Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pareto Gives His Thanks

Maybe you have heard of 'the Bell Curve' or Normal Distribution? I don't know, but you would certainly have heard and understand a word like 'average'.

You may or may not have heard the Pareto Principle, and less likely Power-law Distribution. Chances are you would have heard reference to the '80/20 rule' which is in fact not a rule but the Pareto Principle.

Anyway, you can never have too much insight, and having an alternative way to consider things than Normal Distribution I find immensely valuable. (I mean there's heaps of alternative ways to consider things, but for pattern seeking in data sets... that's what I mean.)

So! Recently I did this thing called the thanxhibition, at my last exhibition I stuck up 120 pieces of card with an illustration each on them and gave them away for free to thank my supporters just for supporting me.

Along with the picture I added some text, some encouraging and positive words. But the pieces weren't directed at anybody, the pieces were for people to pick and choose from. So what to write? Well I echoed back what people write to me, because I get heaps of support.

The least visible part of my exhibiting process is the mountain of correspondence it generates, and the thanxhibition was a way to test the theory that what we are drawn to and like about other people are the qualities we like in ourselves.

Thus a simple and powerful exercise is to compliment somebody 'Jane has a great laugh.' and then restate that compliment about yourself and see if it still holds true 'I have a great laugh.' etc.

So I incorporated this but in reverse, could the nice stuff people say about me apply to my supporters? I think yes.

So it was a great exercise for me to do, and I hope great for everybody else.

But post exhibitions I always go crunch the numbers. And here's the thing, I have numerous supporters, but 'support' is not distributed evenly amongst them. What is support? How do you quantify it?

One way, and it's a really great metric, is a headcount, how many people turn out for me? But even in that question, you will notice quickly that some people don't turn out for me per se, they are brought along by a friend who did turn out for me.

There, I have uneven distribution of support amongst two people. My friend who supports me heaps, by bringing their friend who supports me a little. And after multiple shows, sometimes the people dragged along become my friend and evangelical supporters. It's all to the good.

But the thanxhibition in the prep phase made me notice that although there were 120 cards, the quotes didn't come from 120 people. In the same way that sending out 300 invites may result in a (phenomenal) turnout of 150 people (50%) the invites I write generate a smaller fraction of responses, which in turn vary in content.

And this is the thing about support. Business has recognised a Pareto Principle applied to '80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers' and other examples, wikipedia has more. So really it isn't surprising that '80% of my support comes from 20% of my supporters' would also apply. The other thing I'm told by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that the Pareto Principle has the equivalent expression of a '50/1 rule' which is to say 'half your support comes from 1% of your supporters.'

The thanxhibition brought this into stark reality, because I needed written, tangible compliments and expressions of goodwill, support and love to draw on. Maybe 5-6 people contributed about 10 phrases each, then a dozen 3-4, then the rest was just one thing each.

Two things.

1. Those people that are willing to take the time to write messages of support, are fucking heroes, they make the world turn as far as I care. More so because their words are backed up by action. Their behavior is consistent with their stated position. Which brings me to...

2. There are obviously more than one way to support somebody, and indeed deeds, or actions speak louder than words. But 'actions' are behaviours, and behaviours consist of - things we do, words we say and how we say them. Taking the time to write is a deed, and while I don't underestimate the generosity of simply showing up to one of my shows, never underestimate what it means to somebody to hear or read a kind word. (Particularly when they are cooped up all day drawing).

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bad Lesson Learned

So I went round to Bryce's house, and we went up to the study next to his bedroom.

'Look into her eyes.' he began, 'then you ask them about their dreams for the future.' I've forgotten the rest, and I forget what he was coaching me on. It was either kissing a girl or asking her out. I feel this is still a good opener though.

Anyway, I had her number, she lived in Mount Clear, so Bryce put the phone in front of me and watched me dial.

I probably said something like, 'oh  my god I can't do this.' or something, and probably took some last minute advice on what to do if her parents answered. I think in these cases I'm almost always praying for a machine to pick it up.

Anyway, something happened. I can't recall that bit, but eventually Sarah was on the phone.

'Hello!' she said with enthusiasm.

Then I asked her out. 'I was wondering if you'd go out with me.'

'I'd love to!' she said. I remember that much, it was probably the most exciting and relieving and uplifting thing I'd ever heard at that stage of my life.

Point of the call having been achieved, I can't recall how we wound it up. But we wound it up quickly, she must have been on speaker or something because I feel like Bryce could hear her side of the conversation to.

Then sweet, naive, 15 year old me said 'I love you.' A statement of fact, and Bryce was all 'are you fucking insane?!' and that was the first I was aware I'd made an error.

Sarah and I went out for 3 days, before a strangely superfluous middle-man that inserted himself into our relationship informed me it was over. And that's how it resolved itself.

In those three days, there was no kissing and I suspect possibly no physical contact. I really struggled with the adaptation to the identy of a couple and all the scrutiny I felt I was constantly under. I choked and died.

And you know what? I don't think that first failed relationship's failure had anything to do with my divulging that I loved her.

And an eternity later, like 3-4 months or so, Sarah started spreading rumours to the effect of 'oh my god I still really like Tom' (as I was still known back then). I don't know how long it took us to get back together, I can't recall if I stubbornly held out for her to ask me out, since she had allegedly dumped me the first time.

But it was at 'Saving Private Ryan' that she held my hand and bit my thumb when the sniped got blown out of the bell tower. Then we walked around town, and then she kissed me out the front of Central Square.

Which was fun to reminisce over, but I've strayed off point. I learned that day in Bryce's home office that you didn't tell a girl you loved her because it would freak her out. That something I had assumed naively was wonderful, and a wonderful thing to say to somebody could come across as quite threatening and scary.

