If you use Drafts, here’s a simple action to upload a photo to micro.blog then get markup suitable for use with the glightbox plugin. You’ll need an API key. It helps you be a good citizen by prompting for alt, desc, and title tags.
How to Listen to People: A guide for leaders and managers (There’s a bigger project here; I need to dial in my ambition.)
The doctor assured me the cold I was down with last week was not Covid. I started climbing out of it late in the week and had enough pent up energy on Saturday that the weekend became fixit-and-learn time, cleaning up web presence stuff and learning some new tools:
- I’ve been using Blink on my iPad, but finally got mosh set up everywhere I could set it up on the server side.
- I used to use tmux, but lost my config a long time ago. In the process of trying to put it back, I learned about Byobu, which puts training wheels on
screen. It makes using a terminal from an iPad a lot more livable.
- BBEdit’s pattern playgrounds are really wonderful. So much web work over the long haul – living with content handed off between a dozen or more CMSes over the years, is about cleaning up weird markup glitches. Being able to model a pattern, then pre-flight it by just finding everything and confirming, then doing a mass replacement over 800 blog entries was pretty nice.
- Stripped my Emacs config down to something suitable for editing code over mosh, not writing org-mode from the GUI. I did that after trying and discarding a few small emacsen and next-gen console text editors.
- I really want to like Ulysses. I do like Ulysses. But I don’t think its approach to Markdown is the right one, even if its heart is in the right place. It’s a fine line determining when to tell the user they’re just going to have to learn something new, and I would have drawn the line at link markup, which Ulysses makes needlessly fussy. So I’ve been doing prose in ia Writer, which interacts just fine with the iPadOS git client Working Copy for the actual content of each site – no round-tripping or making copies of writing – it’s all just in version control now.
I learned about the ins and outs of GitHub pages and actions, replacing some clunky scripting on a web hosting provider with Jekyll sites and publishing actions.
I got there in a circuitous manner: I’ve got a WordPress.com account, and considered putting it to use again, but it took about five minutes to remember why I don’t like WordPress and truly hate trying to make a theme of any sophistication work. Jekyll has its own kinds of twistiness, but it was interesting to come back to it after a long time away from doing any sort of web stuff: Liquid, for instance, might not be HAML, but it’s not that bad. Especially with a decent local setup for previewing changes and getting realtime feedback.
So I shopped around for Jekyll themes, found one I liked a lot for some things, and another I liked for others, and was able to bang together a few beta-level Jekyll sites and update my theme here on micro.blog to match. Still lots to do in the way of editing the content and tying it all together, but it went so much faster with Jekyll than it would have with WordPress.
It took me a few deep breaths and a couple of momentary screwups to get GitHub pages working the way I wanted, but it feels so tidy to:
- Pop into mosh and edit a page
- Fire up the preview server on the Mac Studio in my office to preview from my iPad in the living room
- Commit and push
- See the updates live in a minute or so
Something useful I learned about Jekyll to get live previews working from the living room on the iPad is the
host argument for
bundle exec jekyll serve --host=mac_studio.local -lw
SASS wasn’t much of a thing for me the last time I did much web work, but it’s just a thing now. I had to learn the basics to get all the themes I was working with into a place I wanted them. I’m nowhere near proficient but learned enough from poking around to see the value. It was interesting to see how each theme author used its affordances. I was immensely grateful to the person who just used a
_vars.scss file to declare the interesting parts in one place instead of scattering the highest-level elements of typography and color scheme throughout.
I used these themes:
I borrowed Forty’s underlying color scheme and Garth’s typography for all three. I still need to just fork Paper on GitHub and use it directly on micro.blog instead of carrying modifications over the stock theme and there’s some consistency stuff I should work on over time, but they’re all same-ish now.
So that’s all that. Here’s the output:
- Here (micro.blog, ~ Paper theme)
- mike.puddingbowl.org (Jekyll, GH Pages, ~ Forty theme)
- blog.puddingbowl.org (Jekyll, GH Pages, ~ Garth theme)
And after all that, dinner at Higgins.
Finished reading: Old Man's War by John Scalzi 📚
Well, part of the point of re-reading this was to take a small break from more dense stuff, so I will keep this short:
Scalzi acknowledges his debt to Robert Heinlein, and on this third read I still don’t know how deeply that acknowledgement is meant to go: As a collection of military SF tropes, yes, Old Man’s War is Heinleinesque. As a matter of tone, yes, that too. As a matter of world view, it’s a little harder nut to crack.
When I was serving, every soldier who read was probably reading Tom Clancy, a submarine nerd who glorified war without any apparent reflection. He probably helped me maintain a sort of moral equilibrium because he was so plainly deluded about the nature of the military and the people in it, or at least so thoroughly saw it as his mission to uphold the “warriors” he was depicting as moral paragons, that it was not possible to read any of his output without looking around the barracks at your actual everyday reality, snort, and keep reading to see how the story came out.
Scalzi is not Tom Clancy. He makes references to a “bad war” in his future history, and is careful to note that his main character was against that one, but for the nightmare Hobbesian struggle that is the war consuming the wider galaxy because it is an existential matter for humanity.
Tonally, Old Man’s War is sort of the military SF equivalent of, say, Zombieland: When his colonial troopers go to war against a race of one-inch-tall people, tossing them into buildings and stepping on them; or when an invading race brings along celebrity chefs to televise the ways you can cook a Terran, you’re sort of cued to relax a little: Scalzi’s galaxy at war is a little absurd, even if he remains more reverent of his upstream material than Paul Verhoeven was.
