Nordic noir

I’m hooked on these, mostly limited-run TV shows although an occasional movie fits the pattern. Most are set in greater Scandinavia, but the Brits have embraced the genre and produced some of the best of the bunch, e.g. Broadchurch with David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.

What appeals to me? Well, partly the hardboiled flavor of the stories—I’m a big fan of American noir as well, written and filmed, from The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels through Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Blade Runner, up to latter-day efforts like Twin Peaks and L.A. Confidential and True Detective. The dialog in nordic noir is nowhere near as cynical and wisecracking, but it shares a bleak view of events and I like that.

I also love the alien (to me) settings for these stories, whether urban London or Stockholm or Copenhagen or rural Britain or Iceland or Finland. These shows spend a lot of time creating and exploring the setting, and I get a lot of pleasure seeing a bit of what it’s like to live in the backwaters of Norway or the near-moonscape of Iceland.

But I think what I like most is that the procedural aspects are almost incidental, while characters and their interactions are central. Maybe it’s a mismatched pair of investigators, or a rural police force in over their heads, or a detective with severe physical or emotional problems or a shocking backstory, but the interest for me is to see how such people confront difficult situations—and one another.

Right now I’m watching the second series of Trapped, which I was eagerly awaiting after bingeing the first series a few months back. The story is worthy but not central, and I appreciate that it’s nowhere near as gruesome as some of the others (I don’t know where that particular quality comes from, it seems irrelevant to the genre but is very common). The photography is excellent (I’m watching in HD) and the landscapes are spectacular.

But maybe my favorite part is that the actors are not beautiful. No one is ugly, but their attractiveness lies in looking distinctive, not conventionally pretty. I’d love to be friends with either of these two folks, kind and warm and decent, but very surprising sorts to see as the two leads in a TV show.

By contrast, in Fortitude (also filmed in Iceland, though set in a fictionalized Svalbard) all the men are strong and handsome, and the women — cops, mayor, doctor, waitress — are beautiful.

Trapped is the superior series in many ways — the storyline of Fortitude is staggeringly weird — but they are both fun to watch, which is what I like about these and the other shows in this genre.

A nice observation

This review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (a topic which resonates with me, though I haven’t read the book and probably won’t) is critical of the of-the-moment writing style Odell uses when speaking out against our current of-the-momentness. ‘Tis a fair cop.

Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.

Odell masterfully deploys one of the reigning genres of digital content: the parable-like anecdote, offered not for narrative pleasure but didactic instruction. (I owe this point about the ubiquity of sentimental anecdotes online—see, for example, the website Upworthy—to Tess McNulty.) To illustrate our reliance on strangers, she tells how she called 911 on the way to the grocery store after seeing a woman collapse in a seizure in front of a church. Ten pages later, to decry the blandness of living inside a filtered bubble, she relates how her ex-boyfriend’s brother ate only at chain restaurants when he traveled. She weaves together a fashionable range of references—from Deleuze to David Foster Wallace—with the Carrie Bradshaw–esque formulations so typical of the early-2000s blogosphere: “As I looked at X, I couldn’t help but think of Y.”

But the writer is fair, and goes on to say this:

One perennial challenge of progressive thought is confronting the culture in which you are embedded while using terms and values that are comprehensible to that culture.

This has been on my mind, as seen in my previous post. Most of my writing is crafted for an idealized reader, one who is interested in what I have to say and has a background that makes it easy to follow me as I say it. I invest a lot of effort in writing clearly and directly for that reader. But my idealized reader is by no means the ideal reader—if there is such a thing at all—and lately I’ve been thinking I should invest more time writing for the people who are actually here and listening, rather than as if my readers will self-select into some idealized audience.

Note: I have always taken the sensibilities of my readers into account, as far as I’m aware of them, and steered away from certain topics just because what I had to say didn’t seem worth the discomfort it might cause. A couple of those topics have reached the point in my life where I probably should put them out there just for the sake of honesty and transparency. Perhaps I’ll turn to those.

But I still have a clear memory of the one time I did that, regarding something innocuous, just to see what would happen. A friend had started a discussion thread about books (and maybe other creative works) one was embarrassed to admit they didn’t like. My contribution was to say that I didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia—I had read the first book, it left me cold, and I hadn’t continued. The reaction, as I thought it might be, was pure shock—not even “How can you say that?”, but the internet equivalent of gaping in astonishment. I didn’t press the matter.

Two good pieces of writing

My admiration for Alan Jacobs, both as a writer and a thinker, continues to grow. Today he published an … allegory? … which reimagines the Scouring of the Shire. Not only is it a fine piece of writing, but the outlook it suggests is very much one I’ve come to adopt.

I’ve been wondering what it will take to get me back to writing regularly. I’ve mentioned that I’ve become sick of the sound of my own voice … which makes me think I need to adopt another one, at least for awhile.

I not only admire Derek Sivers as a writer and thinker, I find him inspiring. He doesn’t write often anymore, but when he does he sends an email to everyone on his list with a heads-up. Here’s the piece he published today. It’s really good — spare, insightful, from the heart — like all his pieces.

After reading it I pulled out an index card and a sharpie, wrote “Write like Derek Sivers”, and put the card at the base of my monitor. Perhaps it’ll inspire me to write like Derek Sivers. Or at least to write.

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.