So the new discipline, was that I waited until a girl told me she loved me before I told her. For me this was a hard discipline, and I'm not sure how well I held to it. I think I broke first with Chantelle and Claire, and fortunately Miki told me she loved me on our second date.

What I always kept secret though was that I loved these girls before I even kissed them. The failure of all my relationships isn't so much testimony to my ignorance of true love, but rather that love can't overpower all the other banal reasons relationships fail.

I think it was a bad lesson to learn though. It may in practice, still be valid, but the error I feel wasn't mine, the error is to get freaked out by somebody loving you.

Which I will freely admit, has it's limits, obviously you should be freaked out by somebody who declares their love for you and truly, madly, deeply wants to cut off your head and wear it as a hat while they make a night gown out of your skin.

But of all the human failings of a potential partner, the fact that they love you in most cases won't be the danger. Nor does it carry with it any reciprocal obligation to return that love. Nor do you need to lie, nor do you need to end things.

I did eventually get to kiss Sarah because I learned to play it cool and not panic and not withdraw. I just chilled until she, the more experienced got the confidence to take control. I think chilling out is a good lesson to learn with relationships, they are after all supposed to be fun.

likewise if somebody says they love you, just chill.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It Gets Better Project

I have to paraphrase from memory so forgive me - "the unspoken deal was this: you are ours to torture until you are 18, we can do whatever we want to you. After that you can move to San Francisco and do whatever you want, except talk to those of you who are still under 18, they're ours. The problem was that the gays we needed to talk to, we could never get permission to talk to." or something, Dan Savage after a teen in America hung himself the result of bullying over his presumed sexual orientation, had an epiphany that youtube and the internet meant that you don't need permission anymore, they could tell these kids going through hell that 'It Gets Better' and thus was born the 'It Gets Better Project'

What an amazing and wonderful use of technology, and amazingly, the first person to tell me about it wasn't through any media chanel but Youtube, as told to me by Dan Savage.

Gay, Trans, Bi, Intergender, Queer or Straight, if you ever need evidence that there are good and decent people who are willing to save your life out there check it out:

there's a dedicated site for Australia:

any queer friends I hope you take time to contribute.

Monday, June 24, 2013


it feels good, to get self righteous, but perhaps in the same way that eating a cheeseburger feels good. It feels good but perhaps is not good for you.

I recommend getting self righteous while jogging, or otherwise alone, play the confrontation out in your head. Rehearse. Hope you never have to call on it.

If all else fails, write it somewhere nobody will read, like a blog.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jiro's Pathelogical Dream

Preamble/Spoiler Alert:

For which you might think I may ruin the ending of the documentary 'Jiro Dreams Of Sushi' but the spoiler I refer to is spoiling Japan for you. Ostensibly, I don't like talking about Japan, but the truth of it is, that I would love to talk about Japan. Except bitter experience (for all) is that when I talk about Japan I feel like I've just told a small child that Santa isn't real.

If you love Japan but have never been, and your life ambition is to go to Japan, you probably don't want to keep reading this post, because it may shatter the glass between you and the Japan-zoo you can experience and enjoy, and leave you smelling the feces.

Begin Post In Earnest:

Jiro is on to something, in the opening moments of his documentary, he talks about falling in love with your work, and how once you find your job and start your work you should fall in love with it. And I agree, super important to my own pursuit of happiness was seeing the image of Michael Jordan crying as he held his first NBA championship trophy, it was witnessing the power of that emotion over a sporting trophy that I realised we can arbitrarily select the purpose of our own lives and find great meaning in it.

Work IS really important, and a vocation is a wonderful thing to have. And it's possible to watch the documentary marvelling at Jiro's obsession with Sushi as he pursues the perfection of his art and reflects on the long journey to create a sushi bar with ten seats and no rest-room that costs upwards of $300 per meal and require a reservation one month in advance.

That's a pretty incredible business, a pretty incredible restaurant.

I can't claim to have watched the documentary, I only got 45 minutes through. But I find there's only so much of Jiro - and Japan's - work ethos I can take. I can respect it so far, I can't possibly revere it, and neither should you.

But it is stimulating. There's lot's about the 'Japan method' that is a fascinating study, a huge living breathing social experiment that would be too unethical to ever conduct.

The Japanese Method:

The Japanese Method I would describe as such: Assume a subjective quantity as objective, then exert all efforts trying to climb this faux-objective heirarchy.

By making this assumption Japan has produced some pretty amazing stuff, it's an extraordinary creative exercise, perhaps similar to 'lateral thinking' techniques proposed by Edward De Bono, which suspend say criticism 'assume it will work' in order to get to a place where a more creative solution will work.

But in a literal example, the Japanese method basically says 'everybody likes their spaghetti sauce silky and red.' this eliminates the problem of trying to make the best spaghetti sauce in the world when some people like their sauce 'chunky' and some people like it 'silky'. I use this example because Malcolm Gladwell does an excellent TED Talk on just this subject.

So if you want to apply the Japanese method in practice, you make the above assumption, and what you would expect would be an obsessive sauce maker who has used nano-technology and molecular gastronomy to come up with the most comprehensive blending process and a bunch of fanatical fans willing to testify as to its unparalleled silkiness being worth the price.

But it's a creative process that usurps your autonomy, your personal preference, the consumer needs to be submissive to the assumption in order for it to work.

Hold Everything Constant:

I don't understand Jazz. And the more I find out about Jazz, the less I seemingly know. What surprised me the most was that although I'd heard of this documentary, I wound up seeing it with a Jazz musician friend who'd had it almost universally recommended by a group of Jazz musicians who had all acclaimed it.

And thus everything I thought I knew about Jazz turned out to be a lie.

