As has become customary, Thanksgiving was spent at my sister’s house / wildlife sanctuary in the woods of Ithaca, NY. Recovering patients this year included a crippled raccoon and three flying squirrels that had been kidnapped and mauled by a cat. The latter would often escape their cage and jump around the kitchen from person to person, until they were finally recaptured.
The week was spent primarily eating far too much, as well as discovering a sanctuary for abused farm animals, and having some good times with the family. At least most of the time was ‘good times’. As is regular in many families, no holiday can be truly complete without some sort of explosive episode.
Near the end of the trip, in a rather dramatic display of frustration between two family members, one family member kicked over a table and wildly swung a laptop in the air before being restrained. Was it simply too many sugary pies? Was it an act inspired from the recently watched History Channel’s documentary on “The French Revolution”? Perhaps, but at least on the surface, the issue was that the recipient of the fury had indicated that they didn’t want to go to Sunday church, to which the other had reacted rather strongly.
As my bus back to NYC cut a curvy path through the woods of upstate NY, I considered the accusations of egoism and selfishness that had been tossed around a couple of days earlier. When such accusations are directed my way, I like to try my best not to react defensively but to objectively explore them and try to empathize with the accusatory party. Why? Stubbornness and inflexibility are weak traits – and very counter-productive to growth. I view my life as a design project and am not afraid of being wrong or not knowing something – I just try to get better with each iteration. The situation got me thinking what the ego actually is, and where the line of selfishness gets drawn.
The ego is an interesting thing and you should monitor its effect in your daily actions. I like to think of the ego as a parasite. As self awareness, thought and language emerged in human beings, so did a formless entity that constantly tries to prove its physical form through collection and display of objects. Of course we are perfectly complete beings without it but it does a pretty superb job of both convincing us that it IS us and that we’ll be far more complete with designer clothes, sexy lovers, shiny objects and in general a better set up than those around us. Now I don’t want to completely rebuke the ego – when properly handled, it can be a very useful tool to aid us along our journey. For example, being aware of your social skills, financial influence or position of power can truly help you leverage these assets into positive social action. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum that ranges from egoic freedom to egoic control but it’s crucial to acknowledge that the ego is a guest in our homes, and we’re in charge of it – not vice versa.
Inevitably the young ego leads much of our development. It’s interesting to note that my two sisters, as well as myself, have all structured our lives around giving our energy to others. One of my sisters teaches pre- and postnatal yoga, while the other rescues wild animals. I like to foster community engagement and give people the forum to shine. This is most probably a product of an emotionally charged childhood and learning from a young age to deal with highly erratic family situations. How is everyone feeling? Why can I do to help? Should I get involved or run for cover? How can I display that I’m working hard and doing a good job? Personally, I know that while much of my energy is spent creating socially beneficial opportunities, it’s also probably quite outwardly apparent how much I enjoy my life – which might appear ‘selfish’, especially to those who are less happy with their own lives.
I also always enjoy exploring the grey areas between selflessness and selfishness. On one hand part of me looks at the very make up of our beings, systems of opportunistic, mutating biological processes and I wonder if perhaps ‘being out for self’ is just built into who we are. On the other hand, exploring this more deeply, we see nature, as well as or own natural systems work in a harmony, apparently synchronized in ways that we can only comprehend in a very basic way. And so, as the ego took hold, we began to lose the ability to feel at one with the larger system and developed far less accurate methods of superficial communication to take it’s place. Of course our current existence comes with many pros and cons and while it can be blamed as the very thing that is tipping our relationship with the world around us out of balance, intelligence and logic are also tools that if used wisely, can help to get us back in balance with the system. Of course, like ego, a certain amount of selfishness is inevitable and even beneficial in our lives; after all if you cannot sustain your own existence then no matter how grand your outward efforts are – they will not be sustained.
So even if we are just scaled up versions of our own opportunistic root system, we don’t have to react blindly and emotionally as we move through life – instead we can intellectually, and experientially consider what is good for ourselves, others and the planet and act as true to that as possible. The sweet spot seems to be in learning how to create a positive impact on the planet while living an enjoyable, sustainable life in the process. It’s inevitable that along this path you will meet those who’s own personal frustrations manifest outwardly in explosions of blame or anger – but it’s important to see these projections for what they are and not to get disheartened with your progress. In fact, instead of reacting with fire, offer as much compassion as you can to whoever attacks you in order to help them out of their misery and along on their own journey.
