RIP Michael Brooks

I can’t think of a time in my life when I’ve been so wracked with grief for someone I never met. My favorite podcaster, Michael Brooks, died unexpectedly on Monday of a blood clot at the young age of 36. I’m heartbroken.

There’s an intimacy to podcasting and radio, to the regular sound of someone’s voice in your life even if that voice is thousands of miles away. Micheal kept me company for years during my chores. He was a rare talent, a democratic socialist with a sense of humor and an internationalist with a deep empathy for working class people all over the world. That empathy was born of experience. Michael grew up knowing what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from and to get evicted from your house as a child. He was also the only person I know who could talk Gramsci and basketball.

I have no idea how I found his podcast but I remember the moment that kept me listening. He and a guest were discussing spirituality. Rather than the dismissiveness that you might expect from the old school left, Michael thought that we needed to integrate spirituality and politics. In a memorial show on the Majority Report, his sister Lisha Brooks recounted their last conversation. Michael was, as he often did, talking about spirituality. As he asked in that last conversation, “Why allow Steve Bannon to have a monopoly on the Bhagavad Gita?” Amen.

I have to be honest that I’ve been very gloomy of late and often find myself doomscrolling the covid news and the latest twitter outrage. I took great comfort every week in Michael’s honesty and insight about the trouble we’re in combined with his humor. Michael was only getting started. I hoped that, as I grew old, I would see him become a major media personality and politician and a voice for working people. His passing is a tremendous loss.

I have a lot to learn from his example. My discussion of politics on this blog has fallen into two categories. Early on I was snarky, arrogant and mean. Then I just clammed up while, all around me, an ideology of toxic individualism has created the terrible crisis we are now in. My writing beat, what has, for lack of a better term, been called “urban homesteading” is poisoned by that individualism which manifests in a concept of self sufficiency whose ultimate destination is a lonely existence in a doomstead bunker. I’ve always tried to point out that we’re all in this together, that we need to build up our households and our communities. It’s not one or the other.

Michael was just beginning to formulate a strategy that would normalize ideas like medicare for all and the plain, decent notion that we should respect and take care of working people in this country. He said to his sister in that last conversation that he felt that we needed to, “build a world where all can listen to each other without turning to violence. This doesn’t mean that we give up the fight for justice. We need to fight that fight more skillfully.”


A page from Shelter.

Maker, builder, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn left a great comment on my rambling review of the documentary Spaceship Earth. Lloyd said (in reference to the title of Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth), “In 1973, in our book Shelter, I wrote “Calling Earth a spaceship is like stepping out into a clear night in New Mexico and saying, “Wow, it looks just like the planetarium.”

If you aren’t familiar with Lloyd’s work you should check out his blog and buy his books! I have a vintage copy of Shelter on my workshop bookshelf.

Kelly’s Office Furniture in Progress

I had a request for some work-in-progress photos of Kelly’s office furniture and, instead of feeding the Instagram beast I thought I’d put them on the blog.

Kelly requested a bookshelf, three cabinets and a desk for her shed office (we are lucky to have a 100 year old shed in the backyard that I have restored over the years we’ve lived here).

Lately, I’ve taken to hand drawing designs more than using Sketchup. I’m not against 3D modeling but I like the speed of pencil and paper.

I’m in that Venn diagram somewhere that combines a leftist outlook with extremely conservative design tastes. I find there’s a hard to express and paradoxical freedom that comes from working within historic design limitations. It certainly makes staring at the blank sheet of paper easier when you have some rules about proportions and standard practices to fall back on.

I’ve also been practicing my hand tool methods. I took a class last year on how to hand cut dovetails and have spent some of my quarantine time practicing this skill, which gets down to learning how to cut an angled line with a saw. It’s actually not that hard once you spend some hours practicing on scrap wood.

Kelly did not like how long it took for me to make the bookshelf (made out of inexpensive beech wood, by the way) and requested that I put the cabinets together faster. I used birch plywood which was more fun to work with than I expected and certainly saved a lot of time. Hardwood has to be milled, the edges jointed and small pieces glued together to make wider boards. It takes days of work. Plywood cabinets come together in hours not days.

The plywood cabinets for Kelly’s office ended up being a kind of ironic, post-modern commentary on the fuddy-duddy bookshelf. Rather than hide the edges of the plywood I decided to bring attention to them. I like the look of the edge of a decent birch plywood. Speaking of plywood, if you work with it you should get it from a local lumberyard not the big box stores. The plywood I got was a big step up in quality–fewer voids and a better surface and well worth the extra price.

I called a friend who restores vintage trailers for some advice on how to finish plywood (thank you Phil!). He suggested a light sanding with 220 grit sandpaper followed by either spray varnish or a poly finish. I went with a poly finish since it’s what I had on hand it ended up looking great. Wish I had the space to build a teardrop trailer out of ply.

The last project for the office will be a desk from a plan in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist Design Book.

Saturday Linkages: The Kirghiz Light’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

A Winged Figure, Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1904-1911.