Knowing as little as I do now about Jazz, I can't really comment any further. But I was just a few weeks earlier at another friends Japanese Tea Ceremony performance.

Tea Ceremony is a fine example of the Japan Method, although there are different schools it answers the eternal question 'How do you like your tea?' that answer is filled and thus the practitioner of the ceremony can then pursue the perfect ritual of serving the perfect tea.

At the time I thought, 'this is like the complete opposite of Jazz' and thus of interest to Jazz musicians. But it turns out I could be completely wrong with the exact same result.

One thing I'm also unlearning, are a lot of assumptions I made about philosophy, largely with the aid of a former housemates site he is curating called 'wireless philosophy'.

Jiro's story is interesting, because you can see the philosophical nature of it. In trying to perfect his art, he is trying to rigorously hold everything constant - hence he can consistently produce the perfect sushi. So he has all these methods down for the preparation of rice, nori, marinading the fish, boiling the prawns etc.

You even see Jiro meticulously planning how to seat the customers. It extends even further, one of the documentary's subjects, a food critic, feels nervous eating in front of Jiro - as if the customer can fuck up the process.

The documentary as far as I watched it, even went up the supply chain to show the fishmongers at the fish market attempting to ensure the quality of fish was up to the rigor of Jiro's restaurant.

At some point though, as tiny as Jiro's little restaurant is, and as specialised as he can make it, things are going to be down to chance. The fisherman's catch, the pallet of the customer, the temperature of outdoors. Something will ruin the fidelity of the process, but I don't think Jiro's life is an exercise in exploring the futility of control.

His tiny restaurant, and his running of it seem strangely appropriate to this wireless philosophy video, far shorter and to me, far more stimulating than the documentary itself. It too demonstrates how complicated the task of describing what is in a room completely sprang back to my mind while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi:

To me it's a kind of paradox, the impossibility of completely describing what is going on in a tiny room fucks with our intuition by suggesting that a tiny finite room is kind of as infinite as the whole Universe given that neither could really be completely described.

I don't think Jiro though, views his own life's work in this kind of profundity, what never has sat well with me about the Japanese obsession with perfection, to try and control as much of any process as possible is that it is risk averse. It is risk-hating. To me, the perfect morsel of sushi would most likely come about through serendipity, the right piece of fish on the right bit of rice with the right dip of soy sauce all coming together in an accidental and extremely improbable event. And it would be special because it couldn't be reproduced.

Jiro's skills should be respected, his whole game should be respected, but I, I guess I would be bemused and probably condescending to people who revere it.

A frog in a well knows nothing of the vastness of the ocean.

The Japanese have a saying that perfectly sums up the pathology of the Japanese method. My friend's video only worked with subtitles in a player that only had the 'G' in 'RGB' and thus Jiro himself often resembled a frog or turtle when I watched it.

The most heartbreaking thing about my love of Japanese people, is that they are 'Japanese' first and 'people' second. Jiro may be demonstrating that something as delicious, innocuous and simple as Sushi may be sufficient to occupy a whole life (and then some, but more on that later), but consider an alternative.

What is a game of basketball? It's in essence the same descriptive exercise. There are many people, religiously obsessed with basketball, over the past month, friends have been posting clips on my facebook news feed of articles analyzing the brilliance of Greg Poppovich's coaching and the Spurs plays.

The naive answer is that a game of basketball is the players on the court. The players on the court and the rules of the game. The players, the rules, the subjective application of those rules by the referees. The players, the rules, the referees, the tangible variables such as the tautness of the nets, the surface of the courts. The players, the rules, the referees, the physical variables, the coaches' decisions. The players the rules, the refs, the materials, the coaches decisions, the crowd engagement...

All have an impact on the game, the game of basketball is so complex it is completely unpredictable, it defies description, I didn't even get into the players and coaches heads. The status of a contract or the news of the day or the health of a players loved one all could have a significant impact on the causal chain that determines how each ball game turns out.

A master of basketball like Phil Jackson, is so much more impressive to me for exploring the idea that 'there's much more to basketball than basketball' than Jiro is for trying to reduce the universe down to as little as possible and discovering that you still don't have mastery over it.

Basketball is just one vehicle through which a frog can exit a well and explore the vastness of the ocean, this is what I would have thought Jazz was as well. The crazy thing is that the Japanese have this saying, yet if you were to characterize the 'Japanese' mind - its a frog in a well.

There are plenty of commentaries on this phenomena and it's various manifestations - eg. how the Japanese travel, socialise, consume brands, are educated etc.

Finger in The Wound:

The Japan method has an obvious failing. I think the perfect analogy is that descriptive exercise from wi-phi, in that the Japan method could be synthesised as 'erect a box, and then think exclusively inside of it.' Mastery in the Japan method is attaining the most complete description of what is happening in the box as possible.

Superficially it can produce very impressive work, I don't deny it. But it has, and always has had, and always will have one major point of weakness as a method.

There is no box.

My great love of Japan is fuelled mostly by the Japanese mind that made this observation. Musashi Miyamoto, he arrived at it in a domain of perfect objectivity - sword fighting. He was regarded as an 'invincible' swordsman, my first exhibition was about his victory over the Yoshioka School, one man versus 70. Heavily influenced by Zen, Musashi developed a fighting style to cope with vast quantities of uncertainty, immeasurable risk, and as far as I can permit myself to speculate it probably all comes from the revelation that there are no rules to swordfighting, there's just living and dying. You do whatever it takes to cut your opponent down.

If you read his treatise 'The Book of Five Rings' you could believe that you can master his style in an afternoon, his instructions on foot work for example boil down to 'walk normally' as to where to focus the eyes 'try and take in as much as possible'.

