Low tech

If you remember my blog from some time ago, you’ll realise that I’ve been through a long hiatus, and that I’ve just started again. In earnest, so far. So why the break? I can’t blame technology. I’ve had all the tools that I’ve needed, right the way though, to keep filling pages of text. But there are times when the right tool for the job comes along, and makes things easier. Oddly, the right tool in this instance, in the days of some incredibly clever gadgets, is an old one. Compared with the current crop, it’s much less fancy in some ways, but it outperforms them in a few very important areas.

The niftiness of new gadgets is compelling, certainly. They look amazing, they’re small and light, the screens are incredible, they’re capable of performing all sorts of different functions, and they’re constantly connected to the internet. They’re amazing, and I use my (pretty outdated, but still good) phones every day for those kinds of tasks. I’ve got a netbook (also outdated, also still good), which does its jobs very well, too, and a (slightly long in the tooth) desktop system which is also a dream to use, and I can do all sorts of wonderful things on it.

Lately, though, I’ve started asking some questions about the way that technology integrates into my life. I’m surrounded by tech, totally comfortable using it, totally unsuspicious of it, most of the time. I’ve grown up with it, and it’s a tool that I use for getting things done quickly and efficiently. Hammers, nails, etc. The thing is, though, I don’t think anyone ever became addicted to using a hammer. Nobody ever had trouble putting the hammer down and doing something else. The hammer offers itself as a useful implement, but not a seductive one (unless you have some distinctive kinks). The more our gadgets have become multi-purpose, the more they’ve become attractive, and the more they’ve become connected, the more they lose the perfect focus and the fitness-for-task that a hammer has, and the more they start to exert an influence of their own.

Nobody is helpless in the face of a mobile phone or a tablet. Of course, we can all make choices. But with a hammer, or a notepad (the paper type), or a landline telephone, or a bicycle, the choices are limited. You hammer, you write, you talk, you ride, and that’s it. When your hammering/writing/talking/riding is done, you put that tool down and think about what to do next. They lend themselves to focus and concentration and single-mindedness.

If you think about a tech tool, like a word processor or a spreadsheet or a video editor or some other application that is dedicated to some kind of creation (i.e. not just consumption), it’s completely possible to focus your attention on just that one tool, and to keep to the task at hand and get it done quickly and efficiently. At least, I hear it’s possible. More probably, because that tool is running on a machine which is internet connected, and which has a browser, which can probably be started up with a mouse click or a finger swipe, and Facebook is there to be checked, and email, and newspapers to be read. When I’m writing music on my main machine, I quite often reach the end of a passage and need to let it settle in my head and think for a moment before I start the next one, and of course it makes sense to see whether anyone’s commented on my blog or liked some link that I posted.

There are bits of software that you can install which shut off your internet or lock you into particular windows, to make sure that you can’t get distracted. I’ve never explored them, maybe because it seems a bit too much like treating myself as a baby. It’s humiliating to acknowledge that I’m out of control, incapable of keeping my attention in one place for more than ten minutes at a time. Humiliating even if it’s true.

I don’t get distracted when I’m riding my bike. It only has one job. Generally, I’m not listening to music or doing anything else. I generally don’t even stop when an email or a text message comes through. I don’t stop to eat, and I don’t drink anything except the water that I carry with me. I don’t have to refuel. I’ve even avoided having a bike computer, so I don’t get distracted thinking about my speed or how far I’ve come. I ride, and that’s all I do, and the tool is perfectly adapted to that purpose. If someone invented a bike with a web browser, I don’t think it would sell well.

A couple of years ago I started collecting a small library of books about writing, by writers. I read most of them. They each have something inspiring and interesting to say about the craft of writing, and they frequently contradict each other, which is all great. But there are two things that they seem to agree on: the need for space and the need for focus. Books have been written in alcoves under stairways, in offices and sheds and cabins in the woods. But I don’t know how many have been successfully written in any environment which also included a bunch of nagging browser tabs and notification popups. I don’t think any writer has incorporated YouTube into his or her workflow, so far.

There are still books being drafted by hand, although I doubt even the most hardcore Luddites would be editing and re-drafting that way. Techology has been kind to writers overall, but multipurpose, connected technology represents an insidious intrusion into the Room of One’s Own. While the writer is marvelling at how easy it is to edit drafts and research information and pull up synonyms, she is also subjecting herself to an unwanted barrage of temptations.

I don’t think it’s just writers, incidentally. Writing is something that requires a particular focus, and writers tend to identify it as a solitary task, so they are more keen than most to lock themselves into a private space. But really, anyone who wants to get anything done, unless that job is specifically reliant on the internet, should probably think about disconnecting. You have to wonder, for all the inspiration that we can derive from the internet, how much of that inspiration is lost in the process of hitting up the Shakespearean Insult Generator or staying up to date with the Grumpy Cat meme.

