speed records, but reading his book you can tell that he is mostly concerned about living each moment of a run as an adventure unto itself.

…I think I run simply because I like doing it; I enjoy every minute and don’t wonder why. I know that when I am running and skiing, my body and mind are in harmony and allow me to feel that I am free, can fly, and can express myself through all my talents. The mountain is a blank canvas, and I’m the paintbrush that refuses to obey a paint-by-number pattern. Running provides my imagination with the means to express itself and delve into my inner self. (Run or Die, p. 176)

That’s a perfect description of why we create art, whether a painting, a song or a mountain leap: providing the imagination with the means to express itself. A few months ago The New York Times Magazine published a great profile piece on Jornet, Becoming the All-Terrain Human, by Christopher Solomon. It is a good introduction to Jornet’s world and all that he has accomplished. And remember, he’s still only twenty-five.

Creativity in solitude or collaboration?

This is a fundamental question we face in our daily naming work, and, we think, is a central issue for most companies. How do you nurture the most creative environment: creative isolation or collaborating in teams? We have found in our work that a balance or interplay of these two strategies consistently yields the most interesting results. If the balance swings too much toward individual creative isolation, great work may be created but might reach a dead end, or lead to missed opportunities or a disconnect with project goals. On the other hand, if there is too much emphasis on collaboration, ideas may wither, become recycled, or lack the depth that sustained introspective exploration can bring.

Writing in the New York Times last year (The Rise of the New Groupthink), Susan Cain made a passionate case for introverts and the power of solitude in creative endeavors:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Cain goes on to extol the virtues of the often unheralded work performed by creative isolationists by citing the well known example of Apple’s two founding fathers:

Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

Cain’s polemic, as might be expected, unleashed a backlash from proponents of collaboration in letters to the Times (The Key to Creativity: Solitude or Teams?), which make some persuasive counter-arguments. Keith Sawyer writes of scientific and educational research into the value of collaboration,

Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity is almost always based in collaboration, conversation and social networks — just the opposite of our mythical image of the isolated genius. And educational research has found that deeper learning results when students participate in thoughtful argumentation and discuss reasons and concepts.

Ed Donovan writes that Cain makes a mistake by conflating true collaboration with “groupthink”:

The collaborative process may benefit from the input of individuals who are creative high achievers, but it’s not dependent on them; what’s required are the actual stakeholders whose concerns are threatened by a conflict or a problem. Collaboration is at a far end of the problem-solving spectrum from mind-numbing, creativity-suppressing groupthink.

And Stephen Bertman refers to earlier civilizations as models of creative collaboration:

The creative balance that Susan Cain seeks between individual and group thinking was sought (and found) almost 25 centuries ago by the ancient Greeks. Treasuring personal introspection, they nurtured the life of the individual human mind that gave birth to the rational quest for truth known as philosophy. But, as the symposiums presided over by Socrates show, the Greeks also recognized the synergistic power of multiple minds working together toward a common goal.

Later, the Library of Alexandria became the world’s first think tank as inventive scientists gathered and inspired one another to produce mechanical marvels as dazzling in their own way as the electronic wonders of today.

In the dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the Greeks found the intellectual engine that powered their civilization — and can power ours, if we choose to use it.

On the other hand, some very influential artists and thinkers have been exemplars of the creative isolation approach, showing that Sawyer’s “mythical image of the isolated genius” is not quite so mythical, as the following four quotes attest:

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”

~Rollo May (1909–1994), American existential psychologist.

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

~Franz Kafka (1883–1924), German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

~Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, and one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

~Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.

We have found that creative isolation can lead to some of the best invention, but creative collaboration is necessary to turn invention into action and execution. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs would probably both have had amazing careers as individuals, but Apple could only have been born from the synergistic fusion of their two unique talents and visions. And Tesla may have been the greater genius, but Thomas Edison was more socially adept and able to bring his ideas to a larger audience.

What do you think, and what works best for you company? Use the comments below or in a social media conversation to chime in with your stories of isolation vs. collaboration in a creative environment.

Diogenes, the original punk/Dadaist/Cynic, meets Alvin Lustig

Diogenes #3 cover - Alvin Lustig

Diogenes No.3, Summer 1953. Cover art by Alvin Lustig.

