Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

Why I Sign my Emails with “=”

Earlier today, a colleague asked me why I sign my emails with an equals sign (“=Eugene”), which I’ve been doing since 2004.

The short, non-technical answer is that I was involved with a group back in the day that was promoting a new “universal” identifier scheme for people called i-names. Imagine a Twitter handle that worked on any platform, not just on Twitter, and that used an equal sign instead of an at sign (“@”). That’s essentially what an i-name was. Mine was =Eugene. (Actually, it wasn’t, but that’s a longer story.)

That initiative failed, but I just kept signing my emails that way out of habit. It doesn’t look that different from signing with an em-dash (“—”), and only a few folks have ever asked me about it.

California Is the Poorest State in the Country

I was born and bred in California, and I absolutely love it here. It is home, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

But California has its problems, and when I read articles full of breathless hubris like this one in Politico, I get concerned. The article states:

But while California has plenty of problems, from worsening wildfires to overpriced housing to that troubled bullet-train project that became the latest target of presidential mockery, there’s one serious hitch in the GOP plan to make California a symbol of Democratic dysfunction and socialistic stagnation: It’s basically thriving.

“California is doing awesome,” says Congressman Ted Lieu, an immigrant from Taiwan who co-chairs the policy and communications committee for the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s a beautiful, welcoming, environmentally friendly place that proves government can work. Who wants to run against that?”

California is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, up from eighth a decade ago. If it’s a socialist hellhole, it’s a socialist hellhole that somehow nurtured Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, Uber, Netflix, Oracle and Intel, not to mention old-economy stalwarts like Chevron, Disney, Wells Fargo and the Hollywood film industry. California firms still attract more venture capital than the rest of the country combined, while its farms produce more fruits, nuts and wine than the rest of the country combined. During the Great Recession, when the state was mired in a budget crisis so brutal its bond rating approached junk and it gave IOUs to government workers, mainstream media outlets were proclaiming the death of the California dream. But after a decade of steady growth that has consistently outpaced the nation’s, plus a significant tax hike on the wealthy, California is in much sounder fiscal shape; while federal deficits are soaring again, the state has erased its red ink and even stashed $13 billion in a rainy day fund.

Yes, California is a beautiful place, and we do a good job of trying to protect it. Yes, we are lucky to be the bread basket of the country, a function of our fertile land and climate, as well as the water we take from other places. Yes, we seemed to have recovered from our budget crisis… for now.

And yet, California continues to be the poorest state in the country, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account cost of living. Yes, that’s right. When I first read this, it surprised me too. And then it didn’t.

The Politico article cited above mentioned the housing problems here, but it doesn’t cite the poverty metrics. Most articles don’t. No one challenges the numbers, they just choose to ignore them. But being the poorest state in the country does not align with our values, and we need to reconcile this with all of the stuff that is great about this state.

The best explanation of the root causes responsible for many of our problems is California Crackup, by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul. I highly recommend it.

Charles and Ray Eames on Design

Charles Eames’s diagram explaining the design process. From the Oakland Museum of California’s outstanding Charles and Ray Eames exhibit.

I saw the Charles and Ray Eames exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California this past weekend. (Thanks to James Cham for prolifically tweeting about it. It was really, really good.) Among the many highlights was this 1972 interview on design. It’s short and sweet, and you should read the whole thing. Here are my favorite excerpts:

What is your definition of “Design,” Monsieur Eames?

One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.

Is Design an expression of art?

I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.

Is it a method of general expression?

No. It is a method of action.

Is Design a creation of an individual?

No, because to be realistic, one must always recognize the influence of those that have gone before.

Is Design a creation of a group?

Very often.

Is there a Design ethic?

There are always Design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.

Does Design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?

Yes, even though the use might be very subtle.

Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure

Who would say that pleasure is not useful?

To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? to the specialists or the enlightened amateur? to a privileged social class?

Design addresses itself to the need.