Monday, 23 November 2015

Points in time

The Cooper Hewitt has just released a new feature on its collection site - a timeline of significant dates in an object's history (when it was made, acquired, exhibited and digitised).

The new feature was inspired by the timeline used by the New York Public Library (scroll to the bottom of the page), but differs in two ways.

First, they use different metadata. NYPL shows the birth and death dates of the maker, along with the creation and digitisation dates for the object. Cooper Hewitt doesn't have the maker info (as far as I can tell) but includes exhibition data and more finely differentiates the method of acquisition (donation, bequest, purchase).

Second, instead of a legend, Cooper Hewitt is (characteristically) using emoji to convey the timeline events.

The screenshot above shows the emoji version of the timeline and a plain text equivalent for accessibility purposes. As Sam Brenner writes in a blog post about the new timeline
The thought process for the second issue (use of color) went like this: 
Color will be useless so we will have to use shapes as well. But then we’ll need a legend because color or shape don’t have anything to do with timeline events like “date created” or “date exhibited.” But legends are a bummer — so old media! Maybe we could use symbols instead? Maybe we could use EMOJI?!?!? 
Beyond the fact that their symbolic nature transcends the “map a color to an idea” style of legend, emojis further a second goal that we have with the collections site, which is to “avoid feeling like a database.” They allow for novelty, comfort and humor to be injected into the digital world as quickly as typing a letter on a keyboard.
I am an old person and so I prefer the text version (though once I figure all the emoji out I do see that I'll be able to scan a timeline with much more rapid understanding than the coloured diamonds of NYPL). Over all, as with the Date Graph on the V&A Spelunker, I'm enjoying the new ways that are seeping through for museums to show something of the life stories of their collections online.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Bridges, not barriers

One of the things that really struck me on my trip to the States was the segregation between customer service staff and security staff at large American museums. In some cases, the customer services staff are museum employees, while the security guards are from an external firm. The customer services staff at the front desk are friendly, engaging, empowered to talk to visitors: the security guards are silent forms, doing their best to be invisible whilst also being watchful.

As this article about The Broad makes clear, the divisions between the two sets of staff can be very strong, and there's vested interest in keeping the roles separate:
But Stevan Layne, a veteran security consultant to museums and other cultural sites, is not persuaded that pleasant conversation and detailed knowledge about art should be in gallery attendants' job descriptions. To him, it's a way for museums to cut costs by folding separate security and visitor service functions into one. "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art.
What bullshit.

Anyway. I started thinking about that again this week when I read this article in the Dallas Morning News about Nasher Sculpture Center guard Patricia Ann Jackson. Now, Jackson sounds like a really great asset for the museum:
Everyone’s a critic. The phrase is not typically meant as a compliment, but for those of us who do the job professionally, it’s not only a badge of honor, but a goal. Building an engaged public is one of our chief responsibilities, and we need all the help we can get.  
At the Nasher Sculpture Center, that help comes from an unlikely source, Patricia Ann Jackson, a native Dallasite who has worked as a guard at the museum for the last three years, mostly in the lower-level gallery, where she has gained a devoted following for her considerable charm and perspicacious, if idiosyncratic, commentary.  
 “If you come into a room and I’m the guard, I should be able to tell you something about the pieces that are in the room, and not just be a piece in the room,” says Jackson, 46.
But the overall tone of the article - which when I read it made it feel like Jackson was being presented almost like a talking dog, a strange and entertaining anomaly - made me feel really uncomfortable. Maybe it's just because my experience in New Zealand has been so different. In the three museums where I've worked FOH, and here at The Dowse, the expectation has always been that you will be engaged, and in turn be engaging. That this is where the job satisfaction is, in a role that otherwise involves a lot of standing around and telling people (a) not to touch that and (b) the toilets are down that flight of stairs and to the left. That American museums are only just coming around to the idea of the people on the floor with the visitors being there to act as a bridge, and not a barrier, astounds me.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Come for the arm bar, stay for an idea about layout options for an annotated anthology

In the wake of the demise of Grantland I've been dipping in and out of this extra-long piece on the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu, as told through the whakapapa of the highly influential originating Gracie family.

As well as the content, I've been very much enjoying the interaction design. The screen is split into two panels: one large right-hand panel for the body of the essay, and the slimmer left hand panel for a collection of assists for the reader.