There’s a grabbag of other tropey classic and military SF stuff that might or might not work for people, but that are key to the military SF experience: battlefield promotions for gumption and smarts, humorless bureaucratic foils, the drill sergeant who softens up at the end, etc. etc. There’s at least one scene where the subversive self-awareness that keeps Old Man’s War on the right side of the moral scale yanked me out of the story.
So, basically the perfect “cooldown” book. There’s a little food for thought and it’s more than a slavish homage to what came before. Sometimes it spends more time than it should trying to distinguish itself from its upstreams. It doesn’t really leap into the plot, but it understands that a lot of the appeal of SF to its biggest fans is in the world-building and EPCOT-like tour of the future, so it’s not a huge ding that we spend some time gawking at the scenery.
Finished just in time for the weekend, and something more dense.
Finished reading: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi 📚
Finished reading: Kill It with Fire by Marianne Bellotti 📚
I don’t know how many times I’ve said “the legacy stuff” at work in the past six months, but it’s a lot. I picked up Kill It With Fire, which concerns itself with how to manage aging systems, because I’d been saying “the legacy stuff” a lot just as a colleague noticed the book.
This was perhaps an aspirational purchase: I do have a few folks dealing with some creaking, legacy stuff, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get a few pointers that would take me beyond my usual, deliberative, incremental self as I work with them. I did get some pointers, and also some great insights that go beyond dealing with mere technology.
It’d be a mistake to pass this book up because you don’t have to deal with legacy systems. It has plenty of insight to share around the general endeavor of building and maintaining complex systems and, maybe more importantly, dealing with the humans keeping those systems running.
Kill It with Fire by Marianne Bellotti 📚
Currently reading: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens 📚
I usually save writeups about books until I’m done with them, but this book made some wheels turn and took me off in another direction, so this is partly a mid-read writeup and partially documentation of some lightbulbs lighting up.
The opening chapters of Smart Notes describe Niklas Luhmann’s “Zettelkasten” knowledge management system. In short, Luhmann kept a slipbox of notes, sequentially numbered and cross-referenced, each ideally written in an atomic manner about a single idea or concept. As Ahrens points out in the book, the underlying sensibility of the system is a sort of cousin to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, except for ideas instead of work/actions. Also similar to GTD is the proliferation of documentation and implementation details you can go find on the ‘net.
I came to this book because I recently adopted Obsidian for note-taking, and it includes a few plugins and affordances that make keeping a digital Zettelkasten simple. I read enough about the approach to spark my curiosity, and all roads seemed to point to this.
As it turns out, the real value is less the “how to do a Zettelkasten” chapters. There are plenty of web tutorials that explain the mechanics. Plenty of those same tutorials miss out on the “why” of using a Zettelkasten vs. any other note-taking or knowledge management approach you might use. Here are a few of those whys:
Top-down hierarchies of notes (e.g. carefully labeled folders) over-direct and stifle the interconnected nature of how we actually think and know by predetermining where an idea “belongs.” By writing notes atomically – that is, about the most narrow idea possible – and storing them in a flat sequence, ideas are left free to be connected and assembled, then reconnected and reassembled over and over.
By providing a trusted system, Zettelkastens allow you to relax about where your knowledge is. It’s written down in brief notes that describe one concept well.
By keeping a collection of atomic notes – Luhmann’s own Zettelkasten reportedly exceeded 90,000 such notes by the time of his death – you make it easier to develop your thinking on a matter by constantly cross-referencing and connecting, allowing your understanding to change over time as new ideas come in and you write them down.
By making yourself write an idea down in as contained and focused a manner as possible, you also ensure that you actually understand it. As a former editor I remember using the coherence of individual passages in a freelancer’s submitted work as a guide to where I might want to fact-check or simply press the writer to rethink. If a passage didn’t read quite right, and if I had been through enough assignments from that writer to know they were an organized thinker, bad mechanics, stoppers, and uneven flow told me they might not understand what they were writing.
On that last point, Ahrens is a firm believer in the idea that writing is thinking, and that sitting quietly and letting words play out in your head is not. I have know this for a long time, and can remember key moments in my professional development where I used writing to develop my thinking, sometimes realizing at the end of three or five thousand words that I had ended up somewhere quite different from where I began.
There are a number of other “whys” that make the system work, but these are the ones that most stand out to me at just over half way through.
Where this book caused a spark to jump a gap came in combination with my recent read of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and the ensuing digital declutter I have undertaken.
The point of that declutter is to become more intentional about how I use technology, asking myself things like “What do you need to do to be intentional about this thing? Is that practical or useful?” and “When you adopted this thing, what aspirational idea did you have about it?”
I was doing some very basic writing about these things, but not in an atomic way. Instead, I was either making checklists, which involve believing that you “know” a lot about the thing you are checklisting; or writing essays, which are fine if you just want to publish a blog post or essay. What I realized, though, was that I wasn’t really thinking these things through deeply – I was plowing through a checklist of things to “consider” in a very superficial way. So I took a step back and tried a few things:
- I decided to treat my checklists as prompts to think more about each thing on them, instead of as a collection of things I already understood and just needed to act on. Each of those prompts will become its own note.
- I took an essay I was developing on tools I use in photography and decomposed it into atomic notes, making sure to use tags for each note so I could pull it all back together later, or build an index within Obsidian.
By taking the time to do that – to decompose my thinking about all the things I do around the topic of photography – I’ve made it easier to do my digital declutter, because instead of simply encountering an app, tool, or service and having a thought in the form of talking to myself briefly about its value, I’ve written about how I do photography, and why I have made the choices I have, the better to ask how that particular thing serves me.
