Dearest Rodenians of new:
A ton of new subscribers in the past month. In case you have no idea what this is — I’m Craig Mod and you signed up for this (in theory), the Roden Explorers newsletter, on craigmod.com. Maybe you read my Leica Q review. Maybe you read something I wrote about books. Or margins. Or the Dalai Lama on airplanes. Right now I’m walking across Japan and so walking, writing, and photography are my jag, man. If you are thoroughly freaked out, or can’t remember how you got here. One click: unsubscribe.
To the rest of the Rodenians, old and older still:
Hello from the other side of my walk along the historic Nakasendo highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. My GPS odometer clocked it all in at … 710.14km (started in Kamakura, lots of little detours). Which is something like: one million steps.
I under- and overestimated everything. I underestimated distances by about 20-40% depending on the day. I underestimated what my body could do — it ended up doing a lot more than I had ever planned for. I underestimated the number of straight up heart-warming conversations I’d be having with famers and cafe owners each and every day. I mean, my heart was freggin’ warm, maybe the warmest heart in all of Nagano prefecture at one point. I underestimated just how good it would feel to move and use the body, for the walk to become close to an ascetic practice. And because of some of these underestimations, I overestimated how much time I was going to have at the end of each day.
So here I am, weeks late on this Roden. The good news is I have been writing up a storm in other places — 7,000 words or so for one essay alone. It’s been pared back to 5,000 and will probably (hopefully?) be pared back even more. That essay is for publication, and covers a chunk of my experiences on the walk. Think of it like a delayed Roden. I’m excited to share it with you all when it’s out (soonish).
And I have yet another assignment related to the walk. Anyway: Lots of writing around walking.
To say that the walk has been great fails to capture just how totally, completely, absolutely great it has been. To put it in maximally pretentious and exasperating terms: It feels precisely like what I’m supposed to be doing right now. Which is, as you can imagine, a very good feeling, indeed.
I met many people. Here is one of them: A 94 year old ex-pilot, hanging out in an old inn for daimyo around Mitake post town, being totally bad ass, owning the place, taking no bullshit.
I was surprised how eager he was to be photographed. His grip was firm, hands soft like dough:
The days have been full. Crazily full. Let me share some of that fullness here.
But first let me take a second to thank everyone who joined the Explorers Club this year. You made this walk possible.
I started 2019 in an unfortunate, off-kilter, not-so-great place. And part of crawling out of that hole was setting up a series of things — Ridgeline, the Explorers Club, this giant walk I’m currently on — to buoy the spirit. To create a framework for producing. To share these excitements in a more formal way.
I suppose I could have done this walk on my own, with no real plan. But it was because of Explorers Club support — financially and psychically — that I was able to truly dig in, and feel like I had been given permission from you all to walk. I realize that’s maybe an annoying thing to say. Just walk, you ding dong! You might scream at me. But walking for several months, mostly alone, is a non-trivial psychological (and physical) undertaking. Every little bit of support helps. You all — the micro, monthly, yearly, and lifetimers — formalized the walk for me in the best possible way. Between Explorers Club memberships and the magazine pieces I’m writing, the cost of the walk, equipment, and production is more than covered. Which frees up a huge amount of mental space to just be in the walk. And makes this stuff … *whispering* … sustainable.
So keep in mind that everything below (and this newsletter itself), the walk completed and walks to come (stage two of this great Japan peregrination begins tomorrow), is being fueled in no small part by your memberships. (The support of my editors and friends and family and partner, obviously, complete the circle of encouragement.)
If you dig this stuff, and haven’t joined yet, please consider joining. It means a lot.
The daily SMS publishing experiment ended last week once I arrived in Kyoto. I loved it. It went, I think, very well. It was just the right amount of “touching the network” without incurring any “network debt” that you usually have to deal with. No likes, no comments, no loops to get stuck in. Just broadcasting. With responses collected on a server to be put in a book to be looked at and responded to later.
Somewhere in the middle of all my walking I did a little interview with Sean McDonald about SMS publishing over at MCD Books. From his generous description of the project:
In the texts, Craig has developed a style that recalls old telegrams—terse but suggestive, poetic (perhaps accidentally). He mostly chronicles distances, chance encounters, and exhaustion. The photos are unfailingly lovely; the landscapes and architecture faintly glow, but for me it’s the portraits of other people—mostly of older Japanese men who were apparently ready to engage with a slightly deranged white guy who looked to have been walking for a long time—that really light up. I look forward to receiving them each day. I feel like I’m a part of something private—not exclusive, but a little like a club. The most zen fight club you can imagine.