So what’s the hammer, as far as a writer is concerned? For some of them, a pen and paper, clearly. For me, who never learned to write properly with a pen, but who dedicated himself to Year 10 typing with something of a passion, the pen and paper option, cheap and convenient as it is, was never to be. Whatever I use, it needs a keyboard. A typewriter? I do love typewriters, but I also love writing in public places, and even a portable typewriter is a bit too much bulk for me to contemplate. A disconnected gadget with a fantastic keyboard, easy to work on and without any hassles with battery life. Yes, such a thing exists. US$18 on eBay, delivered to Australia for about AU$45.

I’ve had my eye on the Alphasmart products for maybe a decade now. Certainly, since they were too expensive for me to consider. Ten years ago, the machine that I’m typing on now was around the $500 mark, which was pricey even then, considering what it is. They made about six models, but there are two that writers are drawn to. The Neo (and its more recent variant the Neo2) is probably the most popular. Great keyboard, small LCD screen, runs for about 700 hours on three AA batteries. That battery life is what convinces a lot of people, and I was tempted. There seem to be quite a lot of Neos on eBay just at the moment. I ended up with the Dana, though. It doesn’t do nearly as well in the battery department – a mere 25 hours on three AAs, which means that you actually have to charge it and/or swap batteries once a week or so. The Neos can often go for six months between charges. I’d love to have the crazy incredible battery life, but the Dana offers a few things the Neo doesn’t. In particular, for my purposes, it has two SD card slots, which can only take cards up to 1GB (still available, at the time of writing, for about $8 each), but which at least provides you with the capacity to back up straightforwardly to removable storage. The Neo has no removable storage of its own. Both machines let you do the nifty-if-quaintly-old-fashioned trick of plugging into a computer’s USB port, then sending the stored documents through keystroke-by-keystroke into your desktop word processor of choice (the device appears to the computer as a USB keyboard, and you can actually use it as and external keyboard if you want, but when you press the button it starts typing of its own accord). It’s slow, but it saves any hassles with file conversions (since you’re only using this machine for capturing text anyway, you shouldn’t have to worry about niceties like formatting), and if you’re like me and you have a LibreOffice template set up on the computer which names the file according to the first line and saves in an appropriate Dropbox folder with one key shortcut, then you can back up your files without having to touch the file system. I have no problem with the file system, but I’m also a fan of files that name themselves, save themselves in the right place, and save you the trouble. Both the Dana and the Neo can do this USB trick, and that seems to be the way that most people go about getting text off the machine. For a document of a few thousand words (like my blog posts quite often end up being, if I get carried away), it might be a four or five minute job to transfer them to the computer, but you do have the satisfaction of watching the words appear on the screen and marvelling that you typed them all. In theory, you could send them straight into a WordPress window or whatever and hit publish, although I do find that the New Post entry window struggles to keep up with the speed of the Dana’s auto-keystrokes. You can send them at a slower speed, but then you’re definitely into make-a-cup-of-coffee territory, if you want to send through an even modestly big document. I’ve found that LibreOffice Writer keeps up fine, though, even on my little netbook. So I’m guessing that WordPress is slowing itself down with some Javascript cleverness that probably wouldn’t bother even the fastest touch typist, but which the Dana can expose the sluggishness of.

The Dana additionally allows you to transfer files via an SD card. That seemed important to me, because I might one day want to use this machine while I’m travelling in remote areas away from power, away from a computer, and away from network access, and I don’t want to rely on the internal memory to keep my work safe. It’s since occurred to me that if I had a mobile phone with USB-on-the-go functionality, then I could plug the Dana into the phone with a USB cord and it should pretend to be a keyboard, just like if it was on a computer, and I could create an on-the-road backup that way. But that still relies on the phone having power, and there’s a certain awkwardness to doing that, when you compare with the simplicity of saving a text file to a couple of different SD cards and breathing easy.

