Pointers, Masterclasses, X100Vs, Billionaire Universities
Well, holy shit.
How are you doing? I used to think that monthly was a rapid time-frame for a newsletter, now it feels like an eternity. Monthly? You can live and die a billion times in a month. One positive quality of this vast (shared, universal, unbiased) sea change of our past 30 days is that it should serve as both pattern and anti-pattern; although the changes have been largely negative, it’s a testament to the power of 30 days of applied work. A virus is relentless by definition. You, too, can be relentless. What will you apply that energy to?
I suppose I’m Craig Mod, and in some subset of multi-verse timelines, this is the Roden newsletter, coming to you from “mysterious” Japan, becoming ever-less-mysterious day by day as numbers change in step with mathematically rational norms.
Someone wrote in to me: “Yo I’ve never been so CHARMED while reading about cursors” which honestly made my day. Because: I managed to sneak a prose poem onto WIRED’s website last week in my review of the new cursor/pointer which debuted on Tuesday in iPadOS 13.4.
This is where the iPad’s support for the trackpad comes in—a middle ground between laser and potato, and a reinvention of Engelbart’s pointiness. Apple has taken the desktop cursor’s familiar thin arrow and replaced it with a translucent circle. This circle has the ability to change form not only with context but with the “physicality” of the object beneath it.
Move the pointer above a button and the circle morphs into the button itself, “snapping” into it, enveloping it like an amoeba, causing it to glow in a pleasing way. What this means is that the usual precision of a trackpad isn’t required to get exact hits on navigational elements. If you own an Apple TV, you’re already familiar with this vibe—it’s how the cursor on the TV “jumps” from icon to icon with a kind of sticky momentum. Similarly, on the iPad home screen, you can “lazily” slam the cursor around and have it lock onto applications with an eerie telepathy not experienced on a desktop OS.
It really is something, this “regressive” backstep to pointer-ville; so thoughtfully (and beautifully) implemented. It’s these details in aggregate that make life a joy and it’s these same details that can feel inconsequential when being worked on.
Something I’ve done since Quarantine Times began was rearrange my kitchen. I set a budget of $100 and went about rethinking what the hell was going on in there. It had been 3 years since I moved into my current studio/home and hadn’t once taken a second to reconsider why stuff had defaulted to where it defaulted to. Regardless, it was mega inefficient, but it wasn’t until I took literally five minutes to kind of blur my eyes and step back and go just how am I using this space?? to see what was wrong. Suddenly all the cracks were visible. I got a couple of organizational buckets and racks and I’ll be damned if those changes haven’t paid smile dividends (yes, you read me correctly: SMILE DIVIDENDS) day after day. They also lightened the cognitive “activation energy” of cooking, meaning I’m more inclined to whip something up. Now I stand in the kitchen and go: You ding-dong, why didn’t we do this years ago? And also: What else can we do this to?
This is, to a degree, what Marie Kondo was espousing with her “Method.” By undermining the inefficiency of your default systems, you can create a lightness of being, you can spark joy. But Kondo espouses with a militant edge — I WILL MAKE YOU BETTER YOU DIRTY BEAST. To be sure: I believe this tone was critical to the success of her books — you feel taken care of, and you feel seen — for you probably know that you’re a dirty, dirty beast. But — I mean, sure, you can be militant about this stuff, or you can just cultivate awareness little by little and have fun with it. Every day, try to find one little bit of annoyance in the apartment/home/shack and shift it. Do this for 30 days and you’ll have an entirely new home in spirit, if not possessions.
Back to the WIRED piece, the iPad itself is maybe the most extreme (and verdant) example of a decade of tiny changes to a tech platform:
I’ve been using the trackpad with my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro for the last four days, and I can’t stop smiling. It’s a boneheaded response, I know—to be delighted by something that feels so obvious and, many would say, regressive. But paths matter. And what’s so strange about all of this is the multiple layers of redundancy you find on an iPad. You don’t need the keyboard to type, you can type on the screen. You don’t need the trackpad to navigate, you can pick up the Pencil and do the same. And if you lose that Pencil, who cares? The OS was designed potato-first, and so your dirty digits will work just fine. A bare iPad is like Monty Python’s Black Knight; no arms, no legs, but the brain still works.
When I think about my MacBook Pro, it’s largely the same thing I had twenty years ago (when I returned a hulking Dell for a svelte TiPowerbook) — a trackpad, a keyboard, macOS (OS X beta came out 19.5 years ago), a screen, a hinge, a visible filesystem. Sure, platters have become solid state, screens have become retina, but the fundamentals — even of the OS, the menu bars, the icons, the defaults, the finder — have remained largely the same in surface experience if not underlying tech (APFS, et cetera, et cetera!).
