Issue 022
December, 28, 2018

A New Mailing List, Goodbye Instagram?, Future Book Hello Again

That image up above is my Kindle Oasis, swaddled in an odd leather cover made by Amazon. The cover was available for only a few weeks. Everyone hated it. The magnets are very weak. But I love it.

Patina'd Kindle Cover

Roden-ites! Have you made it through? Through the holidays? We are so close. Hold on, just a little further.

That image up above is my Kindle Oasis, swaddled in an odd leather cover made by Amazon. The cover was available for only a few weeks. Everyone hated it. The magnets are very weak. But I love it. It is my favorite cover of maybe anything I’ve ever owned. It certainly has the best patina of anything leather of mine. It feels like Amazon really cared about it. To the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was the work of a single person. There is an exceptional weight, texture, and quality to the leather. It could be argued that this is the most elegant physical thing Amazon as a company has every produced. When you slap it closed it makes a beautiful sound — flap. It brings me joy. It sparks joy in the Marie Kondo vernacular. And hilariously, it is unavailable. Customers hated it. It had an average rating of just about two stars.

Which is to say: Consumer technology is an odd bird. And my desires and tastes might be outside the norms. I do wish those damn magnets were a bit stronger, though.

New Year. New Mailing List.

Omine Okugaku Michi ridgeline

Announced here on Roden first: I’m launching a new mailing list on January 7th. It’s weekly. It’s called Ridgeline. You can subscribe now:

Over these last few years I’ve walked thousands of kilometers of Japanese pilgrimage paths, old roads, and historic mountain trails.

I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos.

I’ve led walks with incredible folks — talented folks, kind hearted folks — from around the world.

And slowly, through the process of walking and talking and iterating and observing, I’ve developed a sense of what makes a walk work. What makes a walk great, and how walks that seem great can be made even better still.

This newsletter is a distillation of these observations and collected notes, paired with a photo, and shared with you, weekly. We’ll be joined by Sebald and MacFarlane and McPhee, Basho and Gellhorn, Lee and Chatwin and Shepherd and anyone else who has committed themselves to a walk.

It’ll be a little literary, a little wacky, a little scattered. But it’ll all be bound by walking — a shared love for movement — as we search for some platonic walk, an impossible walk, together.

Obviously, Roden has been host to a number of Ridgeline themes: walking, Japan, photography, literature. But Ridgeline will be acutely focused on those intersections.

Once a week: an image, and a cap of about 500 words. The goal is to be low-stress on you readers. The inverse of Roden: Something you can quickly parse the entirety of, but (hopefully!) not consider entirely vapid or throw-away.

And why Ridgeline? More on the subscribe page, but a snippet:

Ridgelines become maps, veins of the mountains. They form the base physiognomy that make ranges so eminently photographable. They are delightfully subversive. Ridgelines rob summits of some of their majesty. For, those of us who often walk know rigelines are the blue-collar, working parts of the mountain, the bits beaten down by thousands of years of human stomping in service to gettin’ places, and many more millennia in aid of boars and deers and monkeys and bears.

Summits preen. Ridgelines work.

You could say that ridgelines are the … margins of mountains.

It’s worth noting, too, that these qualities of ridgelines need not be confined to the mountains. I sense elements of them on old roads cutting through villages and towns. Out in the flats of the countryside plains.

And so while we’ll be looking at many mountain paths, it won’t all be up in the clouds. Subscribe here. (Did I mention you can subscribe?)

Koya Red Remaining Stock

Koya Bound, bound in red

It turns out our distributor has a few more copies of Koya Bound than I had calculated (my spreadsheet was wonky, theirs is correct, there are still only 1,000 copies in the world, all stamped and numbered). For some reason I thought we had sold all the extra-special, super-limited red editions, but no! There are five reds left. The retail price is $500, but here’s a special Roden discount code: rodenred. Use that on checkout and you can nab a copy for $50 bucks off. We only made ten. They are so pretty. We would have done the entire series in red if we knew it would have looked this good.

(And some of the classic Koya Bounds — soft-to-the-touch greys, yours for a paltry $95 — are also still in stock.)

The slow walk away from Instagram …

Part of the impulse to launch Ridgeline is that I want to step away from Instagram. Many reasons why. The biggest is the “fool me once … shame on me. Fool me, like, you know, fifteen times …” feeling I have with much of social media. Facebook has collapsed as a viable marketing / distribution platform for me. Twitter is fine, but the audience trends heavily to certain demographics. And as lovely as Instagram has been, with the loss of its cofounders in 2018, I feel like we are entering the Death By Monetization/Optimization™ spiral that Facebook is so very good at.

Part of what made Facebook a breath of fresh air ten years ago was its relative minimalism compared to MySpace, etc. Now it’s a full-blown space shuttle interface.

Repeat for Messenger.

And, now, repeat once again for Instagram. Instagram will only get more complex, less knowable, more algorithmic, more engagement-hungry in 2019.

