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“Foundering”

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Instead of joining another crappy startup* or working for another terrible founder**, Bryan Keefer and I “founded” a webcomic about the crappiest of all startups and the worst of all founders. Visit Foundering (FounderingComic.com), and let us know what you think of the first chapter of hijinks. We’ll update about 3x per week.

Regular blog updates will continue now that Foundering is live. I apologize for my absence, but for my six readers, just think: more pictures, fewer words, twice the fun.

* Not your startup, of course. Your baby is beautiful.

** Not you, of course. We’re definitely talking about someone else. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious cartoon animals. Any resemblance of the fictitious cartoon animals to real persons, living or dead, employed or unemployed, is purely coincidental and likely impossible, since they are cartoon animals.

 

 

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Notes on the University Cockfight

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ILLUSTRATION: Rejected from the Stanford Freedom Project #1: George Michael at the Alamo • watercolor on paper • 5×7″

It’s the end of the quarter at Stanford which means that it’s time for final papers. A close friend of mine lectures at Stanford teaching literature, philosophy, languages, etc.—fields of study on that lovely campus that are akin, as far as I can tell, to leprosy for many undergraduates. The faster that you can churn out a paper on Wallace Stevens, the sooner you can focus on your Symbolic Systems or MS&E problem set (or maybe just play Call of Duty). STEM, baby, STEM!

The first drafts are always my favorite to read. It often feels like the students are aliens sent on a mission to learn about Earth and report their findings in 1,000 words. How else can you explain sentences such as “Freedom for the humans is contingent on the acceptance of the free will of the humans?” You can imagine some high school English teacher suggesting that students should replace “man” with “human” throughout their papers to avoid thorny gender debates. And the student adds extra articles to get closer and closer to that 1,000 word goal. By the end of their initial thrashing, the students sound like Kang and Kodos.

I told my friend, “At least they’re still kind of trying. Freshmen don’t know yet that that every college paper can be the same paper.”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“I don’t think they know about Clifford Geertz yet.”

“I’ve heard the name.”

“He wrote Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Metasocial commentary. You know, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

“Okay. So?”

“You can get a B+ on every undergraduate paper with Clifford Geertz.”


Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight is a 1972 essay by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It’s a fun read, if you can separate yourself from the whole rooster-on-rooster violence thing. Instead of taking a more traditional anthropological / scientific approach to dissecting Balinese culture, Geertz researches its cockfights as one would close read a literary text. He investigates the cockfight’s implicit societal rules: how fights are organized, how cocks are matched for equal battles, how odds are determined, how kinsmen and alliances bet with each other, how money is exchanged, and what that all means for the Balinese.

“What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts it from the realm of practical affairs, and surrounds it with an aura of enlarged importance is … that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment. Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of a Balinese experience; a story they tell themselves about themselves.”

By caring deeply about cockfights of all things, the Geertz essay allows one to take any cultural artifact—high, low, or middlebrow—find its implicit rules of order and imbue them with significance. It provides the perfect hackneyed end to the B+ undergraduate essay. Construct an argument. Find some quotes. Put them in order. Add your transition sentences. And then conclude with Geertz.

Irish myths? Metasocial commentary.

The Day of the Dead? Metasocial commentary.

Listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989? Metasocial commentary.

It won’t be a good essay per se. It may not really say anything. And it might even totally get Clifford Geertz wrong. But you’ll probably get through the class with a B+.


Because after all, writing crappy undergraduate essays that just pass muster are what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call a “metasocial commentary”—a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. The process of trying to pass one’s poor argument off as lucid and meaningful to frustrated, often disempowered, humanities professors shows us what our “culture’s ethos and… private sensibility (or anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally.” Namely, that pretending to care is a perfectly acceptable B+ path in American life.

P.S. I recommend Mark Slouka’s essay Dehumanized published in Harper’s in 2009 for anyone else on the very lonely #TeamHumanities.

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Rejected Deals: Six Flags Over Beijing

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ILLUSTRATION: Rejected from the Stanford Freedom Project #2: How I Wish Rocky IV Had Ended When I Was a Kid • watercolor on paper • 5×7″

Passing the overpriced gift shop at the Loews Santa Monica on my way to the valet, I attempted to make my escape from the pit of despair that was/is Digital Hollywood. The nerds-in-blazers-and-jeans look had not yet reached its crescendo, even in its birthplace. MySpace and Bebo and DRM were still real things on real conference panels. Outside Jason Calacanis jumped into a ridiculous looking corvette, and I laughed to myself “Ja ja ja, mach schnell mit der art things, huh? I must get back to Dancecentrum in Struttgart in time to see Kraftwerk.” It was 2006.