Writing things down has also allowed me to anchor myself. I’m something of a tools and practices magpie and I don’t always slow down to think about how something is going to be in my life long-term. Sometimes I dart from practice to practice or tool to tool, leaving me with a hodgepodge of different approaches that take time to untangle or reconcile with each other. That means less time to do the thing I actually care about, and more time fussing with tools and processes. The act of writing things down, reasoning why I do things the way I do, gives me a grounding point to start from: “The best way to do this thing is this way for these reasons. So just do it that way. It’s better than the other ways you’ve tried. Leave room to iterate, but make that part of your practice of intentionality as well.”
On that last point, I’m adding some stuff to my longer feedback loops (monthly and quarterly reviews) so that I know I can address little paper cuts along the way without being in a state of constant flux. It’s been an interesting experience noting that something I do as a manager for teams I work with had to be rediscovered in my personal life.
So, great book so far, and I’m so glad my curiosity led me to it because it has truly enhanced how I’m coming at the overall theme of intentionality. It has had immediate applications for my digital declutter, and I’m applying it to the other areas of my life where I want to spend more time creating and less time fussing or reinventing wheels.
How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens 📚
Saturday morning coffee and cameras
Some notes on my emerging digital declutter and assorted practices
I gave myself a few days to think about Digital Minimalism, wondering if a declutter might be a good idea. I found myself feeling so moved and have spent some time teeing it up.
Newport’s take on how to do that starts from what I guess you could call a naive footing, dumping everything and then considering it without a lot of preconception. I think that is fine, but I’d been giving a lot of this some thought already, have done a few declutters in the past, and had heard Newport talk before reading his book, so I colored outside the lines and skipped a few steps with some parts, but kept a few things from his approach, too.
I have a few things in mind:
I want to radically pare back the number of tools hanging from my belt. I keep a lot of things hanging around for this edge case or that, this possible scenario or that. I decided to reduce as much as possible by getting rid of things that repeated each other. For instance, I like Ulysses well enough but it repeats other things and it has a subscription fee. So, yes, it can post to micro.blog and has a few other tricks, but none that I need. I’ve also bounced back and forth between RSS readers for whatever reason, but Feedly’s native app works great for my workflow.
I’ve also built up a lot of papercuts with the things I do use regularly, such as:
- How do I block a site in Feedly so that I can keep a little serendipity with a few eclectic sources without constantly bumping into the same site with a paywall I’ll never click through?
- How do I get something into an Obsidian inbox using a shortcut to keep me from pecking around inside Obsidian and ultimately forgetting the fleeting note I wanted to create?
- Why does micro.blog pick the images it does to send when I crosspost to Twitter?
- Can I get more folders in SaneBox without paying more? How much would I have to pay to get more?
- I’ve got good automated note import into Obsidian, but am I linking ideas and and concepts adequately? (A: No.) How can I fix that?
And I want to do the sort of core thing, which is unplug my brain from all the social media inputs and stuff that doesn’t feel nutritious.
The more I thought about it all, the more I realized there was a project there. Turns out that trying to be more intentional means doing stuff like writing it all down and prioritizing.
So, realizing I needed to capture tasks, I started by cleaning up my todo situation. I’ve been living in a few places over the past few years. I recently tried to retrench on Apple’s Reminders because it has gotten pretty good, but it turns out not good enough. It’s great that you can nest reminders under each other, it is terrible that when you painstakingly set up a morning routine with subtasks and then turn on recurrence, the only thing that actually reoccurs is the parent item.
I also gave Obsidian a shot, on the premise that it is pretty much org-mode except with Markdown, an actually good mobile app, and no dependency on Emacs. It is great, but it also has some challenges in terms of making quick entries, and the task management stuff that would take it to the next level has a lot of the same issues most plaintext todo systems have in terms of awkward and visually cluttery metadata. org-mode does a great job of hiding or restyling that stuff, but you’re still living in Emacs, and the power comes at the cost of a complex and sometimes brittle pile of configuration code and stability-threatening Emacs extensions.
What else? Omnifocus, Todoist, Remember the Milk, Trello, and Workflowy all suggested themselves. I won’t go into why not for each, but it came down to “want Apple-native, a good mobile experience, decent capture, subtasking, recurrence, decent in-task notes, and integration with my calendar.”
So, I went with Things. I’ve had a license for years, I’ve always preferred it to Omnifocus for its relative visual calm.
I could have kept my old Things tasks around and cleared them all out, but I decided to just wipe and start over, and borrowed a page from Getting Things Done by doing an initial braindump into my new trusted system (for tasks, not ideas … that’s Obsidian, but I’ll get into that some day). A lot of the things I knew I’d want to get to in my digital declutter came out during that dump. I made myself sit still, get everything out in its simplest form without trying to schedule, label, or organize.
Once I did the braindump I did start looking for organizing principles. Things has the whole “Areas” concept, so “Personal” and “Work” presented themselves as obvious candidates for top-level. I also added a “Meta” area, which I’ll get to.
So I hucked everything into either “Personal” or “Work” then started sorting into projects, subtasks, and tags.
The “Declutter” project had a lot of items, so I took advantage of Things' ability to create headings, and broke the project into:
- Media Outlets
- Social Media
Into each I put all the things I use or have around, all the papercuts I’ve thought about, and all the questions I wanted to answer:
- What do you need a break from?
- What do you need to do to be intentional about this thing? Is that practical or useful?
- When you adopted this thing, what aspirational idea did you have about it?