Diogenes is a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes papers four times a year in the field of Philosophy and the Humanities. It has been publishing since 1953, when issue No. 3, above, was published, with a great cover by famed modernist designer Alvin Lustig  (1915-1955), who trained at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles and briefly studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Sadly, they no longer hire great designers to make interesting covers, as you can see on their website at the link above.

The journal is named after Diogenes of Sinope (412/404-323 BC), an ancient Greek philosopher also known as Diogenes the Cynic, and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy:

Diogenes of Sinope was a controversial figure. His father minted coins for a living, and when Diogenes took to “defacement of the currency,” he was banished from Sinope. After being exiled, he moved to Athens to debunk cultural conventions. Diogenes modelled himself on the example of Hercules. He believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory. He used his simple lifestyle and behaviour to criticise the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt society. He declared himself a cosmopolitan. There are many tales about him dogging Antisthenes’ footsteps and becoming his faithful hound, but it is by no means certain that the two men ever met. Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts such as carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. He embarrassed Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates and sabotaged his lectures. Diogenes was also responsible for publicly mocking Alexander the Great.

After being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, Diogenes eventually settled in Corinth. There he passed his philosophy of Cynicism to Crates, who taught it to Zeno of Citium, who fashioned it into the school of Stoicism, one of the most enduring schools of Greek philosophy. None of Diogenes’ many writings has survived, but details of his life come in the form of anecdotes (chreia), especially from Diogenes Laërtius, in his book Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. All we have is a number of anecdotes concerning his life and sayings attributed to him in a number of scattered classical sources, none of them definitive. [Wikipedia: Diogenes of Sinope]

Here is a cool (and funny) video — made by a “professional philosopher” — that provides a good overview of the life and philosophy of Diogenes:

Cynical fun with etymology

Because Diogenes believed that dogs were prefect beings, faithful and honest, always living in the moment without pretense, he earned the nickname “Diogenes the Dog.” The Greek word for dog is “kyon,” with the adjective form “kyonikos” (“dog-like”), which is the root for the modern name of his philosophy, Cynicism. Does that mean your dog is cynical? Yes, but not in the modern meaning of the word:

Cynicism, in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics. Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Diogenes took Cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal Cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of Cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the Empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although some have claimed that early Christianity adopted many of its ascetic and rhetorical ideas.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. [Wikipedia: Cynicism (philosophy)]

So your loyal dog is a Cynic philosopher, but not a cynic. “Diogenes” would be a good name for him. Or “Alvin.”

Give Change A Chance: A New Year’s Resolution

john cage, paris 1981

“John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. Nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by their adaptation to change.” ~Robert Rauschenberg

Alec Baldwin shares this quote from an episode of his radio show Here’s the Thing on NPR. I believe the passage is from Rauschenburg’s obituary and can be heard at 29:20 of this podcast. I have almost worked my way through the entire series of very thoughtful interviews.  Other shows have featured interviews with Kristen Wiig, Dick Cavett, Herb Alpert, Chris Rock, Lorne Michaels, Erica and Molly Jong, David Letterman and Michael Douglas.

David Lynch’s hair as art motif

David Lynch's hair in paintings

Artist, filmmaker and composer David Lynch sports a head of hair that’s an art motif in itself, seen here in some famous paintings. Created / discovered by Jeremy Chen in his post, The Painter, which includes a couple more examples.

The Clock by Christian Marclay

Christian Marclay - The Clock (composite)

Chances are by now that you’ve heard of Christian Marclay’s brilliant work of art, The Clock (2010), though less likely that you have actually seen it (I haven’t as yet). As described by Wikipedia, the piece “is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in ‘real time’: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time.”

A lot has been written about The Clock, and from what I’ve read, this is much more than just a collage of film images. The images not only work in sequence as a clock, but the pacing of the editing builds to moments of climax, as the top of the hour approaches, and then to a more relaxed pace after the hour has passed. And the soundtracks of the clips are overlapped and blended across transitions, creating new correspondences and “dialog” between disparate scenes. In short, this is a living, breathing clock, more like a day-long dream (a contemporary Ulysses?) than a typical film, clock, art work, or “typical” anything.

