Hello from a Shinkansen. I am hurtling from Fukuoka to Tokyo in one, long, five hour high-speed push. There are planes, but I choose the train.
Before I get into why I’m — as they say this time of the year — THANKFUL, for trains, let me remind you what this is: I’m Craig Mod, and this is my monthly so-called Roden newsletter. You can find old ones here. Last month I wrote about the iPhone 11 Pro’s cameras. This month: planes, trains, perfect workspaces, walking experiments, and more.
But, back to trains: The Shinkansen from Hakata Station (Fukuoka) to Shinagawa is about five hours. Alternatively, Fukuoka Airport to Haneda is a two hour flight. Assuming ideal conditions, you can do city-center to city-center via plane in three hours.
Here’s the problem: I find few of those three hours to be productive. In Plane Mode, time is parceled into a number of largely unusable (for focused work) 30 minute chunks: Airport travel, security, gate-finding, boarding, take-off, landing. Whereas the train is essentially a single five hour block of total usability.
In the same way you can perform media accounting, I suppose this is a form of “transportation accounting.” Train: Longer and more expensive, but significantly more productive. It’s one of those equations in life that’s a bit abstract, not simple, measurable Newtonian physics, more like superstring vibratory acrobatics. I find the superstring gains-via-train in this example much … spiritually? gracefully? … higher than those found flying. And not to mention the general bump in pleasurability: better air, bigger seats, wide tables, higher on-time reliability, ease of changing travel plans (you can switch your Shinkansen ticket online, gratis, as many times as you like before departure).
One of the great modern transportation atrocities is the lack of ultra-reliable, reasonably-priced, high-speed rail in New England. Everything from DC to Maine should be a relaxing, productive train ride away. The pain of this absence is only compounded by the crime against humanity that is Penn Station.
So in the spirit of an American holiday that whooshed past me without nary a mention: I’m thankful for these damn trains in Japan.
Pop-up walk 001
Over in Ridgeline I announced my first “pop-up walk” — numbering it the ever-so-optimistic 001.
The “distributed” or “tele-“ walk will take place on a temporary Instagram account. Access will be exclusive to Explorers Club members (all tiers).
A reasonable person might ask: Just what is a “pop-up walk?”
The pop-up walk will offer a behind-the-scenes look at a day of walking in Japan. I’ll extensively narrate and answer questions. The account will only exist for 48 hours (24 for the walk and a few extra for good measure). Then I’ll nuke it.
I originally announced the walk for Dec 3, but looking at walk topography, I think Dec 4th will be more interesting. As chairman of the Pop-Up Walk board, I’m making the executive decision to shift the date. Dec 4th, JST it is.
As I wrote on Ridgeline:
Which is all to say: I’m intrigued by Pop-Up 001 — excited to effectively “walk” with a huge group, but hopefully not so big as to be utterly distracting. I aspire for 001 to be in conversation with April’s SMS experiment. Pop-Up 001 will be a little bit weird, a lot-a-bit rough, but also goofy, protean, loose, informative. It is certain to change the tenor of my otherwise solo journey. Together we’re testing out tools in the kit of story × walk. And don’t worry, if you aren’t an Explorers Club member, I’ll be writing up the experiment in due time. But if you want to take part, to guide the conversation, grab a membership, and we’ll see you on December 4.
These past ten days I’ve played the part of interloper-with-a-camera on a private walking tour of Kyushu. Essentially, it was a survey of northern Kyushu, comprised of about 40% walking, 20% museums, 30% pottery. This was great because a) I didn’t know anything about Kyushu; it’s a void in my Japan knowledge-sphere, b) we got to see a lot of pottery workshops.
The most impressive, astounding, inspiring workspace was that of the Nakazato / Ryuta Kiln, a pottery outfit composed of father and son (and grandfather). Setting: Mountains west of Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, peak autumnal coloring, steep valley dotted with a few wooden homes, one of which was the studio of the father and son.
This was the last workshop we visited on the trip. I was a bit workshop’d out. I figured I had taken all the photos of pottery studios I was going to take. So I left my “serious” camera and pack behind (a Leica M10, 35mm Summilux) and brought only my iPhone 11 Pro. Dumb dumb. Of course, this ends up being the most photogenic, divine space of the entire trip (and the only time on the trip I wasn’t carrying my main photo tool!).
We enter the high-ceilinged studio, all fifteen of us of in the group, hushed, speechless, some Bach harpsichord piece playing in the background, the father and son side by side oozing sprezzatura, focused on the clay at hand. We sort of whispered for permission to photograph. Watched in awe for about 15 minutes, and then slowly trickled out. I stayed behind, asked if I could ask a question. The father was working on a series of the exact same bowl. When had he designed that particular piece? Twenty years ago.
The space was made impressive by the aggregation of small, deliberate details: Allowing their wheels to be awash in natural light, the soft overhead hanging lights to remove their own shadows, the angle of seat allowing for precise wheel manipulation via their feet, the open views of nature entering from three sides and significantly expanding the sense of grandness inside, the choice and volume of music, the burbling of the river just in front of the entrance, the muted color of the floor tiles, the muted color of the clay, the muted color of the shaped bowls and plates, the muted color of the wood on which the finished pieces were stacked.