I had a quirky job working ostensibly in venture capital for The Carlyle Group. It said so right on my name tag which had just been noticed by an attendee looking for someone more important with whom to speak.

“Ah, The Carlyle Group? I would love to talk to you about something. You make investments in China, right?”

“Well, not me, but yes.”

“You’re big in real estate.”

“Again, not me, but…”

Given his resemblance, I’ll call him Fake Billy Zane to protect the innocent. Billy was a tall half-Persian, half-Japanese man who now lived in Beijing. Like me, he also thought the conference was going nowhere (you know, at least until it packed up for greener pastures at the Marina del Rey Ritz Carlton and talk turned to YouTube and Blu-Ray). But Fake Billy Zane was going somewhere. Fake Billy Zane needed capital. Big capital to fund big ideas. $100 million to build a theme park. The first theme park in Beijing.

His business card read: Beijing Future World HOLLYWOOD Theme Park.

fake billy zane

Despite our conversation derailing somewhere between the stop for a commuter train that he claimed would land at the doorstep of Beijing Future World HOLLYWOOD Theme Park thanks to someone’s government bribes and the district I must visit where “girls in Beijing” would really love “getting to know” someone like me, I agreed to learn more.

“Okay. Lobby of the Fairmont at, um, 7… Uh, I have a hard stop at 8, ” I lied.

Fake Billy Zane chortled and slapped me on the arm. “And after I know you’ll come visit Beijing. I will show you a very good time.”

“Uh, there’s my car.”

I chose against jumping in Dukes of Hazzard/Jason Calacanis-style.


I’m not certain what I was thinking at the time. Okay, no, I know what I was thinking in a constant loop…

  • “My boss had said his best investments came from the strangest places.”
  • “Public place, public place, the Fairmont lobby is a totally safe public place.”
  • “The Loews is much nicer than the Fairmont. I’ll have to book there next time.”

The next morning at 7am I was greeted in the lobby not just by Fake Billy Zane but also his boss: an older Chinese woman squeezed into a white, rhinestone, skin-tight, spandex mini-dress that stopped just short of the legal definition of indecent exposure. The clerk at the front desk tried not to stare and shuffled her papers over and over thinking surely that incidents like these were why she moved off the night shift. Let’s just call Billy’s boss Sally.

“Do you know Sally? She’s a famous former Chinese pop star, like China’s Britney Spears.”

“Wow. Very nice to meet you Sally,” I said, noting to myself that at somewhere between 40 and 70, Sally was really more like China’s Debbie Gibson or Donna Summer. Luckily there had been no paparazzi to capture what surely had been a flashy Spears-esque exit from their car. I gestured toward a giant ottoman-like table surrounded by chairs where I could listen to their presentation.

“Oh, first we take photos,” said Sally.

Of course, what investor meeting doesn’t start with photos? I’ll admit my naiveté on international manners in this context. The Japanese bring gifts and long presentations on their corporate structure since 1872. The Germans tease you for years that they’ll actually acquire something in-between mandated bank holidays every other week. Perhaps standard meeting protocol for Fake Billy Zane and Sally was taking photos. So I posed with Sally in the middle of the lobby of the Fairmont Santa Monica trying not to smirk at the desk clerk, as she facepalmed with one hand and gestured silently for the attention of her desk companion with the other.

“We’re very happy to meet with The Carlyle Group. We will add this to our photo album. You can see how excited others have been about Beijing Future World Hollywood.”

Sally opened a photo album where I was greeted by photos of Sally with politicians, dignitaries, celebrities, and business types. I can’t remember all of them, but I knew how they had answered when someone said, “Oh, first, we take photos.”

“Is that Jiang Zemin?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes. So surprised you know Jiang Zemin. Yes, indeed.”

Then I was directed to another picture with one of the President Bushes (I can’t remember which one) where Fake Billy Zane continued excitedly “And look! He is involved with The Carlyle Group too, no? Do you work with him?”

“Used to be. Used to be. No, no, I’ve never met him. I’ve only been with the firm for a year,” as I tried to manage his expectations and my now increasing concern over the odd, foreboding, brown paper envelope tied with string that I had just been handed. The type of envelope that holds a Grail Diary or bomb plans or, you know, anthrax.

