Framed

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Lloyd Kahn’s Instagram alerted me to a delightful set of models built by University of Illinois at Chicago architecture students that pay tribute to something we don’t think about enough, the wood framing that forms the skeleton of most houses in the U.S.

The models are in the U.S. Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. Odds are you’re sitting in a wood frame structure right now. While the debate between masonry and wood framing is above my pay grade, it’s fun to see a representation what’s under our walls. The nerd in me wants to make one of these framing models, maybe a version our own house.

Cartrivision: The Netflix of 1972

Self described “hardware/software necromancer@foone posted some remarkable hardware necromancy in Twitter about an Ebay auction for a rare 1970s television containing a Cartivision, a long forgotten forerunner to the VCR. As @foone put it,

Cartrivision is an early (1972) home video format which had some wacky DRM nonsense (well, ARM I guess, it’s not digital) and it only lasted about a year, and one of the reasons it’s impossible to play now is that you couldn’t just buy a VCR for it. Instead you had to buy a TV with a Cartrivision player built into it, and since those were all huge 1970s console TVs the number of them that have survived until the modern day is basically zero. The wacky DRM thing was that most movies only came on red tapes, and the key distinction between red tapes and black tapes is that YOU COULDN’T REWIND RED TAPES.

The business model gets even stranger. You could buy a very limited amount of titles and record stuff on blank tapes but if you wanted more recent films you had to go to a store, choose from a catalog, and then have the tapes mailed to the store for you to pick up. So, basically, it’s 1970s Netflix with no rewind.

Unfortunately you’re all too late to get in on the Ebay auction since the beauty above sold for $1,525. If you’d like to get it working you’ve got to have some serious analog repair chops and any existing tapes will likely disintegrate as they move through the mechanism.

Conservator Maurice Schechter won an Emmy for his heroic effort to digitize two Cartrivision tapes that contained the only existing recording of game 5 of the 1973 N.B.A. finals. A 2013 New York Times article describes his analog wizardry.

If you’d like in-depth info on the history of the Catrivision there’s an article in Fast Company.

If you’d like to fix one yourself you’ll need to get familiar with LabGuy’s Cartrivision restoration project. Here’s some Cartrivision documents including a catalog of titles.

While it’s unlikely that any of us will take on a Cartrivision restoration project there’s a way in which we’ve all become conservators of outdated media. I’ve got a box of 3/4 inch video tapes from when I used to be an editor that are rotting in the garage. Then there’s all the digital photos . . .

What Kind of Wall Anchor Should I Use?

Patent illustration for the Molly bolt.

Fine Woodworking has a phenomenal article by Mario Rodriguez that, next to the meaning of life, unlocks the second greatest philosophical conundrum of all time, “what kind of wall anchor should I use?” If, like us, you live in an old house with lath and plaster walls you’ve likely made a mess at one point or had something just plain fall of the wall. By all means, if you can, get thee some picture rail. But, if that’s not an option, take a look at Rodriguez’s article for all your wall anchor needs, whatever kind of wall you’re dealing with.

I’d like to highlight two of the suggested anchors in that Fine Woodworking article for those of us in the lath and plaster tribe. One I’ve already blogged about, is the pull toggle pictured above. It’s not perfect as sometimes the plastic snaps prematurely, but I’ve used this bit of hardware to hang heavy stuff successfully, such as flat screen TVs.

Though I haven’t tried this type of wall anchor I’m intrigued with another anchor that Rodriquez mentions, the Molly bolt. The patent goes back to the 1930s so there’s nothing new about this particular flavor of wall anchor. Rodriguez suggests that it will work in lath and plaster and there’s even a new tool to make installation easier if you’ve got a lot of them to put in.

And a tip on using either of these two hollow wall anchors: they won’t work if you hit a stud or fire block. If I’m not sure if there’s a piece of solid wood behind where I’m drilling, and in an old lath and plaster wall it’s often hard to tell, I drill a tiny pilot hole to see if I hit solid wood behind the lath. If I do I can just use a regular old screw. If the wall is hollow I can get a bigger drill bit and use either of the two wall anchors in this post. Remember to make sure you have the correct drill bit size for the wall anchor you’re using or you’ll have one of those multiple trips to the hardware store sort of day.

Rodriguez’s article reminds me of a pledge I’ve made to myself of trying to understand the design and use of the fastener I need before venturing into the most confusing and confounding aisle of the hardware store, that place where all the bolts, anchors, screws and nails are kept.

