From the monthly archives:

January 2009

Kyoto Lives

January 31, 2009

in History,Place,Poetry

To mark its 70th issue, Kyoto Journal has turned inward, examining 21st-century Kyoto in a special issue entitled Kyoto Lives. The deliberate ambiguity of the title refers to the lives of the forty-one Kyoto residents interviewed, and also affirms that Kyoto, in its latest incarnation, is still very much alive.

Kyoto Journal #70

Kyoto Journal #70

Among the numerous highlights are Sugihara Iona:

“There is a more humble feeling about Kyoto; a sense that she was built by hands, not money.”

Edith Shiffert’s poetry, including this haiku:

Those flower petals
from roots in earth, stems in light
Self too roots and lifts

And Christian Orton’s photos of the Kamo river at night. (Four images are included in the magazine. Many more are featured on his website.)


Cut and Paste

January 30, 2009

in History,Process,Words

In a NY Times review of two new biographies of Samuel Johnson, Leah Price offers this description of Johnson’s dictionary project:

When a syndicate of booksellers commissioned Johnson to edit an English dictionary, his first task was to assemble a team of collaborators, including one who specialized in “all words relating to gambling and card-playing.” In a kind of assembly line improvised in Johnson’s attic, they scanned printed books for quotations, copied passages onto a new sheet (or sometimes scissored up the original), cut the sheets into slips, sorted them alphabetically and glued them into a double-columned notebook. Martin speculates that Johnson’s task would have been easi­er if he’d had a word processor; the real tragedy was that the index card wasn’t yet invented. Drowning in slips that had gotten unglued, lost or reshuffled, at the end of five years Johnson had yet to reach D. When the Dictionary finally appeared in 1755, its two volumes weighed in at 2,500 pages. The entry for “dull” was illustrated with the sentence “To make dictionaries is dull work.”



January 29, 2009

in History,Poetry,Words

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet“:

The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other. This expression or naming is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.


The Sky Spinning

January 28, 2009

in Place,Thinking,Video

Via the Long Now Blog:

túrána hott kurdís by hasta la otra méxico! from Till Credner on Vimeo.


Not your average personal library...

Not your average personal library...

Steven Levy gives us a glimpse of Jay Walker’s library:

What excites him even more is using his treasures to make mind-expanding connections. He loves juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map that combines experience and guesswork—”the first one showing North and South America,” he says—next to a modern map carried by astronauts to the moon. “If this is what can happen in 500 years, nothing is impossible.”


Another Girl At Play features “Women Entrepreneurs Sharing Stories of How They Made Their Creative Dreams Real”.

Lorena Siminovich’s words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals:

Be original. Don’t procrastinate. Set goals. Make a website. Tell others. Ask for help. Truly believe in what you do, and don’t undersell yourself, even if you are just starting. Ah, and the most important one, which I’m still working on: Learn to say no.

Laurie Wagner on returning to writing:

At one point in 1990 I quit writing because I didn’t think I had what it took to be a writer. I didn’t think I was talented enough. I wanted to be a cog, I wanted a paycheck and I didn’t want to have to self-generate. So I went and worked for the massive publisher, Simon and Schuster. I traveled and sold books for them for three years and learned a ton about the book business.

I also learned that I was more artist than salesperson and if I didn’t quit the corporate gig I was going to die. I realized that I had judged my own talent so harshly and that wasn’t fair. It didn’t matter whether I would be successful or not, what mattered was that I gave myself a chance to express myself.

Andrea Scher’s words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals:

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There is no way to know everything about your creative endeavor until you start doing it. Don’t wait, thinking that you’ll start when you know what you’re doing. This will only paralyze you and keep you from ever beginning it.

Read more at Another Girl At Play.



January 25, 2009

in Image,Place,Senses

I was working on a post at my desk this morning, but the fresh snow, and the chance to see it before it was trampled or melted, proved too great a temptation:

Morning walk...

Morning Walk


From a NY Times article on using websites and short films to promote books:

“The publishing world is very resistant to change,” [Brad] Meltzer said. “But there are always people — mostly the young and the hungry — who are trying new things. The days of just holing up and writing in solitude are gone. Today, you can’t be a successful writer without having a little Barnum in your bones.”

