Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

The view from the repair stand

When you identify as a cyclist, and the owner of your local bike shop calls and asks if you’ll come in when you’re free and work on bicycles, you don’t say no.

As a cyclist it’s a matter of pride that I don’t go to a shop for repairs, upgrades, or maintenance. A bike shop in the LA area charges $20 to fix a flat tire, and upwards of $70 for a basic tune-up, so it’s not just enthusiasm or convenience that leads to buying the tools and learning how to do it yourself. Especially when, like most cyclists I know, you own more than one bicycle. (The one task I am happy to pay someone else to do is wrap handlebar tape, a fiddly and demanding job I can never get right.)

And so by virtue of my hobby, I have a decent grounding—I can, for example, build and true wheels, measure and “break” a chain, pull cranks, and adjust brakes and derailleurs (though I’ve had to learn a lot to be able to do this well enough for paying customers). When bikes come in, C. the owner calls me, and I ride down and spend a few hours a week as the shop mechanic, or “wrench” as they are often known.

In my last Cuff I wrote about how one of the first customers I encountered was a gang member. That really summed up C’s shop—it’s not a high-end enthusiast store with carbon fibre race bikes, and full suspension downhill machines, but a family and community gathering point. And so, I’m attaching or removing trainer wheels from incredibly heavy children’s bicycles, dusting off and tuning up rusty old garage finds, and helping fix issues on commuter bicycles while their owners wait to get back on the road.

As the mechanic, I’m virtually invisible, and I feel like I’m part of a world I’d normally only ever see in passing. From this vantage point I don’t see the rich capitalist country so many people imagine, and I sometimes feel like an imposter there because my life, less than a mile from the store, is so very different.

It might cost $20 to fix a flat, but don’t think for a second that C. is getting rich. As the retail market transforms, his store is both a throwback and a glimpse of the future. In a comment on LinkedIn, someone said how a big-box store essentially turns customers into warehouse pickers, and as this business model rightly loses to e-commerce, once again the experiential store, the community gathering place, the shop where enthusiasts give advice and suggestions need to become the new retail.

C’s store is a short walk from a giant department store brand that sells cheap bicycles. So many of C’s customers are people who buy from the department store, and then need help with assembly, repair, or upgrades, because of course, nobody there is trained specifically on bicycles, and there’s certainly no mechanic on the staff.

And so C is stuck in between, where his little bike shop makes up for the shortcomings of the chain store, but isn’t really a place where people come to buy. They buy cheap elsewhere, and then pay up to half or more again of the cost of the bike to have someone like me go over it, truing brand-new wheels that are bent, adjusting brand-new brakes that wouldn’t stop you, and tightening dangerously loose parts on the brand-new machine that somebody is going to entrust with life and limb.

First published in Gulf News, April 24, 2018

A Gang Member on a Bicycle

C runs a small bicycle shop in my new hometown of Azusa, in Southern California. He’s close to the Gold Line Metro station and while things are slow right now, he’s gambling (as we all are) on the area getting more upmarket and busy in the next few years.

I always try to shop at what cyclists called the LBS, or local bike shop. Though this is increasingly difficult in the new retail market, it’s a matter of pride among cyclists to give the LBS business, and develop a relationship with the staff, rather than simply order online. C’s shop is family and commuter orientated, so he doesn’t have many of the parts I’m looking for, but I often check in at his shop before going to my usual online sources.

C is deeply connected with community, so his business is a gathering place of sorts for the more interesting people of Azusa. C himself is quite the talker, with lots of great stories, so I often end up staying and chatting for an hour or more. He used to be a video stringer in Los Angeles, a difficult, dangerous job that exposes you to a good selection of the worst of humanity, or the worst days of other peoples’ lives. Watch the Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nightcrawler, or even better, the Netflix documentary Shot in the Dark, to know what this job entails.

C exudes a street sense and confidence that make it easy for him to connect with a range of people. Recently, a customer in his store casually mentioned to C that he was a member of a gang.

“I still have to be aware of which neighbourhood I’m in,” he said as we talked about some of the sights and sounds of East LA. “I’m older, so they’ll probably leave me alone, but it could get dangerous. Now I mainly mentor younger people.”

Gang violence might be a much smaller problem than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, but these street groups are still the entire world for so many people. You or I could spend a lifetime in Los Angeles and only superficially encounter gang culture because by nature it’s deeply territorial, and confined to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Though some relatively affluent areas, such as Pasadena, have gang activity, the borders of the territories are clearly defined not just down to the street, but sometimes the specific bus stop or shop or light pole where the gang’s influence ends. Also, unless you’re in the very worst neighbourhoods, most activity is by night.