The Dana, unlike the Neo, runs an actual operating system, PalmOS. You could think of it as a giant old-fashioned PDA organiser with a wide screen and a keyboard. I never used a Palm back when they were the dominant PDA (I jumped into Windows Mobile, which is maybe a shame), so this is my first taste of how it works. I can see why people liked it so much – it’s simple and elegant in the way that it works, and considering that you’re dealing with a low-resolution, monochrome screen, everything looks quite attractive if you like that lo-fi retro thing. Running Palm, of course, lets you actually use the device as an organiser, if you want to. My Android phones have made that redundant, and I haven’t bothered installing any software on the Dana other than a text editor (necessary if you want to save files to SD in a standard .txt format instead of a non-standard outdated word processor format), a backup tool and a battery monitor. The standard advice from people on the Alphasmart forums is that you should only buy a Dana if you want to actually use the additional organiserfunctionality, which I don’t use, so in a way I might be better off with a Neo, but I’m happy with the battery life (25 hours is more than you think – I was happy enough with the three-or-so that I get out of my netbook, for most purposes) I like the SD slots, I like the slightly bigger screen, and I like the fact that even though I’m using it as a single-purpose device, I have the capacity to do a little hacking around the edges if I need to. I’m told the screen on the Neo is a higher contrast, which would be good – the screen on the Dana is fine in most lighting conditions, but it gets a bit grey and hazy in dim light. I boost up the font size in the word processor to compensate, which I guess takes away some of the benefit of the bigger screen, but using it is rarely a struggle.

If you buy a second-hand Dana (or, from what I understand, a Neo, but it’s less of an issue in that case), then there’s a small mod that you need to do in order to use it properly with rechargeable batteries. Originally, the machine shipped with a factory battery, actually just three AA rechargeable cells wrapped up in plastic. There’s one battery bay, which can hold either the rechargeable pack, or three alkaline cells. The idea is that you’ll basically use the rechargeable that comes with the device, but if you get caught out and you can’t recharge, you can grab some Alkaline cells, swap out the factory battery, and keep going. The factory battery comes with a lead and a plug that fits into a socket inside the battery bay, whereas the alkaline cells have the standard coil on one end and bump on the other. When I bought mine, it came with the factory battery, which was predictably dead. It actually charged alright, and looked okay at first, but it dropped precipitously after an hour or two, which was to be expected considering its age. You can put rechargeable AA cells into the battery bay without any modifications at all, but that creates two problems. Firstly, the recharging function built into the device only works through the factory battery connector, so it won’t charge cells that are just chucked in the battery bay. That wouldn’t necessarily bother me – I’ve got a bunch of battery chargers set up at home, and I’d be happy enough to just swap them out every 20 hours or so. But that presents another problem. The battery monitoring on the Dana is set up to presume that any cells put in the battery bay are alkaline cells, and any plugged into the custom connector are NiMH cells. Because alkaline cells deliver a higher voltage, putting NiMH cells in the battery bay with no further modification means that the device will work fine, but warn you constantly that the battery is about to run out. There’s a bit of software that’s supposed to overcome that problem by changing the warning thresholds, but I couldn’t get it to work.

The solution is to do a small amount of rewiring, so that you can stick any rechargeable cells into the battery bay and have the device think that it’s got a shiny new battery pack fresh from the factory. It’s a simple mod – pull apart the old battery pack to salvage the connector, trim off the negative wire (which connects to the same common negative as the coil in the battery bay, so that doesn’t need rewiring), and wire the positive wire from the charging connector to the positive end of the battery bay, having first removed the wire that was there. You could probably do it without taking the case apart if you had a steady hand, but it’s easier to dismantle it first. It’s not like taking apart a modern laptop – just pull the screws out of the back and everything comes apart simply. Some of the online instructions tell you to take the main board out, but that’s really not necessary, provided you have the old battery pack that you can steal the connector from. Otherwise, you’d need to solder a new wire onto the main board, which may be easier with it removed.

So I’ve got my Dana, and I’ve modified it to use rechargeable batteries, and it works a treat. It’s literally a pleasure to type on. The keyboard is just the right size, and just the right feel. Very slightly clicky, somehow, although not to the extreme of the Model M that I’ve got sitting on my desk. I find it’s very fast, and very accurate. The thing turns on in an instant, and you can just start using it. It’s lighter than my netbook, and although it’s got a bigger footprint, it fits neatly into my Crumpler Moderate Embarrassment. I haven’t bothered chasing down a case for it – these things were made to use in schools, so they’re very rugged. And there’s something very pleasing about working with it. Maybe it has a little of the typewriter heritage left in it, which has more or less disappeared from more modern writing tools. When you put this word processor on full screen, there’s nothing but your text and a tiny monochrome scroll bar at the right of the display. The letters fade slightly onto the screen as you type, and they’re composed of perfectly visible pixels. A retina display, it’s not. But there’s an industrial feel about it, connected with the sense of work. An industrious feel, maybe. It makes a modern computer feel like an informercial. Typewriters are all about the text, all about the act of creation. They don’t pretend to be anything else. There’s a beauty in that – a tool perfectly adapted to its task. This doesn’t have the beauty of a typewriter. It doesn’t have the thwack of the hammers on paper, or the variation in the letters as each one makes a slightly different impression on the page. But the way the text scrolls down this little display is a bit like watching it work its way down a typewriter carriage. Just you and the words and a pleasing sensation in your fingers connecting the two together.