It's so banal it exposes the mysticism of the Japanese method. Yet to do this to Japanese people, that is to refuse to acknowledge the assumptions that allow so much to function, is seen as incredibly poor form.

Which is fine, if you are (as most people are) happy to ignore that the Japanese people live in cramped cold apartments working ludicrous hours with no social lives in often loveless marriages with despondent children, high suicide rates, collossal debt, a corrupt government, degraded natural environment, broke TV studios and pachinko parlors everywhere...


Scope is such an important concept, it's literally and succinctly a way of determining 'there is no box'. Is Jiro's sushi the perfect sushi? Or even as close to perfection as one can get?

The petty response is to say 'no, it's subjective, nobody has the authority to define the perfect sushi.' it's petty, but probably correct and as far as most should need to take it. But let's explore a more robust line of argument.

You are sitting in a french restaurant. A waiter places a cloth hood over your head, muting all your senses but smell and taste, you take in a sweet delicious aroma that sets you to salivating, then you pop a delicate morsel in your mouth. It tastes rich, and succulent and sets off a whole flurry of pleasure in your mind.

You remove the hood, and the waiter describes what you have just experienced:

They take a live quail, and plunge it into Cognac, as it drowns it inhales lungsfull of Cognac infusing it's lungs with the flavor, they then roast the quail giving it it's rich flavor.

I've been told this dish actually exists. The question is 'How delicious is it now?' there's many different answers to this. The very fact that we have both vegetarians and the rest of us in this world suggest that people taste different things.

Suppose you sit down and pay $400 for Jiro's sushi. Most people will taste and appreciate the fishmongers dilligence at the auction, Jiro's 4-am starts, the 50 minutes of massaging the octopus, the lack of holidays he ever took. Can you taste the estrangement from his father? Can you taste the way he treats his staff? Can you taste the unapologetic demands he makes? Or the notion that you the customer can get it wrong? Can you taste the imposition of his dream onto the lives of his sons?

Those last two are the most important aspects of scope to me. Because the Japan method only works if you can get people to tow-the-line, it's why it isn't just a 'method' worthy of respect, but a nationwide pathology.

You can make an assumption 'everybody likes silky tomato sauce' but that doesn't make it true. Essentially the truth of the assumption shouldn't be important, all it says is 'there is no perfect pasta sauce, there are only perfect pasta sauces' as per Malcolm Gladwell's talk. But if your life is dedicated to making the perfect pasta sauce, you need to take control of consumer preferences. It introduces a tiny little thought crime. eg. 'you cannot like chunky pasta sauce.'

There simply isn't enough space to expound on just how pervasive this is in Japanese culture. Scratch the surface and you'll find it though. It manifests in the Jiro documentary when not one but several people talk about how nervous they are to eat at Jiro's restaurant. That they cannot be relaxed and comfortable.

The other telling moments are the interviews with the son's, and the former apprentice who feels sorry for the eldest son. The son's talk about how they hated working at the restaurant at first. Jiro uses the telling phrase 'I convinced them not to go to college and start working in the restaurant.'

The scope of a dream, it's limits, are your own pursuit of happiness in your own lifetime. Jiro's life is all about sushi, it even invades his dreams. But that's not enough, his son's lives must be dedicated to perpetuating his dream. His consolation in death is that his dream will continue, that not only did he dedicate his whole life to making sushi, but he dedicated as much time as possible to reproducing his skill set in his son.

It's a vanity, an usurpation, a conceit. I would expect that any maverick that breaks the status quo, would extend to their children the opportunity to pursue their own dream. I've experienced first hand this old fashioned conceit being applied. My understanding of 'convincing' isn't a rational and persuasive dialogue so much as emotional blackmail and bullying.


In some form I could respect Jiro's story, but I know too much. I find myself having to be consistent.

Jiro's vocation for all it's admirable and legitimate aspects, the joy he claims to derive from it, is a cop out. It's a placating answer to life's bigger questions.

How can I be an athiest, that thinks the consolation of heaven is a poor argument for religious belief, being that it has no bearing on truth. In the same way, a dogmatic dedication to spending every waking (and unwaking) moment to the preparation of sushi is not just an answer to 'what is my purpose in life?' the arbitrariness of which I can respect, but through the imbalanced pursuit it is also avoiding the question.

It's just an arbitrary certainty, like faith in god, that you have all the answers that matter. Rather than facing the uncertainty and imperfection of the world with courage and optimism. To me it's a kind of cowardice, a cop out.

The other aspect is that in the 45 minutes or so of the documentary I watched, a critic featured heavily in screen time and Jiro's wife didn't feature at all. She could show up, I don't know. But it put me in mind of Mike Patton's 'How We Eat Our Own Young's essay, particularly it's most attention seeking quote 'why would we rather have the warm tongue of a critic caressing our arsehole than our spouses?'

Jiro, like many in Japan is a masochist, his view isn't extraordinary or visionary by Japan standards, Japanese workaholia is long standing, he is an artisan rather than an accountant though. He derives pleasure from the pain of his pursuit, that's all he is really saying. He produces sushi, respect his game, don't revere it.

The Japanese devote their lives to the part of the learning curve that is almost flat, attempting to achieve virtually imperceptible increments of improvement at colossal personal cost. Most musicians, artists and creatives would expand their mind much more to cultivate in themselves a respect for the happiness achieved by people who go to school, have a vacation in Bali, get married, buy a house and have children.

That world is exotic to you and worthy of study, worthy of understanding and respecting. Otherwise the most important person in your life may wind up being some fucking critic.

Friday, June 21, 2013


One thing I'm committed to is trying to ensure that should I die tomorrow, nobody I know wouldn't know how I feel about them. Or at least they would have some tangible letter, email, or even facebook message to go back and console themselves with, and those messages I try to imbue with my honest feelings. 