Mind racing — I am not important, and I do not know important people. I was at Digital Hollywood. No one important goes to Digital Hollywood. It’s just a typographical error that the White House thinks my office is Frank Carlucci’s. I’m wearing jeans and a blazer, for goodness sake. — I unwound the string to open the envelope — Oh God, the news reports will say that the poison originated from an idiot who brought the envelope back to his office on a cross-country flight. I will be in critical condition and under investigation at a federal facility. I will whimper out a description to a sketch artist in Hungarian: “Keyser Soze! Úgy nézett ki, mint a hamis Billy Zane” — But inside there was no white powder to speak of, just a typical plastic-bound investor presentation.

Except on the first page was one of those spoon-eyed aliens in a regal cloak holding court among the planets. And then more pictures of aliens followed on each subsequent page. You know, kind of like this.

StrieberCommunion

“We wanted you to get a feel for what the theme park would be like. Space is very popular. Like Star Wars. Very popular.” I decided it would be rude to mention my childhood fear of these aliens (which hadn’t been helped by my mom taping up pictures of the aliens looking into my bedroom window as a joke when I was seven).

The presentation was mostly pictures of those scary-ass aliens interspersed with section headings such as “Financials” followed then by more aliens. Sometimes there were unlabeled grids with Xs and Os printed out on a dot matrix printer.

“That X is where we will build the theme park. Let me show you more.”

Billy reached for a tube and unrolled a giant swath of paper covering the ottoman and extending to the floor: a completely unintelligible topographic map of Beijing.

Imagine a map from an early 20th century war room where a general would chomp on cigar under a harsh uncovered single light bulb and signal his decision to attack by advancing troops across the map before then retiring to his tent to work on a spicy and sweet fried chicken recipe that would truly change the world. There were no roads, no city center, just contour lines and Chinese characters. It could have been Beijing just as soon as it could have been Kansas or Neptune. What with the aliens and all.

“Beijing Future World Hollywood Theme Park will be located here,” he pointed to a tiny shaded area. “You can see how close this is to Beijing. Just 25 minutes from the airport by train.”

“Uh huh.” Or close to Topeka. “And this train is going to be built?”

“Assuredly. We just need $100 million.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

“But we’ve run the numbers. Let me show you.”

Billy flipped past more pictures of aliens to a page that looked like this:

stata

They had run the numbers… all over the page. On what and for what purpose, I will never know. It could have been the paprika concentration in the Colonel’s Original Recipe. What is it with military leaders and fried chicken?

“So you can see how this will work. We’ve run the numbers, and you will make money.”

For some reason, it was the random page of Stata numbers, not the ottoman-swallowing map, or the rhinestone minidress, or the pictures of aliens that had once haunted my dreams that made me decide it was time to just play along with yet another deranged founder. “So $100 million?”

“Yes, and if you raise $100 million for us, I will give you $10 million,” said Billy.

“That’s not really how my job works.”

Fake Billy Zane and Sally chuckled. “We’re among friends. It’s only fair.”

“No, that’s not how my job works. We find investments, and I get paid for that.”

“You would be helping us out a lot. And in China, we help you too.”

“Erm.”

Fake Billy Zane winked as only a Fake Billy Zane can. “At the very least, you will visit Beijing soon. Sally, won’t the girls love him there?”

Sally’s coy smile grew to match the gleam in the rhinestones in her dress, and I returned the presentation to the brown envelope filled with unknown yet imaginary poisons, slapping it between my hands in earnest consideration and conclusion.

“Thank you, Billy. I’d love to visit. I’ll take this back to the China team and find out what they think. It’s very compelling. But I should get ready for my call now.”


A postscript. For what it’s worth, I did pass the deal along to the Asia team at Carlyle, and I’m surprised at the positivity and even-handedness of my email to my boss from then:

“Strange project fell into my lap.  I was in the lobby of the conference, and a gentleman saw my Carlyle nametag and came over to talk to me.  He was from Japan and working with a company in Beijing to develop a theme park and entertainment complex there on 8,000 acres of land they’ve been provided 25 minutes from the Beijing airport.  He set up a meeting with me this morning, and he and his partner brought this massive amount of information on all the work they’ve been doing with the government, construction companies and real estate development firms. Very odd, but I wanted to pass it along to Asia Venture or Asia Real Estate just in case.  According to their documents, they’re being backed by Guangdong Bank and are looking for foreign partners.”

