Wednesday, November 19, 2014

This blog is officially dead. Here are the new sites/blogs

I hadn't checked up on this old blog is ages, but it appears according to Google's fine analytics that people do still read an entry now and again, and far more frequently than I would have suspected.

I don't have any idea who any of you are, but it appears you still visit with reasonable frequency.

Sadly, I no longer publish writing here.

That said, I remain active across the web. If you're interested in reading something of mine, hearing me say a few words, or watching a video, I recommend stopping by the following sites/blogs:

The sites of others

Zach Urbina on Los Angeles I'm Yours
Zach Urbina for Narratively
Zach Urbina for The Awl
Zach Urbina for United Academics

Feedbonk - This Isn't Happiness
Dear Children - This Isn't Happiness
Atlas Obscura - my Adventurers' Club story


Facebook page
SoundCloud - good, recent interviews here

My sites

American Infographic - reasonably proud of this one
Infinite Inquiry
Word Pervert
Pixel Tinker

Looking back over a few of these posts, it very much amuses how significantly my perspectives have shifted on certain topics and how some things just don't change a bit.

The tendency, I think is to be slightly embarrassed by older material like this. 

Au contraire, in my opinion.  To the world, the writer's development may seem smooth, effortless, and natural. Evidence across this blog points to anything but.

Interests, driven by curiosity, rage to center stage, then fade. Progress comes in fits, starts, and then not at all.

In all, I do want these oldish posts preserved (if there were any choice, which I do not believe there to be).  Still, 2009 isn't THAT long ago.  And if this blog is to be counted among the digital tattoo what will likely haunt me until death, so be it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Other SoCal Industry

Developing a start-up is quite like running for office. You shake plenty of hands, make friends of strangers, and venture into unknown territory in hopes of either conquering or turning it friendly.

Since my departure from the film business in 2006, my changing social circle and professional ambitions have lured me away from one very prominent Southern California industry, Hollywood, toward another one, less prominent yet deeply rooted in Los Angeles lore.

In a word, aerospace. Fortunately, as a Pasadena native, I may have an unfair advantage.

Before I was old enough to ride a bike, I knew what Lockheed was. I knew that my great-uncle Frank (always Tio, to me), worked long hours for them at Burbank, later Palmdale. I knew he could never talk about his work, like he never talked about his service in WWII, but I also knew that he was good at his job. Lockheed paid him well, and in turn, Tio later paid for my tuition at USC, though I think he would have preferred I attend Caltech, like he did.

Before I knew how to drive, I knew my uncle Eric was not like most other uncles. He traveled the world, working for NASA, his calendar at home had names like KEK and Ames scrawled on it, and he wore his hair very long (my cousins refered to him as Doc, in homage to Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown from the movie Back to the Future). Uncle Eric's frequent flyer miles were generously passed around for various trips and vacations, and I was their grateful recipient on more than a few occasions.

Over the past year, while developing my start-up company, I cannot help but reflect with a sense of gratitude my early introduction to the world of aerospace, science, and technology.

Though perhaps not as glamorous as the film business, the Southern California aerospace community offered me a glimpse into the world that I am now proud to call friendly territory, for both personal and professional reasons. And frankly, a photo of my younger brother and I next to Lockheed's famous F-117 Steath Fighter is much cooler than even the most notorious movie star, but, naturally, I might well be biased.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Practical Philosophy

For more than 3 months, this blog sat sadly ignored, but not without good reason. In my quest to focus more closely on my entrepreneurial ambitions, I have abandoned entirely the consumption of alcohol and other illicit substances that marked a great many days of my youth.

During the past seven months, I have felt less of need to write down my thoughts, ideas, and observations, and more insistent a need to put these qualities and philosophies to work.

Less reflection, far more action.

In my nascent moments of gentle clarity it was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that offered key insights. Here, I felt and still feel, lies a kindred spirit.

Franklin's 13 Virtues offer a daily, practical means to govern one's time, and, perhaps most importantly, build an aggregate of behavior in which attainment of one virtue is not possible without the mastery of the one prior. Having little use for religion in my personal life, I've found that practical philosophy and moral support outside of a religious context to be in short supply, especially in these United States.

Franklin's autobiography is rife with such instruction.

So, as my occasional blogging becomes even less occasional, I will share some of the advice that Franklin put down in his autobiography which I found useful, in case it is a long while before I return.

