Roden — 036 — February, 29, 2020
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Goodbye Old Friend, Diamonds, Deleting All Your Tweets



BB

Fine Folk of Roden —

Hello. How are you? Deep breaths. A quick reminder: Stressing about a thing is often worse than the thing itself. Don’t be afraid to block the news for an afternoon or a day or a week. I do it regularly and find those days are my most productive. In fact, I’d get nothing done if the first thing I did each day was turn on the internet.

I’m Craig Mod and this is a somewhat more “normal” edition of Roden, the monthly newsletter you (theoretically) subscribed to. I feel bad foisting links upon you, but I have spent many hours with these links, and can vouch for them, for their time-worthiness, and because of this feel like my giving them to you is not malicious — and so, I’ll repeat the above: Consider blocking the news for the weekend, staying inside with something peculiar like a celery and cucumber and pecan salad, a kilo of well-roasted coffee, a liter of matzo ball soup, hide in your home and use this missive as a guide for exploring other things in the world besides fear and anxiety. It’s still beautiful and weird out there on the other side of the veil.


First, a little housekeeping.

A huge THANK YOU to everyone who joined the Explorers Club in the last month. We hit the 100-new-members-in-a-month goal with a few days to go which, honestly, just makes me feel less insane and assuages a certain base set of fears and anxieties of running a program like this. That said, I would hope the value-add of the offering incentivizes others to join, not just to hit member-number-goals, but to support my work and also to get good goodies (book discounts, members-only newsletters, et cetera).

In fact: Just yesterday I sent out a members-only newsletter, and opened up Q1 virtual office hours (20 minute Zoom blocks for members to pick my brain). I ran a members-only in-person office hours in San Francisco a few weeks ago and had a blast. I’ll be running these virtual ones quarterly.

Also: Jan Chipchase and I are running our Focus retreat from November 4-7. It’s our fourth year. We’re hosting it once again in the timber city of Yoshino because we love the area so much. We work hard to assemble a crew of 15 diverse (gender, life-stage, career, geography, et cetera), fascinating humans. It’s three nights, four days. In the mornings we give short talks, and in the afternoons we walk, visit chopstick factories, go on onsen excursions and pop into local kissas.

Applications to purchase tickets are now open.


Books and Walking

My talk from the Config design conference in San Francisco is up on YouTube: Two Books and a Long Walk. Longtime Roden readers will recognize some themes: attention control, bookmaking, and rules for creativity.

In the second half of the talk I discuss the making of the SMS Book from last year’s mega-walk. Perhaps of most interest here is my photo-forcing-function of “having” to take someone’s portrait by 10 a.m. Which I also discussed in more detail in Roden issue 034.


Prints?

Speaking of photos and photography, I’ve been thinking about offering up prints for ages, but haven’t quite figured out how to do so in a way that feels “correct.” From what I can tell, here are the options:

  1. I drop $1000 for a nice printer with archival inks, archival papers, produce extremely limited editions (5? 10?), print each photo on my own, sign, stamp, date, ship myself
  2. Find a good local printer to handle printing on archival papers, keep editions small (20?) sign, date, ship myself
  3. Use an online printer to produce archival-quality prints, with optional frames, no signature, they handle shipping, still keep editions constrained (100?) but not small
  4. Use an online printer to just produce an infinite amount of inexpensive, well-printed prints, frames optional

The first option is seductive, but every bone in my body screams noooooo when shipping / handling is involved. I’ve shipped enough books in my life to know that shipping kills souls. So the sale price would have to be extremely high to offset this issue. Also, I’m not home enough to reliably ship, so I’d have to setup limited “sale blocks” when prints could be available. More logistical headaches.

The second option is less attractive than the first, since the geekery of printing intrigues me (I lived in an apartment in Philadelphia with a bathroom full of chemicals and an enlarger in my shower for years, printing everything on my own), and I’d be left only with shipping.

The third option feels like the best balance — excellent print quality, good frames, semi-limited editions, and high but not prohibitively-high pricing.