Recurrence in my todo tool is important to me because I want to codify a daily routine I’ve had on and off over the years, starting back when I was stationed at Ft. Bragg and started and ended the day with a pen, a legal pad, and a list of tasks:
- Morning: Write down deliverables. Start doing things.
- Evening: Make sure you crossed everything off you managed to get done. Tear off the sheet, copy over the undone stuff to tomorrow’s list and leave the pad front and center on your desk when you shut down for the day.
Since then, I’ve tended to move todos into a digital tool, but that list is just part of the daily page.
For starters, there are some prompts for morning and evening:
- What are the three most important things today?
- What are you most concerned about right now?
- What are you most happy about right now?
- What happened today?
- What went well today?
- What could have been improved today?
I also have tasks for each morning:
- Reviewing todos and blocking time in my calendar to get to them.
- Reviewing places where a deliberate break will be a good idea.
- Reviewing the day for manageability and pushing things out that aren’t time sensitive if I need some space.
- Review my email inbox
My weekly and monthly kickoffs are pretty similar in shape and intent: Try to predict where I’ll need time or space and get ahead of the week or month.
To support this routine, I tweaked Sanebox to send me work email digests at the beginning and end of the day so I can quickly sweep through and bulk archive or flag things.
Writing it down
Getting my todos straightened out and having a daily routine to stick to gave me a safe space to think in, so I turned to Obsidian and set up a few pages to write down everything I was thinking about.
I’ve got a tentative Zettelkasten-like folder and document structure using a few plugins:
- Daily pages as a recipient of fleeting notes. Fleeting notes are meant to be ephemeral, so I could have gone with a lot of things, but I also added …
- … the Lumberjack plugin, which allows me to make Shortcut actions to do quick capture under a “Fleeting Notes” heading on my current daily page. The action lives as an icon on the dock of my iPad and iPhone, and I can get at it from the task bar on my Mac.
- Zettelkasten numbering for permanent notes
- Readwise to import highlights from Pocket, Kindle, and web clippings into a “Literary Notes” folder
Thanks to Things and Obsidian having URL schemes, it’s possible to link back and forth between the two apps, so my Things declutter project can link back to the index page for the writing I’m doing about that project in Obsidian and vice versa.
Progress So Far
That’s a lot of table-setting, but I had some downtime today so I was able to dig in on some of the actual tasks in the project: Unsubscribing to media, deleting apps, asking questions on support forums or via help forms to address papercuts, disconnecting auto-posting tools, paring down follow lists, fixing papercuts as I was given answers or figured things out for myself, comparing features on tools in the inventory.
Something I never used with Things before but now really appreciate is the Logbook area, where completed tasks go. I’ve adopted the practice, when a task is about answering a question or learning something, to include the answer in the notes. I really like being able to end the day by going back to the Logbook and seeing everything I checked off.
Now for the hard but nice part
All of this was to get me into a place where I can unplug from social media for a month.
Things I’ll stop doing:
- Looking in on social media.
- Posting anything to social media, including automated stuff.
- Adding any new digital tools, even just to play with them.
- My nightly pre-bedtime YouTube binge.
Things I’ll keep doing:
- Reading and keeping notes
- Writing and posting small entries about what I read
- Taking pictures and posting them to my blog
- Writing about my declutter:
- What do you need a break from?
- What do you need to do to be intentional about this thing? Is that practical or useful?
- What aspirational ideas do you have about this thing?
- Keep in touch with people over email, texts, Signal, etc. Hopefully even more.
- Reach out to people with whom social media is my only real contact and make sure there’s a way to stay in touch. I don’t see a bright future for Facebook in all this.
Things I’m adding:
- A daily journal practice.
- A real effort to maintain a Zettelkasten for my reading and writing. This feels intimidating for some reason. The system is easy, but I’ve only recently restarted my reading habits and I’m curious about what will emerge. I’ll be sure to document whether I’ve become an idiot.
Finished reading: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport 📚
A few years ago, pre-Trump, I quit social media and most news apps cold turkey. I was bothered by the effect social media dynamics had on my photography, and I was bothered by the engagement-driven nature of news apps. I wanted to listen to just myself on a creative level, and I hated the way news apps worked.
Over time I reestablished social media presences and spent some time tuning up how I read news. When I compare where I am today to where I was when I felt like I’d just had enough of all of it, I feel generally healthier. At the same time, I still catch myself exhausting the well of things to read or catch up on, and I find myself swiping down the screen in a motion Cal Newport describes as pulling the arm of a slot machine that is eating my useful minutes.
Newport’s definition of “digital minimalism” is:
“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
He cites three principles of digital minimalism:
Principle #1: Clutter is costly. Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
Principle #2: Optimization is important. Digital minimalists believe that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only the first step. To truly extract its full potential benefit, it’s necessary to think carefully about how they’ll use the technology.
Principle #3: Intentionality is satisfying. Digital minimalists derive significant satisfaction from their general commitment to being more intentional about how they engage with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of the specific decisions they make and is one of the biggest reasons that minimalism tends to be immensely meaningful to its practitioners.
I’ve known a few people in whom I can see those principles at work, and I’ve always admired the deliberation with which they approach new technology. It has often read to me like a particular kind of self-care. I’m more of a magpie when it comes to new things and have thought that kind of self-care might be a good thing to adopt.
