The Fun (and Necessity) of Physical Things

the fun of physical things

Would you rather play or watch?

Over three decades ago, I worked as a day baker for a retired professional athlete in my hometown, Lake Orion MI. This man was an interesting character. After playing Major League Baseball, he went into the food business but kept his hand in baseball. He did fantasy camps, consulted young athletes and their coaches, did color commentary on broadcast baseball games, signed autographs at card shows, etc. However, he let me know more than once that he’d rather play than watch baseball any day. (Detroit Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich was my boss, for those interested.)

We are physical creatures. We have five senses, all clamoring for stimulation. The essence of feeling more alive, not less, is to be fully, bodily involved in life, whenever possible. An actual, rather than a virtual, existence.

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax is easily the most interesting read I’ve come across in the past few years. This is not simply a book about the resurrection of the vinyl LP market. It includes that, but also has chapters on board games (Settlers of Catan), film photography (FILM Ferrania), longhand writing and sketching (Moleskine) and much more.

Sax is a journalist in Toronto, ON. The opening of a new vinyl record shop near his apartment renewed his lost love for 33⅓ hot wax. He bought a turntable and began bringing home records. Inspired by his experience with turntable and record albums, he ventured out into the world to places like Nashville, London, Milan and New York to understand why people—many of them born after turntables, rotary phones and typewriters were ubiquitous and who’ve been raised in the speed-of-light, digital world—are turning back to simpler, more archaic forms of hobby and interest. What he found was stunning.

Physical things like record albums, pencils, chess boards, film and brick-and-mortar bookstores are not dying; they are attracting interest and market capital. Oh, and making money. Sax uses analog as a metaphor for things that involve physical, face-to-face interaction, with as many senses involved as the experience will allow. An analog approach and technology is about the experience of the participant.

There are many benefits to analog technology but here’s just one: It slows you down as you use it. Analog things cause you to be in the moment due to their slower and ungainly nature. They don’t depend on fiber-optics and binary number combinations. 1’s and 0’s have their limits.

What are some of your favorite analog things? Records, real print books, Monopoly, hand woodworking tools? And how can adopting or revisiting analog technologies and practices give you a richer life in addition to your digital, online world?

Tell us in the comments!

 

Suggested Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Michael Gelb)

Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter (Norm Abram)

 

Image Credit: Christian Fahey

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Failure ≠ Final

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

(Thomas Edison)

 

Suggested Resources:

Edison: A Biography (Matthew Josephson)

Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (John C. Maxwell)

Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure (Andreas Kluth)

 

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Blackwing 602

This is a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil.  Blackwing?  Sounds like something out of Gothic horror or at least Batman.

No.  It’s an iconic writing instrument, the Mercedes-Benz of pencils.  Not the original Blackwing 602s, manufactured by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company.  [Those of us half a century or older remember Faber pencils in grade school.] Those gems, which went out of production in 1989, can fetch upwards of $40.00 per pencil on eBay.

Years later, the Blackwing 602 brand was acquired by California Cedar Products Company which started making them again under their Palomino division.  Purists still prefer the original Faber Blackwing 602s, but they are disappearing.  And who wants to pay $40.00 for a pencil?

The script on the barrel of the pencil says HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED.  There is something about the recipe of the 602’s graphite that gives the user a very smooth writing experience.  I test drove one and compared it with a number of other pencils last Christmas.  There is a difference.  All pencils are not created equal.

Other coolness factors:

  • The flat, square and replaceable ferrule-encased eraser gives one the added bonus of an expensive pencil not rolling off the table and breaking the lead. At $22.95 for a dozen through Amazon.com, this is a big deal.
  • Luminaries in many artistic fields have sworn by the Blackwing 602 for years. Writers (John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov); Composers & Arrangers  (Stephen Sondheim, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer); Cartoonists (Chuck Jones).  It’s even shown up on Mad Men!  

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There is something wonderfully sensual about the experience of writing longhand, composing music, or sketching with a superior writing instrument.  You can try this famous pencil for yourself.  Be aware, these pencils are not easy to track down in most towns.  You won’t find them in Staples or Office Max, unless they’ve begun selling them.  They’re not carried in a lot of brick-and-mortar stores.  However, you can find them here for about $2/each, including shipping.  I never dreamed I’d consider a single pencil worth two bucks a piece but this one is.

Try it and see for yourself.

PS  Buy the Blackwing sharpener and sharpen your 602s by hand. Never sharpen a Blackwing 602 with an electric sharpener!  You’ll discover soon enough that not all sharpeners are designed well–well enough, that is, to get a long life out of your Blackwing 602.  Here you are.