And yet, the iPad? From a giant iPhone to an artists’ tool (Pencil), to a writing slab (keyboard) and now ever-more a … laptop? What a helluva set of changes, most in the last couple years. Even if I can’t use an iPad for the bulk of my “work work” I still love following along the evolution.
What’s great is that the 2018 iPad Pro is still so powerful, so ahead of its time, that buying one refurbished today provides an experience that is, arguably, almost indistinguishable from buying the 2020 model. So perhaps consider that: a used iPad Pro and the new keyboard (when it comes out in May), if you’re looking for a certain kind of “new” computing experience, maybe especially so if you’re a designer and touching systems as they evolve will pay career dividends?
Of course, these patterns don’t stop at software / hardware. For anyone who has sweated a manuscript, peeking back at the minutiae of change over years can induce palpitations. I marvel at how small, how seemingly (to use the word again) inconsequential so many editorial changes appear on the page, in the margins of drafts. And yet and yet and yet — all the fluid smoothness and beauty of the final product is in those changes.
On the topic of kitchens: I was gifted a subscription to Masterclass. Of all the ads online, Masterclass seduces most readily. And yet I had resisted. But a friend had a free pass to give away, and now I have a year of viewing. What a gift!
Since this last month has been typified by extensive cooking, and with that the butting against the edges and ceilings of my (embarrassingly limited) cooking knowledge, the first classes I’ve poked into are Gordon Ramsay’s and Thomas Keller’s.
Before I gush or lavish praise or backhand compliment (as seems to be my wont) the platform, let me preface everything by saying I never expected Masterclass to be a “serious” learning space. That is, I expected entertainment first and small actionable items second or third.
I wrote about Alec Soth’s Magnum photography and book making class last month (did any of you take it? thoughts?) which also primed my Masterclass expectations. For these sorts of upscale learning platforms the format seems to be: Super high-quality camera work, well edited, great sound, some delivery coaching, all packaged into bite-sized 5-20 minute chunks.
Well OK, then: Masterclass is the Magnum classes ratcheted up to 11, a pure distillation of the very eroticism of learning. That intensity and excitement of the trailers? They somehow manage to keep that going (at least in the ones I’ve watched) somewhat indefinitely. Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking I is straight-up pornographic. IN. OUT. ON. OFF. He sprinkles Fuck and Shit and Damn all over the place, his mega-biceps flexing as he sautés some onions into a pan-sauce TO DIE FOR. We know it will be BRILLIANT. He is not afraid of salmonella — his “hand washing” consists of a sprinkle of water about the finger tips. LIGHTLY SEASON with a few kilos of salt and pepper. Chop like this. Unnecessarily sharpen the blade again. IN. OUT. OVER. But here’s the thing: It’s totally compelling. It’s un-unwatchable. You cannot look away. I love it. It is fully in the spirit of bizarro-world YouTube but with infinite production value.
Ramsay is fully there, totally present. You can tell he’s so utterly whole-hog into the Masterclass concept. It’s almost as if he invented it, so strong are his instincts. Until now I had watched no more than a few seconds of Ramsay in my life. Perhaps he’s always like this? Anyway, the first two videos are of him swearing his history at the camera in his photo-perfect kitchen. This is SPECIAL. Never before done. Weaving the mythos of starting his simple life (IGNORE THE KITCHEN!) in a small Parisian apartment, an apartment with a single hotplate burner (which, look! he has in his light-flooded mega-kitchen) upon which he is certain he could still “cook up a fucking storm.”
Keller is a Ramsay antipode. I’ve eaten at neither of their restaurants so I don’t know if their on-screen characterizations carry over into their in-shop ambiances, but would be surprised if they didn’t. If Ramsay is a, maybe, “tango lead, type-A crusher,” Keller seduces with his total discomfort — manifesting in, I dare say, a cuteness — that is utterly charming. He’s Justin Vernon dancing with Francis Starlite. Keller does not seem like a founder of Masterclass, but he’s willing to go along, in an awe-shucks sort of way. He contradicts himself within minutes and there’s a beautiful scene shot in low depth of field 4k where he picks up random items from “his kitchen” and proclaims, “I don’t even know what these are.” This is art masquerading as educational videos.