The default setting is that the chapters of the essay are presented on the left, so you can see where you're at and jump around. The space is also available to add extra context without losing your place. For example, the Gracie family is large and complex. Every time a family member is mentioned, their name is hyperlinked to a family tree, which appears in the left-hand panel. Rolling over the name brings up the family tree in the place of the chapter list, so you can quickly situate them.

Likewise, here's an instructional that gives you a visual for a hallmark submission, the arm bar, that can be called up while you're reading.

It struck me this morning in the shower (everyone's best idea-generating zone, right?) that this format would play beautifully for a art historical texts, especially monographs and anthologies. Take this piece in an old Auckland Art Gallery Quarterly on McCahon's Here I give thanks to Mondrian.

The writer, Peter Tomory, also references several other works in the Gallery's collection: Takaka Night and Day, On Building Bridges, Waterfall, and the wider Gate series. Providing information and images about those works by calling on the McCahon database, letting you read the original text in its original layout and also call up the extra information as you wished to engage with it, could add a lot of value to the reading experience.

Visual footnoting and annotation is nothing new, of course. But I don't stay on top of digital art publishing, so you are simply being subjected to my belated thoughts on this topic - while also being given an opportunity to leave this all behind and click through to an engrossing piece of sports journalism.   

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Love Feminisms

This morning I started working my way through Enjoy's latest journal, 'Love Feminisms', which accompanies the current show Enjoy Feminisms.  So far I've skimmed Chloe Cull's excellent-looking essay on Merata Mita and pondered Lana Lopesi and Louise Afoa's essay on Pasifika artists, performance art, and the 'perfect' body.

I really wanted to submit something when the call for proposals went out for this project, but couldn't fit it in. So I've made my own commitment. Last summer over the Christmas break I wrote Wikipedia entries for senior New Zealand women artists, people like Pauline Rhodes, Anne Noble and Christine Hellyar. This summer I'm going to focus on some of our female art historians, curators and administrators: people like Priscilla Pitts, Cheryll Sotheran, Alexa Johnston and Jenny Harper - so that, for example, the link to Harper on this stub about Luit Bieringa doesn't lead to a Two and a Half Men cast list.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The rise of post-digital roles

Bar the dumb line about taxidermy, this interview for Broadsheet is the best write-up I've seen so far of Seb Chan's new role at ACMI.

Seb first blew my mind at a NDF conference sometime last decade, talking about understanding what your visitors were *really* interested in by looking at their collection searches. At the Powerhouse Museum he created a role for the web team that was more integrated, more influential, and more innovative, than any other I saw in Australasia (and most likely further afield).

At the Cooper-Hewitt, Seb not only lead the team that conceptualised and made The Pen, and the underlying infrastructure that powers the museum experience in the galleries and online - he shaped a narrative about what is unique about the thinking and goals of that museum through his communication to peers and the public.

I am so excited to see what ACMI does in the next two years, because - as Seb puts it himself in this interview - the role he has as Chief Experience Officer is 'post-digital': taking all that learning and experience he's had, and applying it across the museum as a whole.

If I think about how I communicate with my friends, over years of acquaintance, face-to-face, via text and chat and email, through multi-person threads on Twitter or simply by maintaining an awareness of what's going on with them via their Instagram photos, I see a parallel with how a museum features in the life of a regular visitor: as a poster glimpsed on the street, a casual or carefully planned visit, a purchase at the shop, a Facebook post shared. At times the relationship is closer and more intense - at others it moves into the background. When I think about Seb's role as Chief Experience Officer, I think about him creating and feeding this web of micro-touches. I very much think of my work at The Dowse in this light but frankly - Seb is smarter and more experienced and better at making the future happen than I am. I look forward to continuing to learn from him.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

10 things

Normally I avoid clicking through on any post that leads off with 5 things you need to know, but the two below came from recommenders I trust.

5 things I think journalism students need to know about technology by Martin Bellam is a brief introduction into the basic tools for meeting today's online communication conventions: from cutting a gif to the influence of media law on social media. It scares me a bit - it makes me feel old - that I don't have mastery of any of the five, because I feel like communication is my wheelhouse. Maybe this Christmas break's task is to learn how to make gifs.

