Issue 029
August 16, 2019


On mastery, work ethic, and smartphone sensors

Hello from Japan, from the edge — that is, the violent, windy, rainy bit — of a typhoon. I’m hiding in my favorite place to hide during typhoons — a bookshop. A giant, sprawling, read-until-you’re-dead bookshop. Can’t leave even if I wanted to.

I’m Craig Mod. And this is the Roden newsletter. A place for my work-in-progress thinking. I wish I could describe its general theme or purpose with more lucidity but I can’t. All I can say definitively is: It’s sent monthly. And even that is a lie! I am one issue behind this year (I missed February). So I’m splitting what would otherwise be a far-too-long single edition into two this month. Here’s the first — on “mastery.” And the second, forthcoming (next week?) edition, will be on “contracts” and “habits.”

If you don’t remember signing up (you may have signed up on my “Fast Software” essay page; about 500 of you did so last week), or want to unsubscribe, click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of this mail. One click, no stress.

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This newsletter (and many other facets of my work) is supported in part by Explorers Club memberships. I am proud of my membership program because a) it’s working and genuinely does support a chunk of my work, and b) because it’s very easy to cancel.

If you become a yearly Explorer (thanks!), you’ll get an email a week before your subscription renews allowing you to cancel if you so desire. If you’re a monthly member, you get monthly invoices. These invoices should make tax deductions simpler. (You are deducting this newsletter on design, publishing, photographic industry news, aren’t you? Confer with your accountant!)

You can always cancel your membership with about three clicks from the membership page. I only want members who want to be members to be members; I don’t want anyone “stuck” with a recurring membership because unsubscribing is onerous.

The crux: I think my membership program works well because Memberful, the service upon which it’s built, is simple, fast, and thoughtfully made software. It does not want to trick you, and neither do I. So join confidently knowing that it’s not Hotel California.

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Fast Software, a Followup: Mastery

Last month I wrote about fast software. I stuck the essay at the bottom of Roden 028. Roden 028 was long. (Too long? Probably!) So I ripped the essay out and gave it its own home: “Fast Software, the Best Software.” It turns out giving something its own home is helpful. Edges! It got picked up on Hacker News and Daring Fireball, on a bunch of newsletters and other sites and, in the end, about 100,000 people landed on that page. Assuming 10% actually engaged with it, 10,000 new readers is nothing to sneeze at.

I received dozens of emails from developers and users. This essay touched a nerve: Perhaps we’re all exhausted by the half-hearted nature of so much software in production today. Made doubly exhausting because we now spend the majority of our waking lives interacting with software. Software interaction as somnambulism: From all the smartphone stroking and tapping to buying train tickets or movie tickets at a kiosk, to visiting a museum exhibition, to getting on or off a bus, taking money out of an ATM (or paying for almost anything using taps and chips and pins), to watching movies on a 13 hour flight or reading a digital book. Every single day, thousands of moments of reconciling our desires and needs against the, uhm, crucible of contemporary software.

Taking a step back, what we’re really talking about when we talk about fast software is craft. And what we’re really irked by is a lack of mastery of craft. Where are the craftspeople?

I’ve linked to James Somers’ essays before. He’s a great writer, and of the much beloved “strange bird” variety — a serious programmer who also happens to care deeply about things literary and crafty. His homepage is just a single giant page of everything. I love it.

James has a piece from 2011, published by The Atlantic, on his high school driving instructor. It’s an essay on craft and mastery.

Allow me to quote a little. On the mastery of the mundane:

There is a guy who works the register at the pharmacy across the street who regularly makes my day. He doesn’t do anything spectacular – he’s just good at his job. He fluently handles cards and cash; he offers you the pen ready to sign, and makes sure your receipt doesn’t curl up; he has memorized the prices of things so that you don’t have to wait when a barcode is missing. And he’s pleasant in a real way, not like a waitress paid to be bubbly, but like a friend in high spirits. When he says “take care” the words are inflected with humanity.

And why mastery of the mundane matters:

No job is too low to not warrant care, because no job exists in isolation. Carelessness ripples. It adds friction to the working of the world. To phone it in or run out the clock, regardless of how alone and impotent you might feel in your work, is to commit an especially tragic – for being so preventable – brand of public sin.

