Frenetic Standstill

Has tech ruined our relationship with time?

Death by time?  That is one of the consequences envisioned by Simon Garfield as he introduces us to the idea of a “frenetic standstill” and the ultimate showdown of the masters of speed vs. the masters of time (slow readers/slow eaters/slow thinkers).

Prof Rosa has envisaged a worst-case scenario he calls “the unbridled onward rush into the abyss” – death by time. It will be caused by our inability to balance the conflict of movement and inertia, and “the abyss will be embodied in either the collapse of the ecosystem or in the ultimate breakdown of the modern social order”. Happy days.

Those who can control their time, those who are their own time lords, they will survive the abyss of the frenetic standstill.

I have been considering how few folk are willing to give others ‘the time of day’.  What I refer to, especially online, is how we avoid what in tractor work is called ‘creeper gear’.  That gear is the slowest one in the transmission and while not used often, it is absolutely essential when one is trying to get maximum traction.  Usually one locks both rear wheels at the same time while in creeper mode.  You can get serious pulling power in this mode for even a small tractor just so long as the rear wheels have some weight on them and good tread.

And this is what we often fail to do, what we fail to give–our time, time that is removed from the frenetic stillness that usually surrounds us. Slow time.  Time that digs down and grips with power and friction in order to do real work.

I have been doing this kind of work of late as I work through Dave Gray’s latest book Liminal Thinking.  I have done work like this in MOOCs before. It is deep work especially when undertaken with other ‘horses’ in harness. It is profound work. Slow, feet stepping carefully.  I think that is why my students hate the discipline of it so very much.  The frenetic stillness feels so much more satisfying to us because we are so used to it.

I admit to this being some very unfinished thinking.  I just had to put something down about the potent metaphor of frenetic stillness.  Had to.  Like walking zazen, a long haul of making the road by walking the road.  Slow, engaged, disciplined practice informed by awareness and unhurried by time.



Go even slower with a poem by Wendell Berry, “Horses”, know again the


 When I was a boy here,
traveling the fields for pleasure,
the farms were worked with teams.
As late as then a teamster
was thought an accomplished man,
his art an essential discipline.
A boy learned it by delight
as he learned to use
his body, following the example
of men. The reins of a team
were put into my hands
when I thought the work was play.
And in the corrective gaze
of men now dead I learned
to flesh my will in power
great enough to kill me
should I let it turn.I learned the other tongue
by which men spoke to beasts
—all its terms and tones.
And by the time I learned,
new ways had changed the time.
The tractors came. The horses
stood in the fields, keepsakes,
grew old, and died. Or were sold
as dogmeat. Our minds received
the revolution of engines, our will
stretched toward the numb endurance
of metal. And that old speech
by which we magnified
our flesh in other flesh
fell dead in our mouths.
The songs of the world died
in our ears as we went within
the uproar of the long syllable
of the motors. Our intent entered
the world as combustion.
Like our travels, our workdays
burned upon the world,
lifting its inwards up
in fire. Veiled in that power
our minds gave up the endless
cycle of growth and decay
and took the unreturning way,
the breathless distance of iron.

But that work, empowered by burning
the world’s body, showed us
finally the world’s limits
and our own. We had then
the life of a candle, no longer
the ever-returning song
among the grassblades and the leaves.

Did I never forget?
Or did I, after years,
remember? To hear that song
again, though brokenly
in the distances of memory,
is coming home. I came to
a farm, some of it unreachable
by machines, as some of the world
will always be. And so
I came to a team, a pair
of mares—sorrels, with white
tails and manes, beautiful!—
to keep my sloping fields.
Going behind them, the reins
tight over their backs as they stepped
their long strides, revived
again on my tongue the cries
of dead men in the living
fields. Now every move
answers what is still.
This work of love rhymes
living and dead. A dance
is what this plodding is.
A song, whatever is said.



Liminality on the Head of a Turntable Needle


I have just begun my very close reading of Dave Gray’s Liminal Thinking. I will be doing annotation in the margins, a physical reading of a paper copy of the book, as well as Kindle highlight/annotations.  Already I am struck favorably by the metaphors Gray uses.  For example, he compares our attention spans to the needle on a record player.  His point is that attention is way more narrow than we think.


He cites Manfred Zimmerman‘s work in the mid-eighties with measuring maximum human sensory capacity. Our senses could theoretically take in 11,000,000 bits per second (bps).  Of course, they don’t.  Maximum throughput may work when you are talking about a USB cable, but doesn’t make much sense with optic nerves. Why? Because the capacity, the wetware, isn’t constrained in the same way a machine or a part is .

This same researcher indicated that our actual capacity is only 40 bps. That is about .0004% of max.  Hence Gray’s record needle.  We bump along in our own record grooves taking in what seems an infinitesimal amount of info.  Our experience of the world is based upon this impossibly thin slice of baloney.  Great.


There are problems with Zimmerman’s research. I advise you to look at the earlier link, but Gray’s metaphor holds, I believe.  I am working my way through each of his exercises and have found that all of them help me come up with new insights.


I Contradict Myself Very Well

From Leaves of Grass:

The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through
with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Uncle Walty captures the natural and upsetting equivocation that makes me what I am.Here are two articles that touch upon this contradition very deeply.

Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness – and Yours

And this one as very well,

Journalist’s Toolbox | A Society of Professional Journalists Blog

Charm A companion app for iOS that helps you “organize Tweets into collections, save articles for later, cue up playlists of music you find, or transcribe conversations. You can use it to tell stories, hold on to jokes, capture Tweetstorms and monologues. Charm has features to curate Tweets from events you’re watching, too.”

One draws me ‘into’ while the other pushes me ‘out of’.

