Retooling

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I heard Thursday night that Dean Allen had passed away. Maybe the best guy too many people have never heard of. Let me tell my Dean story, and a few small things I am thinking of changing about my life after hearing the news.

I, a barely non-teenaged autodidact, found Dean Allen’s web projects Cardigan Industries and Textism while surfing public library computers sometime around the early 2000s. Everything he wrote sparkled, looked effortless, wasted nothing, inspired you, made you jealous, left you wanting more. Blog posts and essays, sure; but also (I later found) quick emails. Notes in support forums. Photo captions.

“For godsake just read his old About page. It’s so good, and so Dean.”
John Gruber

Dean released his custom web publishing kit, Textpattern, in 2004, and it was like a little juice-shot into the sweet spot between my left and right hemisponges. Tinkering with that little piece of software taught me a dozen skills that bent the later arc of my career, and a lot about what was possible on the web. But this other thing happened, too: suddenly a little community of web-curious men and women condensed out of thin air around Dean and this thing he had made for us. Suddenly we could see and talk to each other; we found we were many, we had a lot to share, we were all over the globe. And we were Dean’s new best friends! Many of us are still in touch, or at least checking in on each other, fourteen years later. Dean started a web hosting company: many of us followed him there, chipping in for lifetime accounts and arguing or joking around on the forums.

I never met Dean in person. Imagine if you got to hang out with Stephen King or Kenny Loggins online, and three times in your life they dropped you a note to say you were cool. I wrote a short Textpattern explainer, and Dean responded, which by itself was probably enough to addict me to the rush of Writing Things That People Find Helpful; that he was so complimentary just about made my month. For fun once, I made a corny website (using Textpattern); Dean’s unsolicited signature on the guestbook is reason number one out of three reasons I refuse to change the site at all. When I first signed up with TextDrive, he chipped me a short email:

Joel,

Great to see you.

-dca

I’ve been thinking about what these memories means for me (maybe us) now. Here are a few notions, intentions, self-admonitions, still floating top-of-mind after a few days.


For God’s sake, Stay In Touch. I miss those years, and the community that we had together. Dean attracted some damn fine people. I’ve had a tendency to think, well, I miss those times, but those times are over. And now that we’re all popping out again to remember Dean, it’s clear our isolation is something we can end. We can be together if we decide to be.

I can’t bring that community back or hold it together or anything, but here’s what I can do: I can mute my fatalism and continue to stay in touch, keep the door open, open to that group, open to new groups.


A good way to stay in touch is: Keep Blogging. As the years went on and Dean’s sites decayed, I thought, maybe he’s just doing what Mark Pilgrim did. Maybe he’s just sick of fussy buggy computers and has found that he can live his best life only be going completely offline forever. Then I got married, had kids, and blogging became a real chore. Almost everyone else stopped blogging, too. I thought (very often I thought this), maybe Mark Pilgrim and Dean Allen had the right idea: maybe there’s a liberation that comes with erasing everything you ever wrote or made.

Now Dean is the gone kind of gone, and many of his friends and readers are kind of scrambling to revisit and hopefully preserve everything he ever wrote (more on this in a bit). If he hadn’t blogged, most of us would never have known him — or each other! Because he did blog, we have him still with us in a way that is, maybe, new to human experience.

Writing on your own site feels lonely these days. I have a bit of new hope that it doesn’t have to feel that way if enough of us are inspired to Keep In Touch (i.e., dig out our RSS readers as well as our keyboards). But also: even if it stays lonely, I’m going to keep doing it, because Dean’s writing — meaning, even just his simple aspiration-free practice of jotting and sharing his daily dog pics — shows me that, done with any consideration and heart, it is a Good that can’t help but help.


Be your whole self online. One thing about blogging, as opposed to clipping words into a stream of status updates, is that it gives you room to be your political self (say) without collapsing the rest of you out of sight. Dean’s politics were pretty clear to anyone who read him, and he was no stranger to the polemic, but he let himself be more than his politics, to such an extent that people who disagreed with his politics (including myself at the time) were happy to congregate together around him.

Maybe when we each have our own spaces to think and express ourselves, and when we Stay In Touch mainly by checking in on each other’s spaces, we do better at thinking together.

Politics (e.g.) are important. But, thanks in part to my experience with Dean and people at TextDrive, I can see that being inclusive, allowing ourselves to be and see more than our politics, happens to be good for our politics. The fact that they took this approach, and looked past my freshman twerpisms, was helpful for me at the time, and a factor in several changes-of-mind down the road.


If you’re so inclined, if you are able to pursue it: make the whole soup from scratch. One of the things that made Dean so cool to learn from was that he Did Everything, and he didn’t do it by halves. He made the words. He designed the layout and the typography. He took photographs. He made the code to publish the words and the photographs with the typography and the layout. He was an expert in every separate skill. He built tools to create, he shared his creations, and then he shared the tools, too. Then, he roasted the chicken.

This approach, of taking control of every detail of what you make, appealed to me quite a lot. It was a triumph of aesthetic magnetism, but it also made me curious and hungry to learn. That curiosity inevitably brought me into good company — and we touched off some of the same reactions in each other. So again it comes back to the people connections.