For those of us trying to master things, to abide by and elevate, as Somers puts it (and acknowledges how orotund it can sound, how much of an asshole phrase it is), “work ethic,” we become especially noticing of these details. And the ripple effect doesn’t just feel real, it is real. We contend with a laziness, a cutting of corners, a lack of pride in, among many areas (TSA — looking straight into your horribleness), our day-to-day software interactions.

Another way of framing “mastery” is via attention. To master is to attend to and be attentive of. Bob — the driving instructor who sets off the James’ essay — has a moment of attentiveness worth noticing:

We were about an hour into the lesson and had just graduated from the backroads of the student’s hometown to a two-lane street with steady traffic. The car in front of us had slowed down, signaled, pulled over toward the shoulder, and made a smooth right turn into a shopping complex. Bob was impressed. “See how nicely he positioned that car?” He explained to the girl that that was exactly how it was done. And then a while later, long after the moment had passed, he said quietly, more to himself than to either of us, “I really liked the way he did that.” It had the ring of nostalgia to it.

Because here’s the thing: To master and be attentive is to fill a life with fullness. To find beauty in the truly mundane because the mundane contains within it — ouroboros-like — mastery.

In his essay James notes: “Bagging groceries is boring; it doesn’t pay well; the customers are unpleasantly demanding.” This made me chuckle because, as much of a stretch may it be, bagging groceries can be mastered and has been here in Japan.

I buy my groceries at a fancy supermarket near my house. I don’t buy many, so when I do I like to a) pay for more expensive local produce, and b) pay what I think is the “real” price for other goods as a form of wallet-voting. (I suspect the “real” price of an egg — that is, an egg made in an sustainably environmentally friendly, ethical-to-the-chickens kind of way — is about USD $0.20 an egg, minimum. The fact you can buy a dozen eggs in the US for far less than $1.00 is, mildly disturbing; the externalities of cheap food are, to put it lightly, horrifying.) Anyway, part of this fancy supermarket is that they bag with the same dedication that goddamned miya daiku carpenters build temples. Efficient, buoyant, precise, arranging and re-arranging, looking ahead, with a bit of sprezzatura that all masters exude: thinking fully about the problem of bagging and how best to bag the items in with platonic ideals top of mind.

But here’s the trick: There are no “bag girls” or “boys.” Everyone at this supermarket bags. They bag on rotation. Bagging is not relegated to some untouchable lower class of work, it is integrated with the whole of the supermarket. To work at the supermarket is also to bag. When you know bagging is not forever, that you have options beyond bagging (that the system exists not to push you into some “bagging corner” out of which you must fight tooth and nail to emerge, but rather exists to provide infrastructure and learning for larger life goals), it makes the act, I think (this is my half-baked theory, anyway), easier by which to fully commit in the moment. Mastery is yours to be had. You approach the act without malice, and you gaze at the customers, too, without malice.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: As a customer, you feel the attentiveness and presence of the baggers in their work. The customer, is, in a weird way, a patron of the art of bagging. The expensive eggs allow this to be. The baggers are not thinking about sneaking a peak at their smartphone, each moment of their bagging life is not hellish boredom, they are next to you, organizing, becoming an archetype — however seemingly insignificant, however peripheral — of committed work for each and every customer and fellow employee. This ripples out. You must believe.

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Critical Craft

I want to draw your attention to a book called “Craig Owens: Portrait of a Young Critic.” It was given to me in NYC last week. Owens died in 1990, back when AIDS was an absolute death sentence, before antiretroviral therapy and “miracle” pills like PrEP. The book is short. It is an edited transcript of part of a conversation between Owens and Lyn Blumenthal. I read it in one gulp this morning and it’s a fascinating text because the onboarding to Owens is so easy and accessible, but by page 80 (out of 100) the ramp up into Critical Theory Language demands passages be read and re-read.

Two points I want to draw out:

  1. Individual archetypes were critical to the forging of Owens the critic. Don’t underestimate how much impact a single person can have on a life. Owens was guided by chance encounters. First with Leo Steinberg and then, perhaps more importantly, Rosalind Krauss. Archetypes archetypes archetypes.
  2. It ends with a poignant meditation on how amazing it is to be alive now, as an artist or creator of culture (where “now” is 1984 Regan USA but still very much, if not more so, applicable to today):

There is a tendency to characterize art as an endangered species. This seems to me to be so blind and so contrary to the facts, to this extraordinary proliferation of cultural activity. We ought to ask the real questions about why capitalism promotes this and what it gains from it, and how its interests are vested in it.