And from my SMS essay:
For the entirety of the six weeks I’ve decided not to touch — let alone be within earshot of — the Homeric sirens of a platform like Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. I don’t want the din of breathless news headlines popping up on my phone. I’m just too wimpy. I’ll get sucked in.
Guess what? It worked. It was gloriously quiet out there. And yet! I was inspired and excited to share with those on the other side of that SMS channel. The balance felt correct and, dare I say, healthy.
More on this once I get home and get the book in hand.
Another “experiment” I conducted during the Tokyo to Kyoto portion of the walk was a daily 15 minute podcast called SW945. I LOVED MAKING IT. It was by far and away the most unexpectedly fun, meditative, creative thing on the walk.
The original plan was to simply record the ambience of wherever I was at 9:45am every day. Nice in theory, but in practice it means recording a lot of the same thing: trucks flying by my head on the highway. So I ended up breaking the rules and recording in all sorts of spots, at different times of day, some making for more relaxing listening than others.
I recorded in a pachinko parlor, a bowling alley, I recorded standing in the rain next to some rice paddies filled with full-throttled excited-as-all-heck croaking frogs. I recorded next to the Shinkansen tracks so you could hear their almost — a friend of mine put it — “forth dimensional” appearance and disappearance. I recorded in some cafes, and in the lobby of one of my favorite classic hotels that happens to be along the Nakasendo. “Season 1” finishes with a recording sitting in front of the famed haiku poet, Matsuo Basho’s, grave. You mainly just hear a bunch of kids playing in a nearby pre-school.
In total, Season 1 of SW945 produced approximately six hours of binaural recordings chronicling a walk between Tokyo and Kyoto. “Binaural” is a special kind of stereo-ish mode which means I stuck microphones in my ears and recorded. The sound captured is freakishly spacial. So plop in some noise canceling headphones, close your eyes, and hang out with me on the old road for a bit.
And special thanks to Simplecast for hosting.
Ridgeline, my other newsletter about walking, has been chugging along. I wrote about taking a bath with a sociopath, flipping into a new era (“Reiwa”) here in Japan, the whoosh of the shinkansen, and the effect of scale on … everything.
On Lynne Tillman
Episode 009 of On Margins is an interview with author Lynne Tillman in her East vIllage apartment. Lynne and I discuss many of the covers of her fifteen or so books. We also talked about process. I adore this story about working with editor and publisher, Richard Nash, on the edits for American Genius, a Comedy:
We sat on the couch going through all of his comments. Again, it wasn’t massive at all, but it was very specific. At that time, I almost refused to use dashes. *laughs* There were a lot of commas in American Genius, A Comedy, and I love commas. People getting rid of them, I don’t know why.
I do know why. They think it’s not necessary, and I think commas are necessary. That helps create the rhythm. You are letting the reader know where a slight pause is. I gave him some dashes. *laughs* We went through. He said, “I really would love another sentence here. This is so interesting. Would you expand on that?”
I went over to my computer, and I wrote another sentence. I’d come back, print it out, and I’d say, “Read it to me, would you?” He would read it in this wonderful Irish accent, but he got the rhythm right. He knew exactly. That’s, in part, because he did theater. He went to Yale, and he was in theater and directing.
We had such a good time. I’d never done anything like that before with an editor. That was it. I knew it was going to be a long time before I had another novel ready because the idea that I had would ensorcell me *laughs* for many years, and it did.
Catch it wherever you like to get your pods. (And if you like On Margins, consider leaving a review on iTunes — cheeeeeeeers!)
Episode 010 has been recorded for a couple months now, and I have the intro and outro ready as well. I just need to piece them together and this has been one of the casualties of overestimating time at the end of the day on the walk. Soon, soon.
I’m lecturing at the Yale Publishing Course once again this July. Ninth year. If you have the means to attend, and are connected to the book world, I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s a week of total publishing immersion (and it’s also a lot of fun).
There are a couple of spots still open for the Focus retreat I’m co-hosting with Jan Chipchase this October in Yoshino, Japan, Oct 1-4. For the remaining spots, we’re looking to fill the non-male quotient of attendees. Not strictly a man? Working on amazing things? Consider applying, here.