Check out this wonderful New Yorker profile piece by Daniel Zalewski, The Hours: How Christian Marclay created the ultimate digital mosaic. Here is an excerpt about how Marclay transforms the ordinary into art:

Part of Marclay’s fascination with the cinematic archive had to do with the way it resisted transfiguration. It wasn’t hard to turn a recorded sound into an estranged abstraction, by slowing it down or folding it into a new rhythm. But, even if you chopped a film into a single frame, specificity clung to it: Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, Manhattan, 1961. Marclay wondered if he could fashion from familiar clips a genuinely unfamiliar film, one with its own logic, rhythm, and aesthetics. In his view, the best collages combined the “memory aspect”—recognition of the source material—with the pleasurable violence of transformation. If Marclay could turn the sky green for one day, he’d do it.

Later in the piece, Zalewski offers this observation about the paradoxical nature of time both in The Clock and in the viewing of it:

There were darker resonances, too. People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.

… There was a lineage of avant-garde cinema that, with varying degrees of obscurity, examined the temporal qualities of film. Marclay’s contribution to the cinema of duration, though, would be pleasurable to watch. He sensed a creepy challenge. If his film was sufficiently seductive, he might coax people to sit for hours, literally watching their lives tick away.

There are several copies of The Clock owned by museums or private collectors that are in circulation, touring the globe for short-run performances. Be sure to catch all or part of it when it comes to a city near you, and watch your life tick away. I can’t wait.

Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

“The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
~Stephen Hawking

Crazy factotum: The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, by Delmore Schwartz

The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me
By Delmore Schwartz

“the withness of the body” 1

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.


1. Schwartz’s epigraph is a reference is to the unity of mind and body in the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. See this excerpt from “Process and Feeling” by Jeremy W. Hayward:

Process philosophy was first proposed by that great English gentleman, mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, fifty years ago. Whitehead takes great care to show process philosophy to be a natural outcome of the Western tradition and to provide solutions to many of the seemingly intractable problems that had arisen in that tradition. It arises as a criticism of Berkeley, Hume, Locke, and Descartes, especially, but goes all the way back to find its roots in Plato and Aristotle. Whitehead himself is regarded by many as the greatest Western philosopher since Plato.

…Whitehead then points to a more primitive, and more fundamental, mode of perception at the level of feeling, which he calls “causal efficacy.” We can begin to understand causal efficacy when we acknowledge the mind-body unity and the “withness” of the body in all experience. We experience with the body. We do not merely see “red”; we see “red” with the eyes, we hear a sound with the ears, and so on. Whitehead points out that it is this “withness” that makes the body the starting point for our knowledge of our world. Therefore, the “withness of the body,” rather than be dismissed as irrelevant, must form the foundation of our theory of experience as perception.

The interesting mystery of doubt and unknowing

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. [...] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.”
~Richard Feynman

Generally speaking

Crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau

Crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau as a young man, 1854, by Samuel Worcester Rowse.

“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.”
~Henry David Thoreau

Company Names and The Golden Forty-Year Rule: A Chrome-Plated Retro-Fabulous Joyride

Inspired by the retro-fabulous Mad Men television series on HBO to take a fresh look at nostalgia, Adam Gopnik, writing in a recent New Yorker commentary (The Forty-Year Itch), offers this cultural observation: “It seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)”

Gopnik provides many examples to back up his claim, and ties it to the notion that, since most cultural gatekeepers are in their 40s, individual people also follow this same forty-year itch, and exhibit nostalgic longing for the period just before their own early-childhood memories kicked-in: “Though pop culture is most often performed by the young, the directors and programmers and gatekeepers—the suits who control and create its conditions, who make the calls and choose the players—are, and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born. Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.” For example, if you were born in 1973, you might have great nostalgic longing for the early-to-mid 1970s.

Using Gopnik’s “Golden Forty-Year Rule” as an excuse to take a nostalgic joyride through company names of the past, we decided to take a look at some of the names of companies that were born in the past couple years and compare them to companies born forty years earlier (1970-71) and forty years before that (1930-31). Are there any observable patterns here? Are the current crop of newly minted companies influenced, perhaps subconsciously or culturally, by the Class of 1970-71, and were they in turn influenced by their precursors in 1930-31, in the heart of the Great Depression? And were those from 1930-31 influenced by the companies born in 1890-91? We’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Happy tripping down memory lane.