“They are both maelstroms,” I say with a yawp both untamed and untranslateable. Both are untamed and untameable.

Out to the pastures to feed and water the sheep and take photos of them and share them online. Multitudes. We contain multitudes. Maelstroms of multitudes, untamed and untameable.

We could drown.So swim or grab onto something that floats by.

Crowdsourcing Ideas in the Classroom



I start every semester with some kind of creativity “pump primers”. This year I started with summarizing Steven Johnson’s 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “The Genius of the Tinkerer”. (I put it on NowComment for my most adventurous students.)

I followed that up with James Altucher’s “The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine”.  I wanted students to follow his advice generally and specifically.  Generally, because it is always good to tap into his way of generating ideas. Specifically, because I want them to apply these creative principles to their research question.

I always lead the way in the class with my research question. This year I am asking, “How can my wife and I have a two week vacation from the farm?”  I am quite passionate about finding an answer to this very personal question.  Ken Macrorie calls these “I-Search” questions.  His book, The I-Search Paper, is out of print but I still use it, pre-Internet sensibilities and all.

I asked my students to use Altucher’s machine method to help me come up with ideas as a class.  I wrote down their suggestions and then recorded them (see embedded videos below).  They will become part of the narrative I will tell as I re-tell for my readers the story of how I attempted to answer my I-Search question.  I will work on this over the course of an entire semester.  They will work on their questions as well.


Now my students begin to see the action of priming the pump. They also, I hope, begin to see that the network/community can be a part of the research process. You can crowdsource anyone at any time to help answer your research question. There is wisdom in crowds.




The Apocalypedia is a subversive comic-philosophic dictionary, a strangely recognisable, friendly yet disturbing, delight-inducing anatomy of radical self-knowledge that ties nature and culture up with the cunning, mysterious and absurd paraphernalia of the human psyche, using a transdimensional shoe-lace.

I have been filled with schadenfreudian emotion reading this ode to snark and snide that is the inheritor of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Below is one of my favorite ‘definitions’:


I Am Alone, You Come and Be Alone with Me, Too


Today is one of those days as far from the pastoral farm idyll as you can get.

First, I run out of diesel in the tractor.  I have to bleed the engine, a task I cannot do by myself.

Second, our weakest lamb has keeled over in the field from I know not what.  I carry him from the field around my neck. He pees down my back as a carry him in.  I lay him down propped up against the trunk of our big maple in the front yard.He is burning hot and I struggle to get a quart of electrolytes into him.  I look at him. I do not pray. I don’t believe in prayer. I just call on the spirit of my mother’s perseverance and my father’s cussedness to do what I can for him.  I hope the deep shade helps.

Third,I still have to move our fence so I walk back out to the field and in that special September hot that only September can get, I put up our fence netting in the increasingly hard, dry earth. So hard in so many ways.

I am back at the house. Writing this. I gave the lamb more water, but it does not look good. And I am so alone.

The whole time I have been working I have been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, the episode called “Generous Orthodoxy”.  It, too, is a lonely story.

A pastor officiates at the wedding of his son—under ordinary circumstances, an affirmation of family and community. But what if the son is gay? And what if the pastor belongs to the most traditional of religious communities?

“Generous Orthodoxy” is the story of Chester Wenger, a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who chose to confront his own church over a question of deepest principle. It asks: What do you do when the institution that has defined your life comes between you and your family? Wenger offers all of us a master class in the art of dissent.

Dissent within orthodoxy is the story of my life that my wife and I have chosen.  Homebirth, unschooling, patchwork economics, working class solidarity, and always opposition.  For over 20 years I have worked in the most orthodox institution in our country, public schools, and have tried to lay a generous set of alternative, sometimes parallel and other times divergent tracks for my students to ride upon.

And my wife is working off the farm today. My youngest child has just moved to Arizona.  A good friend and fellow homesteader just lost his youngest daughter to a heart attack.  We helped raise her as a very young child. I am not sure about this load of alone. Not sure at all.

Yet I do not write this for sympathy or pity. Hell no. I write to get through it somehow like Chester Wenger and his wife did and continue to do. Nature is indifferent to our struggle. Like Nature, the Internet is indifferent as well.  There is an odd comfort to me in such indifference.  I will go out every hour to do what I can for the lamb.  I will move the sheep to a new field this evening, bring them feed and water. I will get my wife to help me bleed the fuel lines when she gets home. I will mow the fields. I will do the work I can to help my students learn.  I will keep on.



How Experts Can Help a General Audience Understand Their Ideas

Nancy Duarte advises us how to be more “audience aware” for presentations.  I especially like the “before/after” image whose graphic intelligence quotient has been raised.  I, also, love the iceberg feel of her writing–lots of cred lurking below the surface.

How Experts Can Help a General Audience Understand Their Ideas

By following these three rules, you can translate what you know into words and concepts that will feel meaningful — and applicable — to a lay audience.

Use metaphors to make jargon accessible.

Minimize the content on your slides.

Communicate less material.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Sugar industry bought off scientists, skewed dietary guidelines for decades | Ars Technica

Sugar industry bought off scientists, skewed dietary guidelines for decades

Back in the 1960s, a sugar industry executive wrote fat checks to a group of Harvard researchers so that they’d downplay the links between sugar and heart disease in a prominent medical journal-and the researchers did it, according to historical documents reported Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine .

Yet another one to file under “feloniously bad research”. It is hard to underestimate the effect of this research and the effect from these researchers. My ‘faith’ in scientific method is not shaken. Scientists did help find this bad faith. Still…the further erosion of my trust is deepening. When will the first scientist go to jail for these kinds of breaches. Those mentioned in this article are surely culpable in the misery and death associated with lifelong obesity.