Luxuriating in technological epicness

These days I spend a lot of time sitting at the computer. It’s not my ideal—if I had no family responsibilities, I would probably split my time between reading, walking around, and hanging out with friends—but my paying work is 100% computer based, most of the non-paying-work things I want to accomplish require a computer, and my primary non-paying-work responsibility (helping raise our kids) has suddenly become computer based, with two of the four students now actively learning web development. (The third, Jerry, has no interest in computers but a great interest in woodworking, something I have promised we will learn together starting this year—so there’s that. And the fourth, our Downs child Peter, is a whole other experience that takes me away from the computer in ways I am grateful for—I’m thinking that perhaps he and I will do a little gardening this summer while the other three are off to help their sister Maggie at her farm in SW Virginia once school is done for the year.)

So I find myself at the computer most of my waking hours, even for recreation—mainly watching films and TV series, I’m not a gamer at all—and investing money in improving the experience, even hundreds of dollars, works out to be a very worthwhile expense. Provided the money is around. Which lately it happens to be.

I mentioned that after many years of using a decently powered laptop (with external monitors, keyboard, and mouse) I recently decided to pass that along to a kid and buy a nice modern computer, probably quadrupling my processing power. Very nice! At the same time I gathered together some older monitors (at roughly $100 apiece they seem to collect around here) and rigged things so that I had one to either side of my main monitor, turned 90 degrees so they were tall and skinny. That was a great decision. Most all of my work involves long stretches of text, mainly source code for web pages or software, which rarely stretches more than 120 characters horizontally but goes on forever horizontally. So having a tall, skinny display allowed me to go from displaying, say 50 lines at once to 100 lines. And being able to take in more context at once without scrolling is, well, luxurious. On the monitor to the right I tend to keep my mail reader open, tall and skinny (doesn’t need to be any wider). On the left I’ll often have a browser page displaying reference documentation—also does well tall and skinny—while I’m working on computer code in the short and wide middle monitor. The increment in convenience, while not huge, is present all the time, and so cumulatively my computer time has become much more pleasant.

But, that middle monitor. It is short and wide—unusally wide, actually, a 21:9 proportion like widescreen theater film, about 50% wider than the standard format for monitors and TVs these days—I bought it originally so I could have that 50% extra, and fit three windows side by side where I usually would have two. The kids laughed when they saw my new setup, saying it looked like a Star Wars tie fighter. And I have to say that with the tall monitors to either side, the space above and below the short wide monitor in the middle seemed … wasted …

Early this week I was listening to part of a podcast for software developers when one of the hosts mentioned that the price of 4K (ultra-high resolution) monitors had dropped quite a bit, that he had bought a large one (32″ diagonal, as opposed to the common 22-24″), thought after setting it up that he would hate having such a large luminous thing on his desk—saying that all he expected to get was a tan—but ended up loving it for the extra real estate it provided. I trust the guy, and I looked at my own setup, then looked up the dimensions of his 32″ monitor (which has the usual 16:9 proportion) and realized that it would actually be just a few inches wider than my current middle monitor … and would fill in the blank space top and bottom. Plus … 4K! That is twice the resolution of my current monitors, meaning it would be like having four of those in a 2×2 grid. The price ($350) was in my discretionary comfort zone, so I thought it would be worth a try. I ordered one, and thanks to modern capitalist magic I was installing it two days later.

I already love it! I thought the main problem would be that, since the ultra-high resolution makes everything half as big in both dimensions, I would need to figure out how much bigger things (fonts, windows, etc) should be made to compensate—surely not as large as they used to be, but how large would be acceptable? (Keeping in mind that the smaller the things, the more I could fit on the screen.) Well, the happy news is that I’m perfectly satisfied with the tinier versions of my windows. Not only does this mean I have quadruple the space a standard monitor would give me, but even the tiny text (which I find perfectly comfortable to read) looks nicer because the small characters look sharper than when they are twice as big vertically and horizontally.

And since I can keep the text very small, that means I can have lots of it on the screen at once. One of my text editors (I use several), when stretched from top to bottom of the screen, shows 150 lines of text, rather than the old 55 lines. This is coding heaven! And I have to imagine that writers would like it as well.

One of the peculiarities of this setup is that the huge monitor sits roughly 18″ from me—right in my face—so I’m keeping tabs to see if that leads to any sort of physical problems. But there is definitely one physical benefit, namely an immersive experience. Where the smaller monitor filled only part of my field of vision, this more or less fills what I can take in clearly all at once, even when I move my eyes without moving my head. (I always had to turn my head to see the monitors to either side, which is kind of the point for them—different headspaces.)

Which leads to an unexpected fringe benefit—watching video is a great experience! The colors on this new monitor seem very good, accurate and vivid (I haven’t actually compared side by side with the old monitor, but that’s my impression). And so watching a well-photographed film or TV program is way more engrossing. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Nordic Noir TV shows (something I should write about separately), and just after getting the new monitor I started watching the series River on Netflix. Initially I thought I wasn’t going to like it—the approach has some elements I generally don’t care for, and the first episode left me cold and a bit confused. But days later I’ve finished the fourth of six episodes, and I’m hooked! Perhaps the show just got progressively better, but I have also noticed myself noticing how good the production looks, and there have been stretches where I’ve mostly lost myself in the story, unusual for me … and quite possibly due to having the video fill my field of vision.