I want to have a place very far apart from that, where I can post photos on my own terms. Not have an algorithm decide which of my posts is best (have you noticed Instagram making the second photo in series appear first in the carousel?). And I don’t want to be rewarded for being anodyne, which is what these general algorithms seem to optimize for: things that are easily digestible, firmly on the scale of “fine, just fine.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more boring stuff we shove into our eyeballs, the more boring our taste becomes.

In a different era, there was something interesting about the staidness of Flickr. But it clearly didn’t scale properly within the framework of venture capital. Moar engagement. And so, here I am, leaning on an open protocol, a non-commercial space. SMTP as our savior.

I’ll still post on Instagram, but only as a sub-space, a distribution vector. Not as a primary platform. Principal photographic work will go to Ridgeline. And to be perfectly clear: I say all of this with no malice towards IG or Facebook, simply as pattern recognition — the value of a platform (to me) will decline as complexity and commerce overwhelms.

Bigger essay on all this forthcoming.

Future book?

Wired illustration

Though I vowed (to myself!) to shift the thrust of my writing away from future bookisms / publishing pontifications, Wired approached me a few months ago to write up some of my Yale lectures (longtime Roden readers know I’ve been lecturing at the Yale Publishing Course each summer for the past eight years). I started writing what was supposed to be a relatively short piece, but the final version clocks in at — *ahem* — a willowy 4,500 words.

From the piece:

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

Keep reading on


Should I bring up the Jack vipassana Incident? I’ll mention it if only as a cautionary tale of how not to think about vipassana meditation.

Some tips:

  • Best not to tweet for at least a week after you get back from your ten days
  • Best not to wear an Apple Watch or other quantified self object for your ten days

Jack’s dubious tweet-storm tone aside, I think he had the best of intentions. When meditation goes well you really do think: Other people should do this, too! But … ham-handed virtue signaling is the best way to make sure nobody does it.

Furthermore, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about biometrics or the optimization of heart rate, or even about quantifying getting “better” at meditation. That’s all antithetical to the core of the practice which is simply: to observe of the rising and falling of sensations upon the body.

Just because your heart rate drops doesn’t mean you’re making any more progress towards our goal: a disconnection of emotional reaction from sensation (to the even greater goal of being more emotionally intelligent / in control of action). In fact, obsessing over (or even worse, bragging about) heart rate is almost certainly upending the other goals.

The “no talking” precept observed during the retreat is connected to this. Once you start comparing your experience to the experiences of others, you stop being able to focus on your practice and start worrying about feeling or not feeling something someone else felt.

Once you start measuring your heart rate, you start thinking about heart rate.

Don’t measure your heart rate.

I wrote about my experiences at my first ten day retreat last year. But I waited over a month to do so. (Which is also not long enough; but maybe long enough to balance freshness and a wee bit of perspective?) You can read about my experience here in Roden “013” and Roden “015”.

Thanks, my peoples

Whittling I want to take a second to acknowledge my gratitude to you readers out there: Thank you. A big, freggin’, sappy, teary-eyed thank you. These last few years have been *majorly* weird, frequently distressing, for me. I have been working/whittling on sprawling chunks of writing/design in the background that may or may not ever see the light of day.

I’ve supported this non-yet-so-commercial work through freelancing and consulting. In between it all, quite frankly, Roden has kept me grounded in more important ways than it may seem from the outside. This thing here, “022”, is only the sixth letter of the year, but I’m glad to have been able to send all of them.

My favorite letter of 2018 is “020”, on “Culture + Identity”. I don’t know where / why / how else I would have written that. But there it is, on my strange platform comprised of all your inboxes — the not-blog, semi-epistolary, oddly intimate transmission. I like it (this as a platform). I want to use it more intentionally.

(Which is why I’m launching Ridgeline.)

I’m ending 2018 reading Ellen Ullman, and Nan Shepard.

Ullman, on attention and code:

You must not lose your own attention. As the human-world knowledge tumbles about in your mind, you must keep typing, typing. You must not be interrupted. Any break in your listening causes you to lose a line here or there. Some bit comes; then—oh no—it’s leaving, please come back. It may not come back. You may lose it. You will create a bug and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And Shepard, on mountains and the need to return to remember:

Water so clear cannot be imagined, but must be seen. One must go back, and back again, to look at it, for in the interval memory refuses to recreate its brightness.

Just in case you missed that: “The interval memory refuses to recreate its brightness.”

Starting in the early morning on the 31st, just before the Japanese new year celebrations begin, I’m embarking on a ten hour walk with a dear friend up through the hills of the Miura Peninsula. In part to focus our attentions with the hope that doing so makes them harder to lose. And in part to revisit what the interval memory refuses to recreate.

Speaking of the irreproducible, from my vipassana adventure last year:

But there I was in the sun — laughing, enveloped by HAPPY. Full HAPPY. Days earlier, decidedly UNHAPPY. Very distraught, indeed. But now happy multiplying upon happy. Happy born from happy. The two of us ricocheting, suddenly and for no discernible reason, happy off of one another. And in the moment, recognizing: THIS IS CRAZY. But, wow, it was some scrumptious, succulent crazy.

2019: More succulent crazy. More light. Keep typing, typing.

— C

Tree, Miyagi, along the narrow road to the deep north