Deep Work

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Do you find yourself unable to get work done, interrupted by incoming emails, Facebook updates and tweets? Can’t seem to get that garden planted or get that novel started because you’re too “busy?” How ironic that a computer science professor, Cal Newport, could be just the person to lead us out of our distraction with his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The book can be boiled down to this: thou shalt schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on single, important tasks. And, yes, that includes thinking about how we spend our leisure time too. If you allow incoming texts and notifications to define your day you’ll turn into a human router, pushing around frivolous emails, text messages and silly cat videos.

To give in to these temptations is to train ourselves to be distracted. Alternately, the longer we spend in periods of uninterrupted concentration the easier it becomes to focus. It was Newport’s deconstruction of the Internet Sabbath that won me over. Newport says,

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s carving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t other benefits to putting aside one day and making it different than all the others. But let’s not kid ourselves that an Internet sabbath is going to cure the crack-like addictiveness of social media and click-bait websites. Newport suggests, “embracing boredom” and not surfing the web even when you’re waiting in line at the post office. Rather than schedule time away from distraction Newport suggests scheduling time to give into temptation. Go ahead and surf the web, just do it in a scheduled block of time. We are, after all, human and need to view the occasional cat video (or catch up on Root Simple blog posts!). But we can’t let those cat videos define our schedules and inhibit our ability to focus on a single task.

Newport has a refreshing agnosticism towards our technological future. He’s neither anti-tech nor techno-optimist. He’s of the “right tool for the job” mindset. In a provocative chapter called “Quit Social Media” Newport compares things like Facebook and Twitter to a farmer’s tools and suggests,

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

In other words, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you should use it. I’ve spent a lot of useless time on Facebook in recent years despite the fact that it and Twitter account for less than 5% of the traffic to this blog. Most visitors come from Google. I’d be better off spending focused time writing better how-to blog posts than chasing likes.

Now most of us have to deal with what Newport calls “shallow” tasks, such as responding to emails and going to meetings. For myself and, I suspect, most people reading this blog, we need to adopt one of the middle-ground solutions Newport recommends: scheduling large blocks of time to take on single, important and challenging tasks while not allowing shallow duties to occupy more than 50% of our days. For some, such as the novelist Neal Stephenson, that Newport offers as and example, a more radical disconnection may be necessary. Stephenson doesn’t have an email account. As Stephenson puts it,

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Lastly I want to give a tip of my metaphysical hat to Newport for acknowledging a non-materialist justification for avoiding distraction. Usually, when the topic of our distracted age comes up, the solutions are all about brain science. Newport throws a bone to us non-reductionist types with an appeal to the sacredness of craftsmanship, honed by long periods of concentration. This craftsmanship can extend to all our work and leisure activities even to mundane tasks like doing the dishes.

Newport has an excellent blog focusing on deep work and study habits here.

George Rector: M.F.K. Fisher’s Dirty Old Uncle

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We struck gold in the depths of the library the other day when I dug up Dine at Home with Rector: A book on what men like, why they like it, and how to cook it, by George Rector, c.1937.

Rector (1878-1947) was a restaurateur and popular author. This book is ostensibly a cookbook–I don’t know what else it would be–but it doesn’t have recipes per se. Instead, he just mentions how to cook things as he’s steaming along. I’m in love with the hardboiled yet strangely comforting prose (though I do have to ignore the casual sexism and racism of the period).

Seems most cookbooks these days range from bland to, at best, passionately sincere. Old George is just in it for the fun. The pleasure of reading him is filed in my brain alongside the pleasure of reading M.F.K. Fisher, though he’s more like her dirty old uncle. Which is to say you’d happily read either them even if you have no intention of ever cooking anything ever again.

Speaking of casual sexism, I’m particularly fond of the chapter titled “When the Wife’s Away”, which steps befuddled menfolk from the basics of grilling a steak (“Steak is a good thing to begin on; don’t be scared off because it’s one of the aristocrats of the cow kingdom…”), to how to scramble eggs over a double boiler (“that’s the dingus Junior’s cereal is cooked in…”) to making “that noble experiment known as Rum-Tum Ditty” for the boys when they come over for cards. Rum-Tum-Ditty, I have to say, defies explanation. Let’s just say the ingredients include whipped egg whites, a pound of cheese and a can of tomato soup.