It takes a rare, magick constellation of time/space/energy/mentality to pursue even one creative skill, let alone several.

If you do have this opportune combination, use it. Even if it just feels like you’re using it for yourself, it has juice for others that you probably can’t see. Be patient.

If you know someone who wants to have and use it, help them.

But mostly: if you used to have it and don’t anymore, just know that whatever you made when you had it it still has value to someone.

Which brings me to…


Find ways to preserve your writing for each other. Give some thought to making it so that your writing will outlast you, that others can still have it when you’re done with it.

This is just an extension of Staying In Touch.

For those of you who used to read Textism, think how lovely it would be to have it in paperback. At the very least, John Gruber says maybe they can find a way to republish it online.

I started a project (a very whole-soup project) to do this kind of preservation for my own writing, and was able to resume working on it in November. My approach won’t be the practical one for most (maybe it would work for you though?). But please, think about it, in general. Look around for ways and tools to do it. If you find a way to make it easier, please share it. I will do what I can as well.

North Shore, Early Spring

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Lake Superior, Tofte Minnesota
Lake Superior, Tofte Minnesota
The Cauldron on Temperance River
The ‘Cauldron’ on Temperance River
Temperance River rapids
Temperance River rapids
Approach to Carlton Peak
Approach to Carlton Peak
Mossy cliff face on approach to Carlton Peak
Mossy cliff face on approach to Carlton Peak
Close-up of mossy cliff face
Close-up of mossy cliff face
Waves crashing near mouth of the Temperance river
Waves crashing near mouth of the Temperance river
Cove near the mouth of the Temperance river
Cove near the mouth of the Temperance river

Re: What Poetry Does

I loved this thought from Helen Macdonald during her conversation with Kerri Miller on MPR this morning (this bit starts at 31:00 in the audio):

I tend to write poems very fast, and I tend to not revise them very much. The thing about writing a poem compared to writing a book — I mean obviously, it’s not as long as a book — is that there’s a moment where the poem is finished, and it’s really addictive moment: the poem suddenly snaps shut like a locket and you can’t do any more to it, because it has its own internal workings, like a watch, and it stops letting you do anything to it — it becomes this object on its own, and it’s really exciting when that happens. So I’d write the poem and then start to tinker around with it until it starts to work by itself, and then I just let it go.

This feels exactly right, not only for the few times I’ve written a poem, but for the experience of reading or hearing poetry. When a poem gives that clicking-shut sensation every time you read it, you’ve found a very good one.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Distributism Is Not That Hard

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Proponents of distributism in our time have a hard time talking about it clearly to people who aren’t already on board with their ideas. If you have muddled through the writing of any prominent modern distributist you know what I mean.

But it doesn’t have to be this hard to talk about. The path to a distributist economy is plain. It’s hard — maybe even ultimately indefensible — but come on! it’s at least straight-forward.

The Goal is that everyone have private ownership of some property that allows them to make their own living — and that everyone actually make their own living from their own property and labour. So how do you get there?

  1. Ban public ownership of corporate stock.
  2. Abolish inheritance and estate taxes.
  3. Force all businesses of more than, say, ten or twenty employees to convert to worker-owned cooperatives.
  4. Break up big farms into smaller worker-owned farms.
  5. Break up big banks into local credit unions.
  6. Abolish government enforcement of interest-rate contracts.
  7. Abolish social security and welfare at the federal and state levels.
  8. Heavily tax the ownership of non-homesteaded residential property (punish the rent-seekers) and heavily subsidize the purchase of small homesteaded residential property (make renters into owner-occupiers).

I’m just spitballing here. There’s probably more you could do. But if you want to convert a capitalist economy to a distributist one, this is how you start. I’m not going to defend each of these moves in this post — I don’t even personally support them as a set — except to say that any self-described distributist ought to be able to defend any one of them as a means of getting us to The Distributist Goal.

But this also makes clear why present-day distributists have a hard time writing clearly about how to implement their pet framework. It’s not just because it’s hard to get people to understand the idea of a third way between Capitalism and Communism (although it is very hard). It’s also because Distributism involves moves that most modern distributists, for various reasons, cannot stomach. It’s much safer and more comfortable to talk about Chesterton and Pope Leo XIII and the precedents of medieval economies than it is to propose anything that would begin, in 2016, to actually accomplish what you say you want.

Re: Text Cursors

The “Blinking Text Cursor for CRT Display” was first patented in 1967 by Sperry Rand Corp:

The present invention solves the problem by detecting the simultaneous occurrence of the cursor and a character at the same location and then accentuating that location by alternately tracing the cursor symbol and the character symbol. Thus, both the character symbol and the normal character over which it appears are displayed at normal intensity only one-half the time. The alternate appearance of the two symbols causes the position to assume a blinking appearance.