The fourth doesn’t interest me in the least.

Rather than make guesses, I’d love to hear from you all about this. If you have a second, and are interested in getting prints, please fill out this anonymous survey. Thank you!


Alec Soth’s photography class

I’ve been a fan of Alec Soth’s work for years. He seems curious, connective, and obviously technically capable. I’d love to go on a walk with him, which is my highest form of praise. And, like most good art, everything he shoots feels twisted by a degree or two in unexpected ways.

He’s also highly suspicious of photography, and addresses his suspicion frequently in interviews. He recognizes that the medium is flawed and limited, but then goes on to talk about how he uses those limitations to his advantage.

Here’s a great mini-doc on Alec, going into his bizarre farmhouse studio and how his meditation practice has affected his work.

A few months ago, Alec released an online course on Magnum Photos called “Photographic Storytelling.” I bought it immediately. In fact, this is the first online course I’ve ever purchased. I was curious both about the technicalities of what an “online course” entailed, and also intrigued to see what Alec had to say about his work. He’s a lucid thinker, and I assumed (hoped?) the class would reflect that. I’m happy to report: It does!

The course feels like getting a very long coffee with Alec. Or many long coffees. The content is composed of a series of short interviews, cutting between Alec the talking head and his work. There are 19 videos. Some are 10 minutes long (“Inspiration and Influences”) and some are 30 minutes long (“Building a Narrative Project”). I’d say the course is worth it alone for just three of the videos: Editing & Reflection, Photobooks: Part One, and Photobooks: Part Two. (All of which are 30 minutes.)

Alec goes page-by-page through his photobooks, discussing sequencing, showing us dummy copies of test-books (made at Kinkos), talking about the book covers, edition variants, and more. It’s a great peek into bookmaking and iterative creative processes.

The course is $99 bucks but I feel like I’ve gotten that back many times over. Highly recommended even if photography isn’t your main creative outlet. (He also has a great, randomly sent (??), quirky newsletter.)


Camera Gear

Keeping the photo theme rolling, Fuji announced their X100V camera, the fifth iteration on their iconic / classic / gateway drug of the X100 series fixed-prime cameras. In fact, the X100T is what pulled me back into camera-land after a multi-year hiatus. It’s what fomented my curiosity around the Leica Q, and what has ultimately led to much of the photographic work I’ve done in the past five years.

So I harbor a kind and nostalgic eye towards the series. I also just plain like Fuji. They seem like a company that gives a shit. Their interfaces are smart, camera-quality high, prices accessible. The new X100V looks like a superb iteration — updated sensor, new glass, weather-sealing, USB-C connectivity and charging. Early reviews are universally laudatory. It came out a few days ago in Japan in silver, and arrives on March 12th in black. I pre-ordered a black.

I’ve wanted a proper weather-sealed camera for a while now, and haven’t been able to justify upgrading to the Leica Q2 (which is weather sealed) since my Q1 is doing just fine. I’ve also wanted a non-Leica that I can seriously recommend to people. I still think a used Q1 is one of the best deals for a camera out there. It’s such a beast, a strong performing machine. But I also think it’s overkill for many.

The biggest drawback to the Fuji (and it is a drawback, simply by the physics of glass and sensors) is the APS-C sized sensor. I wish wish wish with all my being it was a full-frame camera. But, I’m willing to re-investigate my smaller-sensor prejudice. This sensor-size issue is only exacerbated by how damn excellent contemporary smartphones are in daytime environs. We’ll see.

For my kit: I see the X100V as both a general backup camera when I’m hiking / walking, and a throw-in-the-bag camera when I’m traveling and not in “super serious” photo mode. The X100 is light (480g w/ battery), and on rainy days I can keep it strapped to my chest and not worry. The focal length is also my preferred walkabout 35mm equivalent.

I’m excited to report back on how it all feels in a few months.


