Week 16, the things they love ping-ponging

OMG I feel like I can barely lift my hands to reach the keyboard. More often than not, my weeks are inverted, with rest and relaxation marbled in randomly and then a Saturday and Sunday of grueling work. That was this weekend in the olive grove. The weather was perfect, sunny and cool, but/and holy shit. My arms!

As a reminder, I’m traveling for the next two weeks, so the next newsletter you’ll receive will be on May 5th. (I will probably, probably share some of what I’m seeing on Instagram.)

In my previous email, I mentioned that I was going to design and sew a new bag. I did! Here’s a snapshot midway through, along with the finished item, made from Dyneema:

Just a slim lil guy

In the middle of last week, I had business in San Francisco and, on the way back, I stopped at the perfect little bookshop in the Ferry Building to purchase a copy of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which had just been published a day prior.

How to Do Nothing

This is a book about resistance. “I want this not only for artists and writers,” Jenny writes, “but for any person who perceives life to be more than instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized.”

Then, the next sentence, the one that gave me chills, reading it on the ferry:

A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough.

This is a book that ought to be read widely—especially, maybe, by young people. It ought to be seen peeking ubiquitously from tote bags, stuffed universally into back pockets. (This book might really be waiting, in that sense, for its paperback edition.)

One more sentence that from sequence in the introduction:

Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them.”

If you decide to snag How to Do Nothing, it goes without saying that I strongly encourage you to obtain this book, of all books, from a physical shop.

Two asides:

  1. How to Do Nothing pairs very well with the book How to Think by Alan Jacobs. I can easily imagine them set side-by-side in a college curriculum. That seminar would ring some freshmen’s heads like bells.

  2. By chance, I was present at the conference in Minneapolis where Jenny presented the talk that would become this book but, instead of watching it, I elected to sit outside drinking gin and tonics. I stand by this decision.

If you’ve played with Legos, you’ve seen the little plastic console pieces that represent computer monitors and control panels. Well… someone made them human-scale, and they made them work. This is madness.

Humans! Culture! The way people send the things they love ping-ponging between materials and scales! The way the human mind just… MULCHES everything.

*Anyone who replies to “actually…” my capitalization and/or pluralization of Lego(s) will be instantly ejected from this list

Part of the process of growing up—and I mean the whole way, not just from birth to eighteen or twenty-two or whenever—is realizing you live IN A TIME.

Chatting over the last few months, my lab mate Alexis and I have been seeing with new clarity the fact that, as children of the 80s, we were born into an era of conservative triumph. It didn’t feel conservative; it felt… like the world. Like water! But basically, from 1980 until very recently, the universe of political possibility was constrained in a way that would have been shocking to someone teleported in from, say, 1960.

Much of this is documented in Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rodgers, a book I never get tired of recommending. It’s an intellectual history of the last quarter of the 20th century, rigorous and accessible. Also quite modular—pleasantly bite-sized!

But anyway, I think a lot of people of Alexis’s and my approximate age—say, mid to late 30s—don’t appreciate, even now, the strangeness of the time they grew up in. Things are changing again—maybe? Who even knows—and the… attenuation of the years in which we came online, politically, is becoming clear. At least I think so.

News from the Republic

If you go down to the docks, odds are good you’ll run into Jeremy Singer-Vine; he’s always chatting with the crews of the boats that come and go, hungry for news from far away, angling for a peek at their manifests. He has a workshop nearby, and from there, he sends a newsletter called Data is Plural showcasing new and/or interesting datasets that are publicly available for download and analysis.

Even if you’re not interested in downloading or analyzing anything, ever, the newsletter is consistently fascinating because it shows you what’s available: what counts, and is being counted.

A recent edition pointed to datasets concerning: air strikes in Yemen; the global supply of teachers; the composition of the U.S.’s mid-Atlantic shoreline; and… “moralizing gods”??

Moralizing gods. To test the “moralizing gods” hypothesis (which posits that “belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies”), the authors of a recent paper in Nature) “coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality.” The dataset is available to download. Findings: “Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity.”

“4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”!!

