CJ Eller

Classical Guitar by Training, Cloud Engineer by Accident

The memory of learning to type on a keyboard is fuzzy.

I don't even recall how it feels not to use a keyboard. It shows my age more than anything else, but I think most computer users hit an inflection point where typing becomes second nature. All that has to be done is thinking of what to say to a friend, program in a script, or announce to a public. Our hands know where to go.

Does that come at a cost? The artist Lynda Barry once said that in the digital age, don't forget to use your digits. There is no doubt you use our hands, but can you lose awareness of them?

This is something I think about all the time when playing guitar. I've been playing for a while, and sometimes when you play for a while it gets to the point where you don't think as much about your hands (and that doesn't make me any better of a player, rest assured). However, whenever I learn a new piece on guitar, however, I am reintroduced to my hands all over again. A piece of sheet music needs to not only be translated to a musical note but to my hands also. Which right-hand finger will I use to pluck this note? Which left-hand finger will I use to play this note? Those questions reintroduce me to what my hands are doing. That awareness can fade as I memorize a piece, but I try to make it a habit to review technique for pieces. Are my hands subject to unnecessary strain? If so strained, what can I do to alleviate the tension so I can play better? I feel more awareness of what my hands (and body for that matter) are doing to use this musical technology

I've been trying to think along these lines with how to make myself more aware of my hands when using a keyboard. One approach could be procuring a new keyboard, but that's like buying a new guitar to do what I already do with learning new pieces. I wonder how software, like a piece of music, can help develop such mindfulness — digital tools reminding you of your digits. One such tool I've been working with lately has been Vim (NeoVim to be precise). It requires me to rethink how to edit text (especially without using the damn trackpad so much). In such a process, hand awareness take center stage — like learning how to type all over again.

Why such an insistence on being aware of your hands when you type? That might be the real question to explore. It's as if there's a part of me that doesn't want to accept that the computer, to take a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, is a medium which has different sense ratios at play than a musical instrument like a guitar. Why does the difference in the sense of touch have to make something better or worse? Perhaps it doesn't, but it feels as though having less touch would change the way of perceiving & understanding the world...in a way I wouldn't prefer?

Still something I need to think through more.

I don't know about you, but I've bounced off of personal knowledge management tools like crazy. Wikis? Digital gardens? Zettelkasten systems? Nothing sticks.

A recent piece brought this to the forefront for me: “Personal Knowledge Management is Bullshit” from Justin Murphy (source). There's a passage I'd like to focus on:

The most important thing about writing is discovering novel and non-trivial truths, and determining which of your truths is most important—then imposing order, hierarchy, and linearity—through judgment, decisiveness, and will. To produce meaningful work, and then forget about it, so you can move on to another and hopefully greater act of linear will.

A perpetually expanding web of hyperlinked notes is not impressive but oppressive. It’s not useful, and it’s not illuminating.

The idea of the ever expanding knowledge graph as oppressive flies in the face of the current climate that holds the bi-directional link as the lingua franca for many popular software tools & systems. It reminds me of a short story from Jorge Luis Borges called “Funes, His Memory.” In the story, a man acquires near superhuman memory after a horse riding accident. Borges describes this memory in lush detail. Here's a couple examples (translation by Andrew Hurley):

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbeled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.

[...]

Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally.

But towards the end of the story, the narrator is suspicious of Funes' prodigious mnemonics:

He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars [...]

Funes' memory is a never ending accumulation of specifics, never allowing for those specifics to be removed or for generalities to take their place. One new thing after another after another after another. Funes even goes so far as to tell the narrator, “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”

Without the ability to generalize and abstract away his memories, Funes is left with a garbage heap that keeps piling up. “Funes, His Memory” is a story not of a gifted individual but a cursed one, trapped in an endless web of memories with no way out. A nightmare.

Do we risk creating such a nightmare for ourselves with a perpetually expanding web of hyperlinked notes? How do we prevent such a garbage heap from accumulating in the first place?

Is the internet more terrifying than we imagine?

There's a bit from Jorge Luis Borges' short story “Book of Sands” that makes me wonder this. The plot revolves around a book with no beginning nor end. Today it's interpreted as a premonition to the endlessness of the internet. Cool, but here's the thing: the narrator looks upon the book's infinite pages with sheer horror. Here's the bit in question:

Summer was drawing to a close, and I realized that the book was monstrous. It was cold consolation to think that I, who looked upon it with my ten flesh-and-bone fingers, was no less monstrous than the book. I felt it was a nightmare thing, an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.

I conisdered fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.

The book so overwhelms the narrator that he drops it off at a nearby library, even going as far as to avoid walking by the same library ever again.

This reaction is strange to think of as someone who accesses their own “Book of Sands” on a daily basis. However, I wonder if it's my reaction that is strange. Perhaps I am denying the metaphysical horror of the internet, of being lost inside a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere, of being lost inside a nightmare thing that defiles and corrupts reality.