I have a lot to say about the walk, walks, and walking, but I’m pouring that into the articles for magazines at the moment. So let me take a second to direct your attention to something totally unrelated that I’ve wanted to share for a while, and what I consider one of the small miracles and joys of the internet: People reverse engineering things.
Specifically one person. A man named Alex Hude who really wanted to understand how his Leica camera firmware worked. And so he spent the next like … FIVE YEARS … figuring it out.
I am enamored with so much of his report: the tenacity, the sheer curiosity, the relentless digging, the community collaboration. The stumbling forward that so much of this kind of reverse engineering requires.
What excited me the most is the simple fact that you can take something that — from the outside — looks impenetrable, unknowable, like a rubik’s cube with ten thousand sides, and chip away at it until you are the master of the cube.
Alex Hude is the master of the Leica firmware cube.
Waiting for his M240 to arrive, he starts poking around on the Leica website. Oh? A stray M8 firmware file?
It was unencrypted, uncompressed file starting with PWAD magic. Does anyone recognise it? Yes you got it right - Doom Patch WAD format. These guys seem to love the classics. The format is very well documented and writing the splitting tool was a pretty simple task to do.
I love so much about this ’graph: Talking to us like we know what he’s talking about. Reaching back into the ’90s with Doom file formats. Giving props to the Leica engineers.
He then grabbed the M9 firmware, but it seemed to be encrypted. What to do?
Maybe not, because Leica used to put pretty weak CPUs in their cameras and XOR encryption was very popular at that time in consumer electronics, so I decided to write a simple XOR manipulation tool to compare the firmware with itself and calculate some statistics along the way.
Key length was determined by looking for the longest repeating pattern. This makes sense since any firmware usually includes big blocks of repeating data like 0x00/0xFF paddings or graphics with LUT pixels. The key itself is calculated based on per byte statistics within key length where most frequently occurring byte goes to key buffer. The output clearly pointed to XOR encryption. Then it was a matter of modifying my tool a bit to get a potential key and decrypt. Yet again, it was PWAD file after decryption.
Then he snags the M240 firmware. Which looked, strangely, more compressed than encrypted.
Of course he figures out how to uncompress it. But the format is weird. So he chips away at that:
To deal an unknown file format, I couldn’t think of anything better than to measure some offsets and sizes in the file and try to find the closest values in the file header.
0x00: 1E 1C AF 2E 01 01 00 02 07 E1 EA 5E 00 5C 1A B1
0x10: 01 29 1A 7E AE 38 73 65 9C 3D 75 B4 34 2F 44 6E
0x20: 13 17 8E 6B 00 00 00 01 00 00 00 30 E1 E3 50 D1
And sees into it:
1E1CAF2E - looks like “LEICA FILE”
01010002 - 184.108.40.206
005C1AB1 - compressed file size (big endian)
01291A7E - uncompressed file size (big endian)
AE3873659C3D75B4342F446E13178E6B - MD5 hash
00000001 - number of payloads
00000030 - first payload offset
At one point Alex realized he could do all sorts of fun things if he had USB port access. But the “Leica M240 does NOT have a USB port by design.” But they do have a handgrip! That connects to a mysterious port. But the handgrip costs $900. So … he rolled his own breakout connection to the port of mystery.
He then uses tools of the trade to understand the purpose of all the pins, and a logic analyzer to figure out the data lines. (I’m not entirely sure I got either of those sentences right; he does magic, is what he does.)
Eventually he runs into a wall:
There was USB PTP on a screen, but camera still didn’t appear on the host. I tried setting up various USB termination schemes on breadboard but nothing worked. Beagle showed many corrupted packets and other errors. Eventually I gave up and got back to reverse engineering firmware.
Anyway, it keeps going.
I know a bit about this stuff, but not nearly enough to really hang. Even so, I can’t stop reading. It’s enthralling to watch a Swiss clock taken apart and put back together. Witnessing a tiny battle: one mind vs the many minds at Leica.
This reconstitution of stuff, of life, is everywhere.
I’m reading Sam Anderson’s Boomtown with a pathological slowness. I don’t want to leave his world of Oklahoma City. Anderson’s treatment of the OKC bombing in the context of non-fiction craft is really something to behold — a trauma that suddenly pulls tight all of the book’s loose threads, characters, and history he had been juggling for the previous 300 pages. SNAP. With an impending explosion it’s all suddenly as tight as a drum head.