Companies Founded 1930-31 Companies Founded 1970-71 Companies Founded 2010-11
  • Airspeed Ltd.
  • Allstate
  • Astor Pictures
  • Bacterol Products Company
  • Bajaj Corp Ltd
  • Barceló
  • Baxter International
  • Bedford Vehicles
  • Bendicks (Storck UK Ltd.)
  • Better Made Potato Chips Inc.
  • Bloch
  • Blue Boar Cafeterias
  • Braithwaite & Co. Ltd.
  • Bridgestone
  • British Salmson (French Salmson)
  • Burlington-Rock Island Railroad
  • Capsugel
  • Clairol
  • Colt Group
  • Cominco Fertilizers (Agrium)
  • Confiseriefabrik Richterich & Co. Laufen (Ricola)
  • Datsun (Nissan)
  • Dewey’s Bakery
  • Dodge & Cox
  • Duracell
  • Eastern Air Lines
  • Electric and Musical Industries (EMI)
  • Englebert
  • Farrow & Ball
  • Fisher-Price (Mattel)
  • Flemings
  • Frog Models
  • Gartnerhallen
  • Geophysical Service Inc (Texas Instruments)
  • Giant Eagle
  • Goodlyne Dress Company
  • Granada plc (ITV plc)
  • Harps Food Stores
  • Interstate Bakeries Corporation (Hostess Brands)
  • J. J. Ugland
  • Kinetic Chemicals
  • Lianhua Film Company
  • Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
  • Marsh Supermarkets
  • Marshall Aerospace
  • Matt’s Place Drive-In
  • Maurices
  • Merrythought
  • Millet
  • Monogram Pictures
  • Nat Sherman
  • National Bedding Company (Serta)
  • Natone (Neutrogena)
  • Ocean Spray
  • Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH)
  • Poljot
  • Porsche
  • Publix Super Markets (Publix)
  • Ro-Pat-In Corporation (Rickenbacker)
  • Rocco Motto
  • Sleepy’s
  • Società anonima Carrozzeria Pinin Farina (Pininfarina)
  • Star Trading Company (Noodle Kidoodle)
  • Sugatsune
  • Swissair
  • The Himalaya Drug Company
  • The Minority Press
  • Toronto Star Syndicate (Torstar Syndication Services)
  • Trans World Airlines (American Airlines)
  • Triboro Coach
  • Unilever
  • Vichy
  • W. & C. French
  • Western Hotels (Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide)
  • Yaohan
  • Zellers
  • Aérospatiale
  • Air Link
  • AM General
  • Ampex
  • Aquarius Records
  • Asylum Records
  • Bet-Car Records
  • Burlington Northern Railroad
  • Cannondale Bicycle Corporation
  • Cargolux
  • Century 21 Real Estate
  • Charles Schwab Corporation
  • City Express
  • Coloroll
  • Days Inn
  • Development Dimensions International
  • Dialcom
  • Eveready Inc.
  • FedEx
  • Floating Point Systems
  • Fly Records
  • Flying Buffalo
  • Flyright Records
  • Fotovista
  • Grand Trunk Corporation
  • Grunt Records
  • HappySad Records
  • Holiday Retirement
  • Iceland
  • Inner City Broadcasting
  • Inner Sanctum Records
  • International Typeface Corporation
  • Jean Machine
  • Just Jeans
  • Kickers