I like it so much I’ve been writing like crazy, and if it keeps going like this I might actually fill this blog with stuff. I’m hoping that the ideas can keep up with me. The draft of this entry, just to give you an idea, was written during about half an hour at Flock, then twenty minutes on the train into the city, then maybe fifteen minutes sitting on the couch in the staff room at Hofbrauhaus, and I’m finishing it off now on the 11 o’clock Werribee train heading back to Newport. Over 3500 words, in a few short chunks of time that would normally be wasted checking Twitter or something. It sits comfortably on my lap, and I can type as quickly and accurately as if I was sitting at my desk. Pull it out, plonk it down, press two keys to turn it on, and start writing. No booting, no worrying about batteries, no having to find the document, not even a hinged screen to open up. It’s not quite perfect – you can’t really type an extra paragraph in the middle of a big document, for example, unless you’re prepared to go really slowly or do some judicious cutting and pasting – but for this kind of drafting, I think it’s about as good as it gets. It’s a shame, in a way, that you can only find that kind of functionality in a discontinued device from 2001, but I can’t argue with $45 delivered for a piece of gear that actually gets me writing again.

Video Store

13-3-21 19:05 Yarraville Pop-Up Park

Bizarre, windy weather, but warm enough to sit outside in a t-shirt. There’s a nice new cantilevered umbrella, which used to provide shade to the courtyard (if you can call it that – four square metres of astroturf adjacent to the footpath) of Sugar Puff Cupcakes. It’s decoupled itself from its moorings, and it’s flapping about forlornly, and rather dangerously, if the wind direction ever changes. They’ve added picnic tables to the infrastructure at the PUP this year, which is a welcome addition. I’m a bit fan of picnic tables. You can actually sit here and do some work, or at least some random blogging, in comfort, without having to juggle anything on your knees. You could even drink a coffee at the same time, even though I’m not.

Yim Yam, which used to be our takeaway of choice when we lived nearer here, has expanded into half of what used to be a video store. The other half has been taken up by Endota Spa, which, combined with the yoga centre upstairs, seems to make that a bit of a new-age mind-body precinct. There’s an organic health food shop in the same strip.

The only surprising thing about the death of the video store is that it’s taken this long to happen. It’s always sobering to remember that there are still people who are walking down to the DVD store on a Friday night and hiring a scratched disc to put in their player at home. Blu-Ray was supposed to save them, I suppose, since 30GB is a lot of data to download, even if you’ve got a pretty worthy ADSL2+ connection. It obviously didn’t save this one. I’d say it’s marginally under five years since I hired a DVD, and I’ve never hired a Blu-Ray despite the fact that we have a player embedded into the PS3 at home. I’ve thrown out almost all the DVDs that I used to have, including the ones that I burned when I used to subscribe to NetFlix (or whatever the local equivalent was).

When I think about how most people are getting their movies in Australia, though, I’m not sure. A proportion of people are pirating them. Some people are downloading them through iTunes or Google Movies or BigPond Movies or whatever. Does Foxtel have a video on demand service these days? Probably. Seems to me that apart from the Foxtel option, all the others rely on having some connected device attached to your TV, and I don’t seem to see that many of them around. I know some people who have an AppleTV, probably none who have a GoogleTV, only a few more or less tech-types who have either a home-built PVR (guilty) or something like a streaming hard drive enclosure. Appliance-type PVRs are pretty common, I suppose, built into Blu-Ray players and whatnot, but I thought they were a bit fraught when it came to playing movies that you’d grabbed through iTunes or whatever. I don’t think you can just stick one of those DRMed files onto a USB stick and play it through your nameless Chinese VCR-lookalike. Maybe more people are pirating than I give them credit for. It’s just that when you mention words like Bittorrent, it seems to me that most people don’t really know what you’re talking about. Pirating seems to sit just on the other side of that wall, defined by having to learn to use some mildly unfriendly technology  (clicking the mouse four times instead of two, maybe) that can separate people from engaging with it. So maybe they’re more Foxtel out there than I think, or maybe some other vendors are managing to get enough of their customised boxes into peoples homes, such that the local video store can’t keep up. Or maybe people are just using their tablets and phones to watch movies on, so the connected box is just a moot point. Maybe this video store was just badly run, and all the others are actually thriving. I certainly know that Yim Yam must be glad of the extra space.