The Bloods, the Crips, and MS-13 might be the more famous, or should I say infamous gangs, but LA has a long complex history of street factions. I only recently learned about the American Mexican gang White Fence, said to be the oldest in LA, with a history going back to 1910. I was surprised to learn of a violent Armenian street gang in the Glendale neighbourhood, and also of several violent gangs from Asian “model minorities”.

When you encounter a gang member at a bicycle shop, however, you are talking to just another human being, albeit one with a lot of tattoos and a certain non-smiling force of being. He collected the new bicycle he’d brought in to be set up, and we all went out while he tested it. I watched as this 43-year-old man, who’s probably seen terrible violence, got onto a small-wheeled folding machine, and rode up and down the pavement. I realised it’s likely that this is the first time in his life he’d be able to be just a kid on a bicycle.

First published in Gulf News, April 10, 2018

Technology that’s too good for it’s own good

You’ve heard a Class D amplifier, even if you haven’t heard of one. That’s the audio amplifier on your phone, in your TV, in that home-theatre box, and anywhere else you need a lightweight, efficient way to boost a music signal.

Class D amplifiers operate on a principle called pulse width modulation. They’re highly efficient, and if designed well, extremely detailed, clear, and with excellent bass. However, audiophiles have traditionally hated them because they aren’t as good with higher frequencies, mainly because they need heavy filtration to remove high-frequency switching noise. The common complaint is that they sound “cold” or “clinical” or “soulless”.

I recently had a high quality Class D amplifier at home for a trial. If you knew nothing about audio and heard that amp, you’d probably be astounded at how good it sounded. You’d hear details on your favourite songs you’d never heard before. You’d have loved how tight and deep the bass was. And when you heard that both my wife and I didn’t like it, you’d think we were the most awful snobs.

But if I was to connect a good Class AB amplifier (this the most common kind of bigger amp), you’d probably see what we were talking about. There’s an organic quality and a sense of magic in the spaces between the notes that’s missing in the Class D design. It was an excellent illustration of how a product could be technically excellent, but not engaging. People who like Italian cars and American motorcycles often say the same thing about Japanese vehicles. (Or indeed, Italian motorcycles and American cars.)

This hunt for emotion and character means that many audiophiles use vacuum tube amplifiers, which are still being made by innumerable brands. New old stock Soviet tubes are highly sought after, and considered the best-sounding. I live near a dealer who is known across the US for sourcing vacuum tubes from some of the most remote parts of the world—on his website is mention of a stash that he found in a warehouse in Serbia where they’d been stored for 50 years.

You’d think that playing music back in a clean, clear, detailed way would allow the amplifier to step back and let the emotion of the music through. You wouldn’t have thought that in 2018, we’d have to resort to a technology that was used in 1950s computers to get a fullness to reproduced music that allows us to feel it as well as hear it.

But then digital technologies that cater to the senses, have shown again and again that designers and marketers heavily underestimate what we’re capable of perceiving. Remember when DVDs came out and we thought they looked pretty good? If you’ve been watching high-definition movies, have you gone back to a DVD recently and seen how awful they look? And as this digital material gets better, I feel that we actually get more sensitive and critical. Think about CGI humans versus drawn animated ones. A cartoonish human is easy enough to relate to, but as the character gets more realistic, we start to get acutely sensitive to near-imperceptible cues, and find CGI humans creepy and unsettling.

It’s going to be an interesting time I think, as both audio and video start to push up against our actual “eye resolution” and “ear resolution”. I don’t think it’s only the obsessive nerds who’ll have a problem. It was my wife—the non-audiophile in the house—who delivered the damning judgement of that amplifier. While I was admiring its detail, she turned to me and said, “It sounds great, but it doesn’t touch the heart.”

First published in Gulf News, March 27, 2018

Black and white and read all over

Several people have looked at an object lying around our house and said, “Wow we haven’t seen one of those in a long time!” Some of these guests are younger than we are, but quite a few are about our age—in their late-30s or early-40s. The object is not one of those consciously ole-timey ones, like a record player, or typewriter, or even a floppy disk. It’s something that’s part of my wife’s and my daily lives, and one we never even thought about as uncommon or outdated: the print newspaper.