Harvard has one-upped me though, and I think extended the challenge for me, by bestowing upon me the tremendous, unfathomable privilege of reading 

words like these written about yourself. In most people's cases, I think in most people's cases, this kind of thing is only enjoyed by the people that loved them most after they are dead. 

I literally can't tell you what it means to read that post. Or to possess the knowledge that your mother has read it, she can see, can know the impact I've had on somebody else. 

Few people ever get to read/hear such words. 

I hope Harvard keeps this project up he is doing a wonderful thing, and I hope Harvard lives long enough that I can use my supposed command of the english language to put out there one day just what he means to me. I gotta work harder though to create a better forum than this.

In the meantime, I'm giving myself a notch for this achievement, because whatever it is I'm doing, I feel I must be doing something right.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I haven't (of course) done any thorough research, but from what I've heard, the Guardian is about as close to an actual news service that I would miss, as described in yesterdays post.

But that's why I suspect the Guardian is on the rise in Australia, where the other papers are apparently in doubt.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

To Bemoan the Death of Print Media

If the newspaper is dying, should we try and save it, or twist the knife?

For example, around ten years ago I read a book about the CEO's of the companies that Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathoway owns, and one of them was a newspaper. Specifically an evening newspaper.

Yes, an evening newspaper. A newspaper that was printed and distributed towards the end of the day, as opposed to the morning.

Now, evening newspapers as far as I know have ceased to be. The business model failed, probably with the advent of the TV. (Although the Mx and it's equivalents perhaps qualifies) But note that when I, and perhaps you think about technological advances, we tend to think of it in an additive nature, we didn't have ipods now we do etc. but we think less about the subtractive effect - the average person used to have shelves full of vinyl, now we don't.

And we used to have evening papers, now we don't.

Who misses them? I would argue, close to nobody. I feel confident in my estimation because if enough people missed evening newspapers, we would still have them.

Sure, that's one line that can be drawn. Let's draw it.

I stopped reading Newspapers or watching any news programming or indeed TV at all a number of years ago. For two reasons, the first was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's (NNT) book 'The Black Swan' where without reproducing his argument basically applied Efficient Market Theory (EMT) to say there's no informational advantage from seeking out news, and that important news finds you. Thus most of the 24 hour news cycle is simply white noise.

The second part was a book my school made me read back in year 10 or 11, Elie Wiesel's 'Night' a personal account of the holocaust. In it, in the opening chapter, Elie's community is visited by a Jew that has escaped Nazi deportation and made it back to their unsuspecting town to inform them all that the Nazi's are deporting jews and killing them.

And nobody listens, and they end up being deported to the death camps.

And I thought, "here is the most pertinent and personally useful news one could ever have reach them. The most consequential fact to determining one's well being was presented in no uncertain language. And the recipients of this news, couldn't interpret or act upon it."

That anecdote came back to me reading NNT's book, and it seemed to confirm that a) newsworthy news finds you b) if the vast majority of news isn't (or is weakly) relevant to us, and we can't even act upon news that is strongly relevant to us, seeking news out is probably a waste of time.

is that line sufficiently drawn? If newspapers do dissappear, I think it's because they won't be missed. People have been increasingly learning to live without it.

There's other lines we can draw. But maybe you have me now pegged as somebody who won't really shed a tear when the newspapers go.

For those that think it would be a 'darn shame' if newspapers dissappeared I have to use a lot of imagination to represent that view perhaps poorly.

I imagine, what would be mourned is a service that reports objectively and dispassionately the kind of news of use to the general public. A force that kept governments accountable and the public informed, not just on public policy, but also on the state of the economy, the behaviour of the private sector and yes, even sports and the arts.

It would be a shame to lose these services, even I would miss this service. A great good would be lost.

I would suggest though that the 'if enough people would miss it, it wouldn't be in trouble.' It's just that two paragraphs up, what I describe, doesn't describe newspapers as they exist.

I have a confession. I do read a newspaper. I read the Herald Sun, when dining alone in McDonalds. (I confessed to a lot there) I can say I feel, that the Herald Sun is unequivocally and beyond a doubt what is commonly referred to as 'a rag'. I find it quite entertaining. But it's ability to inform is restricted only to informing me as to what people who seek information from it believe to consider themselves informed.

I would almost go as far as to say that the Herald Sun is almost 'unapologetic' in it's willingness to be passionately vested in its views, and would go as far as to say that it gives platform to people who simply should be excluded from most conversations.

I mean that's 'low hanging fruit' to attack a tabloid, but tabloids have good features as well, like employing accessible language. But hopefully it's enough to raise the question - would our quality of life be improved if a newspaper like the Herald Sun disappeared or ceased to be?

To quote Sam Harris, or perhaps paraphrase it - "just let that thought detonate in your minds for a moment."

And that is the question, a news service that informs is something worthy of grieving, of doing our all to save it and preserve and extend it's life. When you are looking at the demise of a news service that is contentious, perhaps misinforming, or just plane distracting, then consider that people could be more informed simply if that voice were to be silenced.

It's hard being in Australia, and switching on the TV or opening any newspaper and not to wish that these mediums would hurry up and die, and perhaps if it's too much to ask, to die with a little dignity.

Few people would call working in a call center a position of privilege, but I do, because I'm in a position to realise that people in small country towns have come to worry most about some of the weakest, most vulnerable of human beings arriving on boats, and of a conspiracy of scientists seeking tenure money by inventing 'climate change' and trying to destroy our economy.

These people shouldn't care about these issues, because they don't effect them. Voting on these issues will barely effect their quality of life or pursuit of happiness at all.