 

Suggested Resources:

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants (David Rees)

Blackwing Pages: For Fans of the Genuine Blackwing 602

 

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“You Can’t Outsmart the Work”

Chris, Jeff and I all went to the same school to work in our respective Master’s programs back in the early 2000’s.  Our studies were challenging and we enjoyed our learning experience.

Jeff went on to earn a Ph.D in Leadership Studies at a fine school on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.  Those pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree spend a lot of time in books and writing, like their counterparts in the medical and legal professions, to name just two disciplines.

Some time later, Chris and Jeff got together—reflecting on their educational journeys.  Their conversation went along these lines.

Chris:  “So, how is your Ph.D program going, Jeff.  I bet it’s intense.”

Jeff:  “For sure.  I’ve never read and wrote so much in my life.”

Chris:  “What does it take to get through a Ph.D program?”

Jeff:  “You’d be surprised.”

Chris:  “Oh really?  What do you mean?”

Jeff:  “Well, the ones who make it through a doctoral program like this aren’t the ones you’d expect.”

Chris:  “Really.  Who make it through and who don’t?”

Jeff:  “Not the geniuses.  The ‘Einsteins’ are the ones who wash out.”

Chris:  “Really?! Why?” (This goes against the standard assumptions of genius and success.)

Jeff:  “Because you can’t outsmart the work.

 

Well.

 

There is gold here.  And it is this.  There is no substitute for putting in your time and paces to earn a high degree/platform or income.  10,000 hour rule again.   One could fairly apply the 19th century label of “snake oil” to a lot of get-rich-quick schemes and thinking that so many of us gravitate to to make as much money in as little time with as little effort as possible.

We cheat ourselves when we do this.  Self-deception is delicious but it bites hard in the end.

Here’s a couple of quotes to ponder on the value of hard work:

  • “Wizard?  Pshaw. It’s plain hard work that does it.” (Thomas Edison, on being called a wizard)
  • “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” (Johann Sebastian Bach, author of over 1000 musical works in all sorts of genres)
  • “The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. One is tempted to stop and listen to it. The only thing is to turn away and go on working. Work. There is nothing else.” (Albert Einstein)

Questions:

  • Do you love work or loathe it, seeking to avoid it if at all possible?
  • If you loathe your work, what can you do to change your approach to it? Perhaps cultivate a new field of work, a new discipline?
  • Are you aware of the genius/talent discussion embodied in the “10,000 hour rule” and the Edisonian maxim, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration?” As a counter to the rule read here.

 

Suggested Resources:

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Geoff Colvin)

Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)

 

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Start Stuff!

Seth Godin is funny, bright and gets to the point.  I learned today that human beings have an attention span of about seven seconds.  And that puts us bipeds behind goldfish who can pay attention for eight seconds. (Kudos, Michael Levin, for that insight.)  So for this reason, among others, you should read Seth or watch his TED talks.

Back to Seth.  In his book, Poke the Box, Seth talks about initiative.  In answer to the workplace question “what do you do here?” Seth points out that “almost no one says ‘I start stuff.’”

How do you start stuff?

Seth says you “poke the box.”  You try something out.  Sit at a piano and start hitting keys and listen to what comes out.  Initiative is something we take; it isn’t handed to us.  Failing to take initiative will tend to make us reactive rather than proactive.

I’ve learned the hard way that if I wait around for  inspiration to drop by my apartment for a cup of coffee, I will never write anything.  Inspiration usually shows up after I just start.

Okay.  What kind of stuff can you start?  Remember feeling and inspiration aren’t the most important variables in actually getting something rolling.  A decision is.  Try these and add your own:

  • A regular exercise program—weights, walking, cardio. Start small.
  • A blog. Write enough to fill one screen’s worth of space, about 200-400 words.  Or like me, start writing again in the blog you already have.
  • A well-crafted, eye-catching résumé. Put it together and post it on LinkedIn and Indeed. Or update the one you’ve already posted.
  • A regular, undistracted reading program.  “Regular” = every day. Start small—maybe all you can manage is ten minutes.  Start there and build it up.  And unhook your connections to the outside world so you can focus.
  • Teach yourself to write code and try it out (Seth’s suggestion, this). The reward center in your brain will light up when it works.

Go!

Suggested Resources:

Poke the Box: When Was the Last Time You Did Something For the First Time? (Seth Godin)

17 Anti-Procrastination Hacks: How to Stop Being Lazy, Overcome Procrastination, and Finally Get Stuff Done (Dominic Mann)

 

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Show Your Work

“What’s the rule everyone learned in third grade math?”

Mentor and counselor, Doug, asked me that question a few years ago as we sat in his office.  We were discussing what it means to be a curious individual.  By “curious” is meant not simply someone who surfs the internet, looks stuff up on Google, binges on Netflix or scrolls endlessly on Facebook to see what their friends are doing.

“Okay, what was the rule in third grade math?”