For as long as we’ve lived in Southern California (nearly 10 years now), we’ve had a subscription to the print edition of the Los Angeles Times, and have no plans to change that. Reading the newspaper while we drink a cup of chai is not just a favourite part of our morning, it’s a highlight of our lives.

I’ve often idly wondered whether to write about the reaction to our newspaper—which is always one of pleasant surprise, not derision. I was prompted to finally do so when I stumbled upon an article titled “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times, March 2, 2018). It was a column in the Technology section of the paper, and—just in case you’re wondering—I read it on my phone.

The thrust of the article was that Manjoo was experimenting with getting nearly all of his news from print, staying away from the alerts, tweets, and constant screen consumption. After the requisite unpluggers’ relish about how much time is now available for pursuits like pottery, spelunking, and spaghetti-from-scratch, Manjoo found great meaning in his “analogue” news reading.

Now, neither my wife nor I are print only, but we tend to read online commentary on our own time. (She prefaces so many sentences with the same words, that a running joke at home is that she should get a t-shirt that says, “I read an article in The Atlantic…”) We don’t have phone alerts, and don’t follow Twitter or Facebook, so don’t have to deal with Manjoo’s complaint that online, you often engage with the commentary before the facts. If you get your news from Facebook, for example, the “I’m so shocked” post from a friend leads you out to the news story.

I venture that one of the reasons why news feeds are stressful, is that a thinking, civic-minded person can be, and perhaps should be, a part of the conversation. Never before have we been able to directly and immediately engage with perpetrators, victims, politicians, CEOs, and anyone making the news. We are able to insert ourselves into stories as they happen, lead conversations, and maybe even influence outcomes.

If we don’t engage, some of us look at it as a neglect of duty, like going to a town hall meeting and not speaking up, not just to push back against the voices you disagree with, but to support lone voices you agree with. In this context, simply sharing or liking a post becomes your voice—you speak out by becoming a disseminator.

And so, deciding to get your news only from print media, without a corresponding log-out from social media is an intellectual exercise with no surprises. Where the delivered newspaper really outdoes itself, is that it offers a shared ritual with other members of your house, and with screens taking up so much of our lives, any shared analogue time is community—even if it’s so local it doesn’t extend past your dining table.

First published in Gulf News, March 13, 2018

Barbie for grown men

I get guns. I really do. I don’t own any, and don’t plan to, but I find them fascinating as objects. Growing up, my brother and I had a .22 air rifle, and it was one of our favourite possessions. Once in a while I handle a friend’s handgun or go clay shooting, and I love the heft, the oily clicks, and, finally, the challenge of trying to hit what you shoot at.

But I’ve been having trouble understanding the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Supporters of this gun don’t like the common term for it because a true “assault rifle” can be switched to automatic fire (such as the M16, which is the military version of the AR-15). The claim is that an AR-15 in civilian hands is a “modern sporting rifle” and suited to hunting and home defence. In America, in civilian hands, the AR-15 has become the mass-murderer’s weapon of choice. Newtown, Aurora, Las Vegas, San Bernadino, Sutherland Springs, and now Parkland.

Because it’s out of patent, many manufacturers make guns based on the AR-15 platform. Some you have heard of: Colt or Remington. Others perhaps not: Black Rain Ordnance, whose logo is the biohazard symbol, and tagline is “Let It Rain”. Or Daniel Defense, that has a video on its website with the tagline “Manufacturing Freedom”.

As of writing, these guns can be legally modified to fire at up to 800 rounds a minute. When their high velocity rounds hit living flesh, they carry so much force they cause something called cavitation, which results in massive injuries—far worse than the size of the bullet would suggest. An AR-15 bullet does not need to hit a vital organ or an artery to cause death.

So far, I’ve had trouble grasping two notions. One, why is a gun like this available to just about anybody above 18 in America? And two, why is it so beloved? I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to the first question, but as soon as I read that the AR-15 is a modular platform, I had an answer to the second.

There’s powerful appeal to customisable platforms of any kind. Hobbies are simply continuously delayed gratification, and we like to think that when we pick and choose, there’s no other bicycle or car or audio system or outfit or living room or travel itinerary or, indeed, rifle, out there quite like ours. If we put enough time and effort into curation and assembly, it’s almost as if we have lit the fires and wielded the tools ourselves—that we have manufactured.

Many of the AR-15 websites I visited sell gun parts, and it seems that every bit of this rifle can be swapped to either vary its applications or fit, or indulge your aesthetic preferences, from camouflage to Star Wars. Simply the options to add a flashlight could keep you deep in Google for hours, and I have to admit, some of those tricked-out guns look very good indeed.

