the wisdom of weeds

Looking closely was both the problem and the solution.

I walk through my front yard at least a couple times a day but I don’t really see it.

When I get the newspaper in the morning, or pull the car in and lock the gate at night, I notice the cactus and the ocotillo, framed by San Jacinto Peak in the background. I see the birds fly into the olive tree. I may even catch the moment at dusk when the lights come on next to the path from the driveway to the front door.

These are big picture views. That’s my lens. Big and beautiful. I’m a big picture thinker.

The Problem

My wife is a gardener and a landscaper. She loves the details. She knows the names of things.

This past weekend I wanted to take a break from work and spend some time with her. When I looked up from the crossword she was headed outside to prune the orange tree. I asked how I could help. She got a glint in her eye. “Well,” she said, “Have you noticed the weeds in front since it rained?”

I hadn’t.

Now I looked. Really looked.

Everywhere I turned, wisps and tufts of green peeked between the rocks.

It sucked. In that moment our beautiful front yard became an abandoned lot.

The Solution

I believe in turning into the skid and answering the call for adventure. When we deny reality, we suffer. When we lean away from the hill that scares us, our skis run and we lose control.

Now that I’d seen the weeds I couldn’t unsee them. The question was what to do about them.

Weeding isn’t rocket science. But there were so many… and using environmentally unfriendly, cancer-causing chemicals was out of the question.

Our learning is most valuable when we apply it. As I surveyed the yard I remembered what I learned about setting goals from reading Emily Balcetis’ Clearer Closer Better. Breaking a big goal into segments makes it more likely that you’ll complete it. Don’t think about running the whole marathon. Get to the next landmark.

Looking at the yard all at once made me want to give up before I started. The project would be easier to complete if I focused on a specific chunk and then moved the goal posts. I zoomed in on a section between my neighbor’s wall and our driveway.

I grabbed a bucket and sat down to work.

Process Over Results

When I was in Tibet I talked with a monk who was cleaning the monastery.

“David,” he said, “I used to clean because I wanted a clean space. But cleaning was hard and I had to wait for the result. Now, I clean because I like to clean. It is easy and I enjoy the process.” He smiled. “And when I finish, I still enjoy the result.”


I haven’t done the dishes the same way since.

Yes, I wanted the weeds out of my yard, and I wanted to make my wife happy, but I also didn’t want to be pissed for two hours thinking about everything else I wasn’t doing.

When the work is just about the work, everything else stops. You get into a state of flow and you lose the sense of work itself. That’s when the fun begins.

What I Learned

Here are the top 10 things I learned on the job:

  1. There are three distinct types of weeds that were growing in that section of my yard: grassy, leafy, and sneaky purple fuckers
  2. The sneaky purple fuckers actually managed to mimic the color of the rocks around them. I didn’t see them right away so I had to retrace my steps and give them an unkind nickname
  3. Some weeds had flowers on top. I found this arrogant (“Look at me, I’m a weed with a pretty yellow hat!”) and I took special pleasure in uprooting them
  4. Propaganda is a truly effective way to justify killing. When I personalized the weeds (see #3) it became easier to characterize them as jerks (the fact that I humanized them to dehumanize them = your daily dose of irony)
  5. Different weeds have different roots, so I developed techniques like “the Rottweiler Shake” to bring them up quickly without leaving part of the root underground
  6. The best tool for most weeding is your bare hand
  7. Sunscreen is a gift from the gods in these punctured-ozone times. You should reapply
  8. People driving by your house in a community where lots of people visit on vacation sometimes do double-takes when they see a middle-aged white guy sitting on the ground picking weeds without a pickup truck in sight
  9. A fun way to scare the hell out of your neighbor Phil when you smell him smoking cigarettes is by standing up suddenly to stretch and saying, “Hi, Phil!” over the wall right next to where he’s replacing a windshield wiper
  10. Pulling weeds for a couple hours in the desert can alter your fingerprint to the point where your fancy MacPro doesn’t know who you are anymore and demands a password instead of touch recognition

The Results Are In

… and the weeds are out. While I was thinking all those thoughts, I was constantly pulling weeds. Turning over rocks. Scooting over to the next section. Pulling more weeds. Letting my eyes go soft so that anything green (or purple!) jumped out at me. And pulling more weeds, until the whole yard appeared beautiful to me, both for what I could see and for what I could no longer see.

My wife came out to say hi just as I was finishing up.

“Wow!” she said. “You have the patience of a saint.”

Nah. Just the love of a good woman, the cleaning ethic of a Tibetan monk, and a front yard that is momentarily weed-free.



the unbearable lightness of innovation

The most beautiful, compelling aspect of learning is its predictable unpredictability.