Spilled

Watching ABC News24 leading up to the Labor leadership spill. I feel like I should have something interesting to say about it, but I really don’t. As much as I’m interested in politics, in Australia I think the system’s so broken that it doesn’t make much difference who’s in charge. Yes, I’d prefer it if the ALP won the next election, no, I don’t think they will, but really that’s based more on a personal distaste for the particular attitudes of Abbott and Hockey and Pyne, rather than any endorsement of the Labor party, or even any distinct feeling of doom about the prospect of a Coalition government, separate from my overall feeling of gloom about the way the country runs itself.

So the news is left to fill the next hour talking about the leadership spill, and of course there’s nothing for them to talk about, since nobody even knows who’s standing yet, but they’ll find a whole heap of speculation, and talk to a dozen different people about their theories, and we’re left to ponder who none of those theories are really worth anything more than our own random notion of what might be happening. They’re all very excited, of course, because they have a sense that they’re riding on the cusp of an historical moment, and I suppose in a sense they’re right. We’ll be talking about today for a long time. We might be changing Prime Ministers again, and I get how that matters. What I don’t get is the sick dance of denial that the politicians and the media keep doing around each other, with none of them being prepared to acknowledge that the whole depressing scene is redolent of decay, the decomposition of an Australian democracy that might never have been fully alive to begin with.

Is that too harsh? We’ve had lots of elections, lots of changes of government, and things have generally been relatively peaceful, relatively lawful, relatively prosperous. You could look at the country from the outside and say that it lived up to the promise. I’ve certainly got nothing to complain about in terms of the life that I live – free, prosperous and secure.

I think it’s wrong to take all that as an endorsement of Australian politics. I’m listening to the discussion on the ABC, and there’s all this stuff about loyalty and disunity and party politics in general, and it seems like a joke to suggest that the prosperity of this country is in any way served by the circus that we’ve set up in the hope of leading it. It’s been a long time since any Australian government held a position of genuine leadership or authority within the culture. Politicians are derided as a joke, and generally speaking they play into the stereotype. Electoral politics, played by these crazy rules, lead predictably to the kind of disaster that’s unfolding right now.

How does that happen? What’s the mechanism that takes (presumably) passionate people, who (presumably) come to politics with some sense of service, some sense of wanting to make the country better, and turns them inward such that they end up being bit players in a pathetic soap opera, performing melodramas for the ecstatic enjoyment of the press gallery, and the eye-rolling dismay of everyone else?

Well, there’s a few things. The dichotomous power dynamic of Canberra is a seriously twisted way of supposedly representing the multifarious whims and desires of the Australian people. The politicians didn’t choose that dynamic – it’s the natural result of single member electorates combined with a single transferrable vote. Governments can only really be formed by blocs of representatives presenting as a single force. But of course, that bloc is comprised of multiple individuals with multiple interests, multiple values and multiple ambitions. Those individual characteristics are subsumed to the needs of the party, and the party is subsumed to the need for electoral success. The interests of the citizenry (not to mention the interests of the members themselves) are only important, in the power calculus of Canberra, to the extent that they can affect the numbers in the house. Every day a transparently good policy option is deferred and ignored and danced around, not because there’s anything wrong with the policy, but because it doesn’t accord fully with the survival imperative for the party in power. Lots of horribly bad policy options are seized upon, not because anyone in Canberra really believes that they’re in the interests of the country as a whole, but because a certain electorally-significant subset of voters can be relied upon to respond. The values and character of the representatives don’t really matter. Parties will do what parties need to do in order to stay in power. They’ll usually try to stay within the law, but anything else is up for grabs.

It would be nice to think that eventually the wisdom of crowds would prevail. Surely there’s only a certain amount of this stupidity that voters, even in safe seats, will put up with before they start reconsidering whether it’s really worth their while playing along, rewarding one major party or another with a term in office? You could read the hung parliament from last time as a step in that direction, but I’m not sure. If there’d been some seismic shift in the way that members of the public think about their votes, then you’d think that might have become clear in the parties’ internal polling, and that one side or the other might have jumped off the cynical bandwagon and tried something different. Neither side has. The non-result from the last election has been read by both sides as a failure on their part to win the game according to the old rules, and they’ve been recommitting ever harder, unencumbered by any remaining shreds of integrity.

There was a sense, early on in the Rudd government, that the rules might have changed. The Apology, the ETS, it almost seemed as if the ALP was ready to govern on principle again. They even committed to taking children out of mandatory detention, as I remember. There were signs that they had begun to step away from the shitkicking contest and think about what was actually right.