Tweet Deleting

I am a full-blown born-again Tweet Deleter. I delete most everything older than seven days. I have a cron job running on a server that deletes for me, it’s called langoliers.rb and was written by Robin Sloan. He’s also a tweet deleter. There are many of us. And I think, having now deleted tweets regularly — and this is a bold claim, backed up only by gut feelings and zero data —  that the world would be a better place if tweet deleting was on by default, and if, generally, we deleted more of our social media bloviations.

Twitter can be seen as a generator of micro-plastics of the mind. And the entirety of it as a sea of these largely nutrition-free bits. That doesn’t mean a tweet can’t be valuable for a second, but it’s unlikely they’re valuable for, say, years (or hours or even minutes). Applying a tweet-delete mindset to Twitter (that is: a mindset of ephemerality, what you could perversely call Buddhist Twitter) makes it lighter, a little more fun, and a lot less serious. You can ask a question, get some responses, and then just delete your question.

The archival purists out there would then say — but! but those responses are now tethered to a nothingness! To which I say: Yeah, man, like, what is anything, anyway but, like, nothingness interrupted? Also: Who cares! Make a mess. Delete the mess! Try out an idea. Then backtrack! Retweet someone for an hour, then undo it! It makes the medium so much more dynamic, less staid.

If an idea is any good, chances are you shouldn’t just be tweeting it, but rather giving it a more solid, fleshed out form as a blog post or essay or zine or whatever. This is out of respect for the idea itself. What I find most dangerous about Twitter is that it can generate similar chemical feelings to having done “the work,” when in fact, you haven’t done the work. You’ve just micro-plastic’d idea potential. Make Twitter ephemeral and it seems to undo this psychic voodoo. (For me, anyway.)

I think I’ve been most delighted and captivated by this deleting of tweets because it subverts a common classic-web default — that everything put onto the WWW should be saved, bit-for-bit, forever and ever. It’s a default I subscribed to for most of the last twenty years, and it’s a default I don’t think I agree with anymore.

This is all very half-baked, which is why this is shoved into the middle of a Roden. But, having now deleted tweets for the last few months my only regret is I hadn’t started earlier. Maybe you’d like it, too? And more broadly: What other defaults in your life could benefit from a rethink?


Walking LA

Speaking of rethinking defaults, my default image of Los Angeles as unappealing was totally subverted on a recent trip — I am now enamored of LA. I wrote about this on Ridgeline:

I write from inside LAX on the far end of a Los Angeles adventure. Much of a small quadrant of the city was walked. I loved it. I loved the impossible coolness of the people, the thinly veiled disdain all the cars seem to have for walkers. There was technically a sidewalk in my neighborhood, but I think I may have been the first one to use it. The looks: What is that man doing? And the sidewalks themselves: Often simply disappearing, dissolving into grass, the pavers having evaporated mid-job. Many are unmaintained: I saw a man in a wheelchair pop a wheelie over a root-bumped patch of cement. And woe be they who walk at night! For there are often no street lamps and the ground is like turbulent ocean.

Related, Geoff Manaugh wrote a beautiful, pitch-perfect blog-essay 12 (12!) years ago (this would have made an ideal tweet-storm and I’m glad he blogged it instead; I’m also glad he didn’t delete his blog) riffing on the how and why LA works (or doesn’t) as it does:

I got back from Los Angeles last night and my head is still spinning. I’d move there again in a heartbeat. There are three great cities in the United States: there’s Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York – in that order … No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.

I felt this in spades. People may have eyed me curiously for my walking, but I didn’t feel judged. All around, everyone was both hip and seemed to give no shits about said hipness. Not in the “hey look at me not giving a shit” modality you often find in “cool” parts of cities, but in the sort of addicted-to-cigarettes-and-not-caring-about-cancer way of not giving a shit.

Because, who cares?

Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You’re alone in the world. L.A. is explicit about that. If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there. It’s you and a bunch of parking lots.

Geoff’s whole spiel is grand; worthy of your eyes, if only for a lesson in how to look ever-so-slightly askance at what could be a horror show, and find instead delight and freedom.


Diamonds are for(as long as we tell you they are)

Two diamond-related mega-long reads for you.