Speaking of befuddled menfolk, Erik is quite fond of this passage about making Hollandaise sauce (from the chapter titled “A Touch of Eggomania”), not least because it has introduced the term “hen fruit” into our lives:

For eggs Benedict, you need Hollandaise sauce, an additional contribution of the hen fruit to the pleasures of the palate, and to the confusion of cooks. Hold on to your hats and we’ll round that curve. Add four egg yolks, beaten to the thick, lemon-colored point, to half a cup of butter melted in a double boiler. Stir as you add the eggs and keep stirring–stir with the calm and temperate perseverance of the mine mule making his millionth trip down the gallery. That’s the secret–that and getting the water in the bottom hot as blazes without ever letting it come to a boil. Just before the mixture gets thick–timing again–put in a tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne pepper to taste, and I hope and believe you’ll have a crackajack Hollandaise. Which is something to have, because it’s cantankerous stuff, as the tears shed by millions of cooks down the ages all testify.

How to Turn a Rotary Phone Into a Push-button Phone

IMG_6841Last month, AT&T forced us to switch to a voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phone service. When they did so my beloved Western Electric 500 rotary phone (that sits atop the cat scratcher I blogged about yesterday) could no longer dial outgoing calls. So much for backwards compatibility!

Thankfully, some Google searching led me to a device you can install in your rotary phone to turn it into a hybrid rotary/push-button phone. Old Phone Work’s rotary pulse to tone converter not only made the phone dial again but also added last number redial and stored numbers.

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You need to be somewhat of a phone geek to install this gadget. It took me about an hour to sort out the wiring with directions specifically for WE500s that I downloaded from the Old Phone Works website. Thankfully, many vintage phones, such as ours, have labeled connections and are easy to rewire. The Old Phone Works pulse-to-tone converter, pictured above, fits completely within our old phone. The phone dials just as it used to, but at the end of each turn of the dial a pulse is emitted. The pulse-to-dial converter I bought won’t work on a conventional phone line (non-VOIP) as the voltages are too high. For non-VOIP service Old Phone Works has this pulse to tone converter.

The reasons we still have a land line–as well as why we haven’t switched to cable service–are complicated and will have to wait for a future blog post. But right now I’m enjoying the novelty of navigating phone trees with a dial phone. It’s one of the more ridiculous projects around the compound, but I like that a 50 year old phone, built like a tank, is still working.

Black Friday Book Suggestions

While we don’t much approve of all the self-referential Black Friday hoopla each year, the fact is that it is difficult to get through this season without buying something for someone, and books make great presents, especially for do-it-yourselfer types. With that in mind, here’s a round-up of our favorite books of the year:

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Wild Drinks & Cocktails: Handcrafted Squashes, Shrubs, Switchels, Tonics, and Infusions to Mix at Home by Emily Han.

Emily visited us on our podcast just a couple of weeks ago.  Wild Drinks is a really fun book which teaches you how to wildcraft both fancy artisanal cocktails and unusual non-alcoholic drinks like shrubs and switchels. Her emphasis is on foraged ingredients, but she also works with ingredients which might be foraged at the grocery store or farmers’ market. An excellent choice for the budding mixologist  or herbalist in your life, as well as anyone interested in unusual, healthful drinks.  (Kelly)

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What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action by Per Epsen Stoknes.

Does anybody really want to get a climate change book for Christmas? Happy happy holidays!!!!  Santa’s Workshop is flooding! On the other hand, this might be the best gift you could give the downcast environmentalist or resigned doomer on your list. Here’s my review. (Kelly)

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

At this point, what more can we say? Many of you followed along as we decluttered using this book as a guide. (Here’s our original review and here’s a link to the whole series of posts inspired by this book.) In the meanwhile, this book became a bit of a media phenomenon in the U.S.. I’d go so far as to say that this has been a KonMarie kind of year, and decluttering has become a buzzword and a lifestyle. Hype aside, we liked this book more than others of the genre, and it helped us. However, decluttering is not a single event, but a way of life so I’m afraid we already need another round of tidying in our house. .. (Kelly)

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Planting in a Post Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

Of course this book is on the list! We’re talking about it right now on the blog as a part of our garden redesign series, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say this my favorite new landscape design book. For the thoughtful gardeners in your life. (Kelly)

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The Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook: Extracting, Distilling and Enjoying Plant Essences by Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl.

The Artisinal Vinegar Maker’s Handbook: Crafting Quality Vinegars–Fermenting, Distilling, Infusing by Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl.

The two books above, The Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook and The Vinegar Maker’s Handbook are both by the same authors and press. I’ve not reviewed them for the blog yet. I’m hard on “how-to” books — the projects have to work, and the project steps have to be clear and easy to follow, with no gaps in the steps or assumed knowledge. The only way to know if this is true of any book is to do several projects in each book to find out, and I haven’t had the time to delve into these two books yet–to actually try one of their projects.