"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." [pg. 27]

Franklin was a noted polymath, but, as I might remark in conversation, knew how to "keep his flavors sorted." His third virtue, that or Order, states: "Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."

The inventions, business ventures, statesmanship, political discourse, and scientific contribution that unfolded through Franklin's lifetime would appear comfortably couched as an act of pure, manic genius. Though clearly brilliant, these acts were acutely reasonable given his plain-faced approach: "I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind if he first forms a good plan." [pg. 75]

His key to happiness was not grand endeavor, but steady, incremental change. "Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur everyday." [pg. 101]

Much of Franklin's philosophy was borrowed, especially that which he put down in his Poor Richard's Almanack, proving himself as much artistically derivative(i.e. creative theft), as he was entrepreneurially inclined.

As the seeds of own entrepreneurial endeavors begin to sprout I can't help but remember one of my favorite of Poor Richard's poetic quotes:

"If you would not be forgotten,
as soon as you are dead and rotten,
either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing."

I've been writing professionally since 2006. It would appear that a stint of action might be necessary to balance out those efforts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Leadership Strategies: Power vs. Control

Unlike many young people of my generation (I will turn 30 next month) I don't have a single tattoo. My reasoning is that my ideas, beliefs, and philosophies undergo constant evaluation & evolution, and tattoos, more/less, are permanent.

An emerging perspective that I've developed regarding people in positions of leadership is a subtle yet pronounced distinction between two types of success and the role specific behavior plays in that success.

One type of success relies primarily on control. These are your micro-managers, your domineering bosses, the person at the office or job site who explicitly instructs, with fine detail, each aspect of the job you are expected to perform. These bosses have likely worked their way up the ranks, previously working that job that you currently hold, or have seen first-hand other individuals make mistakes that they, the boss, are hellbent on avoiding any repetition of. They fundamentally believe that the actions of people who report to them are both within their reach and quantifiable. While not often widely loved for their roles within an organization, control-oriented individuals very often produce quality results.

Another type of success relies on power. These are your charismatic thought-leaders, the people within the organization that many people revere but who are often hated by a concentrated few because they have a tendency to ascend quickly or enter said organization without equal experience or education. Power-brokers tend to rise quickly because they rely on social connections and favor banking (also called parallel currencies), to build collaborative and strategic partnerships. Those relationships earn difficult to quantify social value but are often redeemed for powerful positions, influence, or access. Influence is key to power-oriented leaders because they usually believe that, fundamentally, people are beyond their control, unless their favor is won over, unless they have some "skin in the game." Power players often display a different managerial philosophy, believing that people function more effectively without hands-on direction.

In the last month two extremely well written articles have been published that illuminate with expert specificity these different philosophies.

The first, published in the Wall Street Journal, begins with a list by a Chinese-American writer on the great many 'normal' activities that she did not allow her children to do, very explicit control strategies that foster individual excellence and parentally-spurred discipline. The list of forbidden activities includes:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

The second, published in the New Yorker magazine does an excellent job itemizing the trappings of what writer David Brooks calls, The Composure Class. In his article entitled Social Animal, Brooks writes:

The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures.

I can say that without hesitation, my own guiding philosophies fall much closer in the spectrum toward favoring the importance of power, over control. In my opinion and experience, to get the best out of people, you need to allow them to make their own choices, which may in fact include making their own mistakes. Providing for the possibility of individual freedom, coupled with hierarchical responsibility.

For many of my business practices that demands competition, I look to strategists like Sun Tzu and his treatise The Art of War. However, much of today's world demands not competition from its ambitious achievers, but expertly executed cooperation.

Though, as I've previously stated, my guiding philosophies do change over time (I am fundamentally and inherently pragmatic, i.e. stick with what works), cooperative influence based on power seems, at this time, the best fit for fostering success. I am not ready to get the word 'power' tattooed anywhere on my body, but I do recognize it importance and will use its tactics so long as they serve me, and the organizations and social networks with whom I associate, well.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Worthy Competition

Its been said that Coca Cola's true rival is not Pepsi, but water.

That Facebook's competitor is not Twitter or MySpace but, in fact, email.

And so it goes, the only real competition for a singular creative talent is not another artist, but the concept of God.

