Is this thing still on?
Sometimes I astonish myself with how shallow my understanding is of a topic I not only think I know well, but regularly do a lot of work in. Recently it was some reformatting work on a website for a friend.
The initial work was tedious because I had to get familiar with some technical stuff where my understanding was shallow and I knew it — in this case, the way that pieces of a WordPress theme fit together so that you can customize one without breaking everything. But that was fine, enjoyable in an after-the-fact manner, it was something I wanted to understand better and in fact didn’t understand well–only in theory, not in practice, because I had avoided putting in the work. So I put in the work, not enjoyable in itself, but now I not only know how to do it but have actually done it (once, anyway) — much more satisfying.
That opened up the door to the reformatting itself, something I’m very familiar with and was able to do in short order. Except for one mystery bit — a piece of content which in certain contexts wasn’t being sized as I expected. Which revealed to me that I really didn’t understand a certain fundamental thing about how elements are sized in a browser. Well, highlighted really, I was already vaguely aware that I didn’t understand, and didn’t care much since in nearly all cases the browser behaved according to my naive, imperfect mental model.
But hey, these are the days, right? What in times gone by would have been an irritating obstacle to getting the job done is now an opportunity to take a deep dive that can’t really be justified except by the fact that I’d like to know more. So I’m spending a lot of time tracking down and digesting the documents that explain what goes on in browser layout at the lowest levels. Not that I’ll ever build one of these things, but learning about the issues and working through the solutions has its pleasures. And when I’m done I should be able to solve my own small issue in a properly elegant manner, rather than manhandling my way towards something barely acceptable.
Long-time readers will be aware that “trying to understand” has been a key theme in my life. Plenty of sharp turns — converting to Christianity, changing churches, joining an intentional Christian community, buying a farm, leaving a farm, changing jobs — have been occasioned by a sudden need to understand something by living into it. Other sharp turns have come when I’ve drained something dry and decided to leave it behind.
I think the sharp turns are done — just about everything I’m exploring at this point is open-ended, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll pick up anything new, these days I’m all about paring down. Just last weekend I was telling Chris I had decided to stop looking for new work. If something new comes my way I’ll consider it, but I’m getting more comfortable with a very leisurely pace, and with the family finances settled I don’t need to bring in additional income.
So even though trying to understand will always play a role, and there will always be projects that help me translate head knowledge into visceral knowledge, I am (tentatively) planning to give up on timetables. Unless that ends up not working, in which case … time to try something else!
I’ve said many times I’d like a deeper understanding of medieval history, and I continue to work on that. Another area whereI’d like to deepen my knowledge (wouldn’t take much!) is late antiquity, the period where the Roman empire began transitioning to Christendom. My curiosity first stemmed from wanting to know more about what pagan Rome found attractive in early Christianity, to the point that it replaced paganism as the state religion. Robert Wilken’s book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, recommended by Servetus, was a big help here.
That plus other encounters in my reading helped me to appreciate what it must have felt like to be a pagan, and got me wondering what it must have felt like to see one’s religion decline and then fall when confronted by a new, very different way of looking at the world. There are books specifically about this — The Final Pagan Generation by Edward Watts is one — and I may actively dig into this one day.
In the meantime, I try to progressively fill in the gaps as I notice them, so I bought a copy of Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction, only 160 pages, which I hope will sketch out the period for me in very broad outlines.
(This Very Short Introduction series is something Oxford University Press started twenty years ago, and there are now 539 entries! I need to sit down and scan the titles, I’ll bet there are others in there I’d find helpful.)
I’m a lot more knowledgeable about modern history — cultural, anyway, the politics is something I know only incidentally — and I don’t yet foresee any end to my efforts to understand. Perhaps it’s a vain hope, but I’d like to have at least a dim understanding of exactly where we’re at right now, as opposed to the (often imaginary) places that parties with vested interests are trying to convince me are our home.
Sometimes they will benefit greatly if they can convince me. Sometimes they themselves are victims of looking under the wrong streetlamp. But in either case I’ve discovered it’s best not to put your trust in the visions of others. You’ve got to do the work yourself.
(One way to track my deeper interests is to look at the domain names I’ve registered over the years. One of them is thisiswater.net, a nod to my hope one day to create an informational website called This is Water, a collection of all the different narratives I’ve investigated that strike me as viable alternative explanations of how we got here, I like to think of them as “secret histories.” The name This is Water is stolen directly from the well-known David Foster Wallace commencement speech, which begins with this old joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
and ends with this exhortation:
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
The job of a lifetime, indeed.)
Anyway, over the years I’ve built up enough scaffolding in this area that quite often I will come across a history which supplies some key pieces, that fall into place for me chunk – chunk – chunk. The latest of those is Stuart Ewen’s book PR!: A Social History of Spin, which I initially bought expecting just a light, informative cultural survey but which turns out to be a solid, deeply researched account of the evolution of the concept of public opinion.
Ewen chronicles the shift as it took place in the early 20th century, identifying the players, their thinking, and the changes they managed to effect. The story ties together many, many trends I was familiar with at a more superficial level. It’s not the stuff of conspiracy theorizing (though it could be!) but more a reminder that people in power never have your best interests at heart, even if that’s exactly what they think.
Since we last spoke I’ve put up a jar of pickles and two jars of sauerkraut, one using conventional cabbage and one organic — I’m hoping the conventional turns out OK since on sale it’s about 1/3 the price, but if the organic is significantly better I’ll go with that. The sauerkraut is about ten days old and needs another week before I’ll test it.
But the pickles — oh, my! I first tried them on Monday, seven days in, and they were excellent, crisp and lots of complex flavor. I may have gone a bit heavy on the red pepper flakes, but the garlic was about right. I used lots of fresh dill, but since I don’t eat anything flavored with dill except pickles I haven’t made an effort to separate out that flavor in my mind, and so I don’t know if more or less would have been any better — I just used the entire package because I had no other place to use it.
I tried them again on Thursday — more flavorful, but also softer. I’ll test again next Monday, after two weeks, just to see how they fare, and then I’ll refrigerate them to stop the fermentation. But right now I’m guessing that seven days is a good place to stop — some sources say that these would be called “half-sour” pickles, but I’m not yet sophisticated enough about pickles to know for sure. All I know is that they were good, and having them after only seven days of waiting is a delight.
I still plan to write about eating, but I think now that I will do it in a single long piece, partly because I’ve never written a long piece, mostly because that will make it easy to ignore for those who aren’t interested (and perhaps easy to find for those who are).
I watched another 1980s movie that was big when it came out but I had somehow never seen, Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. It had a very 80s feel to it, underwritten and under-produced — if the top-flight TV writers of today had reworked the script it would have been glorious, but instead it was pretty good with occasional moments where it rose above the material, e.g. a sequence with a car being chased through the mountains by a helicopter with a guy with a machine gun was tritely structured … but then there was the occasional well-choreographed shot, or a surprisingly funny comment from one of guys being chased. Was the 1980s a particularly bad time for movies, or have things just improved that much in the past 40 years? I don’t know.
The best part of the movie was a surprising chemistry between Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. This was one of DeNiro’s earliest comedy/action roles, coming off a long series of “serious” films made by directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and it was good to see him funny without being hammy. Grodin put me off at first, but I warmed up to him as he turned out to be perfect for the role, in an Albert Brooks sort of way.
So anyway, highly recommended, as long as you aren’t bothered by a bunch of gratuitous profanity — not that profanity bothers me, but there did seem to be a stretch back then (which lives on through HBO!) where it was crammed in everywhere in a show-offy way, even in otherwise lighthearted fare. Not embarrassing, just grating.