And so, another name for the AR-15 is “Lego for grown-ups”, and even “Barbie for men”. The tragic irony then is that this gun is a toy. Neither hunting nor target practice require you to shoot 100 bullets in under 8 seconds. Home defence is better served by a hand gun, especially considering that a bullet from an AR-15 will easily go through a couple of houses in a row.

And so, if you wonder why children are being murdered in their classrooms in a developed country that is not at war, one reason is that a bunch of grown men don’t want their game of Soldier-Soldier to end.

First published in Gulf News, February 27, 2018

A Frank, Dapper Moon Unit

The text of my review of the MOON by Simaudio 240i integrated amplifier for TONEAudio Magazine Issue 87 (February 2018), page 116.

“Oh, the volume goes in point-five increments!”

Anyone whose spouse is not a fellow audiophile will recognize the terrifying unpredictability of what will appeal and what will repulse about a new product. My household follows the gendered trope of audiophilia: the husband is the equipment nut, the wife the long-suffering innocent, but secretly nearly as emotionally invested in the gear, and blessed with far superior, and far more unbiased hearing.

After 13 years of marriage everything is subtext, so I knew it wasn’t literally the half-stop jumps of the gain display; I understood that my wife was enjoying interacting with new MOON by Simaudio product in our living room. It had passed the hardest test of all.

It’s fashionable now for high-end products to have large, clear front displays that are readable from across the room, a reversal of the self-dug branding grave of arcaneness and inaccessibility. Guess what, it works. Those big numbers on the OLED display of the 240i integrated amplifier appeal to non-enthusiasts, as well as to enthusiasts in denial about needing reading glasses. The inputs have helpful little icons as you switch, whether an image of a TOSLINK connector for Optical, or an RCA pair for Analog. Like its full-chassis siblings from Simaudio, the fascia is bookended by two chunky metal corners like biceps, with a big silver MOON logo on the smooth metal front plate. This is a product that’s ruggedly handsome without giving you the sense that its Instagram feed is full of selfies.

(The remote, though, follows that other recurring audiophile theme of being good-looking and well built, but totally unintuitive—asking you to peer at the buttons every time you use it. This first-world problem is of course the fault of television manufacturers whose remotes fall to hand so easily that you can use them blind the first time you pick one up.)

As you play with the inputs, a neat little turntable icon appears, and behold, it’s Phono! The 240i is very much a product of Today, with a phono stage, a mini-RCA front input for personal audio players, and a phalanx of digital inputs. My vinyl-only buddy shook his head and laughed in a “we’ve come full circle” manner when I told him that more and more integrated amps come with phono on board. Of no interest to him, but certainly noteworthy to me was that this product has an in-built DAC, presented with so little fanfare. It’s instructive to watch the definitions of “preamplifier” and “integrated amplifier” get blurrier as we see units that go well beyond pure line stages with some even able to stream music, wired or wirelessly.

With two optical digital inputs, two RCA S/PDIF, two USB, and an HT bypass, the 240i would be as at home in an entertainment console, as in a stripped down two-channel set up. When I first unpacked it, I connected just my Rega P3-24 turntable, a clean two-unit system happily playing vinyl, while leaving room around it to put down a laptop to play via USB. Once I located an RCA digital cable, I served the 240i a digital stream from a Naim Audio Unitiqute using Tidal Hi-Fi, Radio Paradise (this internet station plays so much at home it’s like the soundtrack to our lives), and music on my NAS which includes Red Book rips and high-resolution PCM files, up to 192-24.

The 240i’s DAC can handle a maximum of 24-bit, 192 kHz on all inputs except USB which can process up to 32-bit, 352.8 and 382 kHz. The USB input handles all the bitstream formats, DSD64, 128, and 256. There’s no streamer on board, so you can’t connect a NAS or hard disk.

As I let the system settle in, I remembered how someone in the car industry once said to me, “There are no more bad cars—just pick the one that talks to you.”

Similarly, when dealing with true audio companies such as Simaudio, founded in 1980 in Canada (where it still does all manufacturing), and run by audiophile engineers, there are no bad products. It’s really all about “who” the product is, and whether you and the unit in question can be friends.

