Welcome! Please subscribe to and share this newsletter.
Oscar Schwartz's "What Was the TED Talk?" is an important read. Just his experience at one of these conferences could be talked about endlessly. A representative passage:
In the evenings, everyone gathered at the “$200,000 whiskey bar,” as it had been described numerous times in emails leading up to the conference, and the ideas would begin to flow. I was treated to many off-the-cuff TED-style pitches. An Israeli guy who was using drones (interesting) to monitor forests (inspiring). A Singaporean woman who was saving global bee populations (interesting) by putting beehives on the roofs of public housing and teaching the kids who lived there how to be apiarists and sell their own public-housing-branded honey (inspiring). The most popular young person was a French woman who was using machine learning (the most interesting thing of all) to help refugees (the most inspiring cause of all?). She called her idea “tech-fugees.”
His argument is that TED indulges the "inspiresting," and this isn't only techno-futurist grift, but a whole mode of politics. The Obama years, with a general unconcern for the condition of the poor and working class, as well as an obliviousness to the rise of fascism, can be said to fit in this category.
There's a lot for me to personally consider in his piece. He talks about the blog "Brain Pickings" (now "The Marginalian") being an example of "inspiresting." I've got to wonder how much I myself write in that vein. I certainly don't want my readers to be uninspired or feel hopeless. I think it's really important that a producer of specialized content be that much more useful, otherwise the content itself can be badly neglected.
Also, I do feel I should point out TED talks done right. Here's Carlos Maza's TEDx talk, "How neutrality is making us dumber," and it hits like a truck:
I know people who cannot watch this for more than a minute not because of Carlos' politics or Carlos himself, but because he's asking for careful reflection on how we process media. I actually did sit with someone addicted to TV news who turned it off in a few minutes, not because they were addicted to Fox (they watch MSNBC), but because the idea that media controlled by for-profit private corporations having their own agenda is too much to process.
Nowadays, I believe this: awareness is not a sufficient condition for changing the world. But if you don't believe it's necessary, good luck. How much awareness is needed? —As much as you possibly muster, and then some.— How much awareness would you want to bring to a relationship? —Now imagine you're fighting for a good for future generations.—
Below, some thoughts on a beautiful haiku by Arakida Moritake, "The fallen blossom." I'm incredibly grateful to Chen-ou Liu (give him a follow!) and his NeverEnding Story blog for introducing me to how prominently this poem has featured in issues of translation as well as the tradition of haiku. It really is possible to be a good scholar through use of online sources, especially when scholars like him are willing to share and cite what we need to know for intelligent discussion.
Arakida Moritake, "The fallen blossom"
Popular with those preaching self-help is this phrase: "growth mindset." As soon as I say it, I think of YouTube ads. First, some overly fit dude tells me how diet and exercise don't get rid of weight but product X does. Then, in order of increasingly disgusting, I recall all the gross drinks and mixes YouTube sells as "alternative health" (e.g. "mud" instead of coffee).
"Growth mindset" itself is an inelegant slogan, if not disgusting. Though some people desperately need one. I know a few who are way too proud they get a paycheck so others can't nag them as much. One guy is way too happy being an Uber driver when he's got skills which could make a real difference in his community. Those who are committed to going nowhere want approval for their ignorance, praise for incompetence, and worst of all, others to share their insensitivity. They don't believe anything can truly change, and this belief shrinks their moral awareness.
Still, "growth mindset" hasn't inspired me personally. When I've demonstrated growth, I've resolved to show I can do better. My writing, for example, works this way. I'll read something I wrote years ago and cringe. Before I rip it up, I make a few notes on what I could improve. Then I rewrite. This is growth in one sense, as the bad is eliminated, replaced with the good. But more often than not, there's a complete transformation, where the original draft cannot be recovered from the later product, because the original was merely what not to do. There's no trackable "growth" from one instance to another. "Growth mindset," then, feels like little more than motivation, at its best.
In fact, I may have to concede that those stuck in their ways have a point. Since the result of growth matters so much, maybe growth should be treated as no less than a miracle. Arakida Moritake's haiku, "The fallen blossom, / rising back up to its branch, / is a butterfly," speaks a related thought. What repairs loss—in this case, a fallen flower—is a near supernatural experience. You're asking time itself, time which mindlessly flows, for justice. You might actually get it, but what did it have to do with your efforts?
"The fallen blossom..." Arakida Moritake The fallen blossom, rising back up to its branch, is a butterfly.
It is fair to ask if we should even speak of growth when discussing this poem. Chen-ou Liu has written about this poem referencing the toughest of losses. There was a drama in which a man, mourning the death of his friend, described him as a "fallen leaf." He dedicates his life to the memory of his friend. There are transformations and miracles, to be sure, which we would rather not have happen. We'd rather life be whole.
Chen-ou Liu, in that same post, also asks us to consider a Zen saying with this haiku: "The fallen blossom cannot return to its branch." That maybe this isn't about growth or change or transformation at all, but acceptance of loss. That we're able to see reality as beautiful because we don't shrink our awareness, but accept as fully as we can.
I do think this: the "butterfly" "rising back up to its branch" describes a process we observe and marvel at, even if we're fundamentally mistaken about what it is. And that, for me, points to a curious line of reasoning. Some people are hopelessly cynical about everything, and because of that, end up being right about a few big things. Failure and loss feel more realistic than good things. So if you're going to start thinking there is hope, redemption, and healing, you're going to have to witness something that's happening that isn't the case. You're going to have to look at that butterfly and its ascent as if it were the fallen blossom, as if there were a cosmic wholeness beyond individual tragedy. It sounds hopelessly saccherine and on the edge of being sensitive to those who are hurting. But I don't know that it speaks to a grief for those who cannot be replaced as much as it addresses those who are stuck, believing nothing ever changes. There's clarity here about belief and fear of failure, and while that may not be the deepest consideration, it can be useful.