But here’s the thing: We know Keller has skills. And he brings a kind heart and humanity and unexpected humility to the screen and because of that we forgive him and maybe even sympathize. I mean, how would we fare in front of six 8k RED cameras in a studio-lit kitchen? In the end: He’s uniquely as compelling as Ramsay. (Whom, I might add, manages to never seem arrogant; Ramsay is simply full of the LIFE AND LOVE of food and vegetables — he strokes them, he speaks to them, he chops them to expose their inner beauty, tops and tails some but more often leaves the gangly bits on to be enjoyed as full-flavored monuments to the MIRACLE OF FOOD.)
And for randomness I started Chris Voss’ class on negotiation. Christ, are we going to fucking negotiate or what. Abandoned warehouse set, bare concrete walls, dude walks in with his jeans and blazer and BOOM. Pull-focus. Crazy eye contact. You will mirror. You will anticipate. You will save hostages and will be the most interesting person at a dinner party.
I am so curious about the Masterclass business model. How much did these dudes (and it currently is mostly dudes) get paid? What is their contract like? Do they get royalties based on viewership? Class completion? Does it matter? Masterclass is compelling because it shouldn’t really work, in the same way Netflix sort of shouldn’t really work, in the same way paid online pornography services probably shouldn’t really work (do they work?) — there is so much similarly shorn content out in the world, why pay for this subset? My initial thought was there are only so many “celebrity creatives” who will function well in front of the camera that they’d quickly run out. But Masterclass has built up a base that would take even a determined watcher a good half-year to blow through, and it seems only to be growing.
The value proposition chain flows thusly: Value in getting to hang out with personalities, of having nearly fat-free cuts of beautifully produced videos, of having none of the interstitials ads or detritus of YouTube — the bad commentary, the poor lighting, the fending off of aggressive calls to action — and lastly, of actually learning things. It’s become my go-to “time waster” in the last week and that feels fantastic. Because it’s light enough to be entertaining, but contains enough meat for one to take something away. When my gift runs out, will I renew? Probably … not? But it seems worth a spin during Quarantine Times, and is most certainly a better filler for downtime than randomly YouTube-ing.
(And for the record: I consider YouTube to be on of the very greatest things the internet has ever produced; the amount of value on that site is truly “awesome.” It can be, however, sometimes — OK, often — quite a shag (??) to find that value. I heard someone describe a K-hole to me a few weeks ago, and it sounded not unlike getting lost in YouTube for a day or night.)
Over in Explorers Club land I’ve posted two members-only videos in the last week. One is a raw video of me interviewing Dan Frommer for an upcoming On Margins Season 2 episode. We just had Zoom “record” the feed. What’s nice about the zoom recording? It auto-switches cameras based on who’s talking (which, for obvious reasons, you wouldn’t get if you were just screen capturing). So no editing is required. The bad? The quality is like 80x over-dubbed VHS. It’s sort of hilariously low quality. Still. It serves its purpose! And since we spoke about running membership programs during These Times I wanted to get it out to members as quickly as possible, since it is of the moment. It’ll manifest as a “real,” properly edited On Margins episode soon enough.
I also ran a “Pop-Up Walk” around Kamakura last week. The aggregate of the walk (45 mins of video) is up on a members-only YouTube link.
I make these members-only mainly because it lowers the stakes (for me), and I know Explorers Club members are most willing to forgive / grant permission to me to try out new things. I’m far more reluctant to share a hastily produced video to, say, Roden, only because the numbers here are so substantial. I’ve found the Explorers subset — a highly opted-in audience — to provide an excellent staging ground. Increasingly, one of the corollary benefits to joining the program is more of a “behind the scenes” peek at what I’m doing / how the tofurky is made.
And in a continuation of that spirit, I am going to run a “live coding” members-only session this Saturday, April 4, from 8am JST (7pm EST, April 3). It’ll last … 5 hours? maybe more? I don’t know. Have never done a livestream before. I’ll be making a sub-site for my December Ise-ji walk which will live on walkkumano.com.
The stream will be less about technical tom-foolery and more about the iterative process of editing — photos and words. Like I said — have never done this before, so please set expectations appropriately low. I will not bring Ramsay level teaching eroticism to the table. Think more: monkified-Bob Ross who swears and drinks too much sparkling water. If you’d like to join then join the Explorers Club. I’ll send out the link to members on Saturday morning (Japan time).
My M10 shutter started acting wonky (you can see in some of the photos in this issue of Roden actually; the leaf shutter just can’t get out of its own way and so casts a kind of dark edge to the (relative) bottom of the frame; the shots in this issue are all Leica shots, click for bigger versions) and I had to send it off for repairs. (I’ll talk about the repair process next month.) So for the last few weeks I’ve shot exclusively with the new Fuji X100V. It’s got so much going for it. The learning process has been fun — it’s has many limitations and I’ve enjoyed butting against them; you can only pull so much out of an F2 lens on a APS-C-sized sensor, but there is also a lot you can pull. I am most impressed by the smooth integration of a few technological hooks that Fuji does better than anyone else I’ve seen thus far. And the battery lasts just about forever.