The polling numbers that led to the last spill, and the spill itself, represented the end of that fantasy. The voters hadn’t changed: they had no more appetite for visionary leadership than they’d ever had. They were just as vulnerable to lies and misinformation as they’d always been. Most of all, on my reading, they were still cynical and disengaged. What we have is a spiralling feedback loop of negativity, whereby the more fed up the public get with the politicians, the more politicians are rewarded for the kind of behaviour which does nothing but stoke the voters’ suspicions of the other side, and the voters themselves are happy enough to cherry pick the rhetoric for whatever bits and pieces happen to reinforce their own particular prejudices. Even outright lies are fine in that environment, provided that the right people are inclined to believe them. The trouble is, those votes are being effectively bought by sacrificing the integrity of the whole system, and that seems unsustainable to me. Until the voters stop buying, it’s going to continue. And until we see a big surge in the primary vote for the minor parties, I don’t think we’ll be able to say that anything has changed.

So now we’re watching the spill, which now seems not really to be a spill at all, since Rudd’s said that he’s not challenging, and the media are apoplectic as you’d expect, and everyone else has probably turned off by now.

After a century and a bit, we need to reassess. The drafters of the Constitution understood the politics of the country in terms of labour and anti-labour, and they constructed a system which aimed to provide certainty and stability in deciding between the two. I’m not sure whether that analysis was ever a good one, but at least at the turn of last century it was a fairly clear way to draw a line between the interests of two dominant groups (the workers and the bosses, crudely speaking). I suspect that many people in 1901 had trouble shoehorning themselves into one of the categories available (three, I think, at that stage, but soon to collapse into two and stay there). Over time, most people seem to have become used to the idea that one side is preferable to the other, even though they don’t like either very much. Those people have effectively retired from the democratic project, because their votes can now be taken for granted. That would be fine if those left over, the undecided voters, were a body of well-informed, thoughtful individuals who responded to well-crafted, well-justified policy initiatives and rewarded whichever side of politics did it better. But oddly enough, it seems like the swinging voters in Australia are often the most cynical of the lot. A candidate who promises to keep interest rates down can win an election, even when any vaguely reasonable person knows the government has little or no control over interest rates. A candidate who whips up fear over boat people can win an election, even when anyone who takes a passing look at the facts can see that the desperate trickle poses no threat at all to anyone. A candidate can even get away with claiming that climate change is crap, and a decent proportion of swinging voters will reward him for that lie. An incumbent government can be forced by marginal polling into doing things that are completely contrary to the best interests of the country, and completely contrary to the personal values of most party members. They don’t bother trying to tell the truth and convince the marginals that they’re doing the right thing. They don’t even start a conversation. They run scared, because they know that seats are won and lost on the most casual of prejudices, and casual prejudices are not easily overcome by reason.

One solution is for thoughtful informed voters to play the game differently. If we all became swing voters, of one kind or another, then perhaps we could take the power back from the ignorant twits who are currently populating focus groups and driving policy backwards. I don’t know how hopeful to feel about the chances of that happening, partly because I don’t know how many thoughtful and informed voters there are out there, and partly because if they were all really that thoughtful and informed, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. Another possibility is to change the system somehow (yes, this would require the consent of all those voters, but maybe if the benefits were explained well enough, they could tune in and pay attention, just this once). There are alternatives to our current two-horse race, but they’re not going to arrive by chance. There are ways of making everyone’s vote meaningful, and provide everyone with good alternatives, and maybe if we did that, people might start to take that vote a bit more seriously. Maybe people would go for it, if it meant that they wouldn’t have to sit and listen to another hour of Barrie Cassidy talking about a leadership spill that never actually happened.

Swim

13-3-20 11:21 Williamstown Beach

My first swim in a long time, and my first ‘ocean’ swim in a very very long time. I put it in scare quotes, because this is really not the ocean, just a very tranquil bay-within-a-bay. The water is almost as still as a swimming pool – I didn’t find the swimming any harder than I used to at the Brunswick Baths. The only challenge was overcoming that slight panic when you get under the seawater with goggles on and start swimming over patches of rock and weed. There’s something very primal about my response to that. Then I come ashore and look out at the patches I was swimming over, and they’re so indescribably benign, a few dark bits of weed only metres from shore. But when you’re out there and swimming towards them and over them, they seem dark and forbidding and threatening. Then I notice another swimmer, way out to see, probably five or six times further out than I got, swimming over what must be deep water, with rocks and weed beneath, out past the beacon which seemed very close when I was standing on shore, but so distant when I was in the water with murky depths between me and it. The swimmer I’m watching is probably an octogenarian, been doing it all her life. There’s nothing dangerous here. A few bloated and harmless jellyfish. The worst that you’ll encounter here is probably e coli, and you’ll never know until you’re doubled over in pain once you get home. There’s a sewage outfall here, just where I started swimming, but I’m telling myself that it’s unused.