5 things the media does to manufacture outrage by Parker Molloy follows the construction of a moment of media outrage, from her throwaway tweet about a lipstick name at Sephora through to the backlash-to-the-backlash articles about our Age of Outrage. This too scares me a bit, because I see it playing out all day every day on my Twitter feed and I can't help lamenting this vast suck of emotional and intellectual energy. Maybe my New Year's resolution is 'No more micro-complaints'.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Peter McLeavey, 1936 - 2015

I wrote this for The Dowse's blog this morning and thought I would share it here to.

It was with great sadness that we heard this morning of the death of Peter McLeavey: champion of artists, charismatic denizen of Cuba Street, man of style, and guide for countless people into the riches of New Zealand's contemporary art.

Peter has always been key figure in my art world. I bought my first work from him in 2000, the year I moved to Wellington for university. A Jacqueline Fraser work on paper, it represented a pretty significant investment for me at the time. Once a month I would walk up those iconic white stairs and hand over my cheque for $100, and every month Peter would say to me 'Are you sure you can afford this? Because if you need it more, I can wait.' I accumulated a pile of his distinctive invoices, handwritten in green ink on thin paper: at the time, I felt like being the recipient of a sample of Peter McLeavey's handwriting was as awe-inspiring as being able to take home a work by an artist who would represent us at the Venice Biennale.

Peter for me was a link into the fabled and (by the time I got here) already-distant emergence of New Zealand contemporary art: it never failed to strike me that in his small rooms he had built the careers of artists like McCahon, Walters and Woollaston, that his belief in the vital importance of this country's art was a driving force in the creation of the art world in which I was tentatively finding my footing.

Peter made me - a person who still felt like a kid off a dairy farm - feel like I could belong in this world. As I grew up, I came to admire his even-handed generosity to every person who walked into his gallery. Everyone visitor to Peter McLeavey Gallery warranted the same respectful treatment, and everyone who showed an interest would be drawn into a conversation. Sometimes you heard the stories more than once - but it was hard to tire of the tale of the afternoon in a Waitara high school (just round the corner from where I grew up) when Peter McLeavey first fell in love with the power of art.  And I know my own Peter story is hardly unique, and thousands of people will be sharing theirs at this time.

One of the team observed to me this morning that Peter led a brave life, and that it was so good to know that the stories from that life, and the role he played in the development of our contemporary culture, have been captured and celebrated before his death. Jan Bieringa and Luit Bieringa produced the documentary 'The Man in the Hat', with cinematographer Leon Narbey - that documentary is available to watch on the NZonScreen site. Jill Trevelyan's award-winning biography Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, published by Te Papa Press, captured Peter's charisma and charm, but also the challenges of his life. And recently Robert Leonard curated a small exhibition for City Gallery Wellington McLeavey Sat Here, which looked at how artists were involved in and responded to the living legacy of the pioneering art dealer.

Peter's death will evoke great sadness in the many circles of people who knew and loved him, but also gratitude and admiration for a life lived to the hilt. The team at The Dowse and I send all our love and support to the McLeavey family.

Aroha nui,

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Feel the heft

I've written before about Good, Form and Spectacle's indie collection discovery websites. This week they released a new 'spelunker', focused on a tiny subset of the British Museum's collection, the Waddesdon Bequest.

With under 300 objects, which are a mix of medieval and Renaissance objects and 19th century fakes, it's a delightfully contained experience. Aesthetically, it's really enjoyable to see black used as the background colour (most of the objects have been photographed against a black or very dark graduated background).

You can browse by maker, material, weight (weight! I've wanted this for ages), date, and many other facets. With such a small number of objects, the real beauty is in the way you begin to build connections between objects you see frequently, seeing them linked by the hand of a maker, their materiality, their age, or their subject matter. Groupings appear and disappear, with you developing a more rounded understanding of the pieces along the way.

They've also used their code to show size comparisons, based on the international language of the tennis ball. Beside that is a nifty interactive that lets you explore by physical location in the gallery - which would lend itself really well to use inside the building as well as online.

My favourite of these sites so far. Bravo.

Cultural institutions and the social compact

These are notes for a short talk I gave as part of a panel discussion at NSLA's Linked Up, Loud and Literate: Libraries enabling digital citizenship event at the National Library of New Zealand on November 12.

I'm usually a pretty sunny and optimistic person, but this talk as I prepared it took a decidedly bleak turn. It was actually really interesting to write and present something that wasn't exploratory or uplifting, and the resulting questions were more probing than those I usually provoke.

