Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

‘Remember what’s important’ and other principles of the modern hunter-gatherer

Humans are not hunter-gatherers anymore, but we were for a long time. Nicholas Bate has a list of 50 skills we collectively gained from that era can go to waste in our modern existence, unless we realize how useful they still are. I like the list because it combines small practicalities with big-picture stuff. For example:

Tell stories that fire the imagination.

Use eyes for distances beyond the screen: look long, look up.

Remember what’s important.

Stare at night skies unpolluted by light.

Establish rituals: writing, building & crafting, reflecting

No elevators. No escalators. No PPT. No Facebook after the sun sets.

Be self-reliant: learn how it works, from pensions to mowers.

Believe in magic.

Scan the horizon.

Evolve, change and learn from the masters.

Never let the fire go out.

1946 Olympia typewriter vs. 2012 iPad – who ya got?

Matt Thomas, via Submitted For Your Perusal, spotlights an interesting contrast between two New York Times stories in the same week.

Exhibit #1, from a brief feature on Danielle Steel:

After all these years, Steel continues to use the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she bought used when working on her first book. “I am utterly, totally and faithfully in love with my typewriter,” she says. “I think I paid $20 for it. Excellent investment! And by now, we’re old friends.”

Exhibit #2, from a John Herrman’s essay What I Learned from Watching My iPad’s Slow Death:

Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.

A machine that’s over 70 years old (!) is still performing exactly as it did the year after World War II ended, and another machine that’s not even 7 years old is now a digital dotard. An iPad of course can do far more things than a typewriter. But if it can only do those things for the length of two presidential terms, tops, is it truly worth the investment?

My 1970 Hermes 3000 originally sold for $129.50, according to the sticker still on its body. That’s about $845 in 2017 dollars, which would get you an iPad Pro or basic laptop today. I bought it last year for $30 at an antique store. It’s in seemingly mint condition all these years later, and I can’t wait to see what words it will produce—from me and any future owners. If the iPad’s “slow death” takes place after only a few years, the death of this Hermes—perish the thought—will be downright glacial.

Yet what Herrman concludes about a tablet is also true of a typewriter: “It will still be a wonder of industrial design and a technological marvel, right up until the moment it is destroyed for scrap.”

Which machine’s scraps, however, can actually be turned into something beautiful? Advantage typewriters.

At the corner of 84 Charing Cross Road and Typewriter Street

A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.

Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.

And:

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?

— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)

Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.

And yet, she’s not precious about them:

My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on some solid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:

Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:

There’s also the real Helene:

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics

Media of the Moment

An ongoing series on books, movies & more I’ve encountered recently:

Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki. Great little book on how to cultivate talent, specifically in children and music but also for anyone in anything.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. Enjoyed the adventure of this winding, informative book on the nature of trails of all kinds. Like an erudite sequel to A Walk in the Woods.

The Million Dollar Duck. A documentary that follows 6 artists who enter their drawings into the apparently popular and lucrative annual Federal Duck Stamp design contest. Surprisingly dramatic.

Persepolis. Loved this graphic novel’s high-contrast black and white illustration style. Perfect mix of a girl’s light and funny memoir with the high drama of the Iranian revolution.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It’s fun to watch Jim Carrey go full Method for Man on the Moon now, from a distance, but it looked like a nightmare for everyone else at the time. The Truman Show remains Carrey’s apex.

High Society. Great sick-day movie: Grace Kelly (in her final role) with a lot to do, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra quippin’ and singin’ around a mansion, plus a superfluous but lovely Louis Armstrong performance, in a funny and charming Philadelphia Story/Casablanca rehash that gives everyone a chance to shine. Hard to believe Kelly was only 26 when she retired from acting.

Phantom Thread. I realized pretty quickly this was a dark comedy, which helped me enjoy it in the moment. But not as much as everyone else seems to enjoy it. Pretty sure I was the only one laughing in my screening.

Ingrid Goes West. Taylor’s beefcake, possibly sociopathic bro holding valuable information hostage is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley right now, as is this movie overall.

Moonstruck. Can confirm that the conventional wisdom about this movie—”Nicholas Cage and Cher together in a rom-dramedy that strangely works well”—is correct.

How to have better conversations

Via Kottke, here are radio interviewer Celeste Headlee’s 10 tips for better conversations:

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

I’m better at some of these than others. I think about #6 a lot because it’s so easy to do, and I think about #5 a lot because, for me at least, it’s so hard to do.

Additionally, WSJ’s “Save Yourself From Tedious Small Talk” offers some conversation-openers that spark pleasure and deeper thinking beyond today’s weather and the traffic you hit on your way here:

  • Have you been working on anything exciting recently?
  • What was the highlight of your day?
  • Any exciting plans this summer?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • What’s keeping you awake at night?

School of Rock

“We’re not goofing off. We’re creating musical fusion.”

The video of a guy drumming to the “Just give up” speech from School of Rock inspired me to rewatch that 2003 Richard Linklater film for the first time in a while.

It’s a meaningful movie for me, coming out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. Our guitarist/singer even had the same Gibson SG guitar that Jack Black’s Dewey uses.

At first, we’re meant to see Dewey as a delusional has-been, if a true believer in rock music’s ability to “change the world.” But in his new role as accidental teacher and musical mentor to a class of talented prep school kids, he finds a positive outlet for his enthusiastic idealism (if under shady circumstances). And his maxims about what rock is really about become sound wisdom for impressionable minds rather than just eye rolling platitudes.

This is evident in the scene where the band comes together to make something new together in Zach’s song. Not only does it capture the excitement of “creating musical fusion” with bandmates, but the smile that emerges on Dewey’s face as he steps back to watch the kids come into their own as musicians is a testament to the joy of creative potential being realized.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout, not even counting the “I have been touched by your kids” scene. You really have to be a Jack Black fan to enjoy most of them, if not the whole movie. But even if you aren’t, I can’t see how he wouldn’t win you over with his relentless, goofy energy and legit talent.

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Drumming to Dewey Finn in “School of Rock”

File this under “things I’d never think of but now make perfect sense”: drumming synced to Dewey Finn’s “Just give up” speech in School of Rock.

Incredible. He has a bunch more too, like Willy Wonka and Fawlty Towers.

School of Rock was a formative movie for me. It came out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. I still think of it first when I hear “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. (Thor: Ragnarok second.)

See also: the cast’s 10-year reunion show.

« Older posts

© 2018 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