Only a handful of people out on the beach, mostly families, quite a few toddlers with grandparents. A group of earnest looking schoolboys jogging up and down the beach (where were the girls? Probably from a private school, I’m guessing). Another bunch swimming from the breakwater out to the nearest buoy, escorted by a person in a surfski, paddling with a double ended oar. There’s a bunch of yellow uniforms sitting on the beach at the other end, so perhaps the school is doing surf life saving as a PE unit, or something. Surprised that there aren’t more schools doing it – seems like such an obvious choice for the Aussie Legends curriculum.

I went swimming to try and deal with my neck, which has put itself out. The muscle between my left shoulder blade and my spine seems to have coiled itself into some kind of unusually clenched fist, tugging at my nerves whenever I try to move. The swimming was supposed to help. I’m not sure it did, but at least it got me out in the fresh air. Clear skies, sunny, mid-20s, a fresh breeze. I’ll have to finish this soon before I get burnt, as nice as it is here with the sun on my back.

As dumb as I felt, getting scared by the rocks and the weeds, I kept going, swum right over the top, sometimes with a shallow stroke to avoid grazing myself. In one of those handy epithets which sounds nice but is not nearly that easy, I thought to myself that I should really do something like this every day. Challenge myself over something that I’m irrationally fearful of, and see what happens. The lifestyle that I’m leading at the moment is nothing if not safe. I barely have to leave the house, and when I do it’s only to do a gig, or to go on a bike ride in a loop and come back to where I started from. There’s no point in most of my days where I feel at all fearful or worried, none of that little adrenaline burst that I felt as I plunged forward into the (lame) unknown out there in Hobson’s Bay this morning. I’m glad that I’m here, the breeze in my face and the sun on my back. Glad to have emerged from the cave and immersed myself in something unfamiliar. There’s almost never a regret, when you take the plunge.

Is this social media?

A new blog, unlike the old blog. Unselfconscious, unapologetic, completely indulgent. Unresearched, unlinked, incautious, imprudent. Barely edited. Isn’t that what a blog was supposed to be? Wasn’t that what we were told when we started? That we were shooting from the hip? That nobody expected everything to be right? That even typos were part of the deal? At some point (maybe when twitter became the new blogs), blogs became the new newspaper columns, which is to say, they were overedited and overperfect and overaccountable. Or they just became a collection of links (okay, lots of them were that to start with). At the moment, I feel as if everything is a collection of links. Sometimes links to other people’s collection of other people’s links. The same content starts to be recycled roughly a year later when it seems like everyone’s forgotten. The same flock of swooping starlings pops up on my Facebook feed about every eighteen months. They were great, those starlings. I could watch them for hours. But that doesn’t make them new, just because someone who missed them the first time around has now discovered them, and now that their Facebook friends are going to love it because maybe they’ve seen it once before but they don’t really care because look how cool those birds are. Social media starts to look like cruise ship comedy – the same jokes over and over again, but who cares, because this one’s my favourite, can you believe my wife got stuck on the suction toilet, etc etc. Inspirational quotes, just-so infographics, often dubiously sourced. Lists of dumb things that Tony Abbott has said.

I don’t think, in its original incarnation, that blogging was social media, at least not as we understand it now. There was certainly a strong element of linking to other people’s stuff, but there was also some kind of assumption that you, the blogger, would have something to say about it. Which is to say, something more than “Check this out, guys!” Every new mobile phone has more and more “social” features, which seems to foster the idea that hitting a button and sticking something on your Facebook wall is really adding anything to the discussion. Really, all you’re doing is showing us something we’ve all seen before, and probably don’t care much about even if we haven’t. Copy, link, share, rinse, repeat.