The quality thinking in this piece should be attributed to the cited authors: Cory Doctorow, Maciej Ceglowski and James Bridle. I just stitched it together with some observations from my recent experiences.


I recently returned from a research trip around art museums in the States, looking at, amongst other things, trends in digital development and engagement in art museum.

One strong trend is towards the collection and analysis of visitor data. This isn't through surveys or visitor-trailing, but rather by inducing people to sign up for traditional memberships (where you pay an annual fee for free access to a paid-entry museum) or for a new breed of museum membership, where you trade your data for access and benefits.

The leading exponent of this latter new membership model is the Dallas Museum of Art. Under (soon to depart) director Maxwell Anderson, over the past three years the DMA has removed entry charges and introduced a new Friends programme.

When you sign up for the programme, you give your contact details and your postcode information. In return, you are admitted to a programme where, through various activities, you can gain 'points' that can be traded in for benefits. For example, if you collect sufficient points by entering enough codes from the signs by gallery entrances, you can having your parking charges redeemed. In a city where the car is king, the free parking is a compelling offer. More points get you better access, more special and desirable rewards.

From a body of 100,000 plus Friends, the DMA is able to collect information about which galleries are visited, which programmes are attended, and which rewards are most desirable. Using the postcode information allows them to see where visitors are coming from and, by comparing this information to census data, draw conclusions about which demographics their visitors may represent - at scale.

The DMA is currently using this information to understand which communities they are reaching and not reaching, under-serving and over-serving. The more time that is invested, the more of a data-driven organisation they can become: carrying out targeted programming, marketing and community outreach activities, and measuring whether this has discernible impacts on visitor behaviour.

Now, this can be great. It is all too easy to rely on anecdotal information and your own perceptions of your audience and the success of your initiatives. It can also, I think, get a bit creepy.

We trade our data for convenience, for discounts, and for free things. Who here has bought something on Amazon? Has a Facebook account? Has a loyalty card for which you handed over your email address? We hand over our data merrily and maybe without thought for how this data is being stored, analysed, and shared.

If we look at the DMA's privacy policy, it states

We sometimes provide personal information to other providers of goods and services so that they may assist us in connection with ticket sales, event promotion, fundraising, or otherwise in connection with providing services or merchandise to you. However, we require that those providers use personal information only for that purpose, and we require our providers to provide assurances that they will appropriately protect personal information entrusted to them. 

A growing number of American museums are amping up their collection of data in order to increase engagement for the purposes of visitor acquisition, retention and conversion. One museum I met with was planning on implementing the DMA's software with a new free membership programme, with the same intent of understanding visitor demographics. They also had however a clear plan for using this information - this personalisation - for targeted marketing campaigns, and to convert visitors to shoppers, shoppers to donors: effectively, using the data to maximise revenue.

As well as giving us information to improve the relevance of our programmes, tackle inequality of access, and increase revenue generation, data can sometimes tell us things we'd rather not hear.

Colleen Dilenschneider is a consultant with a company in the States that specialises, among other things, in the application of data analysis in the non-profit sector. She writes and presents regularly on data as it relates to cultural and visitor organisations. One of her most recent blog posts crunched the data on free admission days - those monthly free days many paid-entry museums in the US run in the hopes of reducing the barriers to access for non-traditional visitors (read: those who are lower-earning, more geographically distanced, less educated and from a different racial or ethnic background to your average white middle-class middle-aged museum member).

The data shows that free admission days do not attract underserved audiences. Dilenschneider's research shows that:
  1. Admission price is not identified as the chief barrier to access
  2. Free access days attract higher earning and higher educated attendees than paid access days
  3. Free access days do not tempt non-visitors, but rather accelerate the speed at which an existing visitor revisits
  4. Cultural organisations generally don't know how to, or don't effectively, market free access days to underserved audiences but instead use their email databases, social media platforms and regular marketing outlets to tap the people they are already reaching. 
These are unsettling things for very well-meaning people to hear.

Dilenschneider's company generates these insights by buying data from many sources - the data of people just like us. They then analyse this data and sell that analysis and consultancy services back to cultural organisations - just like ours. I should note that Dilenschneider is not at all covert about this, and in fact that her company has been very generous in allowing her to share this data and information as freely as she does.

There's no escaping the fact though that companies are being built and money being made on the back of the landscape of data we are all drip feeding into.