And chances are, the Beijing Future World Hollywood Theme Park deal was real. The Atantic profiled the old Wonderland Amusement Park back in 2011 where they say re-development was attempted in 2008 and never got off the ground. The photos are haunting—a real-life Spirited Away—but the description and geography fit. It even sits near the Changping Railway just like Fake Billy Zane had promised me. Maybe I should have listened to my friend Fake Billy Zane. He was a cool dude. He was just trying to help me out.

 

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Remembering Nepal: On Fear

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PHOTO: On the Way to Yak Kharka

It’s terribly sad to read about the death of a number of guides and trekkers in the Annapurna region of Nepal. For those who have missed some of the coverage (see here and here), a sudden blizzard during the region’s busiest travel season blanketed the region’s highest, non-technical trails—Thorong La on the main route and Tilicho Lake, a popular, yet difficult, side trek to the south usually undertaken before crossing Thorong La. A survivor in one New York Times video describes embarking through the snow as the blizzard abated with the feeling that this moment was it, she was going to die.

The survivor’s tangible fear and thanksgiving reminded me of the feelings I had in April 2013 when trekking with my friend Rich near Tilicho Lake during a similar but far less unruly storm. Even if warned about the dangers of trekking in Nepal, these sorts of experiences are not what one expects when passing young and old alike along these popular trails. I can only compare that kind of fear and the suppression of it to stories of soldiers who prepare for battle by accepting that they are already dead. Or the Hagakure:

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead.

There is a saying of the elders’ that goes, “Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.”

Rich published a harrowing and amazing account of the storm that stranded us above 13,000 feet with more than a foot of snow and a trail wiped away—a trail already stupidly difficult in good conditions with a 1.5 mile landslide area. (A video of this trail on YouTube without snow is a good shorthand for the experience.) There’s no reason for me to rehash the whole story. However, one part of the tale that stays with me far more than each narrow step in the snow was the debate and decision to leave the teahouse where we were staying—especially when I hear the story of this survivor for whom sheltering in place meant life and moving forward would have likely meant death.

You might think in extreme situations that decisions will always be made quickly, with no time to spare and no time for regret. I think of film with its compressed view of time. Indiana Jones realizes a penitent man kneels before God moments before a blade would strike his head. Fiction doesn’t prepare you for the extreme situations that play out over a far longer “present.” The hours that morning before we left the teahouse were spent debating what I call the most vital of questions, “should we stay or should we go?”


In a state of insomnia caused by altitude and cold, I held the need to pee for as long as I possibly could. I wondered if the smell on my blankets wasn’t yak urine after all, as I steeled myself to go to the outhouse. It was probably before 5, and I stepped my flip flop into a foot of snow, still falling around me. Without glasses on or contacts in, the snow blurred more than ever, giant flakes glancing through the light of the headlamp. No one else was awake, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Again, trained by temporal emergencies in both real life and fiction, my first thought was, “Shit. We are going to be snowed in. Do I wake everyone else in the lodge up?” Otherwise known practically as “When in danger / When in doubt / Run in circles / Scream and shout!” At the very least I could wake up Rich to whom I remember saying upon my return, “Hey Rich, I think we kind of have a problem. Look outside.” He had been holding it as well.

We dressed and packed to prepare for the eventuality of leaving—again more slowly than you would think, deliberately, and with hope that others would begin to stir. Because your mind races in two different directions and constructs narratives: First, the story of how the group stayed together and survived, or second, the story of how you beat the odds by taking the landslide path less traveled. You assess whether the situation is getting more or less difficult to delay that decision… snow covers the path already, the snow collects more slowly, the lodge owners will have experience with this sort of thing, etc., all the while reflecting whether delay is its own type of wrong decision.

As others woke up, this internal debate became external. The young man with the most trekking and climbing experience gave voice to our inner debate. Right now you are safe. You are inside. You are, well, kind of warm. As soon as you move, you open yourself up to… death, injury, suffering. Like all of us inside, he wasn’t arguing for staying, but he would at least play devil’s advocate. A more urgent voice came from the one Nepali guide among us, an easterner far from the trails that Sherpas usually guide; he said only “Get down now,” as he ate breakfast with his two woman clients and prepared for the trek down. “Now” apparently still meant deliberate preparation: breakfast, packing, and time for regret. Often my regular day job had a greater sense of urgency.

Upon pulling a few more words out of the Sherpa, we learned that the danger now was getting down in any reasonable period—days, weeks. More snow meant more chance of avalanche along the landslide area. A cessation of the storm at this time of year meant quick melting, again causing avalanches. And once melted, the dangerous landslide area would be that much more unwieldy. We had a window of time—small in the big scheme of things, infinite at this moment eating a fried egg.