  • Last Gasp
  • Lexicon
  • Lucasfilm
  • LXD Incorporated
  • Mechanical Lloyd
  • Mitsubishi Motors
  • Mr. Tire
  • NASDAQ
  • New World Pictures
  • NewYorker
  • NPR National Public Radio
  • Oak Knoll Winery
  • Obi
  • Orange Sky Golden Harvest
  • PARC
  • Paychex
  • Phil Spector International
  • Philadelphia International Records
  • Plume
  • Public Broadcasting Service
  • Quiksilver
  • Recycled Paper Greetings
  • Rockport
  • Rolling Stones Records
  • Rounder Records
  • Saatchi & Saatchi
  • Samsung Engineering
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Starbucks
  • Starter Clothing Line
  • Tata McGraw-Hill
  • Ten Speed Press
  • The Feminist Press
  • The Village Thing Records
  • Tom’s of Maine
  • Town & Country Surf Designs
  • Tuff Gong Records
  • Turner Broadcasting System
  • United International Pictures
  • Universal Press Syndicate
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Viacom
  • Village Roadshow Pictures
  • Visa Inc.
  • Western Digital
  • Whole Foods Co-op
  • Wickes Furniture
  • ZIV International
  • Almanac Beer Company
  • Angst In the Industry Records
  • Argyll Ferries
  • Aurica Motors
  • Beam Inc.
  • Big Robot
  • Bitcasa
  • Camp+King
  • ClearStory
  • Colony
  • Cool Taxi
  • Cork Gully
  • Coursekit (Lore)
  • CoverHound
  • Decibel
  • Defense Land Systems
  • Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
  • Double Denim Records
  • Eastern Berks Gateway Railroad
  • Elk Mountain Brewing Company
  • Energy Bank
  • Enter Air
  • Eterniti Motors
  • Filly Films
  • Flybe Nordic
  • FlyMe
  • Gaslamp Games
  • Hollow Tree Books
  • Ink Pixel Films
  • Instagram
  • Jetstar Japan
  • Kinetic Traction Systems
  • Launchpad Records
  • Lava Bear Films
  • LeadBolt
  • Limited Fanfare Records
  • Lion Bus
  • Live Nation Entertainment
  • Magic Pixel Games
  • Mattress Lot
  • Mindshapes
  • Motorola Mobility
  • Motorola Solutions
  • Nest Labs
  • NGINX, Inc.
  • No Limit Forever Records
  • Ole Smoky Distillery
  • Open Road Films
  • People’s Viennaline
  • Petsitting
  • Pizza Brain
  • Plukka
  • Propulsion Universelle et Recuperation d’Energie
  • Pulse-Eight
  • REDjet
  • Respawn Entertainment
  • Rough Draft Brewing Company
  • Scoot
  • SeatMe
  • Silicon Sisters
  • Snowballers Entertainment
  • Solé Bicycle Co.
  • Streamworks International
  • Sunny Airways
  • Sunrise Airways
  • Sunshine Records
  • Supercell
  • The Board Administration Records
  • The Newsweek Daily Beast Company
  • Touchstone Semiconductor
  • TwitchTV
  • Upverter
  • Volotea Airlines
  • Warhorse Studios
  • Whitejets
  • Wikistrat
  • Worthy Book
  • WOW air
  • Zinzin
  • Zukbox