Sure, we have schematic neural architecture that enables us to organize and make sense of large data sets like language. And that facial expression our significant other is making as we type this.

But unlike the artificial neural networks that power machine learning and AI, our brains love to slip the leash and do their own thing.

Playful creativity is the ultimate Turing Test. Original, abstract thinking is the defining characteristic of homo sapiens. It’s our unfair sustainable competitive advantage.

Tragically, we kill our most curious cats early on.

At five years old we’re excited and we question everything.

By middle school we’re afraid to raise our hands.

This is why hierarchical, authoritative organizational models of school and business must die.

Don’t Know Much About History

School as we practice it is dangerously, abusively obsolete. (Please Note: I am all for public schools, and this is NOT a call for privatization. Profiteering assholes who champion stealing tax dollars from an equity-focused institution are a different public policy problem. This section is meant for every classroom that produces passive students instead of active learners.) The Taylorish Carnegie seat hour and the traditional curriculum are worthless byproducts of an age that no longer exists.

Training children to sit still, be quiet, and follow directions is abusive and runs counter to a culture that demands to know why graduates can’t be action-oriented thinkers, communicators, and problem solvers.

We are raising veal for the rodeo.

Meanwhile, vocal critics attempt to cancel teachers. Florida teachers don’t even keep books on their classroom shelves for fear of being charged with a felony. Generally speaking, educators are nice, conflict-averse, fearful people who want to keep their jobs, so they rarely stand up and tell the rest of us to fuck off. But I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

All of this has happened before. CRT is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Socrates and his Method are in the teaching Hall of Fame. But when we quote him and say, “The unexamined life is worth living,” we should remember that these were his last words. The government put him to death for “corrupting the minds of the youth.”

Don’t Know Much Biology

How is it that so many of us recover from our schooling to lead satisfying, fun-loving lives?

We are hard-wired to have fun and break rules. That’s one of the ways you can tell the difference between us and computer programs like ChatGPT. ChatGPT has to be told to do this:

We humans come by it quite naturally. Quite…fucking…naturally. Fucking quite naturally is a quick reversal of words that becomes a suggestive phrase in its own right (and suddenly seems way more fun than finishing this post). *As a former English teacher, I point out that the last sentence did nothing to advance my thesis. I had no logical reason to include it. So why did I write it? For the best reason of all: it tickled me. That impulse is what it means to be human, and it help explains why there is an entire corner of Github dedicated to jailbreaking ChatGPT and making it do ridiculous things that no one predicted.

Don’t Know Much Geography

When you release a tool into the world, you give up the right to tell people what to do with it. I make a sharp piece of metal with an easy-to-hold handle. I may intend for it to be a knife or a scalpel. But I can’t control whether a person uses it for constructive or destructive purposes.

If I make a plastic toothbrush I can’t predict whether someone will improve their dental hygiene or sharpen the handle to save money on the knife I marketed in the last paragraph.

The problem with today’s tools — more precisely, the problem with the makers of today’s tools — is that they attempt to combine the hierarchical dominance of ownership with the cleverness of business. They put shells of value propositions into the world while attempting to retain control of their creations.

Friend of OSL Cory Doctorow has written extensively on the right to repair. John Deere, Apple, publishers, and many other corporate entities have now sold us agreements that essentially say we haven’t purchased the thing, only the right to use the thing within their governing parameters.

Which brings me to SpaceX and Ukraine.

As reported in Reuters and elsewhere, “SpaceX has taken steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for controlling drones in the region during the country’s war with Russia.”

At a glance this doesn’t appear unusual in a time when companies set all sorts of unquestioned boundaries around the use of their services and products. According to SpaceX’s president, “Ukrainians have leveraged [SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service] in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”

But here is the problem: by taking steps to limit Ukraine’s use of a tool that can help the country defend itself, SpaceX has become an actor in a war. SpaceX calls Ukraine’s use “offensive.” How is that possible? The global consensus is that Ukraine was unilaterally attacked. In that context, by definition, all Ukrainian actions in this conflict are self-defense.

This is more than semantics or rhetoric. SpaceX isn’t neutral, in the same way Twitter isn’t neutral. Or teachers. Or you and me. These days everyone is either validating or challenging something. Makes you wonder what software and hardware companies like SpaceX really stand for.

What I Do Know

Valentine’s Day is coming up. Love is (always) on the minds of many. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is nearing its one-year anniversary.

I dream of a world where schools embrace Open-Source Learning and invite, encourage, and empower young people to create, imagine, and play as they learn.

I dream of a world where consumers of all ages are free to innovate around the use of tools to enhance their quality of life.

I dream of a world where our predictable unpredictability is embraced in ways that leads to more creativity, collaboration, opportunity, and problem-solving.

What a wonderful world this would be.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2023.