Just as people could be more informed with less news, the plight of refugees in this country could be a lot better paradoxically if most Australian's were completely indifferent to their plight. I'm not sure the same could ever be said of the fight for our survival known as 'climate change' so I'll just leave it there.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Business of Art

I've become interested in the business models of art. I've always thought about them, but now I find thinking about them entertaining. That makes me a certain type of artist. Obviously there's another type of artist, that finds thinking about business models repulsive, repugnant, distasteful or corrupting.

It's just a preference though, like ones preference for vegemite, or football team. And thus I don't know if I have the authority to define anything thusly, but I use the word 'business model' as opposed to 'business strategy' because to me at least a strategy implies a strategist whereas a model is just a description of how someone or some entity relates to the market.

Which is to say, I'm sorry Artists with a capital 'A', that regardless of whether you think about your business model or not you will have one, there's a way to describe your business even if fundamentally you don't think of it as a business at all. As sure as there is a language of physics that can describe the gravitational pull currently being exerted.


Perhaps contentiously it's been asserted that in the broadest sens business models boil down to one of two options - 1. Market Penetration, and 2. Product Differentiation. One is beating the competition, the other is avoiding competition.

I could now go into a lengthy description of each, putting up several analogies and trying to draw lines with examples in art, but instead I'm just going to attempt to describe what each might look like to an artist with no business training.

Are you competing for something? Grant money, Gallery Space, a prize? That's a good indication you are going for market penetration. There's a 'pot' or restricted resource pre-existing that you are trying to get maximum share of. You're taking into account some defined criteria and trying to best fulfill it.

By contrast, product differentiation - you are creating a criteria that by definition your art will best fulfill. Are you looking at the art world and noticing gaps? either in the art itself or in the audience? Are you trying to reach new audiences? Are you trying to transmit a new message? or both?

Here's where it's tricky, because an attribute like 'uniqueness' could apply to both strategies, the difference being, is the market, or 'scene' in artspeak that you reach employing uniqueness as a criteria? For example any gallery that has the word 'modern' or 'contempory' in it's title? Here if you take the sentence 'a unique piece of art' you can determine which of the two models fit.

If the 'unique' half of that sentence is the important part, and the 'piece of art' arbitrary, then that's market penetration you have there. What your art says is a superficiality, it doesn't carry as much importance as the perceived lack of precedent.

If the reverse is true, the piece of art carries all the weight, and it just happens to be unique, then it's product differentiation. In crafting the message you have produced something new, and superficially you lack competition or precedents. But product differentiation need not be unique, it may be taking a pre-existing work and bringing it to a new audience eg. rap music for old people.

Public or Private

It occurred to me the other day that obtaining a grant as an artist is a source of great pride, achievement and validation, whereas you would never here the CEO's of a motor company boasting that their business model depended on tax-payer subsidies.

Does this mean artists shouldn't seek government money? Well the analogy isn't fair.

In respect to the automotive industry, Chomsky points out the following limitation of the 'free markets' limits: The market as exists gives me the choice between Ford and GM, but it doesn't really give me the choice between Cars and Public Transport, because such choices are beyond an individual consumer, they are social consumption choices.

Because it's from a video I watched, it isn't a direct quotation, but the fact is that we want a representative government to be part of a market. Arts funding, broadly speaking is a good thing.

But questions arise. In the instance of a car company, a business model that includes Government subsidies may work, but could be criticized as 'illegitimate' or 'failed' because they are competing against other car companies that make money without including the government in their business model.

In the instance of a manufacturer of trains, their business model would certainly include governments, as they are competing for government tender. A manufacturer of trains is supposed to sell to the government. (crowd  funding may change even this though).

And there as an artist is your quandary. Is the government subsidizing your failure to reach an audience, or is it funding art that individuals are incapable of doing? Determining the answer is so nuanced, examples would lead to this post snowballing, the question wants to be asked though.

Art Should be Free?

Like the Mx right? Maybe that's too Melbourne specific, but basically there's this 'newspaper' that is handed out for free at train stations. Nobody would consider it an act of lunacy though. It's a rational business model.

I've written in a much lengthier post before, that art is never 'free' so long as it is made out of materials or consumes resources. And it most definitely will, if you think it won't or doesn't need to, you need to include 'time' and 'space' etc. in your definition of resources.

So your art will cost somebody something, but does it need to make a profit? No.

Firstly, I think any business model to be described as 'good' by intention or design, needs to have a question of success AND failure in there. I choose not to explain the whole concept of 'risk' but if an art venture fails, then it doesn't follow that it should never have been attempted.

There are many forms of art these days that people would consider 'financially unviable' including it seems most of the music industry. But an easier example is installation art.

If you are in some back alley gallery expecting an opening night turn out of 70 people, the likelihood in Melbs is that 68 of those people are your fellow art students. The other two are unlikely to be representatives of NGV or MONA or even a publication that representatives of those read. They are very likely to be your parents or me.

But an installation can't be sold to most people, they are large, 3D pieces often fitted to the space they are exhibited in that nobody bar a gallery really has the space for. The odds of an installation exhibition resulting in somebody purchasing it for their permanent collection are incredibly low.

That doesn't mean it isn't financially viable, it just means you are in a 'winner take all' business model. Ai Wei Wei does installations and makes millions. Most installation artists lose thousands. But art can be rationally undertaken when low odds of success x large value of success > high odds of failure x cost of failure.

It's alright to put something out there, for free that costs you money and isn't very likely to succeed. The important thing is to avoid a rationalising ideal to cope with the very high chance of failure. It's not 'bad' or 'crazy' to make installation art. It's just really 'trendy' right now, and what I would call 'oversubscribed'.