There are a few tics in the style that I suppose are just part of what is normal for this kind of book. The phrase “it turns out” pops up a few times. The phrase “we’re wired to …” pops up a few more. But rather than being a Jonah-Lehrer-like recitation of a bunch of studies (though a few are cited) this book is a little more quiet and less breathless. I was left feeling relieved that Newport has a full-time job he likes, because there’s a moment where it feels like the book could have tipped over into the sort of cloying pseudo-movement merchandising play but ultimately did not.
What is most compelling to me about it is less its identification of everything that is wrong with digital technology – the attention-mining, the emotional toll, the wasted time – and more its temperate prescriptions.
Yes, it does discuss a 30-day “digital declutter,” but less as a cold-turkey feat of will and more as a call to fill that time in other ways and see what you get before gradually letting things back in as you determine the ways in which they can serve you.
There is a mild fixation on doing all this “to live a more remarkable life,” and that stirs in me a peevish resistance, but it’s tempered by noting that it is okay and life-enhancing to simply do things for their own sake, or because they bring you pleasure or make your life better, and not because you should be out there crushing it in all things. It does argue in favor of more vigorous, mindful leisure, but not so much because it’s important to be constantly “productive” as much as it is because it will probably make you feel better than social-media-enabled “doing nothing.”
Published in 2019, one poignant, melancholy aspect of this book is that it spends a lot of time on the value of unmediated human connection. Its prescriptions include avoidance of assorted “like” and other reaction affordances in favor of spending time talking to people. There are a few examples that are about being with others in gyms, exercise groups, etc. that are almost jarring as we close in on two years of pandemic life. It helpfully suggests that Facetime is a great technology for keeping personal connections over distances, but cannot anticipate the dull, suffocating exhaustion of contemplating yet another video meeting for people who have spent the past two years staring into screens full of flattened, grainy faces staring back.
Finally, it was kind of interesting to see the ways in which, over the past three years since the book was published, at least Apple has begun to help implement some of the attention-preserving, deliberate living practices Newport advocates. The Screentime tool provides a way to understand how you use your phone and where your time goes. The Focus tool makes it possible to filter out notifications or tailor the interruptions you’re willing to indulge.
So, definitely recommended for its low-key vibe, and its emphasis on deliberation and care over simple prescriptions or tech abstemiousness. I’m going to give some of its ideas a try.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport 📚
Learning the ins and outs of the GR IIIx’s snap focus
Finished reading: A Lesser Photographer by C. J. Chilvers 📚
I have been struggling a little with photography writing lately. When I rejiggered how I read I pulled in a few suggestions from Feedly to seed my photography reading, and I have found the experience grim.
I know someone who is a very good, highly trained photographer. They’re just the right age to have received their formal training in film photography, and they made the shift to digital just fine, but their career didn’t really make the same shift: Their clients realized they could get “good enough” with a cheap light tent and a nice phone camera. They could point out a host of technical mistakes their former clients were making, but it just didn’t matter, because a 300x300, 72dpi image on a product page, shot with an iPhone, was good enough.
Lots of professional photographers are feeling this pinch, and it comes out in a lot of writing about photography on the web, which is – compared to other enthusiast niches – very negative, even when it claims to be helpful. A lot of posts are about how to “not look like a newbie,” “quit making these mistakes,” etc. etc. There’s a whole subgenre devoted to the menace of nephew wedding photographers. I recently read an article that suggested no photographer should post anything publicly without charging because it was devaluing photography.
So, a lot of photography writing feels like it is coming from frustrated professionals or pessimistic wannabes who don’t actually want to share the joy of photography so much as they want to scare off the interlopers who just got back from Best Buy with a low-end mirrorless camera and a kit lens, and are now quietly interdicting formerly lucrative wedding, baptism party, and graduation photo gigs. Reading about art from the perspective of people whose primary ambition is to commercialize it is probably a bad bet anyhow, but it gets worse when their revenue stream is threatened.
Which brings me to A Lesser Photographer, a very small book you can read in under an hour that does a lot to help you get your head on straight if you’ve been cowed by gatekeepers who want to make you doubt yourself. It does this in the early going by acknowledging that advances in technology are allowing people to make “good enough” photos, and urging photographers to look at this as an opportunity:
“Is Total Automation the Future of Photography? Yes, and that may serve artists particularly well. Even though anyone can microwave a frozen dinner, what we really want (and pay good money for) is a dinner prepared by someone who knows what they’re doing, has a vision, and doesn’t take shortcuts. Automation in gear will always sell better than the prospect of having to work with a creative problem. Welcome this with open arms. There’s no better way to differentiate your work from the masses than to wrestle with a problem everyone else is avoiding—and win.”
Sometimes the tone gets a little sharp, but one thing I appreciated about it is that it always comes around to something constructive. Consider this bit about cliché subjects:
“There’s a reason articles abound on how to take photos of waterfalls and fireworks. It’s because everyone does it. It’s not unique. There are times when it makes sense to put down the camera and take in the world around you. You’ll often find a scene no other photographer is covering. One of my photography professors, Monte Gerlach, put it this way: whenever there is a sunset in front of you, turn around and start shooting what’s behind you.
“If you can find it on a postcard, it’s already been covered pretty well and by better photographers than you. It’s probably time to move on to a more unique scene. The throngs of budding photographers, reading how-to articles, will take care of the dew-covered flower close-ups for you. Create something you care about, and it will rarely be a cliche.”
There are a lot of photoblog posts that content themselves to tell you not to take pictures of certain things (umbrellas, waterfalls, fireworks, sunsets, etc. etc. They don’t often muster the generosity to suggest even that simple prompt to “turn around and start shooting what’s behind you.”