Sperry Rand Corp, 1967 patent for blinking text cursor
Sperry Rand Corp, 1967 patent for blinking text cursor
(hat tip: Track Changes newsletter)

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Broadlight

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Finally, the wind on Sunday was not an ice wind. In the afternoon, I placed myself in a lawn chair and found I could sit still, and read, without at all shivering. There were no cars on the road either, not by my yard, not on the nearby freeway. I could imagine we lived in a small town, and that I was not poor or rich. The air had the tang of smoke and soft dirt. The sun was so much in my eyes that being really upset with anyone was out of the question.

Re: Basement Finishing

Well, we definitely did not finish by Christmas. We had a baby in November, which pretty much derailed every other aspect of life. I thought that maybe since this was our second I’d be more practiced at balancing dad duties with other duties, but I failed to account for the possibility that the crying and sleeping schedules of my two children might end up completely out of phase.

Rough framing: view from the rec room
Rough framing: view from the rec room towards the bedroom, hallway and bathroom

We did make some progress since the first post, though. My goal was to be done with the framing by 2016, and I made the goal with about nine hours to spare.

Framing a basement is tedious business, especially when working alone. In general, first I had to build soffits around all the ducts in the ceiling, then I could build my walls around the soffits. But sometimes I’d have to build a particular wall before I could build a nearby soffit, and vice versa. It’s like building a three-dimensional puzzle — one in which all the pieces start out invisible.

The thing I dislike the most about framing in basements is the problem of fastening the bottom plate of each wall to the concrete floor. I’m convinced the universe notices when you’re attempting to do this and makes sure no single method will continue to work longer than an hour or two. I have a Ramset gun that fires fasteners into the concrete with .22 caliber gunpowder charges. This worked well for the first four walls, until the fasteners began bending and blowing out patches of concrete. Finally I bought some 2.5″ Tapcon screws and a set of concrete bits, and stole—er, borrowed my Dad’s hammer drill, and from then on I had to pre-drill the concrete in every place where I’d need to fasten a wall plate.

Some of the more complicated soffit framing
Some of the more complicated soffit framing

There are a lot of little blocks and cross-pieces that need to be installed, and most of them had to be pre-drilled and fastened with screws to avoid splitting the ends.

Rough framing: view from the bedroom
Rough framing: view from the bedroom

This was the year I finally bothered to learn the proper way to frame the corner on an angled wall. I wish I’d known this when I framed the rest of the house — the second floor in particular has several of these corners.

Bathroom rough-in plumbing
Bathroom rough-in plumbing

On the recommendation of neighbors, I hired Huber Plumbing to do the rough plumbing in the 3/4 bath, the ducting for the exhaust fan, and the forced-air supplies/returns for the rec room and bedroom. The drainage piping for this bathroom had already been laid back before we poured the foundation in 2008, otherwise I doubt I’d even be attempting to put a bathroom in down here. These guys finished up in a day and a half, scheduled and passed their inspections.

All the waste from the project to this point
All the waste from the project to this point

This photo shows just about all the waste from the project so far (except for a couple gallons of sawdust I’d already vacuumed up). You will typically hear that you should add 10% to a materials order to account for waste, but on a framing project this small I thought I ought to be able to get closer than that. So I just tried to estimate the actual material needed. It wouldn’t get me LEED-certified or anything, but for I thought I did pretty well. The remaining long pieces are very crooked and bowed (typical Menards; you get what you pay for). I highly recommend the use of a leaf bag for tossing small waste as you go: it stands up on its own and takes up less space than a garbage bin.

Next steps will be to do the electrical work and inspection, the rough framing inspection, sound-proofing, and drywall.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: The New Orthography: Handwriting, Calligraphy and Shorthand

From John Overholt, curator at Houghton Library of Harvard (source):

18C commonplace book from Glasgow, containing ribald poetry and a book inventory, written in code.
18C commonplace book from Glasgow, containing ribald poetry and a book inventory, written in code.
A substitution cipher with a key kindly provided by the bookseller
Substitution cipher key kindly provided by the bookseller

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

The Banksy of Poetry

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Some days the social internet makes up for all its corrosive effects by gifting you something inspiring…that turns into something wonderful.

Just this afternoon thanks to a Robinson Meyer tweet I was introduced to the poem Janus: Sonnet by one John M. Ford. Sonnets by themselves are hard to do well, but this is one of those poems that turns the genius level up to eleven. Not only does Ford weave some subtle and vivid truth into the standard sonnet form (an intricate job by itself), but he builds in an additional device that, when you see it, will astonish you.

If you understand what “Janus” refers to, you should be able to teach yourself how to read the sonnet. When you find Ford’s trick, you will understand the poem.

But it gets more interesting. Because Graham Sleight responded with another example of Ford’s genius: another smashing sonnet that he left as a comment on someone’s blog — !?! A later commenter notes, “This is, after all, the man who won a World Fantasy Award for a poem he wrote for his own self-published Christmas card.” (He has one several such awards, though I haven’t been able to figure out which one was being referenced here.)

Here, then, it seems we have a kind of Banksy of poetry, leaving little threads and tuns of treasure everywhere, not just in print but all throughout these quiet old places on the web that have just been sitting there for ten or fifteen or twenty years now.