As an artist, you will often find yourself in the company of others who resemble you, both in terms of their productive output & efforts, or their respective creative worldview. It can be a bit daunting, if not entirely dissuasive, to encounter other talented individuals whose work forces your to examine your own. Comparing yourself in this way is terribly counterproductive.

However, if you realign your perspective to compare yourself to the idea of God, not only will you shift the competitive advantage to your favor by usurping the possibility of competing with another artist, you will fundamentally empower yourself by better defining your work, whatever the specific field or medium may be, in the context of grace, style, and unparalleled productivity. The central notion being that in the presence of greatness, even the toughest competitor will shirk away and be left behind.

First, a brief word on "the concept of God." As previously established, I am not a religious person. I don't find one particular religion to be altogether useful. Within all religions, however, there exists a creation myth, persisting lore that explains how human beings arrived on Earth, and what their intentions and obligations were after their arrival. The idea of breathing life into an otherwise devoid landscape is incredibly useful, not only to the religiously observant, but to the faithful artist.

Christian, Islamic, and Judeo religions and their concept of a God arriving and providing light is referred to as an ex nihilo creation myth; Latin, meaning from nothing. This idea might prove helpful to photographers or filmmakers, whose work has been couched as "painting with light." You're not a human lugging a camera and coaxing a pose or a performance out of your subject. Nor are you capturing a landscape's beauty or an urban alley's filthy realism. You are a deity, breathing light into a void where none existed previously.

Another creation myth, is the idea of the "Earth-diver." In Earth-diver stories, which have been found in Native American, Chukchi, Tatar, Finno-Urgian people, a divine power sends an animal into primal waters to dig up sand or mud from which to build habitable land. What better metaphor for a writer, painter, or sculptor, plumbing the murky depths of the mind's interior to find something universal upon which to build their ideas, their perspective.

If I had to choose my own idea of God to work with, I would likely select it from the Greek or Roman tradition of theology. Ancient Greek poets and historians conceived elaborate dramatic plots from which each god descends from his or her own genealogy, pursues differing interests, has a certain area of expertise, and is governed by a unique personality. Their Gods were basically people, granted with supernatural abilities.

In the Heroic Age of Greek mythology, gods and heroes occupied the same sphere of existence. I can't think of a better way to explain the vast diversity of urban American environments like New York City and Los Angeles, where the gap between the most desired celebrities, savage businesspeople, and talented artists, is so vastly disparate from the omnipresent reality of abject poverty, common violence, and wasted urban landscapes.

In the later Roman empire, the previously worshipped sun gods Apollo and Helios were collapsed into Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, by the Roman emperor Aurelian. Aurelian is credited for selecting December 25, then thought to be the winter solstice, as an important day of observance and why Sunday (think SUN-day) is considered a holy day (Romans traditionally, to varying degrees, worshipped the sun). The iconography used to depict Invictus Sol survives today and can be compared to The Statue of Liberty.

I like the idea of the sun, as my idea of God, as the sun, our parent star, is responsible for all life and energy on our planet and quite literally banishes darkness, providing order and beauty to the otherwise lifeless rocky void of Earth.

Whichever your choice may be, a spirit creature or a divine being, the central tenet here is that focussing other artists will not aid you in any way with respect to developing your talent. I'm off to better hone my god complex, but I'll leave you with this quote from American writer David Foster Wallace, from his magnum opus Infinite Jest:

"Feral talent is its own set of expectations and can abandon you at any one of the detours of so-called normal American life, so be on guard."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Signal to Noise

It doesn't matter how brilliant or savage you may well be, you will never conquer the world alone.

Be them friends, allies, consorts, or minions, you will need them on your side. Of tantamount importance is having the "right" or most effective people in your proverbial corner.

Call me a snob and I'll say, I'm selective.

Call me an elitist and I'll say, I have refined taste.

In fact this singular quality, good taste, may be the most important necessity for the "finer things" (happiness, success, accomplishment, creativity, etc), a marked ability to filter the juicy signal from the superfluous noise.

Consider, if you will, one linguistic aspect of Jewish culture to better demonstrate my point.

First, I will state, definitively, that I am not religious in any way, shape, form, or variant. Nor am I agnostic. I firmly believe that religion is more/less the memetic persistence of fanciful stories (i.e. myth).