Elsewhere, Craig Mod is beginning a very, very long walk, and offering to send you photo dispatches by text message as he goes. Craig is a sublime photographer, so this is an offer worth considering.

Characteristically for Craig, the project’s ultimate destination is a book:

A single book will then be generated with images on verso (left) pages, and your associated [text message] responses on recto (right) pages.

That book will be print-on-demanded to my home in Japan.

Just one copy! Lovely.

You might have seen the first-ever image of a black hole, much-publicized and -celebrated last week. It was generated by combining measurements from many far-flung antennae and integrating them with software, so it’s not a “photo” in any normal sense of like, “radiation passing through a lens and striking an indifferent medium.”

But… very few things in astronomy are “photos” anymore. Take, for example, this gorgeous image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, produced by a team of amateur astronomers:

The Large Magellanic Cloud

As with many of these cosmic images, the colors are “painted on” in a particular way:

You certainly noticed the color-rendering of this image is quite unusual. Indeed, astrophotographers [use] special filters which transmit narrow parts of the visible spectrum: the Hydrogen Alpha line at 656 nm, the Sulfur line at 672 nm and the Oxygen III spectral line at 500 nm. These kind of filters [allow us] to emphasize chemical components located in high-density gas regions like nebulae.

It seems to me that the work of modern astronomers—the black hole imagers, the amateurs above—is much closer to what our own eyes and brains do than the work of traditional photographers. The litany of human vision weirdnesses is long; you probably know some or most of these: only one point in our visual field is actually in focus at any moment; our brains blank the transitions between focal points (called “saccades”) to spare us the blurry, jerky mess; there’s a humongous dark spot floating in the center of each eye; what we see is tens of milliseconds behind what’s “actually” out there in the world; etc. etc. your eyes are not cameras etc. etc.

Wouldn’t an undergraduate course called like, “Strange Seeing” be a knockout? Optical illusions, blind spots, extreme low-light photography, automatic image processing in smartphones… I mean, this is what it means to be in the world. There’s no “raw feed.” Everything from *waves hands* out there is totally filtered and interpreted.

In a message last summer to my larger email list, I presented a design book I stumbled across in Amsterdam that perfectly scratched an itch that had been building for quite some time. (Possibly… since the early 90s??)

This poster for a show currently running at LACMA hits the same spot exactly:

These vibes!

I just. Can’t get enough. Of these vibes! Does that mean I’m old? Sure, fine. I’ll take the designation, if it means I can get some more V I B E S

I… I think I want to publish a novel with a cover designed in this style.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is definitely going to be president. Watch this and tell me you don’t think he can win an election in America on the strength of… more videos, just like this one!

(But then, you know my feelings about Dwayne Johnson…)

There’s a claim I’ve heard three different times now; it’s somewhere between sci-fi ghost story and report from the front lines. Imagine getting this over dinner from an engineer who’s done a lot of work in China. He tells you after the plates have been cleared away; his voice is urgent; he has had a few glasses of wine:

The Chinese government is building an OS and, in the not-too-distant future, the world will be split: those nations that adopt it, and those that don’t. This OS isn’t just software—it’s also access to Chinese capital, investments in infrastructure, and more—but it is ALSO software, a very capable suite, and it includes the world’s best facial recognition software. The sales force is out there now, signing up clients. This is happening.

As I said, I’ve heard this three different times now, in three very different contexts. The claim is provocative—is it true? I have no idea!—but/and I’m fascinated as much by its transmission. This is a different kind of knowledge. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent time with tech-adjacent people, you would have heard this claim by now, too.

And now, you have!

Vaclav Havel, in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” famously conjured a greengrocer who, after years of obediently putting party propaganda in his shop window simply to stay out of trouble, decides one day… not to:

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

The parable of the greengrocer is about a politics bigger than elections, and about lies bigger than tweets. Reading How to Do Nothing, I thought of Havel and his greengrocer, because I think Jenny Odell sees some of the lies that a lot of other people don’t. The greengrocer’s revolt begins with the simple removal of a sign from a window. Jenny’s starts even simpler: sitting in a rose garden, watching the birds.


April 2019, Oakland

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