Concern about the collection, security  and use of data - from the outing of philanders on dating sites to a former CIA director's statement "we kill people based on metadata" - are hardly new. As I was preparing for this talk though a number of presentations and articles floated across my radar that shared a common theme - the comparison of data technology to nuclear technology.

In the Guardian in 2008, Cory Doctorow wrote:

We should treat personal electronic data with the same care and respect as weapons-grade plutonium - it is dangerous, long-lasting and once it has leaked there's no getting it back.

Doctorow at that time proposed that data should be embargoed for 200 years, that anyone who touches or cares for that data over that period must be properly trained, and that businesses and government must be made to bear the costs associated with this.

At the start of October Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski spoke at O'Reilly Media's Big Data conference. Aiming to puncture the bubble of data enthusiasts, he painted a purposefully grim picture of data as, in his words,

not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle.

Ceglowski drew an explicit link between data technology and nuclear technology, as two powerful innovations whose, in his words, "beneficial uses we could never quite untangle from the harmful ones."

Like Doctorow, Ceglowski describes the similarity between data and nuclear waste - a material that has the potential to last far longer than the institutions we build to manage it. He stated

information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades.

He also noted that data technology is creating a situation where people are reacting to the manipulations of big data, purposefully gaming systems, forcing an ever-evolving arms race between data collectors and data creators that creates more distance between us as humans, not more understanding.

Finally, British artist and technologist James Bridle recently wrote an essay, based on a talk at the recent Through Post-Atomic Eyes event in Toronto, that name-checked the two above pieces. Bridle has written and made work extensively about mass surveillance, and in this piece he draws a parallel between the cold war that nuclear technology locked the world into for 45 years and the potential of big data today. Even though the information we collect about human behaviour grows and grows and grows, our sympathy and empathy and connection across politics, races, religions and nations do not leap forward at the same pace.

So, what is my point? We in cultural organisations think of ourselves as the white hats and the good guys. Libraries in particular have a strong ethos of free and protected access to information. The siren call of data is strong however, and we will all soon, if we're not already, have to ask ourselves who benefits from the data we collect, and how we keep each other safe.


At the end of the presentation, someone from the audience asked how exactly we can keep people and data safe. Being no expert myself, I cited the points Ceglowski made himself:

Don't collect it! 
If you can get away with it, just don't collect it! Just like you don't worry about getting mugged if you don't have any money, your problems with data disappear if you stop collecting it.... 
If you have to collect it, don't store it! 
... You can get a lot of mileage out of ephemeral data. There's an added benefit that people will be willing to share things with you they wouldn't otherwise share, as long as they can believe you won't store it. ... 
If you have to store it, don't keep it! 
Certainly don't keep it forever. Don't sell it to Acxiom! Don't put it in Amazon glacier and forget it. 
I believe there should be a law that limits behavioral data collection to 90 days, not because I want to ruin Christmas for your children, but because I think it will give us all better data while clawing back some semblance of privacy.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hammers and nails

I pointed to Holland Cotter's 'Toward a Museum of the 21st Century' piece in the NYT a few weekends ago, when it came out, but I re-read it recently because of something smart Koven J Smith wrote on the Blanton Museum blog before the MCN conference last week, 'On Technology and the Museum of the 21st Century'.

I'm not as taken with Cotter's piece as some seem to be. It's not that I don't disagree with points like this:
Major urban museums in the United States are getting crowds in the door, but diversity isn’t coming in with them. Despite the dramatic increase in minority populations in this immigrant nation over the past half-century, and a wave of multiculturalist consciousness, our major art museums remain largely the preserve of better-off whites, a group that is losing its majority status in urban settings. 
And, more recently, there is evidence of significant shifts within that core audience, as once-shared pools of knowledge and interest change. These changes are most graphically evident at so-called encyclopedic institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In them, non-Western art has always been a hard sell. But increasingly, so are formerly reliable stretches of Western art.
It's more his contention (sweeping generalisation ahoy) that museums are stuck in (or stubbornly clinging to) a 20th century mindset of build-it-and-they-will-come, hang-it-and-they-will-appreciate-it that is ill-suited to the needs of a more fluid, more porous, rapidly changing 21st century social landscape.