Connected with reverse engineering, this passage on how the police tied the event to McVeigh is fascinating:
They smelled ammonium nitrate. They marked a twenty-block perimeter with yellow tape. Officers took photos of every car in the area, inspected every piece of debris. The Ryder truck was found, in pieces, shredded and scattered over five square blocks. Its rear axle had flown a block and a half and crushed the front of a red Ford Festiva parked near the Regency Towers Apartments. The VIN number on that axle led police to the shop that had rented it to McVeigh, which revealed his alias (Robert Kling, born on April 19) and produced a police sketch and led to the Dreamland Motel in Junction City, Kansas, where McVeigh had stayed just before the bombing.
I’d sum it up as: Patient Looking. The same philosophy and work ethic Alex has with his Leica firmware, that any good engineer or detective or researcher or author has when thinking about solving the problems of their work at hand. But, not just solving them, fully understanding how the solutions came about and why the problems were there in the first place.
Japan did “Patient Looking” at a mass scale during the Meiji Era when they realized they were, effectively, hundreds of years “behind” the rest of the world. They sent out researchers to all corners of the great powers to see who did what the best, reverse engineered, copied, improved. A smart process.
My biggest Patient Looking indulgence is speed runs. I grew up, mainly, on video games. I was very good. Played them all the time. Won some regional championships, that sort of thing. So the whole speed run universe pokes my curiosity and geekery and nostalgia buttons simultaneously.
Speed runs are, reductively, the art of playing video games very quickly, by using certain tricks, to skip parts of the game. Where it gets REALLY interesting is that by looking at the raw code via ROMs, hex editors, debuggers, whatever — tools not dissimilar to what Alex is using as he pulls apart Leica’s firmware — you can learn how to reprogram the game itself while playing it. Let me repeat: In knowing how a game works, on a bit-by-bit level, you can reprogram it, in the moment, by playing it in a certain way.
Super Mario World was beat in 59.6 seconds using a glitch to reprogram it from the inside out. From the explainer:
He then proceeds to move certain objects in the game to very specific places. What he’s doing here is manipulating the game’s X coordinate table for the sprites. By moving objects to specific places, he’s manipulating a section of the game’s memory to hold specific values and a specific order. It’s a meticulous process that likely took a lot of practice to get right.
If the coin glitch is performed in a specific location within the level, a Chargin’ Chuck will spawn just after the coin is collected. When the Chuck spawns, it will take that empty sprite slot and suddenly the game believes that Yoshi is holding the Chuck in his mouth. This triggers the power up condition, which as we already know was never programmed into the game. The code ends up jumping to an area of memory that doesn’t contain normal game instructions.
Ignore the “Chargin’ Chuck” and video game specifics for a second here, this is just case of many people doing a lot of Patient Looking, culminating in mastery of a thing that a group of other people made. In fact, mastering the thing more holistically, soup to nuts, than those very folks who made it. The fact that that mastery happens without communication with those people, and by making something new from the original (“… was never programmed into the game …”) makes it all the more exciting.
Look closely, the world is more knowable than we may think. I take from all of this: Don’t brush aside systems as being incomprehensible. Patient Looking can be applied anywhere.
What do I get out of a long walk like the one I’m currently on? A sharpening of the tool or tools that enable Patient Looking. Each day of boring walking (and so much of it is so, totally, gloriously, boring) I feel more focused, with greater control of attention. And these past five weeks I’ve been — against the odds — more productive than I am in “normal” life, where I’m not walking for eight hours a day.
As I said at the top: Ascetic practice. Changing or improving the self is hard and disheartening. It’s a task epitomized by regression. Small steps. No shortcuts. A long walk as an ascetic framework for personal improvement — for me — makes a lot of sense.
In the end: The days are full, the body is tired, Patient Looking is happening.
Thanks all. Goodnight from a little inn, on the mountainside of Yoshino. I’m off the road. Intense mountain trails start tomorrow. See you on the other side, a few weeks later, at Ise Shrine.
p.s., Here’s your moment of zen: Me, in maximum dork mode, with my camera on a rock in a garden, taking a timed selfie on the last day of walking the Nakasendo, in front of Matsuo Basho’s grave.