In the late 18th century, Maximillian Robespierre had radical vision and was integral in launching the French Revolution – but by the end of his career, his ego and selfishness (which he had previously been leveraged for good) had all but consumed him, in a terrifying display of megalomaniacal control an self idolization. Eventually it got so bad that he was beheaded. In conclusion, while some level of ego and selfishness an inevitability, we must develop our awareness in order to keep ourselves and our visions in check. Perhaps then we can avoid, both personally and on a greater scale, the same metaphoric fate as Robespierre.
I’m co-hosting a soirée this Friday with my favorite social roboticist Heather Knight. Here’s the flier and the Facebook event. Please forward this to NYC friends who would be interested! I’m looking to connect Syyn Labs (as well as local artists) with ad agencies, gallery owners and other interactive art connectors. And of course, we’re definitely looking for people to show work or bring fun stuff! Suggestions welcome via comments below.
Also: big thanks toBen Maronfor offering us his elegant Williamsburg loft for the evening. Please keep it nice )
Prolific Maker and Syyner Eric Gradman got his hands on a Kinect CV unit and within hours was “making art”, as he calls it. I always smile when Syyn Labs creators say that sort of thing. As another Syyner Dan Busby once said: “Some of us were trained in art formally, but the rest of us had to learn it on the streets…”. With a history of robotics and computer vision (not to mention fire spinning, circus performing, and professional whistling) Eric has quickly learned the joy of ‘making art’.
Describing one his first custom Kinect project, Illuminous, Eric says: “Remember that scene at the end of the matrix where glowing green symbols traced across an agent’s body? Well, this is just like that, but in realtime. What you’re looking at here is a particle system, where YOU are the source of the particles. Particles (seen on screen as dots) spring into being on the surface of your body. They then traverse the contours of your body until they reach an edge, at which point they’re flung into space and disappear. All this is possible because the Kinect lets me reconstruct the 3d geometry of whatever it sees.”More details here…
The Kinect also adds a new way of interacting with old projects: “Standard Gravity is an existing project of mine that until today pure image thresholding to determine where people are standing. I bought a new Kinect sensor this afternoon, and immediately set about adapting this code to use the new sensor.” More details here… What will Eric come up with next? Keep in touch with him on Twitter at twitter.com/egradman and the rest of the Syyn crew at twitter.com/syynlabs.
If the 20s were all about parties, the 30s are so far all about soirées. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a good hedonistic gathering, devoid of anything other than youthful celebration, but as I enter the second year of my 30s I crave a little more substantive return on my time and energy expenditure.
Enter the soirée. More than just a motley mish-mash of bobbing heads and grinding bodies, I’ve begun to take pride in organizing, smaller, more intimate gatherings. Whether it’s bringing together a few people that you think should meet, or creating a focused theme, it brings me great excitement to consider all of the possible serendipity that can emerge from the unpredictable encounters.
And so, as is customary on my NYC trips, I planned to organize a little soirée. This time I wanted to focus on making some good east coast connections for Syyn Labs, and so my favorite social roboticist and fellow Syyner, Heather Knight, introduced me to a Canadian data viz expert called Jer Thorpe. Jer is in town for a few months on business and rents a large, beautiful loft in Dumbo. More importantly he is a social character and was more than happy to host an informal, Sunday night soirée themed around ‘Science Meets Design’.
With only a day or two notice, we collectively invited around 20 interesting characters for cheese and wine at Jer’s warehouse space. As we entered the building, 4 people covered in paint exploded through the door, yelling “Paint fight on the roof!”. We slid past the dripping nut cases and deeper into the building, down corridors that faintly smelled like garbage while admiring the rugged, not-quite-legal charm that only a gritty warehouse like this can possess.
Jer led us into his loft which had an unparalleled view of the east river, and as people gathered, there were more than a few people who no one knew.
“Kevin invited us!” They said and then as an answer to our confused look: “You know, Kevin Balktick from unit 500. This is his place, right?”