I've been playing Elden Ring for about 70 hours now. One fascinating thing has stood out so far. It doesn't have an expository narrative like many other games. You're launched into a world with locales & characters that aren't outright explained. But the more you play, a rich world comes to life.

This form of narrative has been unlike any other game I've experienced. It's been jarring for some and revelatory to others. I happen to fall in the latter category, but I've been ignorant of the reason. Why do I like this? Why is a hands-off narrative so compelling?

While playing Elden Ring I read Anil Seth's Being You: A New Science of Consciousness. There's a part in the book that brings up 20th century art historian Ernst Gombrich's concept of the beholder's share (though first brought up by fellow art historian Alois Riegl). Seth describes it as “that part of perceptual experience that is contributed by the perceiver and which is not to be found in the artwork – or the world – itself.” In other words, it's the observer who creatively “completes” the artwork. Impressionist paintings are an example of the beholder's share in action. Seth explains that,

Impressionist landscapes attempt to remove the artist from the act of paintings [...] To do this, the artist must develop and deploy a sophisticated understanding of how the subjective, phenomenological aspects of vision come about. Each work can be understood as an exercise in reverse engineering the human visual system, from sensory input all the way to a coherent subjective experience. The paintings become experiments into predictive perception and into the nature of the conscious experiences that these processes give rise to.

To quote Gombrich: “When we say the blots and brushstrokes of the Impressionist canvas 'suddenly comes to life,' we mean we have been led to project a landscape into these dabs of pigment.”

Could Elden Ring be seen as an example of the beholder's share? An attempt to remove the developer from the act of direct storytelling by giving the player the raw materials to weave together a story through her own experience of the game? In a way I think so, and it could be a part of why it resonates so much with people. Giving narrative power back to the beholder.

The project of having my personal site show specific content depending on the sun's location? A bit of a wash. Technical difficulties make it overkill for any longevity. Static HTML it is. Replacing the sun's location is an oblique way of showing time elapsed, perhaps more symbolic than anything else.

The background color of my site is as close as I can get to the color of the top of my guitar. The German Spruce has changed in color; warmer in comparison to when I first played it in 2017. Time brings out more color in the wood as well as the sound. I had to go in knowing that it'd take a couple years before the guitar's true sound came out. This isn't to say that the guitar initially sounds horrible, it's just that needs time to become dryer and more resonant.

Just give it time. Imagine saying the same about software! As much as I try to compare software to the analog organic (digital gardens, etc.), there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to this quality of emergent properties. Well, maybe such emergent properties in the digital come in the guise of bugs, glitches, errors. Let me rephrase: positive, creative emergent properties. When the wood ages, it affects the look & sound of the guitar for the better. When software ages, what is changed for the better? Am I not seeing it? Are there examples of software doing this?

Imagine a world in which letting a software tool age augments its utility like time does to the tone of a guitar.

There's a site stewarded by Austin Wade Smith called Feral Earth that revolves around ecology. A site about ecology? Not quite. A site powered by ecology. I'll let Feral Earth explain:

I am a solar powered server. All ecological behavior which controls access is measured within 1 mile of my hardware. Nearly all is within 3 meters.

I am an ecosystem, serving through the interplay of water, air, sun, earth, and AWS (Austin Wade Smith). I am an instrument of ecology intimacy.

Visit the site and see which links happen to be open. It happens to be raining where I live, but is it raining where Feral Earth is? No. Just being able to ask that kind of question suggests a different relationship with the web, one that Smith envisions in a tweet:

Imagine an internet respiring at the rhythm of solstices, tides, rain storms, and eclipses. Nourished by sunlight. Not the numb office park we’re accustomed to but something animate, haunted… a symbiont.

An internet respiring at the rhythm of nature. Such a possibility made me want to do my part for my personal site. Even if it's powered by the numb office park, it didn't have to follow its numb logic. I'm starting simple. Track the sunrise & sunset in my area. Get the current time. If the current time is during or after the sunrise and before the sunset, show the home page of the site. If the current time is during or after the sunset and before the sunrise, show a message of text instead.

Now I find myself more mindful of the sun as I continue to tinker with the site. It never occurred to me before as I used and created on the web. But I think that is what makes Smith's idea of the feral web so intriguing. The web can feel isolated from the world around us, sometimes to a point of debilitation. However, whether your site is powered by solar panels or by a data center, there are many ways we can make the web respire at natural rhythms.

Adam Grant's Think Again: The Power of Knowing what You Don't Know. Good book. Been chewing on a passage from it lately. While I'm going to quote Grant, it's actually a quip from a student in that we'll turn our focus on:

When students confront complex problems, they often feel confused. A teacher's natural impulse is to rescue them as quickly as possible so they don't feel lost or incompetent. Yet psychologists find that one of the hallmarks of an open mind is responding to confusion with curiosity and interest. One student put it eloquently: “I need time for my confusion.” Confusion can be a cue that there's new territory to be explored or a fresh puzzle to be solved.

“I need time for my confusion.” Woah. Where can we make time for our confusion? What can help us make time for our confusion?

Blogging perhaps?