As someone who tries to follow the advice “be the photographer who goes back,” I appreciated this advice about creating photos that last:
“The longevity of an interesting photograph is inversely proportional to the lack of longevity in the subject. I’ve spent half of my almost thirty years in photography on landscape photography. Now, as I digitize and archive that collection, I realize most of the subjects I captured appear exactly the same today as the day I took the original photo. Plus, the number of photographers traveling those same back trails has increased exponentially. This means, even if I were a modern-day Ansel Adams, my best photos from those years have probably been duplicated by dozens of like-minded photographers. So, what about photography subjects is still scarce? Scarcity must be sought in subjects that won’t be the same in 10 years or even 10 seconds—in the fleeting moments. For those who take naturally to people-based photography, this theory is nothing new, and it’s easy to implement. But for those of us who tell stories with and without people, including landscape, architecture, and abstract photographers, the search must begin for fleeting moments within our favorite subjects.”
So, I appreciated this book a lot. It is written in a spirit I aspire to when I am sharing what I know about my two great creative outlets – writing and photography – and it sort of “helped the helper” to the extent it gave me a small lift I didn’t know I needed as too much photo blogging was dragging my spirits down.
The last note I copied before finishing it is something I may just have to turn into phone wallpaper or something:
"Few people follow your work. Even fewer care. What are you doing with that freedom?"
A Lesser Photographer by C. J. Chilvers 📚
Finished reading: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling 📚
In 2004, a group of Libertarians realized the dream of the Free Town Project by moving en masse to Grafton, New Hampshire, where they intended to overwhelm the locals and reshape the town according to their Libertarian principles.
The “bear” of the title is more or less New Hampshire’s entire bear population, which found a libertarian paradise amenable for its own reasons: Unregulated living (and waste disposal) coupled with residents who just enjoyed watching the bears and fed them to come around led to an explosion in the local bear population, some attacks, and a covert bear hunt.
The bears are also not really the point, but they serve to help make it. The libertarians are also not entirely the point.
I picked this book up after listening to a few podcasts the author did on his promotional tour, and was expecting to read a narrow narrative along the lines of “Libertarians take over a town, they’re betrayed by their idealism, bears ensue,” but there’s more in here, including a tour of New Hampshire history from the colonial era to present, focusing on both the history of bear and human interactions and New Hampshire’s deeply ingrained hatred of taxes and regulation.
Libertarians maintain a pretty big tent. The earliest ones I knew were debate club nerds who happened to be 2nd Amendment absolutists and enjoyed wearing suits. Over time, I’ve come to know a few other types who range from anarchocommunist to anarchocapitalist, with a blend of cultural characteristics. Some just look like Republicans, some are hippies. The Libertarians I’ve known well are all pretty much fine people. They get intense over financial aid and have more of a propensity for “person with a SNAP card bought cigarettes and a nice steak right in front of me” stories than my other friends, but they’re like most other utopians I know, too. They think society has gotten a bit over-leveraged, and that a lot of state interventions wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t so many state interventions. Pressed for details, most of the ones I’ve known would probably not abolish the EPA or FDA.
The Libertarians in Grafton were not all like the Libertarians I’ve known, and they sort of ruined the town during their experiment. Or at least made it worse. One thing that makes this book thought-provoking and not a simple exercise in Libertarian-punching is that it returns a few times to the fact that Grafton was already a pretty tax-averse place. Between 1940 and 1950, for instance, 20 percent of their homes burned down due to a refusal to fund fire fighters. Over the course of the book we learn that their roads began to fail, they stopped lighting street lights, their police cruiser was more often in the shop than on patrol, and for a portion of the winter roads would go unplowed because the plowing budget had been exhausted.
Hongoltz-Hetling compares all this to the nearby town of Canaan, which enjoyed much better services than Grafton:
“I assumed that, after all those years of resistance, Grafton’s tax rate would be a fraction of Canaan’s, but I learned that the difference is actually quite modest. Because it has managed to maintain larger populations over the decades, Canaan can spend much more on public goods, while keeping tax rates in check. In 2010, the tax rate in Grafton was $4.49 per $1,000 of valuation, as compared to $6.20 in Canaan. That means the owner of a $150,000 home would get an annual municipal tax bill of $673.50 in Grafton, and $930 in Canaan. In other words, Grafton taxpayers have traded away all of the advantages enjoyed by Canaan residents to keep about 70 cents a day in their pockets."
… which pretty neatly makes the point that the issue was less the amount spent on taxes than the mere existence of taxes at all.
The book also treats its subjects respectfully. You’re left with no doubt that some of these people are dingbats, but there are some genuinely empathetic portraits within, as well.
And, you know, why spend time attacking the people when you can just report the results?
“In a move that seemed strangely reminiscent of Donald Trump’s efforts along the southern border of the United States, the anarcho-communists of Tent City decided to build a big, beautiful barrier to keep the bears at bay. They scrounged some chain-link fencing, pallets, and other scraps of building materials and got to work. Looking past the scarecrow sentries and down the embankment, I could see the fruits of their labor in the woods. The cabins at the heart of Tent City were all joined together by a stockade that could, in theory, block bears from accessing the humans inside. Sections of chain fence were topped by soda cans filled with BBs, designed to rattle loudly if the bears tried to breach the walls in the night. Here, I thought, was another irony, in that those who had come to this patch of woods seeking the ultimate freedom were instead barricading themselves into a rudimentary fortress to attain some level of security that was not being provided by the government."