Once on the trail, we would learn how right he was—how the snow congealed the pebbles into a walkable mass, how the snow gave some confidence in one’s ability to arrest if falling in a way the sheer rock face never did, how we might only break bones if the worst came to pass.

Once on the trail, staggering along the landslide area five or ten minutes behind the Sherpa, we only had to step into the footprints in front of us, slowly, deliberately, and constantly. To quote another movie, “Movement is life.”

Once on the trail, we said little except to organize ourselves, and I thought of nothing but the present. The internal and external debate was over, and any fear turned into action, like alchemy. You know what to do, to borrow the excellent advice of Rich: Just don’t die.

Sadly, what was the right decision for us then may not have been the right decision for the guides and trekkers crossing Thorong La last week. I pray for them and the Nepalis for whom we are guests and who take their duty as hosts, the virtue of Xenia, seriously. But when I think of fear, I still won’t think of making that hike down. I will think of that time of debate and deliberation before moving forward, and then, to the Hagakure again:

When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about doing it in a long, roundabout way. One’s heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.

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James Murphy and Craft

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ILLUSTRATION: Twerking Hippo • ink on paper + photoshop • 5×7″

Some people read the biographies of great men and women for inspiration, but when I’ve read those same stories, I’ve rarely said to myself, “This is the person I want to be. This person’s life is inspirational.” Humanitarians? Scientists? Do-Gooders? I’m self-aware enough to see I’m more similar to Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels—there are many ways to change the world. Successful businesspeople? The Man currently occasions self-loathing and fear of corporate sociopathy. Politicians? Next. Academics? Sorry. (At the bottom of the heap might be Founders. After many years in the trenches, I’m careful to praise anyone for their irrational ideas until I understand their “ethics”—moral and work. More on this another time.)

Perhaps celebrity worship isn’t conducive to a well-rounded life; you’re following a poorly marked out path without the same lucky breaks to a false idol (and some Old Testament judgment). I’m more inclined to seek guidance and solace in the wisdom of fiction or visit my fascination upon the virtues of people I know in the here and now. That I might be fascinated by the virtue of someone who reads the biographies of great men and women starts the whole damn cycle over again.

Sometimes I feel like even following a recipe or plan is a limitation on my own agency and development. I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies, and I’m going make them my way! Don’t tell me what to do Mr. Cookie Recipe Guy. Cue some not-so-good cookies plus a host of other life mistakes, a smaller bank account than I should have, and crippling self-doubt.  There is apparent value to staying on the path and reading LifeHacker my friends.

Yet the more I learn about the musician James Murphy, former member of LCD Soundsystem, the more I feel that he merits some consideration as a source of inspiration. I’m not alone. “For a small group of people—mostly young, mostly men—LCD was the naughts,” Nick Sylvester, a music critic, told The Atlantic. “The songs described very specific emotional realities about becoming an adult and attempting to be a decent human being.”  Perhaps that’s why his influence infiltrated a wedding speech I gave as an officiant followed by my friend choosing “All My Friends” as their reception entry song. “That’s how it starts,” after all.

Yes, the LCD oeuvre is beautiful and chock full of angsty wisdom one needs as a young man, but it’s James Murphy’s approach to his artwork, literally his artistic labor, that I find to be inspirational: working in the music trenches and playing actual instruments (!) long before a big break, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the rare curiosities of popular music, sitting through new records of bands he used to like to learn something, agreeing to random art projects (or coffee roasting) just because they’re interesting or just so they will exist, and yes, creating the mother of all drops in “Dance Yrself Clean.”

That sort of dedication to craft, not luck, inspires me to stay dedicated to whatever work is most important and interesting in my life, whether it’s this blog, my art, or even a spreadsheet. As Sylvester writes in the liner notes to “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” with LCD James was “negotiating a way to live, love, and make art honestly. Artists aren’t the only ones looking for a way around the minefield of cliché.” The act of craft can be it’s own reward. Of course, Sylvester also writes that perhaps LCD had to end because “we should all know better than to get our answers from rock stars.”

Wait, does that mean I have to start my search for inspiration again?

Tonight (10/16/14) James Murphy DJs at Public Works in San Francisco. His set in November in 2012 was the single best DJ set I’ve ever experienced live. Hope to see you there finding your own answers.

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