Why does this sound oddly refreshing? Perhaps because blogging can be perceived as being a knowledge driven – write about what you know or just learned about or find interesting. That is hard to do, hence the hesitation, blogging infrequently if at all. If I were to be honest, I feel like confusion consumes me more than any knowledge I possess.

So why not write about that?

The problem is that the bewilderment feels more difficult to write about. It can't be wrapped in a pretty bow, stamped with a thesis, backed by supporting arguments. Confusion clumsily exists, warts and all, unfinished, unflinching. But perhaps that's the kind of blogging I resonate with already. Huh.

As I go from working on programming problems on my laptop to fiddling with a piece on the classical guitar, there's a through line that I couldn't articulate before rewatching the documentary based on guitarist Marc Ribot's work, The Lost String. (highly recommend both the documentary and music of Marc Ribot)

Therein, Ribot unearths the through line I fumbled with for so long:

When you learn on classical guitar, it's a way of working where you learn to take a big problem and learn to break it down into a thousand tiny problems and solve them one at a time. Classical guitar pieces are physical freaks of nature, I mean people shouldn't be able to do that kind of thing, and they do it by breaking it down into tiny steps and learning very slowly. So it's a certain approach that you can use elsewhere.

I've been mulling over a question from Tom Critchlow's “January 2022 – Map of Inquiry” (source): “How do we get more people blogging?” As Tom writes,

Networked writing relies on… the network! I have a variety of friends and contacts that I wish blogged more. How to encourage / support and nurture more people writing online […]

This is a tangle of a question. A singular thread of it I hadn't thought of before was revealed to me by Laurel Schwulst's lovely post “To write, I first must world” (source). Therein, Laurel brings up the distinction of calling writing spaces a “notebook” rather than a “blog.”

While perhaps easily overlooked, this naming them “notebooks” is important. Traditionally a “notebook” is something you have multiple of … in the paper world, you often have different notebooks for different purposes. Whereas a “blog” feels like you have only one and it’s this monolithic thing. So inherently notebooks are less precious and more context-specific than blogs.

Going the notebook route is a clue to how I was able to convince myself that blogging / writing, despite feeling like an alien, was okay and fun.

The word “blog” can have this connotation of polish, of putting our words on a singular framed canvas to be displayed at a global art exposition. No wonder there's an entropic force to maintaining one. This is why Laurel's notebook framing is a refreshing contrast to the stage fright evoked by thinking of a blog as “this monolithic thing.” Using a notebook evokes a sense of looseness, of letting ideas out where ever they may and connecting them in the process. A blog can be like that, there are many already that follow this approach. I suppose it just needs to be echoed to others as a viable approach, myself included.

And look, there are blogs with polished thoughts. Less like notebook and more like a collection of thoughtful essays. Those blogs I deeply admire as well. I suppose the notebook reframing, as Laurel states, is more of a matter of convincing yourself that blogging is okay and fun. That's all that matters no?

We complain about information overload, and yet we also get an almost eschatological thrill from the glittering glut, as if the acceleration of communication and the bandwidth bursting density of the datastream can somehow amplify the self and its capacities.

There's something about this passage from Erik Davis' Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, & Mysticism in the Age of Information — how engaging in information overload is compared to a thrill. An acknowledgement of the riches we get from the web and, at the same time, an acknowledgement of its gravity upon our psyche. Both delight and caution in the cup that runneth over. This feeling is out there. I found this post from Alejandro called “The Weight of the Clipboard” (source) that articulates it so well:

It feels more like an invisible weight that can be felt through every idea and keystroke. Through every executed action, like something you can lose, something you need, something missing from the stream of data you’re writing.

Tom Critchlow also gets at the feeling in this post:

I spend all day long slinging URLs around. Mostly, when I copy and paste a URL it’s treated as a string of characters. But you and I know that a URL is heavy. A URL is a representation of a blog post, or a product I want to buy, or a hike I want to go on, or an Airbnb I’m going to book.

The invisible weight that Alejandro and Tom describe reminds me of the bandwidth bursting density of the datastream Davis mentioned earlier. How do we manage the deluge of digital detritus in a way that both respects its weight and acknowledges this innate desire for information foraging. To quote Davis again,

Information gathering defines civilization as much as food gathering defines the nomadic cultures that preceded the rise of urban communities, agricultural surplus, and stratified social hierarchies. From the moment the first scribe took up a reed and scratched a database into the cool clay of Sumer, information flow has been an instrument of human power and control [...]

From cool clay to svelte silicon, its information gathering all the way down. “Opening tabs and browsing the web is essential to task completion.” Tom mentions in his above post. “Tab sprawl is a symptom of a basic task: web foraging.”

Speaking of tables, I've been looking into Tom Critchlow's Electric Tables lately as a way to deal everything mentioned above. It's interesting how Tom uses similar language to describe this project — Electric Tables as a way to respect the gravity of a URL while allowing for more nimble foraging of them. Such a description parallels my experience so far.

The cup still runneth over, but at least the runover is being caught somewhere this time.