I was rusty and decades removed from Sister Siena and third grade math in Bishop Kelley school. Our discussion had to do with authors we read and why.  A curious person, I learned, was one constantly asking questions, seeking to think things through, make connections and, as it were, do the math about life, people, and reality.  Doug pulled a book out of his desk.  I was quite familiar with the book and the author.  He directed me to the endnotes, or lack of them, in the back of the book.

“The rule was ‘show your work’ or you don’t get credit even if you got the right answer.”

“Ah.  Now I remember.” Images of long division appeared in my mind.

Doug then contrasted the book he pulled from his desk (“he doesn’t show his work”) with the works of a scholar we both read and respected, Walter Brueggemann.  A peek at the endnotes and bibliography of any Brueggemann book show that he is 1) curious, having done voluminous research, 2) an author with integrity, giving attribution and not passing off brilliant insights he gleaned in his reading as his own, and 3) humble, realizing that seeking the solitary advice of his own brain was unwise and fraught with danger, if only in the blind spots.  Cave ab homine unius libri (“beware the man of one book”).

What’s my point?

One, question what you hear.  Nobody gets a pass.  Not you, not your parents, not President Trump, not your boss, not mainstream media of the Left or Right, not the Pope, not your minister.  And not the experts.  Review all and do your homework.  Caveat: You will be a pain in the neck to others when you do this, chiefly to the incurious with an agenda.  Be prepared.

Two, give credit when you’ve acquired something, learned something from someone else.  Plagiarism is not sniffed out in schools and print media only.  We are all composites of the people and influences that have touched our minds and lives.  You’re building on the work of others, even if that’s difficult to admit. (Attribution for this insight goes to a friend, Penn.)

Robert Dick Wilson was a biblical scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century.  He mastered forty-five languages and dialects.  (Resume breathing.  I did say forty-five.)  One thing that stirred one of his interviewers was the habit of Professor Wilson giving proof for every statement he made.

He showed his work.

Questions:

  • Are you able to describe the processes you follow to come up with answers? (In Information Technology, we call these algorithms.)
  • Are you curious or simply bored? A curious individual is known for many things, chiefly not accepting simple solutions and pat answers.
  • Do you give attribution, credit where credit is due?

Suggested Reading:

Show Your Work! (Austin Kleon)

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Michael Gelb)

The Craft of Research, Fourth Edition (Wayne C. Booth et al)

 

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If You Have to Correct, Be Decent About It

Correction with graceThree years ago, I changed departments within my company. I accepted the new assignment, welcoming the chance for advancement as well the challenge of learning a new skill set. I’ve learned a lot in the past three years.

I work in Information Technology. IT is a field that is characterized by regular innovation and obsolescence, multiple problem-solving opportunities and, if done well, precision. I work in the Quality Assurance department of our company. It is the task of my very able colleagues and I to assure that the product we deliver to our clients (Fortune 500 companies and others) is of the highest quality and functions flawlessly. In a word, our work has to be perfect. Or as close to perfect as is humanly possible.

This means that the regular requirement of my job involves inspecting the work of my colleagues and calling them over to my desk to go over what they’ve submitted, praising wherever possible, but also pointing out errors and mistakes, how to correct them and improve the overall quality of their work.

We have an office full of winsome and intelligent professionals who take their work very seriously and are sensitive to any shortcomings in what they produce. I’ve watched as some of them look crestfallen —furrowed brow and all—when I’ve brought an error to their attention. I try not to be calloused when dealing with people. Ask those who know me. They’ll tell you. Especially when I have to look in the eyes of the one I am critiquing. I fall all over myself, feeling bad that I have to take some sunshine out of their day.

Real correction is not a picnic. Real, meaning when you have to look square in the eyes of someone and smell their perfume, cologne or even their breath.

I must tell you that this has given me an entirely different perspective on the often irresponsible practice of criticizing another human being who doesn’t happen to be in the same room, out of earshot and eye contact.

I try to critique those for whom I’m responsible with as much grace as is humanly possible. I have to look them in the eye when I do it. It’s really easy to be a critic when those who are the target of your criticisms will never be within breathing distance. That’s like shooting fish in a pail. No challenge. No intelligence needed. And often, given the nature of the criticisms, no intelligence involved at any stage.

Maybe this should be the benchmark for our often glib and sloppy criticisms of people and stuff. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21) the Scriptures inform us. Can you look the person in the eye? Would you….?

Think about it: How quickly would I criticize someone (a politician, a performing artist, a minister, a member of my circle) if I was required look them in the eye when critiquing? Just like I have to do each day with my co-workers. I’ve found that showing genuine appreciation wherever possible creates life. In others and in me. And it makes the corrections a lot more palatable.

As a man named Paul once wrote, “…speak the truth in love.”

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