However, I don’t want to pass them by in this roundup, because they are intriguing on first inspection. They look and feel like AP chemistry text books–and I mean that in a good way! They are sturdy hardbacks with lots of pictures, step by step instructions and detailed reference charts.  They’re pretty intense in their obsession with detail–a world away from your usual lightweight “10 Quick n’ Easy Projects” type of books.

They strike me as books for a craftsperson ready to take that next step toward making these products as a home business. Malle and Schmickl are scientists–stern Austrian scientists, no less– and they are all about consistency and professional practice. So these books mean to take you from being someone a casual dabbler to a home chemist who could make batches of vinegar or essential oil with consistent, predictable –saleable–results.

I’d say the vinegar book would be good for someone who has already made some vinegar, perhaps in a more intuitive manner, a la Sandor Katz, and wants to make larger batches for gifts or sale, and is ready to really delve into the serious science of vinegar culture.

The essential oil book covers not just essential oil, but also some other basic perfume techniques, like enfleurage, and recipes for beauty products to make with your essential oils and hydrosols.  FYI: you need a still to make essential oil, and stills ain’t cheap–so gifting this book could lead to future expenses! They discuss different sorts of stills you could make or buy. They sell their own stills and mention them. This did raise a flag for me, but it’s not obnoxiously done, and they do give alternatives. (Kelly)

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Microshelters: 59 Creative Cabins, Tiny Houses, Tree Houses, and Other Small Structures by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen.

If your tiny house seems like a mansion this book is for you. “Deek” is a master of re-purposing junk into cute micro-structures. There’s 59 great examples for inspiration and a couple of detailed plans in the back of the book. If you’d like to build a “thoughtstyling” shed or small outbuilding to escape the pressures of the main house Deek has you covered. This tome was worth it just to discover the PLB formula: pillow, lamp, books. Add those three things and a cardboard box will seem like a home. (Erik)

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One Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka by Larry Korn.

Korn worked on Fukuoka’s farm in the 1970s and went on to work as his translator. We interviewed Korn at length on episode 64 of of our podcast. Fukuoka’s ideas can be quite challenging to wrap your head around and this book serves as a great introduction. (Erik)

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Guerilla Furniture Design: How to Build Lean, Modern Furniture with Salvaged Materials by Will Holman.

Holman plays with our waste stream to craft handsome and easy to build furniture. This book reminds me of classic 60s and 70s DIY furniture manuals such as Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture. Holman was our guest on episode 55 of our podcast. (Erik)

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Josey Baker Bread: Get Baking-Make Awesome Bread-Share the Loaves
by Josey Baker.

When folks ask me how to learn how to bake bread I send them to Josey Baker. As a former science educator, Baker is the idea person to write a baking cookbook. The recipes go from easy to more challenging and if you work your way through the book you really will make awesome bread. The book also captures Josey’s infectious enthusiasm. I don’t think he’s physically capable of frowning. (Erik)

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The following two books are just out. We haven’t seen them yet, but can hardly wait to get our hands on them. They were both written by friends, and we know they’ll be great:

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The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir by Pascal Baudar.

Pascal and his partner Mia Wasilevich are rock stars of the local foraging scene. What they do with foraged ingredients is breathtaking. I can’t wait to see this book. (Erik)

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Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives: The Easy and Treatment-Free Way to Attract and Keep Healthy Bees by Rob and Chelsea McFarland.

Rob and Chelsea are the dynamic founders of Honeylove.org and are responsible for getting beekeeping legalized in Los Angeles. They are also proponents of treatment-free beekeeping and I’m looking forward to reading their take on this contentious method. (Erik)

What we think about when we try not to think about global warming

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In the comments of a recent post, one of our readers recommended this long-titled book: What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action by Per Epsen Stoknes (Chelsea Green).  Of it, she said, “For the first time in a LONG time, I feel hope and possibility when it comes to climate change.”

So I read it, and now I feel the same way. Thanks, Brigitte!

And the introduction of the book says pretty much the same thing, except the praise is coming from Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of The Limits to Growth. This is a man who has been waiting, pretty much fruitlessly, for us to wake up and change our ways for the last 40 years. So in 2011 he gave up on us and wrote 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years. It was not, as he said, a description of an attractive future.

He’s a doomer’s doomer, yet in the introduction he says, “This book gave me back the hope I’d lost over forty years of futile struggle.”

So, if Stoknes can help me, Brigitte and Jorgen, maybe he can help you, too.

Continue reading…