All the photos in Ridgeline 064 were shot with the X100V. Click on them to load high-res versions. Will I do a bigger, more thorough writeup on this camera? Maybe. Let me know if you’d like one!
Been enjoying a weird smattering of books. As I wrote in the March members-only Explorer update:
I started reading “Moby Dick” for the first time (my literary knowledge is riddled with gaps the size of whales) and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME HOW FUNNY THIS IS.
Truly a joy. I’m reading a hulking, illustrated version I bought on Kickstarter years ago and it is like a bible atop my kitchen table where I start my day with a little visit to ye olde New England.
At the behest of Robin Sloan, I blew through Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan which is eerily prescient, especially for these Doom Times. As I wrote to Ellis: Now I know where the Warren Newsletter Voice comes from. Spider Jerusalem. Fun stuff.
In non-fiction land: I was equal parts delighted by and enraged by The Billionaire Who Wasn’t — the story of how Chuck Feeney and his crew invented the Duty Free Store. Money is weird and if you read this and don’t think it’s even more weird and arbitrary than you thought before then … I don’t know what to say. These fresh-out-of-the-army guys found some import loopholes, found some tax loopholes, and basically printed billions of dollars over the course of a few decades. The “twist” of this book is that Feeney recognized the arbitrary, vaguely amoral nature of his coming into so much money, and so he signed it all away to a non-profit trust (in the Cayman Islands, of course) when he was just in his 30s, giving up billions of dollars in personal wealth with one signature. Of course, he ran the trust. So he controlled the money. But it couldn’t be used for fast cars and big houses, just donations to non-profit organizations.
His great fetish, though, was keeping it all anonymous. His name could not be spoken lest you may lose all your millions in funding. No names on buildings. No thank yous in newspapers. Nada. It’s … weird. Admirable in some evaporation-of-the-ego satori kind of way, but also … similarly mean, a little bit New Jersey (it’d be a shame to lose that funding) which is where Feeney was from, and, as we’ve seen with Epstein, dangerous. We need to know the provenance of money to make moral decisions around who we do and do not validate by acceptance or rejection. And so when I say “fetish” above I mean that — this was a power play. Not entirely (there are also some practical benefits to anonymity), but in large part.
This is not to say what Feeney did wasn’t good — it was very good (at least the parts we know about) and entire chunks of institutions of higher-education were made possible because of DFS cash. But as you read in the book, it’s also EXTREMELY RANDOM AND CASUAL. Like throwing-darts-at-a-map with your eyes closed arbitrary, in who / what / where he decided to aim the foundation’s money spigot.
Anyway, lots of food for thought in the book. Not the least of which is the de-mystification of the DFS shops you see at airports (I thought they were owned by the airports!). More and more money being accumulated in smaller and smaller pockets. It’s great that The Gates Foundation, Emerson Collective, and similar “benevolent dictatorships” exist, but … not all of those pockets will be kind, generous pockets. And I have no answers about how to better the system, but … the arbitrary nature of wealth distribution is something Feeney struggled with all his life; he certainly didn’t come close to finding a platonic solution.
In the end the biggest question I’m left with is: Is there a way to train these people to be better at living and giving? Kevin Kelly and I were brainstorming the idea of a “Billionaire University” in order to teach billionaires how not to be boring nudniks, and how to maximize the value of their wealth creation and deployment. Kind of like The Good Place, on earth, for people who “won” the game. I’m sure Feeney would have loved to have had a Chidi. I’m sure we would have loved for him to have had one, too.
Thus concludes March. That only felt like a few hundred years, right? Easy-peasy.
The shots this month are random architectural details I’ve grabbed along my walks in Japan. I didn’t intend them to be social-distancing appropriate but, lo and behold, there’s nary a human in sight. I suppose much of rural Japan is anti-COVID-19 in that there simply aren’t that many bodies for it to attach to.
I want to end with a diptych, two photos of the same spot, taken six months apart, from opposite approaches last year. In one I was walking south-north, the other north-south. The wind blows the same way in both. I think there’s even the same blanket. Signs of life, patterns. We keep going, do our laundry, the sun shines and we use it to dry and renew.
Patterns and rules are life-giving. Cook some meals with sexy passion, modify one percent of one room each day, think about how you’d spend a billion bucks, and maybe see you on Saturday for some programming and editing.
Until next month,