There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch

I have a love/hate relationship with computers and the internet. On the one hand I’m thankful for the platform of this blog and podcast as well as instant access to a whole world of useful how-to information and videos. But, the other day while doing an image search for William Blake’s Urizen, I landed on a hateful anti-Semitic website. Grossed out, I retreated to the computer-free early twentieth century technology of my garage workshop where the Butlerian Jihad backstory of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune remains in effect.

Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Alas, I often cheat with my liberal use of Sketchup.

Along the lines of “we need to rethink this internet thing,” artist Jenny Odell has written a fascinating piece about a phenomenon wherein poorly made objects incarnate via Instagram and other social media platforms. Her essay,  There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch (pdf) traces the origin of watches pimped by social media “influencers.” These watches begin not as a practical way to tell time but, rather, as a physical manifestation of social media interactions.

Amidst the shifting winds of Alibaba sites, dropshipping networks, Shopify templates, Instagram accounts and someone somewhere concocting the details of “Our Story,” a watch was formed, like a sudden precipitate in an unstable cloud. And almost immediately after being produced, it is reviled, doomed to live out its stainless steel life, less a teller of time than an incarnation of petty deception. In that sense, it may be the best artifact of capitalism one could ask for.

You almost need to go back to Thomas Aquinas’ complex Aristotelian thoughtstylings about transubstantiation to wrap your head around the story Odell tells.

While we’re on the topic of transubstantiating things, the Church of England hopes to encourage folks to give up single use plastics for lent via a plastic-free lenten discipline (pdf). It’s a great list of suggestions to which we may need to add social media.

The Monkey Rope

If you haven’t gotten around to reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick you should. I just finished reading it and, next to the Bible, no other book comes close to Moby Dick’s sprawling, hallucinatory weirdness. It reads like a long prose poem, a philosophical horror novel, a meditation on our relationship with the natural world and, well, who knows what else.

I’m haunted by one chapter in particular, “The Money Rope.” In this chapter Melville describes the narrator, Ishmael, tied by a line to Queequeg, who is assigned to the dangerous task of cutting up a whale over the side of the ship. Melville, as he does often in this book, moves from the gruesome particulars of whaling to a metaphor about the human condition.

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering–while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and the ship, which would threaten to jam him–still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you nap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would I only had the management of it.

In our highly individualized, deracinated age we all can benefit from a reminder of the inescapable ties that bind us.

You can read Moby Dick online via Project Gutenberg and you can also listen to a free version read by an eclectic bunch of actors and artists and accompanied by a work of art for each chapter.

By Hand and Eye

I keep an ever growing list of things I should have been taught in school but that were omitted from my California public school and university education. Some examples: the art of memory, philosophy, navigation and that crazy book Moby Dick. I can now add to that list the use of a divider.

Geo R. Walker and Jim Tolpin’s book By Hand & Eye takes you back to a forgotten age when “rulers didn’t rule.” The book introduces you to the vocabulary of proportion. Just as music has a scale, traditional design has a visual scale. Through simple exercises such as creating rectangles, exploring the proportions of the classical orders and creating curves you learn the, sadly, forgotten and lyrical aesthetic legacy of our ancestors.

I’ve always been intimated by design tasks such as creating a website, laying out a newsletter, building a chicken coop or, most recently, creating a spice rack for the kitchen. When it came time to design that spice rack, thanks to By Hand & Eye, I was no longer intimidated by how to begin. I could get out a pair of compasses and start marking out certain proportions that human beings of the past have judged to be more pleasing than others. The door of my spice rack is a golden section, for instance, and the shelf spacing came from an exercise on page 131 of the book. Far from being restrictive, I found the principles in Walker and Tolpin’s book liberating. I now had a starting point for any design project.

For modern folks it’s difficult to imagine working without a ruler. Walker and Toplin explain,

Instead of asking, “How high is this base dimension in inches?” pre-industrial artisans would have asked, “How tall is this base in proportion to the case above it? How wide is this leg in proportion to its height? How much does this leg taper in proportion to its width at the widest part?”

The book walks you through how to apply this knowledge with the hands on use of  dividers, compasses, battens and the forgotten sector (used to divide an object into equal parts).  It’s not a catalog of magical formulas, but rather an introduction into a way of thinking about design that provides guidance from thousands of years of shared human experience.

While written specifically from the perspective of cabinetry and furniture design, I think everyone should read this book. But there’s a downside. Once you know these principles you can’t un-know them. Walker has a disclaimer on his blog:

Continued exposure to the content in this blog may result in serious side effects should you venture into a “Big Box” furniture store. Side effects may vary but may include: nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and in severe cases convulsions. Even in cases of mild reactions it is known to cause embarrassing and uncontrolled verbal outbursts which may cause you to be escorted from the premises. Side effects are temporary and usually disappear shortly after leaving the store. Prolonged exposure to mass-produced ugly furniture may even result in death, though ongoing studies are still not conclusive.

I’d add that these side effects extend, unfortunately, to the entirety of our modern built environment.

Should you want to go down this dangerous rabbit hole, in addition to By Hand & Eye I’d suggest the following web resources:

But you have been warned. Walker’s not kidding about the side effects.

Saturday Tweets: Goats, Squares and Parking Lots

Gray Miscellany

Root Simple has a large, virtual dust bin full of news and notions not quite worthy of a full blog post. I thought I’d sweep a few of them into a brief missive.

Grey vs. Gray
In the great greywater vs. graywater debate I neglected to note a somewhat irrelevant factoid: Sherwin-Williams sells a paint color named after the actor/monologist Spalding Gray. When will Werner Herzog get a paint color?

OED Access
I couldn’t find my library’s online Oxford English Dictionary access. Then I did some digging and discovered it. For those of you in Los Angeles you can access the OED with your library card number here.

While you’re on the LA Library’s website, take a look at their scanned collection of vintage menus, including the Brown Derby and Cocoanut Grove.

America’s Hippest Neighborhood
The part of Los Angeles we live in or on the border of (the border region is disputed) is Silver Lake. Silver Lake is two words my brothers and sisters. If I downed a matcha latte for every time I’ve seen “Silverlake” I’d be a wealthy, if green tinted man. FYI, Silver Lake is named after Herman Silver, a water commissioner and city councilman from the early 1900s.  Perhaps we should rename our lake and community after Spalding Gray. Welcome to Gray Lake! But then, I suppose, we’d have the grey vs. gray problem.

While we’re on the topic of local news, the band Yacht, in their latest video, has included the beloved “happy foot/sad foot” characters from the rotating podiatrist’s sign that defines and delineates us from greater Silver Lake.

Have a great weekend and please enjoy this chicken playing Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro“:

This is why we have the internets.