The tiny loops of news cycles can subvert our ability to miss how miraculous (one of a million relevant examples: the strides made in HIV prevention and management) this moment is. Yes, horrors abound, but don’t forget what goodness exists, too. Are we soon to be living in glass bubbles on stilts? Perhaps. But help us process Stilt Cities with your paintings, words. There are hundreds of artist residencies in the US. Apply to ten. Go to one. Take part in that infrastructure of culture.

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Empty Playground

Photos this week from my big April / May walk: I passed hundreds of playgrounds on my walk. Photographed 80+. All empty. Somewhat connected to Japan’s countryside depopulation issues. That is one sad panda up above here. Don’t worry, I gave him a little pet.

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The Computation of Image

I’ve been saying it now for years, but the most exciting advancements in photography are in software. Or, more precisely, how software paired with the right hardware can elevate the hardware in almost mythopoeic ways.

Take for example, Samsung’s “108” megapixel smartphone camera:

It unveiled a 108-megapixel smartphone camera sensor that’s likely to appear in an incoming Xiaomi Redmi smartphone. The 1/1.33-inch ISOCELL Bright HMX sensor, developed by Samsung in collaboration with Xiaomi, is one of the largest smartphone sensors ever, about three quarter the size of the 1-inch sensor on Sony’s RX100 VII. That’s just a touch smaller than the sensor Nokia used on its legendary Pureview 808 phone.

Of course this sensor will have incredibly small, kinda junky pixels, and the quality will be nowhere near, say, the Fuji GFX medium format 100 megapixel camera. But it’s from this ridiculous pushing and pulling on the edges that we’ll get, say, an exceedingly competent 24mp smartphone sensor. Most likely this will involve multiple small sensors, lenses, and software.

The next iPhone, rumored to have three lenses, will, I suspect, be leveraging all three to produce some images not entirely indistinguishable from magic.

You can find similar elements of computational photography in image upscaling algorithms. Anime, for obvious reasons, is a good playground for this. So we have software like Anime4k that upscales 1080p to 4k in real-time at about 3ms / frame.

In the bucket of cameras and software as magic, I submit this “Guide to recording 660FPS on a $6 Raspberry Pi Camera.” Even if you don’t fully understand it, you have to admire this level of geekery:

The general process for creating high-speed videos consists of the following:

  1. Use a fork of ‘raspiraw’ to capture headerless RAW image frames and timestamp metadata at 660FPS directly into RAM.
  1. As a post-processing step, concatenate a RAW image header onto all captured RAW frames.
  1. Use a fork of dcraw to turn the RAW image frames into .tiff files.
  1. Use ffmpeg along with the captured frame timestamp metadata to turn the image sequence into a video.

The major limitation throughout this process is the speed at which memory can be copied and transmitted. Only 20-40 seconds of video can be recorded at a time due the memory exhaustion of the Raspberry Pi. Also limited is the resolution of the recording: On the $6 camera, a maximum of 640x64 resolution can be recorded due to limitations on memory bandwidth.

As someone over at Hacker News commented a few weeks ago: “Wow. Never thought about this approach to leveraging RAM for cameras. Awesome guide!”

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Calm Seas

The writer Robert Heinlein responded to every incoming letter. He used this document to do so. I love it. Systems for efficiency. I want to co-opt it for my own emails. Oh, to have been a correspondent who received a reply with a checkmark at the bottom! It’s the best:

Your letter was most welcome! — loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.

That box, checked, indicated you had passed a test you didn’t know you had taken.

One of the best kickers for an email is “No need to respond. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your work.” To which, of course, the impulse is to respond. But simply to have the burden of response removed, what a gift and what self-awareness.

Today in Japan the seas are rough, the winds violent, and the voyage as rocky as ever. But somewhere nearby mastery is in progress. Take a second to notice. Maybe even acknowledge.

Until next week-ish!

PS, Oh! If you’re wondering: I decided to use Worldcat for book linkage. It’s a very FAST site with fairly comprehensive information on most any book at hand, library information, reviews, etc. It’s the best version of a “book info” page I’ve seen. Thank you all for your many suggestions.

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