Google Reader is shutting down and everyone’s talking about the demise of RSS to be replaced by more ‘social’ platforms like Google Plus and Twitter. Maybe the fact that people see a distinction between those things highlights what I’m talking about. Obviously, you can put anything you like in your RSS feed, and pretty much anything you like in your Twitter feed, but it seems to me that RSS was primarily a way of following sources that had something original to offer, whereas Twitter seems to be a way of following sources that have links to interesting things. You can’t create content on Twitter, really, and while you can link to your own blog posts or whatever, that’s not what most people do most of the time. My RSS feed is full of people who are either creating wholly original content, or at least people who are linking to interesting things in an interesting way and creating interesting discussions around those things. They’re doing more than just hitting the share button. I don’t need anyone to tweet or facebook the latest XKCD cartoon, because I already know that I like the stuff that Randall creates, so I subscribe to it via RSS and get it directly from the source. Every now and then I might find one of his cartoons particularly apposite, and I’ll post it to my Facebook, but when I do that, I’m not really doing it out of any sense that my Facebook feed is some kind of curated museum of awesomeness. All I’m doing is pointing to something excellent that someone else is doing, and I would kind of hope that anyone who saw it on my Facebook and liked it would dig through to the source and check it out, and maybe subscribe for themselves, rather than waiting around for me to post the next one that I think is Facebook-worthy. The more we wait around for our friends to post something interesting, instead of getting it from the source, the more we get trapped in this self-recycling echo-chamber of social media, wherein all the promise of the internet plunges to its depressing nadir.

Social media appeals to our inner teenager. Hyper-selfconscious, cliquey, desperate for reassurance and validation by our peers, waiting for permission to be interested. If adults on social media are some kind of realisation of their teenaged selves, then it’s not surprising that I’m not really comfortable with it. It’s probably also not surprising that my favourite blog sources (Boing Boing, XKCD, How to Spot a Psychopath) could all be seen as expressions of dissident teenagehood. People who didn’t quite fit in when they were in high school, and are now celebrating the fact that they don’t have to any more. People who use the internet to be who they are, and to create things that reflect who they are, instead of using the technology as just another glance-over-the-shoulder coolness check. The Boing Boing ‘Happy Mutant’ epithet is their way of describing this, I think. It’s not the term that I’d choose (because equating an honest expression of selfhood with mutation seems to play into prejudices about people who do their own thing), but I’m pretty sure we’re coming from the same place. Mutation, it seems to me, is what happens when people within a peer group begin defining their identity by reference to the perceptions of others within that peer group, creating a kind of feedback loop which can result in manners of grotesquerie including relatively harmless things like fashion slavery or brand cults or linguistic tics, but also very nasty things up to and including misogyny and rape. (Groups of men who rape women are the ultimate example of what happens when you craft a moral universe according to your perception of what behaviour the other members of your group might approve of, a shifting standard which is only defined by the other members of your group repeating the same process). By contrast, if you’ve got a passion, and that passion persists regardless of what other people think about it, then you’ve escaped mutation. Not that many individuals, acting on their own without a social group to egg them on, sustain a personal passion for raping people. Yes, a few, but not many.

No, that doesn’t mean that everyone who uses Facebook is a rapist. But I do think we need to challenge and constrain the idea, which the whole social media trend seems to embrace, that our ‘social’ selves are always our best selves. I’ve got a theory (unsurprisingly). Everyone loves to hate Facebook. Almost every Facebook user is also a Facebook complainer. They waste time, their feed is full of nonsense, they’re convinced that Facebook is stealing their identity, they don’t need to see pictures of thi friends’ dessert, if they want to keep up with people they should pick up the phone and talk to them, they don’t know why they don’t just close their account, surely they’d be better off. They never do close their account (or almost never), but the point I’m making isn’t about procrastination or hypocrisy. It’s that maybe all these negative feelings we have about Facebook are actually an expression of something else. Maybe a part of us knows that there’s something essentially corrupting about social media, in the same way that many of us might be secretly a little ashamed of the way we behaved in high school. Maybe every time we check to see how many likes we’ve received on our latest status update, we know, deep down, that we’re abandoning ourselves, just a little bit. As adults, we’ve re-enslaved ourselves to teenaged social concepts, and as much as that might be fun sometimes (even actually being a teenager was fun sometimes), we secretly hate ourselves a little bit, just as we hated our teenaged selves a little bit.

Maybe if we dip into the social media, we just need to make sure we sustain some way to be ourselves, and stop caring what other people think, what they’re watching or reading or listening to. We need our own passions which can be followed independently of likes and retweets. I’m not sure whether this blog is one of mine, or whether it’s just my own kind of social media (can I really write here, and publish it online, without thinking about someone reading it, and worrying on some level about what they might think?) I don’t know whether those passions need to be individualistic. If I have a passion for soccer, can I really sustain that passion in my own way without being sucked into the social environment that playing a team sport entails? If I get addicted to reading journals on crazyguyonabike.com, and go out for my own solo bike adventure and start a journal of my own, am I now seeing the world through some kind of social media lens, thinking more about how I’m going to share the experience than about living the experience itself? Do you have to disconnect yourself from the internet in order to live as an individual and make your own decisions for your own reasons? Am I just an introvert trying to dream up excuses to be on my own? The answers to these and other questions are unlikely ever to appear here, but there might at least be some more confused discussion.