First: This 1982 Atlantic article about the diamond industry — or rather, the conception of the contemporary wedding-band-focused diamond industry, its multi-generational long-now approach to advertising, and the obscene success and cultural re-wiring of ceremony and expectation — is one of the most incredible longform pieces I’ve read in recent years: “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?”

As I’ve written about previously — and because of my general lack of material wealth growing up — I’ve always found trinkets of high cost to low-practical value curious at best and deeply worrying / duplicitous at worst. A kind of cultural heroin. Like getting sucked into their orbits would derail the other things I valued in life: Time to do the (often not very profitable) work I was excited by, and the space to explore the world. As Kevin Kelly puts it: More time is better than more money and diamonds in particular seem to rid you of both time and money. Time spent making the money to buy the diamond, and then an inability for the thing to retain value — for, the “success” of diamonds is contingent on strict market control:

De Beers had to endow these stones with a sentiment that would inhibit the public from ever reselling them.

The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance. To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life.

“Diamond invention” is such a wonderful turn of phrase. Edward Jay Epstein uses it over and over again in his piece. Peak strangeness around diamonds: I could understand them if they operated as a solid appreciating investment vehicle, but they don’t even do that (unlike gold which, inert, soft, and lumpy may it be, has proven value as a value-store).

Because of the steep markup on diamonds, individuals who buy retail and in effect sell wholesale often suffer enormous losses. For example, a half-carat diamond ring, which might cost $2,000 at a retail jewelry store, could be sold for only $600 at Empire.

The article goes into the mechanics of how De Beers constructed the narratives that drove massive market growth over decades. I can think of no other corporate campaign that has been so long-running or successful. It’s breathtaking:

… twenty years of advertisements and publicity had had a pronounced effect on the American psyche. “Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age,” it said. “To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone.”

The success of De Beers in the US is obvious, but less obvious is how quickly they hoodwinked Japan, successfully proselytized the Holy Diamond with dollops of racism and imperialist know-betterness:

Within ten years, De Beers succeeded beyond even its most optimistic expectations, creating a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market in Japan, where matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization, and even the American occupation.

Walter Thompson began its campaign by suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. All the women had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, the women in most of the advertisements were involved in some activity–such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean swimming, or mountain climbing–that defied Japanese traditions.

The message was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and a sign of entry into modern life.

Stories. Stories all the way down. As Yuval Harari puts it: “One thing I think about how humans work — the only thing that can replace one story is another story.”

The article ends on a note of instability. The diamond invention was threatened by De Beers losing control over worldwide production. A flooded market means falling prices. What will happen?

Well, it seems the industry kept chugging along.

If that first article was about the horrific majesty of Madison Avenue rewriting culture, this second diamond piece from The New Yorker a few weeks ago feels fully meta. Ed Ceasar investigates the curiosity required to find rocks, to excavate, to commit (financially, emotionally), to obsess over geologic aberrations, deep-time, and to revel in the mystery of the hunt: “The Woman Shaking Up The Diamond Industry.”

It’s a spectacular read, and I’m left wanting very much to go on a walk with Eira Thomas, C.E.O of the diamond mining operation, Lucara, which — after taking some huge risks — unearthed an historic hunk of a thing. Ceasar eventually gets to hold this carbon football:

I was not expecting to be moved by a rock. The diamond was so large that I could not wrap my fingers around it. In most photographs, the color of its rind appears black, but in person it looked more silvery. The stone was cold—at least, until all of us had handled it, after which it felt as warm as a pebble in sunlight. It sometimes sparkled. Its planes were smooth, like marble. I now understood why Ketshidile Tlhomelang had spoken to me about its sensual pleasures. The diamond also prompted unusual thoughts. Because of its dark rind, the stone seemed to carry its prehistoric past with it, in a way that clearer diamonds do not. It was a reminder that the Sewelô was created before the planet’s atmosphere contained oxygen, when the only life-forms were single-celled organisms. In one sense, I realized, diamonds are baubles—somewhat vulgar totems of wealth. In another sense, they are vessels of deep time unlike anything else that can be found near the surface of the earth.