Visionary tics shivering in the chest: Jack Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life

Jack Kerouac drew up a “List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life,” which was “allegedly tacked on the wall of Allen Ginsberg’s hotel room in North Beach a year before his iconic poem ‘Howl’ was written — which is of little surprise, given Ginsberg readily admitted Kerouac’s influence and even noted in the dedication of Howl and Other Poems that he took the title from Kerouac,” notes Brainpicker Maria Popova.

Kerouac’s list is inspiring not just for writers, but for any kind of artist, and even for the process of name development. Each item in Kerouac’s original list, below, is in italics,  and each is followed by my comments relating it to the art of naming.

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy. Keep lots of notebooks, scraps, post-its and shreds with names, ideas, concepts. You never know when and how they may lead to the development of a name.
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening. Always. Very important. The world is speaking the name you are looking for, but if you aren’t listening, you’ll likely miss it.
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house. Avoid getting drunk in general, but if you do, make sure you have a notebook with you (see #1).
  4. Be in love with yr life. Yes. It’s the only one you’ve got. Great advice beyond naming, and something Kerouac himself ultimately failed to uphold, but in the realm of naming, you must embrace the fact that you are a namer. Own it. Love it.
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form. Trust your gut. Follow the glimmer of ideas, no matter how evanescent. They will lead to the “form” of names.
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind. Because it’s a fine line between inspiration and madness. You have to push the limits to know where the limits are. Let wisdom wash over you–don’t presume to already have it (you don’t).
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow. Go deep into a name or idea and don’t let anything hold you back.
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind. Combine this with #1, above. Names will come from writing often, whether lists, stories, poems, blog posts, or screeds of any sort. Keep writing, keep banging your fingers into keys and moving your pen over paper. Words will appear in great, blooming clusters, words that names are made from.
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual. Visions and other unnamables that nevertheless might lead to names. Just because something can’t be described (named) doesn’t mean you can’t describe (name) it. You can. Try it.
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is. Poetry isn’t a magic place you have to travel to or make time for. It is all around us all the time. It is exactly what is.
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest. Exactly where great names often begin. You can almost feel them coming before they arrive, tickling your primordial amygdala limbic mind before your advanced cerebral cortex catches up and understands their value.
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you. Focus on the task at hand, meditate on the brand positioning that a name must map to. “Tranced fixation dreaming” the best way to describe this state combining search and receptivity (see #2) to new ideas.
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition. All that can come later, when you’re in editing mode. When developing names, start with no rules, then gradually introduce the most important one: that the name supports the brand positioning.
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time. Step out of the linear flow of time. A name can come from any place, or any time, and the collision of disparate eras can be powerful in developing a name.
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog. Turn the naming problem into a story and run through it in your mind over and over. Add other stories, and let the stories collide, like particles in an atom smasher. The birth of new names just might result.
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye. The best names have many layers of meaning, and you can drill deep into them and keep discovering new things.
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself. Draw on your memory and follow what makes you most passionate, obsessed and excited. Never fake your response to art–if you don’t feel it, move on. But if something strikes you powerfully, follow it as far as it will take you.
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea. Immerse yourself in words to the point of drowning–the words that coalesce into a life preserver to save you just might form your new name.
  19. Accept loss forever. Not every idea works. Most, in fact, are “failures.” Failures diligently explored can lead to success, so the only true failures are the failures that are abandoned. So accept failure and loss, and perhaps loss of sleep, into your naming process.
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life. All of life is waiting for you when you are in need of a name, not just the dictionary and thesaurus. Believe in life and immerse yourself in it, following its winking clues.
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind. Great names are already flowing in your mind; the trick is to get them out into the light of consciousness without your editor brain and logic filters keeping them locked up out of sight. “Sketch the flow” is another way of saying, in the context of naming, “map-out the brand positioning with metaphors.”
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better. Visualize the brand you are naming, and visualize how a name might be used. Try not to define the name at first with other, often limiting, words, but instead keep it pure in your vision.
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning. You want to create space for free range roaming in the playground of your mind, but it’s equally important to keep the process structured, to temper unbridled freedom with the constraint of process. Michelangelo said, “Art lives by constraint and dies of freedom.” Stay focused on the big picture.
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge. Don’t think for a moment that you are not creative enough, or not up to the task, of creating a great name–you probably just have the wrong filters in place.
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it. You are not naming for the sake of naming, and brands don’t exist in a vacuum. A name has to work in the real world, which means it should be more engaging and memorable than the names of your competition, and it should be inspiring to people.
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a great name can paint a thousand pictures in the minds of your audience.
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness. Think of every great name added to the world as making the world a better place for all of us to live, and another flash of human connection illuminating the darkness.
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better. Start by following your gut, uninhibited, free, flowing (see #5 and #13, above).
  29. You’re a Genius all the time. Ginsberg may have been, but we’re not. It never hurts, however, to think positive. Just don’t get carried away with it. Ultimately a name has to support the brand positioning and work in the real world, and no amount of fist-banging declarations that you are a “genius” will change that, or convince a skeptical client. Failure to understand this leads to delusion, and bad names. True genius is humble. Be resolute, but be humble.
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven. What you can put on your business card or website, if you want, once your angelic visions have been realized in live names that take the world by storm. In the meantime, keep it to yourself, get inspired, and work hard.

Source: University of Pennsylvania, via Brain Pickings.

Milton Glaser: Embrace the Failure

This is a great video talk by veteran designer Milton Glaser from 2011, created by students from Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication. The theme of the talk is “Fear of failure,” its causes and consequences.

Fear of failure. It’s a phrase that requires a little thought. I also have a sense that unless you analyze both the nature of fear and the nature of failure, you won’t come to any agreement about the consequences of fear. When I talk to students, about the distinction between professionalism and personal development, I very often put it this way: In professional life, you must discover a kind of identity for yourself, that becomes a sort of trademark, a way of working that is distinctive that people can recognize. The reason for this is that the path to financial success and notoriety is by having something that no-one else has. It’s kind of like a brand, one of my most despised words.

This is funny. I get where Glaser is coming from, and share the skepticism of branding that many people have, which of course is based on bad branding. Marty Neumeier has a good article on the AIGA website, Who’s Afraid of the Big Brand Wolf?, which analyzes several “irrational fears” of branding and brands and offers up the thought experiment of replacing branding with a new world, existing or made-up, and the futility of such an attempt. But let’s get back to our Milton.