Sick of the sound of my own voice

Since I began this latest streak of posting with an uncharacteristic meta-post, it’s fitting that I mark the end of it with another one. It may have been clear, especially toward the end, that my heart wasn’t really in it. I did manage to venture out of my comfort zone a few times, but mostly it was sounding to me like the same old stuff, not at all the purpose of the exercise.

Which isn’t to say I’ve given up on writing about such things, just that the blog format is not really suitable for what I need to do now. I think I need to tackle bigger chunks, go a bit deeper, back them up with some research, and—most important—take the time to draft and re-draft, with an eye to communicating clearly and directly and kindly, solely for the sake of the reader. That need doesn’t fit in with my usual blogging cycle, which goes from initial idea to finished product in a matter of hours.

I haven’t yet decided for or against continuing this blog in other ways. Certainly if I ever write something more substantial and bring that to the point where I want it to see the light of day, I’ll announce it (or maybe post it) here. But I’m also thinking about revisiting my initial approach to blogging—the one everyone used when blogging began—keeping a record of what is going on with me and whatever interesting things I run across.

More caught than taught

The most important things I know, I don’t know how to teach. I’ve been reminded of that lately as I’ve taken a larger role in teaching the kids as they finish up their last few years of schooling. Although it involves different subjects for each one, I see the distance between how they currently approach a problem and how I would approach it, and I don’t have clear and straightforward guidance to give on how to get from there to here.

Our older kids eventually got it, though—I see a lot of my thinking in their thinking, to the point where they’ll regularly check in with me about how to address various difficulties—but I really don’t know how it happened, beyond just being alongside and available as much as possible.

So I’ll stick with being alongside and available, but this time around I’ll also try to be more observant of what’s happening, what’s working and what isn’t.

Local news reporting without local newspapers

I don’t subscribe to Ben Thompson’s newsletter (yet—maybe I ought to) but quite often I end up reading one of his essays because it was linked by someone else I follow, and I always benefit from it. His post on the local news business model was referenced this week by the Dense Discovery newsletter (which I do subscribe to), even though it was written in May 2017.

It makes some very smart observations about why local newspapers will probably not survive, and probably shouldn’t, but that local news still can and should be reported profitably. Thompson’s main point is that the old newspaper business model not only doesn’t work anymore but isn’t salvageable. Meanwhile, people still want local news and will probably pay for it if it is offered in a suitable package.

I strongly believe the market for this sort of publication is there. My hometown city of Madison, WI has around 250,000 people (500,000 in Dane County), primarily served by The Wisconsin State Journal. To the paper’s credit the website is almost all local news; unfortunately, most of it is uninteresting filler. Worse, to produce this filler took a staff of 52 people, of which only 10 by my count are local reporters (supported by at least 8 editors).

Were a new publication to come along, offering a five minute summary of Madison’s local news of the day, plus an actually relevant story or two a week with the occasional feature or investigative report, I’d gladly pay, and I don’t even live there anymore. What I won’t do, though, is bother visiting the Wisconsin State Journal because there simply is too much dreck to wade through, created at ridiculous cost in service of an obsolete business model.

Continuing on in the vein of the previous two posts regarding knowing your sphere of influence, here is a section of a post I wrote back in 2005. Guess I’ve been thinking about this for awhile!

Purveyors of the news thrive because people think it is important to have an opinion on matters which don’t touch them directly and which they have no way of influencing. In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman explains it this way:

In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. 

You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into—what else?—another piece of news. 

Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Or, as a friend of mine once put it, we know more about the situation in Rwanda than we do about the situation in the house next door. News purveyors like it that way—and we like it that way.

Good intentions

Yesterday’s post reminded me of something that was said by Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health. (I have Tracy Kidder’s book about farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, but haven’t yet read it.) Farmer said this:

“WL’s [White Liberals] think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches”

While looking for that quote I ran across a reference to an address given by Ivan Illich, who I much admire and have learned a lot from. But I hadn’t read this particular talk, given at the invitation of a group of college students doing summer service in Mexico, called “To Hell With Good Intentions”. (Illich lived and worked in Mexico at the time.) It’s pretty fierce!

I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages.

Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction – except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – “salesmen” for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.

It’s hard to stop quoting, so I’ll just encourage you to read the whole thing, which is not all that long. Illich ends with this.

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.

I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

“I sit on a man’s back …”

I think about this Tolstoy quote a lot.

I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.

I do what I can to avoid personally inflicting injustice, and to deepen my awareness of how I inflict it unknowingly. But lately I’ve come to understand that my efforts mostly benefit me (character work), and the world at large not so much, since so much injustice is structurally inflicted.

And the hard part is that I’ve learned not to fool myself about what I’m in a position to influence. I have no problem with symbolic gestures as long as I keep in mind they are no more than that. But as to actually contributing to a solution, at this point I don’t know how to do more than understand the injustice, and to adjust my own behavior accordingly.