I’m writing from an inn in Yamaguchi, Japan, just a few kilometers from the mines that were used during the Nara period to excavate the copper used to cast the Great Buddha of Nara in 771. This morning I stood on the grounds of one of the old mines. It’s an amazing place to visit — to think some 1200+ years ago we knew where to look, how to bore, how to purify, to split the matte from the slag of a certain kind of elevated stone. And not only that, but to tell a story to motivate a non-trivial number of humans to work in unity to excavate this ore. To get the artisans to set the molds, to engineer the scaffolding and foundation to hold the 500 tons of metal, and then to build the furnaces on-site to cast what is still the world’s largest sitting Buddha.

Standing there, I couldn’t help but think of the connection to diamonds — how we seem to have embedded in ourselves the exploratory impulse to refine and refine the processes of hunting, like dogs, sniffing, digging for compressed elements, hoping to hold something in our hands that can become so much more.


Two Books

If you’re looking for something of a different tenor from longform journalism, I’ve been delighted by these two books in February:

  • Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness — a book he describes as “100% pornographic and 100% high art.” Be forewarned: It hits both marks.
  • Jenny Ofill’s Weather — cut from the cloth of Lydia Davis-esque single-paragraph self-contained universes, this continues in the same vein of Ofill’s last novel, Dept. of Speculation, which I actually recommend above Weather. But if you’ve already read Dept., Weather delivers similar goods, acerbic and hysterical to the extreme.

For An Old Friend

I want to end this Roden on a note of remembrance. That photo way up above? The only image in this otherwise text-laden Roden? That’s my dear friend. He’s on the phone, giving shit to some poor guy on the other end. And just yesterday I found out he passed away. I took that portrait of him the last time I visited his home. He was 45 years older than me, and we were brought together almost a decade ago under circumstances of a funeral. Since then we formed a strange and delicate, life-affirming connection that seemed to rise above “family” or “friendship.” I don’t know what he thought of me, but I think he thought highly. At least he always took my calls, always met up with me when I was near his small town, took me on hikes, tried to get me to buy a house down the road from him. He was, it seemed, intrigued by whatever it was I was. To me he became an unintentional mentor. He was a true son of a bitch (a claim he would not repudiate, would in fact double down on), and also the sharpest, funniest guy I knew. He open-carried a pistol for a chunk of his life because “some dumb bad people wanted me dead.” He had a noggin’ ten-times the aggregate of the tiny town he was born in and never left. And he had a closet full of skeletons that he often pointed to when we were in conversation, deep in a walk discussing life and politics and the world. He’d point to that closet and say, “nasty things in there boy” but never open the door. I asked him to — to open the door, share something from the darkness — but he always grunted and was resolute in his silence on those topics. And yet: I learned most from his expiations. When we met he had just begun to embark on some kind of personal penance, of attempting to atone for parts of this mysterious past, those secret wrongs, whatever they might have been. This atonement was subtle but present. And it was inspirational to be in the presence of this guy, then 75 years old, who was still figuring life out. Working to better himself, to fix broken parts of the world right up until he died. And maybe because we had no shared history — were not of the same blood — we were permitted to transcend our stations in life and connect on that plane of penance. Because when we met I, too, was deep in figuring out a bunch of my own shit, carrying some nasty chips on my shoulders. Suddenly, me and this old dude were thrust into mutual orbit — flung from what might as well have been separate galaxies. In simply talking with him, listening to his stories, his cadences, his humor, I was able to clamber down from some psychic darknesses of my own. I’d like to think I helped him to a better place, too.

Either way, I’ll miss him, the brilliant, hilarious bastard. But I’m going to try my best to carry forward his voice. He didn’t believe in a Christian heaven, and neither do I. Which is fine, because he lived a full-as-all-hell life here with us, atop this “goddamned dirty ground,” surrounded by “all these damn morons” that he so clearly loved.

Until next month,
C