(I’d question the meaning of “successful” in that last sentence, but it’s still an article worth reading.)


Barack Obama’s subject yesterday was obviously not creativity per se.  But I thought many of the phrases and ideas in his inaugural address were directly relevant to the work and rewards of creative endeavor, especially these two sections:

Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

…we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.


Weighty Words

January 20, 2009

in History,Image,Words

ReadWriteWeb used to create a ‘word cloud’ of President Obama’s inaugural address:

They’ve applied the same technique to past inaugural speeches, too.


The Really Terrible Orchestra

January 16, 2009

in Music

Creative expression requires the willingness to be not-great, especially when first starting to work on a new piece or in a new medium. That’s particularly difficult for perfectionists and those who have achieved expertise and prestige in other fields.

In a delightful op-ed, Alexander McCall Smith writes of his participation in an ensemble of unabashed amateurs:

Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs. So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well. Or cannot do so at all, in some cases.

My own playing set the standard. I play the bassoon, even if not quite the whole bassoon. I have never quite mastered C-sharp, and I am weak on the notes above the high D. In general, I leave these out if they crop up, and I find that the effect is not unpleasant. I am not entirely untutored, of course, having had a course of lessons in the instrument from a music student who looked quietly appalled while I played. Most of the players in the orchestra are rather like this; they have learned their instruments at some point in their lives, but have not learned them very well. Now such people have their second chance with the Really Terrible Orchestra.

There is now no stopping us. We have become no better, but we plow on regardless. This is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying. We remain really terrible, but what fun it is. It does not matter, in our view, that we sound irretrievably out of tune. It does not matter that on more than one occasion members of the orchestra have actually been discovered to be playing different pieces of music, by different composers, at the same time. I, for one, am not ashamed of those difficulties with C-sharp. We persist. After all, we are the Really Terrible Orchestra, and we shall go on and on. Amateurs arise — make a noise.


Rolf Potts:

I also find “postmodern” fitting to describe my own writing career, since my earliest travel tales debuted online in venues like Salon and World Hum. Whereas previous generations of travel writers enjoyed comfortable stretches of editorial time and geographical space to achieve a romanticized distance from their stories, I never had that luxury. Mention in an Internet travel story that your Cambodian guesthouse owner served you twako pork sausages, and you’re bound to get an instant and bewildering array of e-mails — from the British academic who notes that “twako” is an incorrect transliteration; to the Arizona vegan who insists that pork is murder; to the Cambodian guesthouse owner himself, who now fears all his guests will demand complimentary sausages. In this environment, it’s difficult to offer up travel stories as authoritative, self-contained universes.


Tech publisher Tim O’Reilly has been talking a lot about work that matters in the past year. Yesterday, he proposed some starting principles for determining what that work might be:

  1. Work on something that matters to you more than money.
  2. Create more value than you capture.
  3. Take the long view.

Tim fills in all the details in his article.

Two excerpts:

“We need to build an economy in which the important things are paid for in self-sustaining ways rather than as charities to be funded out of the goodness of our hearts.”

And paraphrasing Rilke:

“What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things.”


After watching his TED lecture:

I’ve been thinking about John Maeda’s Laws for Simplicity.

They are more tips than laws, actually.  For example:

Law 3: Savings in time feel like simplicity.

Though Maeda works in technology and design, these could work for other fields.

And here’s a thought experiment: substitute clarity for simplicity, and read through the list again.


Enacting Verbs

January 10, 2009

in Process,Words

Calvin Tomkins, on how Richard Serra began as a sculptor:

Serra, the former English major, wrote down a list of verbs: “To roll, to crease, to fold, to bend, to twist” — dozens of active verbs. “I was very involved with the physical activity of making,” he said. “It struck me that instead of thinking about what a sculpture is going to be and how you’re going to do it compositionally, what if you just enacted those verbs in relation to a material and didn’t worry about the result? So I started tearing and cutting and folding lead.”