And so it seemed like they’d ended up in the wrong place but as it turned out, the next door neighbor was having a party too. And guess what, it was a bunch of event engineers and creative types celebrating a recent project called the Lost Horizon Night Market that included installations inside a bunch of parked box cars. So we just opened our doors and combined our parties and everyone left with a whole bunch of new friends.
Aaah, the joy of the unpredictable, alive and well in NYC!
I arrived in NYC late last night, welcomed by my wonderfully eccentric friend David Friedlander, founder of the LucidNYC monthly salons.
Today we went for a sunset walk up to Dumbo, via the scenic waterfront of Brooklyn Heights. As always, our conversation turned to consciousness and techniques for achieving contentedness within – and furthermore what is needed to propagate well being throughout the world.
I can’t help but see humans as fallible bags of meat. Sad but true. Well meaning as they often may be, we just keep making a mess of things. Wars, religious turmoil, environmental destruction – All around are the symptoms of our cancerous existence wrought on ourselves, each other and the planet at large. But I like to think we’re trying to get better
How do we get better? Lead by example? Sure! Spread the good word? Sure! But even if successful, how can we ensure we don’t just keep repeating the same destructive loops as history has shown? I like to think we have more knowledge and abilities at our fingertips than ever, but is it possible to really make significant change – and stick to it? And what is technologies role in helping us live a more happy, present life? Perhaps we, aware of the limits of our own perception, have been creating this extra sense for ourselves to mitigate our own fallibility?
David does not agree: past, present and future – all we’ve ever had is this present moment. This is all there is and as soon as you think it should be different you’re propagating the problem. You’re being dualistic and dualism is always problematic.
“You sound like Kurzweil, and like him, your frustration with the world is the frustration with yourself.”
I understand his theory, that we need to find the solution within, and try to share our experiences with others, as a means to perhaps lead them towards their own defining experiences.
But I refute the assumption that technology has no part to play. Better communication and facilitating the spread of ideas more than ever before are just a few of the benefits. The word itself, while just a representation of the real meaning – is a tool we created to more effectively spreading ideas.
Sure technology might not he all the answers, but it’s a great tool we have in our arsenal, not to be denied.
“Where do you write all your ideas and experiences down, David?” I asked as we parted ways.
In my haste to cleanup before leaving the farm, I dropped the corn. In my earlier days as a child and young adult I would have probably been angry, either with the corn, or more likely with myself.
But these days, especially after becoming more aware of my blind reactions through Vipassana mediation, not only do I not cast blame, but instead smile to myself and admire the beautiful piece of floor art I created.
My cousin Gilles brought this to my attention when he asked: How can a static sculpture be dynamic?
“You can buy it (right now) on eBay. This (unique) gloss black cube is designed to be plugged in and given an internet connection by its new owner. Upon being plugged in, it will immediately attempt to resell itself on ebay… and IF the artwork succeeds in selling itself, the collector must ship it to the next purchaser… AND pay the artist 15% of the appreciated value. The buyer’s agreement is long but amusing.”
From the FAQ…
Q: If I were to buy this, how long could I expect to own it before it sells itself again?
A: It is hard to say. Like any commodity it is subject to demand. It could be moments or years. The perpetual state of uncertainty and the instability of ownership are primary components of the work.
Each month I drive about four hours north of LA, past Fresno and through a little town called North Fork. Hidden just beyond the town, where the Fire Station is also it’s library, is an organic farm that I was lucky enough to encounter in early 2010. Volunteers, also known as WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), come to the farm to help plant, harvest and provide general maintenance to the family that lives there.
When the intensity of LA life builds, i find it deeply therapeutic to get a little slice of nature in order to balance it out. Inevitably, after a few days of quietness, the mind calms down and I feel my creativity become more focused.
Some mornings are grey and cold – but today was bright and sun lit as I walked at 7:45am to meet the WWOOFers for the morning brief. What would it be today? Harvesting tomatoes? Gathering leafy greens? Stocking the community store in North Fork?
Whatever the morning’s tasks entail, it will no doubt be rewarded with a grand home cooked meal and an afternoon of solitude and writing. While the world hustles, I know I’m missing out on business opportunities, sexy parties and other social events, and at the same time I’m missing out on nothing; as long as I am fully aware in the present moment then I am a complete being, content and balanced.
Weeding the carrots? What a perfect way to start the day.