I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise, because that’s not the intention, but the 240i is an utterly inoffensive amplifier to bring home. I suspect Simaudio must be tired of seeing the word “laidback” in reviews, but that is how it presents itself initially. After a while it’s clear that the amp is not any less detailed or fast or musical for it. It’s just that it has an ease and balance that lets it come in and find a home for itself, like the houseguest whose stories are just risque enough to be hugely entertaining, but won’t cause Grandma June to choke on her dumplings. During early listening sessions it’s tempting to plan jokes about “polite Canadians”, but on deeper acquaintance with the 240i, a reviewer can’t, in good conscience, continue with this line of thought.

And so, music with the 240i is easy to listen to, with the space, detail, and low-end depth and control expected from a high-end product, but also with the energy and propulsiveness so many of us enjoy about good hi-fi. The highs especially have a beguiling, liquid quality without being overly warm. Long-time Simaudio fans describe the brand’s sound as “lightning fast”, and it’s amazing that the 240i carries that legacy without the music sounding like it’s being rushed along a knife edge, as many “fast” entry-level electronics do. It’s the sort of system you can leave playing all day—it works beautifully in the background—and is more than capable of serving up the involvement needed for critical listening.

In a two-channel home theatre set up, I found it easy to forget about the sound, and become immersed in the action—this is good, solid work with no showboating. The source was a cheap Sony Blu-ray player, with two old Naim Intro 2 floorstanders. When I did something I haven’t done in a long time, which is pull out my storage folders and put on some CDs, I was pleasantly surprised enough to keep this set-up playing for a few evenings. It delivered enough PRaT for even older Naim fans.

For more critical listening on the main system, I’ve become used to the 170W or so my T+A Elektroakustik power amp can swing (rated very conservatively), and how well it plays with my T+A TCD 210 S loudspeakers. So while the 240i’s 50 W into 8 Ohms sounds a little light with these largish floorstanders, this “Little Integrated That Could” left me with a keen desire to listen to its bigger relatives, notably Simaudio’s power amps from its Evolution series, ideally the 860A, but more realistically, the 760A.

Having said that, I know so many people who would find the 240i more than amplifier enough. It’s for convivial living rooms that are designed for human beings first, and draped cables, audio treatments, and racks a distant tenth. I can picture exactly which friends I would unhesitatingly recommend this product to. We all have them—the music fans who would love a good system, but seem to never get round to graduating from a dock, or who keep switching their way through generations of big-brand multi-channel receivers.

I’d be especially interested to see this amp in a crowded space with a turntable, TV, gaming console, video disc player, streaming media player, laptop with USB, and occasional houseguests’ phones or portable players. This is the kind of family-room hustle the MOON seems to be designed to fit into, and then hold its own with “proper” sound. The 240i may be no-nonsense and easy to use, but you could never bestow upon it that damning audiophile adjective: “lifestyle”. The MOON by Simaudio 240i offers you the sense that instead of merely whittling away at more expensive products in the line to descend to entry level, Simaudio has made “entry level” a design goal to aspire to.

Where did non-business email go?

There’s a scene in one of the episodes of the American version of The Office, where the character Ryan is using a smart phone during a pub quiz. This isn’t allowed, but he refuses to put it down, and it has to be taken away from him. As it’s taken away, Ryan tries to sit still but he can’t. He leaves his team saying, “I can’t not have my phone, I’m sorry. I want to be with my phone.”

The episode, in Season Eight, first aired in 2012, and I must have seen it a year or two later. I still remember that when I first watched it, I felt shocked at the thought that Ryan needed his device so badly, and felt sorry for someone who’d give themselves over to it like that. I watch The Office a lot, it’s like comfort food to me, and when I watch that scene today, it looks very different. In fact, it’s shocking to watch a smart phone being taken away from someone. Even at home, it’s often hard for me to be more than a couple of feet from mine. Back in 2013, I would often leave home without my phone, happy to be disconnected for a while. Today it’s almost unthinkable—what if I get lost? What if I need to search for something? What if I’m stuck in a line somewhere and bored?

Very occasionally, I do leave the phone at home—but only when we’re going somewhere nearby and when I’m sure that my wife has hers. There is an initial tug of anxiety as I check my pockets reflexively, and feel the stretch of elastic as I leave it and drive out of the gate. But after being away from it for about 10 minutes I feel a sense of relief. It’s not that my nose is buried in it all the time when it’s there—I do remember to look up at the world, and I do often put it away in my pocket and just sit and be me, but it isn’t long before it’s out again… hey just to check the time…

With the internet always on call and at hand, sometimes it’s startling for me to realise we already have a technological history here. I’m not just thinking about dial-up modems, but the fact that there’d be one computer in the house that everyone needed to use to check email or look things up on a search engine. That instead of giving your guests a wi-fi password, you’d show them to the messy desk where your computer was, and you’d have to negotiate keyboard time with everybody at home.