Something is always going to be oversubscribed. In the words of Homer Simpson 'they saw an overcrowded marketplace and said "me too"'. What tends to arise, and should be avoided are lofty ideals that make noble the regular occurance of failure (under any criteria) and ignoble those who achieve any kind of success (typically 'selling out').

Education costs us time and money. Some people do it as something to do, but I'd say most people accept these costs carrying the belief that they will pay off at some future date. Practicing takes time but we do it so that the end art pieces are more likely to succeed.

By accident or design, a business model always applies.

Selling Out

Are we destined to collide with the commercial world sooner or later? Is it inevitable that every artist comes to think of their art as a business?

That's the tricky part. I would concede that it is plausible that somebody could survive as an artist and never think of what they do as a business. They are probably lucky in more senses than one. They are far more likely to realise that luck always plays a role in success no matter how deliberate your strategy.

Think of the 'street artist' they do graffiti for years risking prosecution by councils and community service orders and jail time. Their art survives on it's merits to the community, risky and temporary it could be buffed or just nonchalantly panted over by a better or shitter artist. Then some restaurant finds them via their tag and pays them to do the side of their new cafe? Have they sold out? And which piece is 'legitimate' the commissioned sanctioned piece, or the act of vandalism?

Whether they take the job or not, whether they planned to or not, a business model still applies. Choices are being made over who assumes the risk and who has the autonomy.

There's no right or wrong way to cut up this cake. But 'selling out' I think does exist in a practical form.

When 'selling out' is a concept you use to console the fact that your art isn't reaching people, that you are getting poor turnouts, that you aren't selling or that the establishment doesn't recognise you, then you have nothing really to worry about if presented with the opportunity to sell out.

If selling out describes a move where you will lose one audience to gain another. Eg. losing your street art following by moving into the gallery scene, you need to consider the risks and benefits, because these decisions can be irreversible.

Hitting a higher volume of distribution or reaching a broader audience may also simply eat up your time, or become so demanding you stop enjoying your vocation. It can come with demands to reproduce certain works ad nauseum.

In these ways, 'selling out' is a practical consideration where my preference would be for considering them while I have a choice to make, rather than being surprised when the choice is made.

Paper Billionaire

"The Queen of Versailles" I suspect should become mandatory viewing for anybody embarking on a business degree, so salient and brutal are the lessons contained within.

You can as of this writing still watch it on ABC iview, if you are in Oz, but otherwise track it down.

It's hard to feel sympathy for billionaires, or rather people who at one stage or another command more wealth than the vast majority of beings that have ever lived, ever have or will. But even so, I can totally believe that it is more terrifying for most people to lose their money than to lose their lives.

What is lacking in public discourse is that there are many and varied varieties of 'billionaire' and the differences between them are meaningful.

So Steve Jobs died, and I can understand the reverence the world displayed for the passing of this figure, even the Onion was highly flattering. People kept mouthing the opinion that he 'changed the world!' and I guess in a way less trivial than usual, he fucken did.

People have a natural kind of respect for wealth, and it leads to an informal logical fallacy that's something like 'it has merit because they are rich.' (there is a corresponding one for meriting an argument based on the proponents poverty). In short, if I with my sub $10,000 in savings gave you advice on what the future of the economy was, versus a conflicting view of the economy from some fat turd in a suit with $100,000,000 people would be inclined to believe the multi-millionaire because of who he is, rather than the intrinsic merits of his prediction.

Thus, Australian's should probably slap themselves awake to realise that there's a huge difference between Gina and Steve. Gina is no Steve, she is a rent collector. And by 'rent' I don't mean it in terms of what most of my friends have to pay each month, but in the economic sense: an unearned increment.

That is to say, Gina just has a claim to the proceeds of sale of natural resources. She is in mining, and the 'value added' activities in mining are as follows: exploration (discovery of mineral resources, a risky venture), extraction (digging the shit up) and transporting (bringing it from the top of the shaft to the factories that refine  them etc). and for all those activities a mining company is entitled to compensation, hopefully yeilding a profit.

But the ore itself is a natural resource, created by nobody, and irreplaceable. Once sold it is gone. The sale price is an economic rent, and these should be collected ideally by government in the form of taxation.

Thus, if you 'taxed Gina out of Business' it's not the same as taxing Jobs or Gates or the Google guys or Ai Wei Wei out of business. Why? Because the other three are people who use their brains to create value, they don't collect economic rents, they innovate and create products that provide value. If you sent them out of business, there's absolutely no guaruntee that anything would spring up to replace them.

But Gina would be replaced tomorrow. Because so long as there is demand, anybody can operate her business, perhaps not as efficiently or whatever when it regards the actual value-added activities, but the resources will remain the same.

So that's one difference.

Another meaningful difference, valuable to everyone to understand is the difference between a real Billionaire and a Paper Billionaire.

That's much harder. But basically, a Paper Billionaire has not achieved 'wealth' per se, they do not hold an asset in their name that can generate steady income for ever, they do not have a patent or intellectual property that makes them money. A paper billionaire has secured an extraordinary line of Credit.

I mean they are probably cash flow wise, actually very wealthy - they may for example command a salary in the hundreds of millions with million dollar bonuses and have income coming off their assets that is also more than the next 100 household's investment income combined.

But their billion-dollar purchasing power is based on debt, they have a small fortune in the hundreds of millions and a business up to it's eyeballs in debt - billions of dollars of debt.

And that is very different from having billions of dollars in cash.

Peter Schiff explained it sort of this-a-way, under GNP we measure 'success' as how much we consume right now. So one person with a $30,000 wage goes and saves $10,000 and puts it in a savings account. Another person with a $30,000 wage goes and gets a credit card and personal loan, and winds up with a fancy car and italian suit and eats at some very nice restaurants all year with expensive escorts.