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling 📚
Sunday breakfast walk
Finished reading: Wabi-Sabi - Photo School by Jana Mänz 📚📷
One to review advisedly, added to the reading list to give my brain a little time to cool off from Racecraft, but also because a recent photo walk came to mind as I was standing in a shop downtown and caught a glimpse of a related book on the concept of Wabi-Sabi as it relates to writing.
So, what’s Wabi-Sabi?
I dunno. Try this:
“Wabi-Sabi is the aesthetics of modesty. The aesthetics of the transient and the final. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetics, which does not turn away from nature but includes it. Wabi-Sabi also is the small, the ugly, the unnoticed. The plain, the simple. The broken, the perforated, the rusty. Wabi-Sabi is reduction, the admiration of the small, hidden things in life. All this is not just accepted but integrated consciously into the art-work."
The reason I was reminded of that recent photo walk was not the final product of the walk, but the process of the walk. I have a tiny little “lenscap” lens. It’s 18mm wide (~28mm in 35mm terms), fixed-focus (not fixed focal length, which Google seems to think is the same as fixed focus), and fixed aperture (f8). It crushes shadows, blows out highlights, and has vignette that counts as “bad” if you think vignette is bad. When you shoot with it, you are thinking about composition and little else. In fact, when I take this lens out, I automate away the remaining “else”: I use my most generous auto ISO setting and count on IBIS to save me from whatever margin I haven’t accounted for.
Now, right away, I am already butting heads with this notion from the book:
“In the long run the pressure for flawless perfection will restrict us. Eventually we will not dare to do anything that differs from the norm. Is it not the slightly blurry picture of our child, with its laugh reminding us of a wonderful childhood that is a thousand times more valuable than a perfect arranged portrait? Since Wabi-Sabi does not expect perfection, we have freedom for our creativity and ourselves.”
… because when I take that little lens out and count on IBIS and auto ISO to blunt the difficulties a toy lens poses, I’m trying to keep a level of control and “cleanness” that feels like a violation of the notion, at least as much as I can understand it with a single reading of a single book. (A single book translated from German, with a few translation errors or odd choices in the mix.)
Anyhow, when I take that little lens out, I’m accepting a few things about it, controlling a few things more, but also appreciating that it is good for making pictures about things that are “broken, perforated and rusty.”
The book contains little exercises:
“Reduce your photographs. Try to let them take effect by reduction, not by overloading them with colors and forms. Maybe by not taking the complete scene but just a section? Or by creating a rather dark or monochrome picture? Or your blur your motive? Concentrate on only one element and try to intensify it by erasing all “background noises”. You should also try to find a modest motive, one which you would usually not even notice: a spider web on the side of the road, a broken pot in the garden, bark, moss, grass, reflections …"
… and insights into the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic:
“Irregular forms are not only more interesting because they offer more to the eye but they also communicate with our human nature. Nowadays we are surrounded by objects that often are only chosen for their usability and which do not allow aging, wearing off and signs of usage due to their material structure. We use materials such as plastic, which is produced without soul, by machines. Their symmetric, even surface does not offer any more stimulation to our eyes."
…and includes a very brief chapter on digital editing:
“Remember, if you edit your pictures according to Wabi-Sabi, reduce the colorfulness and the brightness of your image. Work with monochrome colors. Reduce the saturation and add minor color shades with split-toning for lights and shadows. Change the photographic cuts and add dark vignette."
I tensed up a little when I saw that chapter in the ToC, because many people who write about photography through a lens of minimal or muted aesthetics start from a place of non-intervention between camera and reproduction, and because I am on the record as being pretty pro-intervention. Defiantly so. I expected to be scolded, but the author not only encourages intervention, she notes “nostalgia filters” with approval and suggests their use. It was nice to feel some alignment on that score, but when I look back over my entire catalog I can see that I’ve become more interested in color – bright, vibrant color – in the past little while. My choices used to be more in line with lowered saturation and muted tones. I’m not keeping score and don’t really privilege one aesthetic over the other – the nice part about digital editing is that you can come back years later, relook, and rechoose, and I frequently do. The point of reading this book was less to “learn how to do Wabi-Sabi photography,” and more to explore the ways in which my style approaches and departs from the aesthetic. I’m content to put it down, satisfied that I learned something.
Recommended: Sure, as far as it goes. It’s a slim book. It described an aesthetic I observed and provided an accounting of the motives behind that aesthetic. It could be a very bad accounting of a completely different aesthetic.
Wabi-Sabi - Photo School by Jana Mänz 📚
Night walk for chocolate cake
Finished reading: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard 📚
This is a breezy read characterizable more by how fun its barbed skepticism is than any technical insight you’re going to gain, but I enjoyed the early overview of the cultural confluence embodied by cryptocurrency. In a late chapter, where Gerard provides a survey of current (ca. 2017) blockchain implementations, I was reminded of how timeless tech hype is. If you’re very familiar with the blockchain and the hype surrounding it, then in some ways this is a good book for using your familiarity to sharpen your ability to detect tech hype elsehwere.
And if you’re the sort who has to periodically take a deep breath and tuck down a particular kind of feeling with a particular kind of tech person, you’ll feel like you’ve made a new friend:
Computer programmers are highly susceptible to the just world fallacy (that their economic good fortune is the product of virtue rather than circumstance) and the fallacy of transferable expertise (that being competent in one field means they’re competent in others). Silicon Valley has always been a cross of the hippie counterculture and Ayn Rand-based libertarianism (this cross being termed the “Californian ideology”).
“Cyberlibertarianism” is the academic term for the early Internet strain of this ideology. Technological expertise is presumed to trump all other forms of expertise, e.g., economics or finance, let alone softer sciences. “I don’t understand it, but it must be simple” is the order of the day.