Comet NEOWISE Dazzles at Dusk

What to do With Blackberries

Poll: Who always wears a mask in public—and who doesn’t?

CoronaShock and Socialism

‘Not just weeds’: how rebel botanists are using graffiti to name forgotten flora

Extreme atmospheric rivers: what will California’s strongest storms look like in a warming climate?

The Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo

Spaceship Earth

When Eric Davis quipped that he follows new religions in the way that normal people follow sports he helpfully identified the nerd tribe I belong to. This explains why words like telos and eschatology bubble up in casual conversations around the Root Simple compound much to Kelly’s annoyance. It also means that I’ve seen every single hippie cult documentary ever made and, of course, immediately dropped a few bucks to stream the new documentary Spaceship Earth, a film centering on the not well known Synergia Ranch commune, the folks behind the Biosphere 2 project.

The Synergians were originally an avant-garde theater troupe led by a charismatic leader, John Allen, and they would likely object to me lumping them in with new religious groups, preferring to think of themselves more as ecologists or proto-space colonists. To which I’d counter that what do you call a group that thinks we’ll all someday head to a new Eden up in the heavens if not a group with eschatological hankerings?

The best part of Spaceship Earth was getting to see the background history of the Biosphere project from the viewpoint of the Synergians. After initially cheer-leading the Biosphere project, the mainstream press quickly turned on the group, focusing instead on a lurid reality show narrative, and concluding that a culty avant guarde theater troupe with a charismatic leader had no business taking up a science project. True, the Biosphere project was not science in the strict definition of the term. It attempted to do too much all at once without controlling for variables. And, with its colonizing space aspirations, it smacked more of scientism than science. But why shouldn’t artists be allowed the latitude to engage in an interdisciplinary folly? Perhaps we could use a bit less specialization and more interdisciplinary zaniness to explore the thorny problems we all face.

I wish that Spaceship Earth had focused more on the flawed ideas of the Biospherians/Synergians. Those ideas centered on the cybernetic notions of Norbert Wiener and (this might trigger some folks but I just gotta say it) deeply flawed thoughtstylings of huckster Buckminster Fuller (1, 2,) made popular by the Whole Earth Catalog utopians of the 1970s. The Biospherians/Synergians thought that they could create a complex, self-guiding model of the Earth and use that idea to escape our very real and material problems down here on dusty old Earth. Spaceship Earth doesn’t really explore this ideology. Maybe it’s because those ideas have gone mainstream, unfortunately. If you’re a fish you don’t recognize the water. We swim in an ideological sea polluted by automated control systems such as the failed algorithmic editing project going on over at Facebook, Twitter and Google as well as worshiping space colony charlatans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This cybernetic ideology has birthed an internet that promulgates rumors that Wayfair is sending out children in boxes and that pedophile rings are operating in the basements of pizza restaurants. Worse cybernetic monsters, I fear, are yet to come.

Exploring this scary new world is a lane occupied by documentarian Adam Curtis. If you pair Spaceship Earth on a double feature with the second episode of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and throw in a reading of Thomas Pynchon’s notorious Gravity’s Rainbow you’ll have enough fodder for a marathon discussion of the nightmares birthed by hippie commune notions of self guiding systems of control. At the end of this long discussion you might just all start gathering up the sledgehammers for the coming Neo-Luddite rebellion. Resist those algorithms! But I digress, comrades.

The Synergian sailboat Heraclitus.

Ideological quibbles aside, Spaceship Earth is a very well crafted documentary. The Synergians were not the stereotypical anyone-can-drop-in sort of commune. John Allen got an M.B.A. at Harvard and knows how to start successful businesses and raise money. He surrounded himself with equally ambitious and talented people. The Synergians had the resources to buy 16mm film cameras and shoot lots of footage. They built their own sailboat and sailed it around the world. Then, pairing with bazillionaire oil scion Ed Bass, they put together the ambitious Biosphere 2 project. The footage of all these antics make Spaceship Earth a fascinating documentary to watch. For added entertainment, weirdo Steve Bannon pops up at the end in the way that the vengeful singing statue shows up in act II of Don Giovanni to pull everyone down to hell.

Spaceship Earth also disrupts the stereotype of the Drop City sort of drug and insanity fueled 1970s commune. I suspect that there were other M.B.A. run communes like the Synergians that we’ve never heard about. The Synergians have some things in common with the commune known as The Farm that, after having a major meltdown, ended up not so much growing food, but instead launching entrepreneurial projects such as designing and selling electronics, running a midwife school and operating a soy dairy among many other activities. You can see in these groups both the ideological and economic origins of Silicon Valley.

It should also be noted that any film that depicts people sealing themselves up in a pod makes for perfect pandemic viewing, at least for those of us non-essential types. And what could be more non-essential than hippie avant-garde thespians? For us urban homesteader types, it’s also good to have a reminder that hubris in the face of complexity is an occupational hazard of anyone who attempts to garden, keep animals, cook from scratch or otherwise interact with things other than laptops and iPhones.

You can stream Spaceship Earth via the YouTubes for here.

If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace do a little googling and you’ll find it on the interwebs in its entirety.