Second, I will also state, that growing up in the Thousand Oaks area (suburban Los Angeles), gave me a unique look at, largely secular, modern Jewish culture.

In Thousand Oaks I learned to correlate being Jewish with being intelligent (and often being a picky eater). In high school my first two girlfriends were Jewish and in elementary school my best friend was Jewish. My first employer, an entrepreneur from Pittsburgh, was Jewish. Suffice it to say, I may not be "chosen," but I am most certainly, "tribe friendly."

Which brings me to my point.

The idea of being chosen (a Jew) versus being non-Jewish (a Goy) illuminates a useful analogue for developing a keen sense of taste. No, not actually keeping the Sabbath holy or being bar mitzvah'd or eating Kosher, but remaining allied with the chosen people in your own life, in your personal and professional circle.

This certainly means different things for different people. I am often asked how I find time for photography, writing, friends, events, starting a new business, yard work, exercise, etc.

My secret, though obviously not well-kept, is to be extremely picky. Taking an inventory of who your personal chosen are and who the goyim are (i.e. signal to noise ratio), can help maintain a crucial balance in life (especially if your life revolves around poly-disciplinary participation in a great many things, like mine).

Who are the best movie directors? The finest photographers? The most gifted writers? The unique businesspeople? I am not suggesting that there are objective answers for any of these questions, rather that knowing the answers, within yourself becomes the first step toward greater and more distinguished accomplishment.

Ira Glass has more advice on this subject:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Los Angeles, Meta-Society Poster Child

Tucked inside this unfurled geography is a totally decentralized network, simultaneously tethered and untethered to itself. Worlds within worlds. Bubbles within bubbles. Circles within circles. Nebulous, adrift, and ultimately alien.

There are likely innumerable more ways to say it, but through any lens, Los Angeles is *so* meta.

"We're all just background in each other's lives."

While writing this week at Swork Coffee in Eagle Rock, I happened upon Russ, an acquaintance that owns the eyewear shop where I bought my glasses. Russ spotted me, or more likely, my glasses, from across the coffee shop, and I recognized him immediately and approached to re-introduce myself. Both Russ and his female companion seemed to peer into my glasses as if trying to discern something. Then it dawned on me. They were likely thinking that was wearing only the frames, that I liked "the look," but did not actually need the glasses. For the record, I do.

"Los Angeles is a series of interconnected islands."

Russ's eyewear shop, Old Focals, was introduced to me by my musician neighbor, Scott, who was showing me around the storefronts near Colorado Boulevard and Eagle Rock Boulevard. Old Focals provides the retro glasses for the AMC series Mad Men. I pieced this factoid together, after purchasing my glasses, when Russ passed me the Old Focals business card.

"Oh, from Mad Men. That must make you Russ." I remember saying.

"And you must read the credits." replied Russ. Indeed, so.

Each of these little islands of Los Angeles exports its own unique resources, be them tangible or intangible. Once exported, each respective resource can be changed or co-opted into something else, often bastardized, by those who consume it. Russ and his companion were scanning for exactly that, for evidence of the authentic remaining intact beyond its island haven, or of being absorbed into something shameful and less real.

My closest friend works in the film business and his circle does the same, demonstrating fraternal camaraderie among insiders and vast skepticism toward perceived outsiders. Their tastes are the best, at least to them, and they bow to creative "gods" of their own merry devising. My neighbor Scott and his musician friends have their circle, as well, replete with its own customs, rituals, and observances.

Personally, I best identify with the poly-disciplinary Mindshare LA circle, and the related tech, science, and start-up community, who tend to be more inclusive and inquisitive. I also, however, occasionally move in progressive political circles as well, circles which are extremely suspicious of outsiders.

Additionally, I count myself as a photographer and a writer, roles that allow me to move freely between circles, but share little island real estate with those of the same ilk. The majority of writers and photographers that I've met prefer to work alone and, in my experience, hate or speedily dismiss other writers and photographers.

"I don't miss the kingdom, but I do miss the kings."

In many ways, this meta-city is emblematic of our still maturing information age, where decentralized networks have long ago overtaken the previous hierarchy of top-down organization. There is nothing ultimately "wrong" with this, a more modern method. Its the price of admission for a city that is indeed still rather paradise-like, multicultural, progressive, and unique. I don't dislike Los Angeles. It is, after all, my home base. I do however, very often, miss New York.