Hello there! Welcome to issue three of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered. Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…
Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online
Over the past fortnight I’ve found myself thinking a lot about time.
This year, time has felt elastic. Some minutes have felt like months, some months like minutes, and somehow the year is almost over.
Last week, I rediscovered Paul Ford’s closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, Ten Timeframes. Within it, he notes how our perceptions of time, and the units in which we measure it have changed:
“You know that decades are a recent invention? Decades are hardly a century old. Not the concept of having ten years of course, but the concept of the decade as a sort of major cultural unit, like when I say “the 90s” and you think of flannel shirts and grunge music and great R&B music, or when I say “the 80s” and you think of people with big hair using floppy disks. You need a lot of change for a decade to be a meaningful demarcation. Back in the 1600s they didn’t really talk about centuries as much either. It was all about the life of the king, the reign (of King James and so forth), or the era.
So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.”
I’d assert that perhaps the pace of change has caused a huge shift not just in how we perceive time, but also, in how we value it.
PEOPLE: MAKE THOSE NANOSECONDS COUNT, DAMN IT!
I wonder if this shift contributed to the rise of hustle porn culture. Was this notion part of what caused people to believe that they needed not just to make every nanosecond count in processing terms, but, in fact, that they really ought to make all of their time count? That they needed to work ridiculously long hours at the expense of their health, their family, and their relationships. That they needed to move fast and break things, to crush the competition. That productivity hacks, performative workaholism, and hustle-hysteric LinkedIn updates were the true future of work.
Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that toxic culture would have happened anyway. Maybe it’s always existed.
What’s troubling is how pervasive this thinking is. I hate everything about hustle culture, but nevertheless it sneaks it’s way in sometimes:
I worry that I’m lazy. I think I ought to be working harder, achieving more. Incidentally, I’m not entirely sure what these achievements that I ought to be achieving look like, or even what this additional hard work is really for. But still, I worry that maybe I’m not making my time “count” and that I should be doing more… And more, and more, and more.
Then I catch myself.
Here’s the thing. Work is work. It’s necessary. It can also be rewarding and fulfilling but it’s not all that there is. I strongly believe that work is not the only measure by which you can make your time count.
Why is this important? Writer Annie Dillard sums it up perfectly:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
For me, this begs the question: is how I spent my time today, the way I want to spend my life?
I’m luckier than most – I have privilege, I’m financially independent, I have relatively few responsibilities, but even so; how I spend my days is still not entirely within my control, and not all of my time is truly my own. Because of this, Dillard’s words act as a keen reminder to pay attention to how I’m spending the time that is mine, and mine alone.
An unexpected bonus of writing this newsletter is that I feel like it’s made me more mindful of how I’m spending my time. Outside of my work, I’m not particularly interested in whether or not the stuff I’m doing is a productive use of time, but I’m very interested in whether or not the stuff I’m doing is a positive use of time.
Is what I’m doing, watching, reading, (and so on), making me feel good, or making me feel like shit?
I’m really not sure that we really ought to be squeezing as much work as possible into every single day. We have little enough time of our own as it is. But spending the time which is our own doing more things that make us feel good, and less things that make us feel like shit strikes me as a pretty great way to spend our days, and therefore, our lives.
Moar serendipitous finds:
Eat Lasers Carina Nebula! The photo below might look like it’s from Star Trek or similar, but it’s real, and those are giant lasers. Astronomers use them to create artificial guide stars to improve the resolution of their telescopes.
Michaela Coel in conversation with Jeremy O. Harris on turning down a million dollars from Netflix in order to retain autonomy, creating difficult art, and freaking out Jordan Peele.
Reject perfectionism, and be inspired by some delightful pandemic craft projects.
Kyle Chayka explores the dystopian rise of ambient TV. Reading this, it occurred to me that ambient TV is remarkably similar to soma, the soothing, happiness-producing drug which is used to control the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
I love this guy’s energy:
& this mix is incredible…
Finally, check out this glorious thread of accidental renaissance photos.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
Having read The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, I jumped straight into Butler’s sequel, The Parable of the Talents. The story is told from the points of view of Lauren Olamina (our original protagonist) and her daughter Larkin.
In the novel, the United States that has come under the grip of a fundamentalist group called “Christian America” led by Andrew Steele Jarret. Seeking to restore American power and prestige, and using the slogan “Make America Great Again”, Jarret is successfully elected President of the USA. If this sounds familiar, it’s worth noting that this novel was published in 1998; Butler was uncannily prescient, huh? As journalist and activist Gloria Steinem noted: “If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true.”
Book recommendation of the fortnight goes to Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf.
Headley says her love affair with Beowulf, (yes, that Beowulf: the 3,180 line epic poem that’s a thousand years old) began with Grendel’s mother. She says she encountered her in an illustrated compendium of monsters:
I was about eight, and on the hunt for any sort of woman-warrior. Wonder Woman and She-Ra were fine but Grendel’s mother was better. She had a ferocious look and seemed to give precisely zero fucks, not that I had that language to describe her at that point in my life.
Hwæt, the first word of Beowulf, has no direct equivalent in modern English. It’s been translated in many ways – ‘listen’, ‘hark’, ‘lo’, and Seamus Heaney translated it as ‘so’. Headley has translated it as ‘Bro’.
She notes that the entire poem, and especially the monologues of the men in it, feel like the sorts of competitive conversations you often hear between men propping up the bar; and that to her ear, ‘Bro’ is a means of commanding attention, and asserting your right to the floor, whilst simultaneously retaining a veneer of friendliness. She further notes that ‘Bro’ can denote either friend or foe, depending on the tone used, a theme which runs through the poem.
Her translation is incredibly accessible, deft, and pyrotechnic. If at all possible, read it in one sitting – it’s an absolute delight.