So what you do in life in order to be professional is you develop your brand, your way of working, your attitude, that is understandable to others. In most cases, it turns out to be something fairly narrow, like ‘this person really knows how to draw cocker spaniels,’ or ‘this person is very good with typography directed in a more feminine way,” or whatever the particular attribute is, and then you discover you have something to offer that is better than other people have or at least more distinctive. And what you do with that is you become a specialist, and people call you to get more of what you have become adept at doing. So if you do anything and become celebrated for it, people will send you more of that. And for the rest of your life, quite possibly, you will have that characteristic, people will continue to ask you for what you have already done and succeeded at. This is the way to professional accomplishment–you have to demonstrate that you know something unique that you can repeat over and over and over until ultimately you lose interest in it. The consequence of specialization and success is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it basically doesn’t aid in your development.

This is a profound insight, and bears repeating: specialization and success hurts you in the long run because it hinders your further development, as an artist, writer, thinker, or namer. Success leads you to coast, coasting leads to stasis and predictability, predictability leads to boredom and, ultimately, the loss of the audience that came with the initial success. Yes, we all crave success, but the only way to keep developing, and thus insure continued success over the  long haul, is to be willing to to take great risks at all times, even when the result lead to…you guessed it…failure:

The truth of the matter is that understanding development comes from failure. People begin to get better when they fail, they move towards failure, they discover something as a result of failing, they fail again, they discover something else, they fail again, they discover something else. So the model for personal development is antithetical to the model for professional success. As a result of that, I believe that Picasso as a model is the most useful model you can have in terms of your artistic interests, because whenever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his development as an artist, the results were extraordinary. It is the opposite of what happens in the typecasting for professional accomplishment.

But moving on from that particular idea to the idea of fear of failure, which is an inhibiting characteristic. One question is, What are you afraid of? Is it the condemnation of others? If you do something and it is inadequate is the criticism of critics and other experts and even your friends and relatives, that embarrasses you, that makes you unwilling to go forward? Of course there’s also in professional life, the fear is, that you won’t get any more work, because visible failure is a detriment, people think–and perhaps correctly–that you don’t know what you’re doing. So, there is that inhibiting factor. Another one that may be more profound, and more interesting, is our own self-criticism.

A characteristic of artistic education is for people to tell you that you’re a genius. And that you’re an artistic genius, and that you’re a creative genius, and so everybody gets this idea, if they go to art school, that they’re really a genius. Sadly, it isn’t true. Genius occurs very rarely. So the real embarrassing issue about failure is your own acknowledgement that you’re not a genius, that you’re not as good as you thought you were. And doing a project that is truly complex and difficult tests your real ability, and since we all have a sensitive ego, alas, within our confident facade, the thing that we most fear in regard to failure, is our own self-acknowledgment that we really don’t exactly know what we’re doing.

There’s only one solution, and it relates to what I was saying earlier: You must embrace failure. You must admit what is. You must find out what you’re capable of doing, and what you’re not capable of doing. That is the only way to deal with the issue of success and failure because otherwise you simply will never subject yourself to the possibility that you’re not as good as you want to be, hope to be, or as others think you are. But that is, of course, delusional.

So my advice finally about fear of failure, which is a kind of romantic idea, there’s only one way out: embrace the failure.

This is very astute, and a great analysis of how mediocrity, conformity and predictability prevail in most creative endeavors. Fear of failure, in its myriad forms, leads to a repetition of what you (and others) know you are good at, in order to avoid failure. Professional success reinforces the tendency to do what you are good at and not to risk failure, and gradually anything that may have been interesting in the initial work, idea or dream has been squeezed out. Glaser is right: you have to embrace failure, make it a part of your process, use it to learn from and grow. Don’t focus on the outside pressures, real and powerful though they may be–focus instead on the internal need to try, fail, learn and grow. That’s the only way to develop, in art, in science, or in naming.

Buckminster Fuller said it well: “Whatever humans have learned had to be learned as a consequence of trial and error experience.  Humans have learned only through mistakes.”

[ Source: Berghs' Exhibition 11 videos ]

Attention Must Be Paid: An Interview With Director Mike Nichols

I heard this wonderful interview with Mike Nichols who is currently directing a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, Linda Emond as Linda Loman and Andrew Garfield as Biff Loman.

Mike Nichols: ‘Salesman’ By Day, Artist Always
Interviewed by Robert Siegel
National Public Radio, All Things Considered
March 9, 2012

Photo: Matt Sayles/AP