This sort of visit exemplifies why archetypes held up before the eyes as living, breathing, moving things are so important — the above description, the photos, it doesn’t get you close. There was something about standing in front of the two — and I suspect only by standing in front of them — that set off a number of thoughts:
What a crazy thing to have: that level of father / son connection, to both be masters of a craft, to carry on that linkage in ancestral history (they were … 15th generation?), and to do so side-by-side. I grew up — like many of you, I’m sure — with the most tenuous of connections to my father, so to see this is kind of like witnessing someone fart their way to the moon (???); somewhat unimaginable.
Given total control, how could I create a similar space for my own work? Given present limitations, how can I modify what I already have?
Since their work can be repetitive, how do they schedule exploratory sessions? Daily? Weekly? I think most all “creative” work falls prey to repetition given mastery (journalism, photography, writing — once you understand the patterns, the danger is to thoughtlessly loop back onto yourself), some more obviously so than others. How do you make sure you’re not just repeating yourself? And when do you give yourself permission to once again make a hundred of those bowls designed a few decades back?
The space, the light, their vibe — it was one of many great surprises of the trip.
Though I left my Leica behind, I think the iPhone 11 Pro performed well. I shot in .raw using the Halide app, and edited in Lightroom on a MacBook Pro. A higher resolution version is here. The images are a bit noisy for ISO 32, but the dynamic range is significantly higher than in shooting with the default .heic format. (The iPhone also tends to overly noise-reduce their .heic files.) That said: the .raw files are about 25mb each, compared to the 1-5mb for .heic, so it’s obvious why this isn’t turned on my default (everyone would fill up their storage 5x-25x more quickly).
The biggest photographic loss was in not having the Summilux on hand, a lens that lends a dreamy quality to most images; but! there’s a seduction to shooting that hunk of glass at f/1.4, so much so that I often have to course correct away bokeh fetishism in favor of genuinely interesting (subject, composition, color, et cetera) images during the editing phase. I find I end up sticking random things in the foreground or background when shooting through a Summilux, simply in service to its buttery optical artifacts. The iPhone (for now) doesn’t suffer from such “issues.”
Much as I love the M10/Summilux combo, it is heavy. I’ve gotten around weight issues by using Peak Design’s strap clip. It’s not perfect (the satisfying action of inserting/removing the camera into the clip gets less “smooth” as the paint naturally wears off; I have to remove the clamp from the bottom of my Leica with a special tool for access to the SD / battery; the mechanism scratches up the bottom of the camera), but when a pack is properly weighted on the hips and the sternum strap appropriately tightened, the force of the clipped-on camera on the shoulder is essentially zero. It’s the best way I’ve found to carry a camera for weeks at a time, 8-12 hours a day.
Technology as “phases,” not end-points
These past four months I’ve had the pleasure (and truly, it has been weirdly pleasurable, if exhausting, for this normally very introverted / situationally extroverted fellow presently writing to you) of extensively traveling with four great groups of folks. “Great” meaning: accomplished, diverse, curious, kind, thoughtful, loving. Conversations around technology invariably pop up. I’ve noticed these conversations can easily devolve into partisan complaint or blame roundtables (there’s an argument to be made that social media has exacerbated these tendencies, as partisan complaint is often the most “engaged” and therefore most “valuable” content on social networks).
One method to “extract” the conversation from these boring pits (I find complaints, in general, are mostly onanistic (at least mine are); next time you’re about to complain, catch yourself, and try to say something with forward momentum instead) is to remember that technology advances in phases, not as explicit endpoints.
For example: If electric vehicle technology of today doesn’t seem sustainable (excessive amount of lithium turnover, et cetera), considering this current “phase” of electric cars as being an extremely short (decades at most) but critical route to more efficient and holistically positive iterations. That is: Acknowledge the suboptimal nature of things, but also acknowledge their transience. I find the most illuminating conversations emerge from thinking about how to get to subsequent phases, not stewing in complaining about current ones.
As connected to pottery: Part of the Kyushu tour was looking at how pottery entered Japan via Korea, and how the various iterations of pottery were themselves forms of technology. Stone-, earthen-, porcelain-ware. Mastering blends of kaolin and ash, building better kilns, step kilns, tweaking burns by mixing wood with different resin concentrations, keeping technological advances secret by hiding key villages and their craftspeople in inaccessible valleys.
The iterative loops on this tech timeline were long — hundreds or thousands of years. Compare to batteries: How far have we come even in the last ten years? The last 100? Heck, even the last year with the advent of gallium nitride chargers. Rapid tech advancements seem also to bring a parallel anxiety for quick change. The good and bad news is: Quick change is coming, but “quick” might be longer than you want regarding some tech (coal), and shorter than you want on others (social media). But we are fully and wholly in a timeline of rapid advancement; I find taking a multi-hundred-year-view of things alleviates a lot of contemporary anxiety, but also allows you to talk about and strategize proactively about changes today.
