The Twittering Machine

I’m in the middle of reading Richard Seymour’s dystopian account of the glowing screens we’re all yoked to, The Twittering Machine (Amazon, Library), and I want to find the escape hatch in the Spectacle. Seymour notes that we are in an age in which we are all writing more than we ever did, in the form of posts, texts etc. But he asks are we “more being written than writing?” The book leaves me wanting to disappear into my wood shop to commune with a carefully curated set of had tools for the rest of my days on this earth. I’ve embedded an interview with Seymour on the appropriately named This is Hell podcast.

Steady

My gappy first attempt at a hand-cut blind dovetail. I’ve got a lot of practice to do!

I spent the past weekend taking a magnificent class with woodworker Chris Gochnour. In addition to being a master of his craft he’s also a talented teacher with many years of experience. Now, this is not a woodworking blog because I’m soooooo not qualified to opinionate on the subject. But I would like to share two things Chris taught that I think apply to any worthwhile task.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of the class was getting a sense of how to pace work. Sometime in the late afternoon of the first day there was a building crescendo of aggressive pounding and sawing and I think Chris could sense that we were all getting a little too frenetic in our actions. He stopped us and said, “steady, work steady.” He explained that we should not work so slow as to be inefficient but that we shouldn’t rush either. That “steady” pace will, of course, be different depending on if you’re a beginner, such as myself, or further along on the learning curve. I found myself through the rest of the weekend, when I found myself rushing, hearing Chris’s voice in my head saying, “steady.”

The other thing he said that stuck with me is that you, “don’t learn to play the violin in one day.” Skills take practice. I’m familiar with this from studying music and yet I forget that the other needed skills in my life need to be built slowly over time. In music, you have to set aside some time every day to practice your scales.

But where to find the time? Lately I feel like I’ve been paying too much attention to the news. While I think it’s important to know something about what’s going on, I don’t think that I need to follow the day to day drama. What if I devoted the time I spend reading the newspaper to practicing cutting dovetails by hand? What if, instead of falling into the daily political reality show, we practiced sewing, or drawing or learning a language or playing musical instrument? We could probably catch up with the important news in just an hour every week.

While not eschewing power tools, Chris ended the class with a moving plea to consider the more “steady” pace of working with hand tools. “Steady” is not the same as “slow.” “Steady” implies a skillfulness that comes with practice and focus. “Steady” is counter-cultural, at odds with the always distracted ethos of our cheap, plastic, ugly, restless and isolated Empire. So, my brothers and sisters, steady.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.

Save the Foot! Save Lost Words!

A neighbor has stepped up, so to speak, with a petition to save our neighborhood’s iconic Happy Foot Sad Foot sign.

The Sunset Foot Clinic on Sunset and Benton Way is moving, and the iconic rotating Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is currently slated to come down at the end of August when the clinic moves.

The sign was installed in 1985 and has become a Southern California icon. One of the last signs grandfathered to rotate in Los Angeles, locals claim that it can tell the future – or at least whether the observer is going to have a good (Happy Foot) or bad (Sad Foot) day, depending on which side they see first.

Featured in several novels and multiple songs and videos, as well inspiring the HaFoSaFo nickname of its surrounding area, the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign is a Silver Lake original, and a Los Angeles cultural resource to be preserved.

In the 1990s, the LA Department of Cultural Affairs saved, landmarked and restored many signs across Los Angeles. Landmarking now falls under the jurisdiction of the Cultural Heritage Commission via the Office of Historic Resources within the LA Planning Department.

We ask that:

(1)  Council District 13 and the Cultural Heritage Commission support designating the sign an Historic Cultural Monument to preserve it in place; and

(2)  the owners of the site incorporate the current sign into their plans for a new restaurant on site.

Please sign to help keep the Happy Foot Sad Foot sign prognosticating for all Angelenos – current and future – and may all your days be Happy Foot!

Put your best foot forward and sign the petition here.

Lost Words
Reader fjorlief inhaga left a link to a Brain Pickings blog post on the Oxford children’s dictionary’s ham-fisted decision to replace words such as fern, willow, and starling with modern abominations such as broadband and cut and paste. Brain Pickings notes a response by author Robert MacFarlane’s and children’s book illustrator Jackie Morris that resulted in an elegant “wild dictionary” called The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library). And, thanks to Brain Pickings, I now know how to link to books via your local public library.

We All Have Our Triggers

C.F.A. Voysey, Birds of Many Climes.

Periodically, I take a news break and I’m long overdue for another one. At least for a month I need to heed the wisdom of that other periodic newspaper faster Henry David Thoreau and get my head out of the New York Times in order “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Thoreau came to mind after spending way too much time this weekend reading the complete list of all the folks in Jeffrey Epstein’s leaked black book. One positive aspect of that list is that it’s a convenient roster of all the folks that, unlike Epstein, I’d least like to be stranded on an island with. It turns out that Epstein’s buddies include the new atheist gang and their promoter along with pseudo-intellectual publishing phenomenons such as Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond and, as a topping to the crap sundae, a rogues gallery of war criminals and serial rapists.

While I was getting triggered reading Epstein’s list Kelly called from another room with her own triggering incident. She read a paragraph from the introduction of a book she highly recommends, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Macfarlane notes,

The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary [a list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for the moorland], a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail.

Add to this outrage the news, in today’s New York Times, that executives at Amazon are unaware that vegetables and fruits have seasons,

The former head of a major produce company said Amazon told him it wanted to sell marquee fresh items at low prices every day. The executive said he had to explain that certain products, like berries or lettuce, may be available all year thanks to global supply chains, but that they cost more in the off-season. Forcing flat, low prices would put too much risk on growers.

Amazon executives, the person said, were caught off guard by the response. It didn’t seem as if they had fully appreciated how seasonality made predictable pricing far harder than selling cereal or paper towels.

This doesn’t end well.