GNP says the clear winner here is the latter. The saver is worse off because they have foregone consumption in favor of savings (future consumption) whereas the borrower is better off because he consumed a lot of stuff last year.

It's patently ridiculous to say that somebody with a debt that is 60% of their annual income is better off or more successful than somebody who has 30% of their annual salary sitting in a bank account earning interest.

That's easy to see, but chances are if you live in Australia, you feel you have taken steps towards 'financial security' by buying a home. The thing is, you don't own a home, you have a mortgage, you are still in the process of buying that home for probably the next few decades.

Thus you are similar to guy who blows his wages and borrows money, different only in the respect that the asset you have gone into debt for is different. A house holds the prospect of appreciating in value relative to the debt you have taken on. Whereas if you borrowed money to buy a car there's no real hope your car will be capable of paying off your debt via sale.

But that's really it. You're not financially secure, your wealth is on paper. It isn't 'realized' you are financially secure when you aren't dependent on an income, either to live or to service your debts. Without that you have obtained no financial security, you have simply obtained a line of credit.

If you do watch the Queen of Versailles, whether you muster up sympathy for the documentary subjects or not, realise they are not so much extraordinary people so much as extra-ordinary. They are just your average domestic household raised by a couple of powers.

Fascinating stuff.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Theology: Bridges to No-Where

I feel that in my word theologians now occupy an equivalent sentiment to 'bridges to nowhere' in economics.

What are bridges to nowhere? They are literally just that, huge pieces of infrastructure that service no real populations. But the important thing is that they cost a lot to build and employ a lot of people. A bridge to nowhere is justified only by it's size and scale and cost of production, not because of the intrinsic benefits of the infrastructure. You also get super-dams, and ghost towns.

They are all symptoms of a design flaw in our political-economy, that is, because we reward politicians in both democratic systems like the US, Japan, UK, Australia and Europe for delivering growth as measured by GNP, or even non-democracies like China.

GNP is a design flaw, in that it's definition is too broad to guaruntee that 'economic growth' actually improves our quality of life. The simplest way to summarise bridges-to-nowhere/ghost-towns/superfluous-dams is to say imagine what voters supposedly cared about was how many apples got eaten.

What you would expect is that the government would create huge 'apple-eating-projects' funded by tax payer money, where millions of apples where grown and shipped in, and vast numbers of people where paid to sit in huge factories eating apples all day.

the effect would be a huge boost in the governments performance in accordance with apple consumption, and as for the rest I hope you can imagine how such a practice is unsustainable and beyond creating jobs and employment and stimulating the apple grower industry, there's no real long term benefit being produced. The benefits are artificial.

I've watched enough 'God Debates' to notice a similar trend. The first is that none of God's official mouthpieces ever participate, they are always theologians. Theologians occupy a periphery of the religious sphere, I'm sure there are many clergy that hold degrees in theology, but a theology doctrate doesn't require you be clergy.

And these are who are left to defend the faith in the rational construct of a debate. The second trend I noticed in the hours of online god debates (and some debates go for hours - plural) is that the 'New Athiests' whom are the prestige defenders of a material universe, all eventually just start ignoring the theologians completely.

My initial reaction was that 'this is cynical, they are turning up to sell and sign books and are abandoning the spirit of the debate.' but at some point during either Hitchens extensive book tour debates or Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig I looked at my own reactions.

Theologians are at a huge intrinsic disadvantage, they have to argue the affirmative of a non-falsifiable theorem. That is they make the concession that you should have a good reason to believe in god, rather than no-reason at all, pure faith.

It's evident watching a couple of debates (and I've watched a lot, it gets lonely in my studio) you get a sense of the disproportionate effort taken.

Take for example the ontological argument. To make it rigorous takes a long wordy speech in order to create defensible premises. If you present it bare bones, the ontological argument is this 'god by definition is perfect, if he didn't exist he wouldn't be perfect, so by definition he must exist.' the ontological argument has been around at least as long as des cartes, and apparently it adds up, but when presented in a simple form as I have - it is unsatisfying.

The thing is that as technical the language gets, and how detailed the premises are outlined, for me at least the ontological argument never becomes satisfying.

By contrast if you present 'the problem of evil' bare bones, it's still I think quite powerful. Why do bad things happen to good people? If there is a God, why does a fire leave a deer horribly injured and suffering for days before it dies? Once again, to address the problem of evil requires a very taxing level of reasoning, of which I believe the common conclusion is that there 'probably is no god'.

And here is our bridge to nowhere. Deepak Chopra is not a theologist, he's... something alright, but not strictly speaking a theologist. But Sam Harris hit the nail on the head I feel when at the commencement of a debate with Deepak on 'the future of God' Sam Harris made an important distinction.

To paraphrase - there are two discussions you can talk about, you can have a discussion about 'God' that most people believe in and are interested in, essentially an invisible friend who hears prayers and occasionally intervenes in human affairs. Or 'God' an abstract concept that is of no interest to most people but is defined sufficiently to survive reasoned debates, an omnipotent, eternal, benevolent but inscrutable agent.

It's the second God theologians are interested in, know and understand. It's that God they turn up and defend. The major limitation is, that almost nobody cares about or believes in this God. They believe in a God that more closely resembles the bearded parody in the Simpsons cartoons, or the illustration by Michelangelo on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

Theologians are for debates, to create a god that can be defended in the realms of reason, but unfortunately there are no good ways to defend the God that one learns about in Church, that authority can be derived from.

The debates and the trends within them suggest that nobody, with respect to reason, can defend going to Church and listening to a priest because of the moral authority of scripture. Theologians are employed to conceal the fact that this authority has tanked, in the same way that bridges to nowhere get built to conceal the fact that an economy has tanked.