Plus, throughout December, Grand Journal will be posting a series of consecutive virtual readings of Headley’s Beowulf, culminating on December 25th with the entire sequence stitched into one. The series begins with Miz Cracker, and continues through the week with Diane Cook, Justin Vivian Bond, Neil Gaiman, and Sara Quin. More info here.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I watched all three Back to the Future films so you don’t have to. Seriously, just watch the first one. That one’s great. The second two are contrived in the extreme and it’s just bizarre to me that Marty (seemingly out of nowhere) gets hung up on being called “chicken” and parts II and III effectively turn into an after school special. Ugggh.
I also watched My Octopus Teacher (Netflix). I’m conflicted about it. It made me want to learn more about cephalopods because they’re amazing, but I was nevertheless a bit discomforted by the piece as a whole.
As Elle Hunt notes in the Guardian:
The footage of the octopus at work and play – hunting crabs, shape-shifting into seaweed, giving sharks the slip – is deeply absorbing…
But, like Hunt, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d have enjoyed the documentary more if it weren’t for the decision to make My Octopus Teacher a film that was frankly, overly-preoccupied with narrator Craig Foster.
The octopus herself, is a glorious and fascinating creature, and fully deserves to take centre-stage. Instead, however, throughout the documentary she’s very much viewed via the male gaze. In fairness, not as a sexual object in my opinion, but this definition from an explainer on the male gaze, describes what for me is problematic about the film perfectly:
The male gaze takes many forms, but can be identified by situations where female characters are controlled by, and mostly exist in terms of what they represent to the hero.
As Budd Boetticher, who directed classic Westerns during the 1950s, put it:
What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one […] who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.
Hunt seemingly agrees with this, citing writer Sophie Lewis’ critique:
…the octopus is of interest because Foster finds her so, and especially where it applies to him.
Thoughts dear reader? If you’ve watched My Octopus Teacher, I’d love to know what you thought.
My favourite watch of the past two weeks is Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime); a science fiction series based on the book by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. The series follows the interconnected lives of the residents in the fictional town of Mercer, Ohio; home of an underground experimental physics facility known as the Loop. Each episode is a self-contained short story, however, characters from earlier episodes reappear in subsequent episodes to give a sense of a broader story. It’s a town where you can travel through time, switch places with others, freeze time, or travel to parallel worlds. It’s strange, sad, quiet, and beautiful – I highly recommend it.
Part IV: Things I’m doing
As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them.
So, here’s what I’ve been up to:
In the last issue, having decided that I needed to spend more time playing I said that I had set aside half an hour every day for play. I was somewhat dubious about whether or not this would work, but actually it’s been pretty great.
I have mainly been playing with lego. Here are some of my creations: meet Bruce, Keith, and Anton.
The Sleep Stealers
Last time I said I was going to submit a proposal for playwriting competition at Chickenshed, a theatre in North London. Dear reader, I’m pleased to say that I did it.
I wrote a piece called The Sleep Stealers. It’s told by an 11 year old called Alex who has ASD. Alex lives with his Mum, and his best (and likely only friend) is their elderly neighbour, Juno.
Alex has noticed that his Mum and many people on their estate are struggling to sleep and is troubled by this. He notes that whenever his friend Juno can’t sleep, she blames the fairies – who, she says, steal people’s sleep. Alex takes Juno’s explanation about the fairies to heart, and, as a result takes it upon himself to resolve this problem with the fairies, so that everyone can get a good night’s sleep.
Whilst I’m still not 100% sure that I’m happy with it, I still submitted it which feels like a win (I frequently lose my nerve with these things). Maybe it’ll be selected, maybe it won’t, but either way I made a thing, and that feels pretty good.
Moar Writing Things
I love commencement speeches. I don’t have a degree, so have never experienced a commencement speech firsthand, but I’m not sure that we really do commencement speeches here in the UK in any case. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a graduate to read a commencement speech, and I wrote about a couple on my own site.
First up, Sunscreen – the widely misattributed commencement address that was never a commencement address at all. A fascinating bit of internet lore, plus sage advice like:
Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.
I’m also a massive fan of this:
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
As mentioned earlier in this newsletter, I also wrote about Ten Timeframes, Paul Ford’s closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival on our perceptions of time, and spending users’ heartbeats wisely.
HAG – Forgotten Folk Tales Retold at the Kendal Mountain Festival
I suspect we’re all feeling Zoom fatigue (or I am, in any case), however one thing that’s been pretty great about the pandemic is that many literary festivals have moved online, and allowed people to buy access to individual talks (as opposed to stumping up the full cost for a festival ticket, travel, accommodation etc). In fairness, they may always have done this, I just didn’t realise that was the case.
Regardless, it’s meant that I (and others, I’m sure), have been able to access stuff for a reasonably small fee, that we might not otherwise have been able to.
Last Sunday I spent a delightful hour on my sofa watching a writers panel featuring three of the authors of HAG a new collection of reimagined folktales. Each author read an excerpt from her story, and shared a little about their own approach and process. I’ve now got my sticky mitts on a copy of the book and can’t wait to read it.
So what’s next?
I’m going to try out another thing. Several months ago I made it a habit to start every day with a poem. Ordinarily, I get up and start work right away. I don’t check email, social media, slack or any other hellscape – I just get straight to work.
That routine works pretty well for me, but I figure I could be a little kinder to myself, so, for the next two weeks, when I wake up I’m going to make coffee, and spend 15 minutes or so reading a new poem and thinking about it. Sounds like a lovely way to start the day, huh? As usual, I’ll let you know how it goes.
I’m also going to finally get around to writing up a post based on this talk. I’ve been meaning to do it for months – no more excuses Smith: just write the damn thing.
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