William Morris is the Marie Kondo We Need

I’ll cop to being a Marie Kondo fanboy in the wake of the de-cluttering trend of the early 2010s. And, no doubt, I’m thankful to have weathered lockdown in a mostly clutter-free house thanks to Kondo’s prompting. But those days in quarantine exposed some serious shortcomings in Kondo’s thinking and elevated in my mind her more thoughtful predecessor, the Victorian poet, designer and artist William Morris. An address Morris delivered in 1884, entitled Art and Socialism has a hint of Kondo’s decluttering impulse but a much deeper and less individualized understanding of the meanings of the objects that clutter our lives.

Kondo asks us to consider if an object “sparks joy.” Morris, on the other hand, asks more systemic questions: Who are the workers behind the object I’m holding? Do the workers live a life of poverty and misery? Who benefits from their labor? Is this object a necessity or just a scheme to make money? And, most importantly, what would happen if the workers themselves had control over their production? Morris says,

I feel dazed at the thought of the immensity of work which is undergone for the making of useless things. It would be an instructive day’s work for any one of us who is strong enough to walk through two or three of the principal streets of London on a weekday, and take accurate note of everything in the shop windows which is embarrassing or superfluous to the daily life of a serious man. Nay, the most of these things no one, serious or unserious, wants at all ; only a foolish habit makes even the lightest-minded of us suppose that he wants them, and to many people even of those who buy them they are obvious encumbrances to real work, thought, and pleasure. But I beg you to think of the enormous mass of men who are occupied with this miserable trumpery, from the engineers who have had to make the machines for making them, down to the hapless clerks who sit daylong year after year in the horrible dens wherein the wholesale exchange of them is transacted, and the shopmen who, not daring to call their souls their own, retail them amidst numberless insults which they must not resent, to the idle public which doesn’t want them, but buys them to be bored by them and sick to death of them.

Morris goes on to summarize his thoughts in a simple all-caps maxim, “THE WORK MUST BE WORTH DOING.” I like this a lot better than whether an object “sparks joy” or not. The slogan reminds me of David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs which shows in sometimes funny, sometimes gut wrenching detail how much of the work done in our time is meaningless, unnecessary and destructive of the planet and the mental health of so many people.

A common misunderstanding of Morris message is that he thought that we should all go back to hand work. It’s clear from reading him that it isn’t a matter of machine vs. hand work but rather what those machines are currently being used for and who is in command of them. We might decide, in a better future, to use machines to reduce drudgery rather than just accumulate profit. Morris says,

And all that mastery over the powers of nature which the last hundred years or less have given us : what has it done for us under this system ? In the opinion of John Stuart Mill, it was doubtful if all the mechanical inventions of modern times have done any-
thing to lighten the toil of labour: be sure there is no doubt that they were not made for that end, but to make a profit. Those almost miraculous machines, which if orderly forethought had dealt with them might even now be speedily extinguishing all irksome and unintelligent labour, leaving us free to raise the standard of skill of hand and energy of mind in our workmen, and to produce afresh that loveliness and order which only the hand of man guided by his soul can produce ; what have they done for us now ? Those machines of which the civilised world is so proud, has it any right to be proud of the use they have been put to by commercial war and waste?

But there’s another crucial difference between Kondo and Morris. Morris does not believe that we can somehow vote with our wallets to solve the crisis of capitalism. It’s not a matter of individual action. Morris says that we need to join together with other people to make systemic change, to wrestle power away from the capitalist class,

And how can we of the middle classes, we the capitalists, and our hangers-on, help them? By renouncing our class, and on all occasions when antagonism rises up between the classes casting in our lot with the victims : with those who are condemned at the best to lack of education, refinement, leisure, pleasure, and renown ; and at the worst to a life lower than that of the most brutal of savages in order that the system of competitive Commerce may endure.

There is an active, intentionality to Morris’ question, “Is the work worth doing?” Contained within this pithy slogan is a challenge to the “free hand of the market,” the alleged autonomy of capitalism that claims that a system, not people, determines what work gets done. In the world that Morris imagines, the workers decide what work is worth doing and what to do with surplus profit. Collectively, we might put aside some of that surplus for, say, a possible pandemic or other emergency. We might give young parents more time with their newborns. We might give families more time to take care of elders. We might make sure that everyone has a home and healthcare. What we wouldn’t have is what Marx called a “bad infinity,” the drive to more and more profit accumulation that comes at the expense of the life of this planet.

It’s easy to slip into hopelessness and nihilism when reading Morris’ still incendiary words. He hoped for peaceful, revolutionary change in Britain and the U.S. that never came. In fact, all of the worst aspects of the 19th century: war, environmental catastrophe, the continued dis-empowerment of the working classes only accelerated. And we’re surrounded by more ugly, useless crap than Morris could have ever imagined even in his worst nightmare.