The compounding interest of relationships
Somewhat related to the above: I noticed this year paid some fairly hefty dividends in “relationship compounding interest.” That is: Where investments in personal and professional relationships begin to snowball. I take note of this because it wasn’t until I was about thirty that many of my decision making process flipped from self-destructive to additive. So it feels good to pick my head up every now and then and go: Damn, I’m surrounded by solid people. But it can take time to reach these inflections. Which is all to say: If you’re working on culling or rebuilding your support base, keep at it, even if the longterm value can sometimes be difficult to believe in.
Knobs and locks
At the end of the Kyushu walk, I once again spent two nights at this place sticking glorious keys into glorious keyholes. The related passages:
The Hori key enters a Hori lock in such a way as to affirm your suspicion that every key you’ve ever inserted into every lock throughout your entire life was a sham. A false combination — jittery, sticky, imprecise. You realize how badly cut, forged by shoddy means, all the keys you own currently are. Using this Hori key and lock combination is similar to how you might have felt the first time you ever touched a masterfully finished piece of wood — shock at that glassy smoothness you didn’t think could be brought out from the material.
The key enters. Within perfectly milled chambers, the driver pins — attenuated by precisely tensioned springs — push against the key pins as the key slides forward in the keyway. The driver pins align to a dead-straight shear line and you feel the key settle with a satisfaction of a meticulously-measured thing spooning its Platonic opposite. Then you twist. The movement of the bolt away from the frame is so smooth — the door having been hung by some god of carpentry with the accuracy of a proton collision path — that you gasp, actually gasp, at the mechanism.
I use a Garmin Instinct watch when I’m out walking / hiking. I love it. Should probably write up a full review. But one of the only (I think THE only, actually) notifications I have turned on is “one hour to sunset.” It has increased my sense of “seasonal movement / momentum,” and has made me far more aware of the effect of latitude on day-length. Even just traveling from Tokyo to Fukuoka had a marked effect on the length of the day. Without the notification I wouldn’t have noticed.
Do you all have other ambient modes of keeping a finger on the pulse of time?
For about 20 years I percussed … a lot. I was in all-state orchestras, played in university jazz bands, performed at the Reno jazz fest, and played all over Tokyo in studios and clubs until I sort of “quit” 12 years ago. The only thing I really “drum” now are my sloppy brush intros to On Margins. But I still love to listen to “pure,” percussive music.
Keith Jarret tops my most-listened-to lists. He’s almost drumming, but not quite. We can deconstruct his albums in a later Roden. To keep things simple, here are a few of my favorite strickly-drummy contemporary albums:
Nate Smith’s Pocket Change is delightfully dirty, nasty, and fat; his range is faaaaaar wider than this album, and I hope he does more of these Nate Drumming in a Studio Alone albums.
Antonio Sanchez’s Birdman soundtrack is both propellant for the film’s narrative, and a great standalone album.
Mark Heaney’s Drum Room is fun, but veers a bit too far from minimalist purity for my taste. Still, worth a peek.
Kuniko’s rendition of Steve Reich’s Drumming is most excellent.
And speaking of Mr. Reich, there’s obviously Music for 18 Musicians, but more pertinently: Clapping Music from 1972.
What other albums would make this once-committed drummer smile?
Reading, how to, and why
Harold Bloom passed away in October. I had never read any of his books. His obituary made him sound very opinionated. Great! Smart, opinionated people tend to be at best illuminating and entertaining, and at worst offensive. He seems to be a bit of both. He wrote … a lot … of books (“So he wrote too much, and wrote too fast.”). Somewhat at random (the book arrived the day before I left), I’m now sadistically carrying the hardcover edition of How to Read and Why (480g of extra weight, if the UL obsessive among you were wondering) on my walk that begins tomorrow. As you can imagine from the title, the book is like a black hole of pretension all of its own making — reading is held up as an almost holy, singular, solitary act. But that tone makes reading of this book all the more fun.
A few highlights worth sharing:
Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interest.
*Scribbles “authentic interest” in notebook.*
Connected with the above:
We read, frequently if unknowingly, in a quest of a mind more original than our own.
He’s a Shakespeare nut:
… they will perform him in outer space, and on other worlds, if those worlds are reached.
His list of reasons to read is perhaps most pertinent:
We read deeply, for varied reasons: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.
The strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure. … Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.
Next to which, I scribbled in the margin: "‘one nature’ = AI?”
To the three of you that made it all the way to the bottom: I bow to thee.
I began this on a Shinkansen going in one direction. Edited on a Shinkansen going the other. And am now hitting send twelve stories up, towering over Ise Grand Shrine. I just carbo-loaded on a pizza, and mapped out the precise contours of tomorrow’s walk. It’s going to rain. It’s going to be windy. As the Mandos say: This is the way.
The Pop-Up component starts this Wednesday. Join the Explorers Club to tune in. I’ll be sending out a mail with a link to the pop-up Instagram account the morning I begin. Thank you all for your continued support and readership.
Writing again soon,
p.s., Please let me know if this email is rendering oddly (black text on black background, etc). I test in as many clients as possible, but don’t use Superhuman, which seems to consistently have issues with my CSS. Cheers.