It's interesting, for example, to contrast his assertion that The Broad encapsulates some of the worst tendencies of this so-called 20th century mindset ("you’d think that a new museum devoted to contemporary art would be the place to find a 21st-century paradigm, but so far, no. The Broad, which opened with tremendous fanfare in Los Angeles this fall, is not a contender.") with Shana Nys Dambrot's assertion in the LARB that The Broad is just the 'gateway museum' we need in the 21st century, to ease younger and non-traditional visitors on to the encyclopaedic museums Cotter is smoothing the pillow for.  And painting all museums with the tainted brush of destination/vanity museums in Saudi Arabia hardly reflects the incredibly hard and generous and experimental work I saw happening in places like Indianapolis and Minneapolis in particular.

But anyway. Arguing with an opinion piece is rarely fruitful. Koven's post however uses Cotter's article to launch a much more useful line of enquiry than my own, with a meditation on something museums struggle deeply with when it comes to implementing digital technology (and I'd say lots of other things too):
We’re good at integrating emerging ideas into what we already do, but we’re not good at assessing whether what we already do is actually what people want. This is nowhere more evident than with the clumsy way so many museums attempt to address visitor needs with technology.
It's a classic 'if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail' problem.  As he concludes: 'Paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke: to a museum, any sufficiently advanced idea is often indistinguishable from technology.' It's certainly something I thought about a lot when I was away: about how digital folk in museums tend to be restricted to making digital products, and not often enabled to contribute their expertise and ideas to the full visitor experience. If the online people were released into the offline world - what might happen then?

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Pond scum and rotting flesh

On a lengthy roadtrip over the weekend I caught up on recent Slate Culture Gabfest episodes, including one that discussed Kathryn Schulz's recent New Yorker article on Henry David Thoreau, 'Pond Scum'.

I've never read Walden, and I certainly can't evaluate Schulz's piece in terms of its fairness to the author and the text (though the Gabfest has some spirited disagreement on this topic). Her article is a wonderful piece of writing though, and through these combined moments, I'm suddenly thinking about American individualism: as Schulz observes at one point
Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.
As I read the article something kept pinging away in the back of my mind, and somewhere around Taihape it clicked. A few weeks ago I stumbled across Rob Rhinehart's (creator of food replacement Soylent) August blog post 'How I Gave Up Alternating Current'.  What begins as a quite straightforward essay about becoming electrically self-sufficient descends into what I can't help reading as a rather obsessive cleansing of his life from all the entanglements that makes our messy, disorganised, rubbing-up-against-each-other society - not unlike Thoreau.

The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking (Thoreau)

I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. (Rhinehart)

He contemplated gathering the wild herbs around Walden to sell in Concord but concluded that “I should probably be on my way to the devil.” He permitted himself to plant beans, but cautiously, calling it “a rare amusement, which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” (Schulz quoting Thoreau)

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that will make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. (Rhinehart)

He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” (Schulz quoting Thoreau)

Next, I switched from beer to red wine. I buy with Saucey so I don’t have to use awful retail stores. Decent red wine is surprisingly cheap, pleasurable, and does not require refrigeration. I also end up drinking less liquid overall, meaning fewer bottles to throw away (I average about one trashbag / month) and fewer trips to the bathroom, meaning for a comparable amount of alcohol, when wine is consumed instead of beer there is less electrolyte loss and less after effects. (Rhinehart)

Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. (Thoreau)

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem. I wish container ships had nuclear engines but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

The overwhelming majority of clothing Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

It bothers me immensely that all clothing is hand made. Automation is woefully absent from the textile industry, but I don’t think it always will be. For now a few new t shirts and jeans per month is not very offensive. I certainly buy less clothing overall than a typical consumer. Synthetic fabrics are easy to recycle and I believe will soon be made with biofuels. Still, this area needs some work. (Rhinehart)

Schulz concludes
Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of “Walden,” who dedicated himself to establishing the bare necessities of life without ever realizing that the necessary is a low, dull bar; whose account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another ...
Now, I'm comparing two texts rather than two people, neither of whom I know a great deal about. Mostly I'm just mentally testing out how my on society-first approach to life runs up against these two hard-line drives for personal efficiency and betterment. But the pieces by Schulz and Rhinehart are both fascinating, for different reasons, and I thoroughly recommend them.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

On the radio

On the radio today I discussed the new Arts Foundation Next Generation and Laureate awardees (Simon Denny and Lisa Walker respectively) and some interesting (and silly) stuff going on with museums and Instagram.