The main problem with nihilism is that it leads to inaction. It says that you don’t care about future generations and should just give up. As Assata Shakur says, “Our young people deserve a future, and I consider it the mandate of my ancestors to be a part of the struggle to ensure that they have one.”

You can read Morris’ speech, Art and Socialism in a book Architecture, industry & wealth; collected papers for free on Archive.org.

Learning to Draw Version 4.0

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I’ve long had this notion that drawing should be added to the list of foundational skills we learn in school such as typing, grammar and multiplication. I think we’d all benefit if we developed our ability to see and represent the complex world around us. As William Morris tried to tell us, combining art with evolving beyond crapitalism will lead us to a better place.

Over the years I’ve made several abandoned attempts at learning to draw. Coincidentally I’m married to a talented artist and have a lot of friends who teach art (Fun fact: I met Kelly because the TV station I worked for had offices in the UCSD art department).

When my attempt to learn Spanish tanked, mid-quarantine, I took up drawing again, mainly focused on architectural sketching since that would the most useful reason for me to hone my weak drawing skills. Am I going to show you my drawings? No. While I’m steadily improving they’re still pretty embarrassing.

In addition to practical reasons, I also took up drawing again as a way to curb my social media doomscrolling. Spending a few hours drawing in the evening reminds me of the 1990s, of those long evenings devoted to some intricate crafty endeavor or just reading a difficult book. I thought that taking up drawing again would counter social media use and, to some extent, it has.

I’ve come to a few realizations about the skill of drawing:

  • Some people, such as Kelly, intuitively figure out the central trick of drawing as kids: that you draw what you actually see not the representations in our heads. For example, a human body is just another shape, like a boulder or a toaster. Understanding this is how you take the first step from stick figures to more accurate representations. This skill can seem magical to those of us who didn’t figure this out on our own. It can seem like a “natural” talent when it’s not.
  • Once you understand this first step the next step is, sadly, much harder. You have to practice drawing over and over and over again in the same way that if you want to learn the piano you have to go through daily, boring exercises. Unfortunately practicing drawing is confounding, frustrating and decidedly not fun especially at the beginning. Scrolling Instagram it much easier and way more tempting.
  • Buying art supplies is not the same as practicing drawing. There’s a temptation to shop when what you should be doing is just drawing. You can do perfectly acceptable drawings with a ball point pen stolen from the bank. Shopping for stuff it just an excuse not to go through the painful exercises and cope with what seems like glacially slow progress.
  • Lastly, I’ve confirmed with my in-house expert Kelly that drawing never gets “easy” no matter how long you’ve been at it.

The exercise of blind contour drawings have been another revelation for me. In this practice you draw without glancing down at the paper. You would think that this wouldn’t work but in fact I discovered that my drawings were better if a bit off register. The line quality was more lively and the representation of complex curves much more accurate. This is simply because you need to actually look at what you’re drawing and not get fixated on the representation on paper. I told Kelly about this and she gave me that “well, duh” look. I told another friend who teaches high school art about my revelation and he said that he has a hard time convincing his students that their blind contour drawings are better than their regular work. It’s a good thing, he said, that I know the difference.

An art professor friend gave me another good tip, that I should look at the drawings of top shelf artists from all different eras. This was a reminder that drawings aren’t the same thing as art and that it’s important to study both the form and content of the works of talented masters.

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I don’t intend to make art. For me drawing is more a meditation aimed at improving the act of seeing. Practically, I like to make furniture and do light construction work. Drawing is a skill that helps with these tasks. For furniture, I do ink drawings first even if I later go to the computer for the final plan.

If you’d like to take up drawing I’ve used a few resources. If you know of more please leave a comment. For the initial step of learning to see I’ve found the classic Betty Edwards book Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain useful. For exercises and techniques for pen and paper I turn to Alphonso Dunn’s YouTube channel. What I like about Dunn is that he doesn’t assume knowledge and is good at explaining concepts to idiot beginners like me. In the past I’ve also taken life drawing classes and would like to do that again. The takeaway from those classes was the importance of setting time limits and doing sketches that are loose and quick as well as long and detailed.

For architectural sketching I’ve been working my way through a new book, Sketch Club Urban Drawing. See above for my warning on shopping for art supplies, but I do really like my Rotring Isograph College Set. It comes with three refillable pens, a mechanical pencil, an eraser and a handy ruler/protractor thingy. It’s what architecture students used to use before the days of 3d rendering.