Paleo Grift

The myth of a golden, prehistoric age of ease and leisure before the toil of agriculture is an idea that pops up often in the urban homesteading and permaculture scene. While I’m sympathetic to complaints about modern agriculture, I’ve long thought that this Golden Age narrative sounds too simple, too much like the “noble savage” archetype, the idea that if we can somehow just get back to “nature” all will be okay.

This notion of a idyllic distant past was the subject of an excellent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. Their guest was Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University who was on to discuss his review of James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.

Suzman’s book, popular with the tech bro set, focuses on the Bushmen or San people of the Kalahari Desert, made famous by the 1980s movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (which I’ve never understood the appeal of, frankly). Suzman, relying on bad research, makes the claim that the San work 15 hours a week. In reality that 15 hours is the time spent just gathering food and the total doesn’t take into account processing food, building shelter, childcare etc. Other anthropologists peg the total at around 42 hours a week. And the San don’t live an idyllic life. In reality they are malnourished, don’t forage much anymore and were forced into resettlement areas by the South African government. The Gods Must Be Crazy, it turns out, was more propaganda than comedy.

Which brings us to Immerwahr main point, that a more careful reading of history might lead us to different conclusions. As he says in his review of Suzman’s book,

A 300,000-year history of work, done well, could ask probing questions about gender, slavery, inequality, the wage system, ideology, and workers’ political power. It might yield conclusions that would be more uncomfortable than encouraging to our ascendant elite. It might, indeed, offer insights as to how to dismantle that elite.

I’d add that the rosy view of hunter gatherer cultures contains a kind of racism that assumes that this way of living is easy, that it doesn’t involve skill or, as in the case of California native peoples what looks to westerners like hunting and gathering is actually a form of agriculture, just not a form that looks like European farming (See Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild for more on that thesis).

I guess it’s not surprising that our tech bros executives would embrace short work weeks and fictitious pre-historic diets while somehow forgetting about little humdrum things like the rights and dignity of workers, child care, shelter and food preparation.

Holiday Weekend Linkages: Loquat Edition

Like loquats? Thank the Mexican orchard workers who saved them

Amazon Introduces Tiny ‘ZenBooths’ for Stressed-Out Warehouse Workers

Inside Citizen’s Dangerous Effort to Cash In On Vigilantism

Belcampo: ‘farm to door’ butcher admits misrepresenting origins of meat

How to design a sailing ship for the 21st century?

Weekend Linkages: Floored

City, Suburb, Server Farm: the Urban Geography of Amazon

A private bar where you can drink, hug, and ditch masks? Welcome to Risky Business in North Hollywood

Crime App Citizen is Driving a Security Car Around L.A. and Won’t Say Why

Build your own bamboo dome-like structure with giant grass’s zome building kit

Why are our cities built for 6ft-tall men? The female architects who fought back

Narrative Napalm Malcolm Gladwell’s apologia for American butchery

Goodwill stores have a message: Please stop donating trash

The US government should buy the Greyhound bus company. Hear me out

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.