The book’s skepticism ends up being a strength and a weakness.
It’s a strength, because the technology is old enough that the world seems divided into the people you’d trust to explain it to you (who have moved on from explaining why you should avoid it), the people you should not trust to explain it to you (because they may well be stuck with a metaphorical garage full of Amway crates), and the people who cannot explain it to you but heard that you can get a lot of money for a picture of a monkey.
It’s a weakness, because it’s a relatively old book as these things go; so while the cultural skepticism aimed at gold bugs and crank economics in general may be timeless, the implementation survey is not. It’s hard to generalize claims made against specific use cases in 2017 to analyze whatever is going on in 2022 (though it was funny to put the book down, turn to Twitter, and see that the first tweet in my timeline was about a bunch of people being scammed in the sort of manner the book warns about).
My gut tells me this is a good first read, the same way an article about the dangers of ARMs would have been a good read before buying your first house ca. 2006, but probably should not be your only read.
Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard 📚
Everything, All the Time, Everywhere by Stuart Jeffries 📚 (Finished)
I read Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories over the summer and it was a useful primer on the confluence of social justice politics and postmodernism. Pluckrose herself describes herself as a liberal (in the classical sense, not the Democrat sense), and was one of the perpetrators of the Sokol Squared hoax/study/“human experiment,” but the book was earnest and seemed fair. It was also dry, a little repetitive, and was more a survey of postmodern thinking than it was a survey of postmodern … practice?
Everything, All the Time, Everywhere is more about what I guess you could call “applied postmodernism.” It’s also fair, but to the extent Jeffries considers postmodernism and neoliberalism complementary you end up reading on a few tracks, by Jeffries' own design. Each chapter is anchored in a trio of anecdotes: Something political, something pop cultural, and something artistic (broadly – photography, written word, and architecture all figure).
The intersection of neoliberalism and postmodernism are the most obviously disturbing to him. The book traces this confluence starting with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and ending with rise of private equity capitalism (the afterword touches on cryptocurrency, which strangely didn’t really turn up much in the first chapter, where examining it as a late reaction to going off the gold standard might have been interesting, but wouldn’t have fit in the chronological structure of the book).
He’s more tolerant of postmodern art across the range of examples he provides, identifying a certain playfulness with warmth. His takes on pop culture – the melding of commerce and art – are a little more despairing, and reflective of a frustration with the dead-end of postmodern “knowing” and ironic detachment.
The portions on art and pop culture were fun to read, if unsurprising. The political portions were edifying to the extent they drew connections between poltiics and postmodernism I hadn’t made.
Recommended if you’re into this sort of thing and would like an accessible but thoughtful survey that connects a lot of pieces.
Everything, All the Time, Everywhere by Stuart Jeffries 📚
Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs 📚 📷 (Finished)
I first came across Daido Moriyama’s work in an article about presets for Fujifilm cameras. It landed with a small thud at the time. I was trying to learn about visual style and wasn’t really receptive to the work itself.
Early winter brought with it a photographic dry spell, so when I saw this book on the shelf I picked it up and leafed through. The photography in the book was a little more compelling than I had remembered, so I bought it.
It’s not a book about technique so much as it is a book about process.
On how he shoots:
“Over and over again, Moriyama pauses in his tracks and just stands there, pressing the shutter button of his camera. Looking round, continually alert, he points the lens towards whatever catches his interest. Occasionally, he holds his cam- era at chest height, and just presses the shutter button, keeping it pressed down, taking one shot after another in quick succession, without bothering to look into the viewfinder. Catching sight of an alleyway off the street a little way ahead, he heads straight towards it at a run, as if already certain of what he’ll find there. I know that it’s not uncommon for him to get through a whole roll of film, 36 shots, in less than one hundred metres. And today, even before we’ve got halfway along the street, he’s had to stop for a few seconds to change his film several times.”
“Whenever I photograph streets, I make it a rule to walk the street twice - I go up the street, then back down again. The light will always fall in a particular way when you go up the street, and then the op- posite way when you’re going in the other direction, so different things will present themselves to you. Something that seemed quite worthless when seen against the light might seem absolutely fascinating when the light falls on it from the front.”
… and on the meaning of what results:
“If you go to places with an agenda related to what’s going on socially or politically, and try to take shots that underpin that agenda, you’re not going to get anywhere. The photographer should just shoot whatever he observes, using all his senses, and if possible unselectively. This is what I always tell my students, or any young person who wants to become a photographer.'
“I remember once asking Moriyama for a definition of what makes a ‘snapshot’ photograph. And I remember his reply: ‘It’s like a cast net,’ he said. Your desire compels you to throw it out. You throw the net out, and you snag whatever happens to come back- it’s like an ‘accidental moment’ When a photographer points his camera towards some- thing and presses the shutter button, of course he does it with me kind of intention. But the image that is captured in that than instant will always contain vastly more information the person behind the camera had in mind. Any concept or theme the photographer might try to express will be utterly insignificant compared to the amount of information stored instantaneously in the image itself. The same applies in spades for political ideas.”
It was helpful to read that. I’ve often felt much more emerge during edits than in taking, and I’ve experimented with music when I shoot and then edit, using the music while shooting as a soundtrack and then during editing as a prompt or reminder.
As a prompt to unstick me, this was a good book. There are plenty that offer exercises. Sometimes they work but usually they don’t. Perhaps what I needed was less some prompting about what to shoot and more reassurance that it was okay to just go shoot and see what emerged.
Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs by Takeshi Nakamoto