And though our screen time was precious and rationed, we all wrote each other long emails, sharing our thoughts and doings. Where did email go? I used to write to so many people, some of them several times a week. This number dwindled sharply, and then steadily, until it was down to two, and now it’s none.

While the arrival of email made some of us bemoan the loss of the analogue and personal touch of letter-writing, the underlying concept was unchanged. We still had the buffer of time let us gather thoughts, find depth, and toss the filler. It seems like we just don’t have the time any more for that, but surely that can’t be true? I think it’s my turn to write to the last of my emailing friends, but not only am I not finding time to write it, I’m also loath to load him with the guilt of having to reply.

First published in Gulf News, February 13, 2018

Who needs a modernised typewriter?

A few years ago my mother sent me a link to a product called the Hemingwrite. It was a distraction-free word processor, or if you like, a modernised typewriter. It had a small screen, a high-quality keyboard, solid aluminium casework, and could do little else beyond accept your words with a series of satisfying clicks from those tactile Cherry keys, and send them via wifi to the cloud. There was no browser, no apps, and it didn’t even have arrow keys. I was fascinated.

I kept a close eye on it through its Kickstarter campaign, its agonising lead up to production, through its rebranding to the Astrohaus Freewrite, right on through to unboxing videos and other reviews online.

While I enjoy reading about technology and playing with it at friend’s homes, I’m not an early adopter. I prefer to hang back through the breakages, fires, maimings, and explosions before I commit (not that the Freewrite went though any of those new-product rites of passage). Also holding me back was the $500 price tag—it was a lot of money for one-use product in the days of your screens offering five senses and the world. And finally, I didn’t think the Freewrite suited to writing articles, so didn’t want to buy one until I was sure I had a longer story to tell.

“The $500 Freewrite word processor is pretentious hipster nonsense,” went the headline of an article on Mashable.com (Christina Warren and Karissa Bell, Feb 24, 2016). It was a brutal takedown of the product—neither author understood why anyone would want one when there were so many free distraction-free apps out there, and that it cost the same as a good tablet, but weighed four times as much.

I heard them. I still wanted one. I knew there was something in the weight of this overengineered, under-featured product that would appeal to me in a way that the authors’ suggestion of getting an iPad Air 2, a keyboard, and a distraction-free writing app just wouldn’t.

Perhaps the most controversial feature, or non-feature, of the Freewrite is its lack of editing capability. Many users say it should at least have arrow keys—even if only to go up a couple of sentences and correct typos. I was inclined to agree, especially when writing a shorter article of 600 or 1,200 words, rather than getting through the 100,000 words of a novel.

But as I write the first draft of this very article on the Freewrite, I realise there’s power in that constant forward momentum. Wanting to immediately correct errors is pure ego for me, and it’s an act of rebellion to let those typos sit there until the second draft, like dirty dishes left overnight in the sink. As I plough on, if a paragraph doesn’t work, I leave it in place, and simply start it again. I don’t tweak or tinker, I just move on, filling empty space.

When you roll a sheet of paper into a typewriter and press down on a key, you’re taking an object in this world and forever changing it. There is no easy way to go back from those hammered impressions, and the Freewrite has a sense of this heft and inevitability. You don’t sit down at one of these machines unless you mean it. Conversely, sitting down at one of these machines requires you to mean it.

Does that sound like more “pretentious hipster nonsense”? I’ll know for sure in six months when either my Freewrite is in constant use, or buried in the same dusty drawer as my fountain pen with green ink.

First published in Gulf News, January 30, 2018

The art of the two-person monologue

After a long break from social media (essentially Facebook) I’m back, but on Instagram. The photo sharing site feels more manageable than Facebook, though a few of my interactions give me unpleasant flashbacks.

Let’s take Thomas. On social media (and on the phone and in person) Thomas has a clever-clever response to everything. It annoyed me until I realised, this is what I used to do, and still do if I don’t catch myself: wander around people’s status updates or threads, and leave clever comments, sometimes nothing more. What this does, in effect, is make the other person’s story about me. When other social-media users see my comment and like it, or respond “Good one!”, the original user’s story has been co-opted.

This is a form of “narcissistic conversation”, and my desire to shame Thomas for it, was to avoid the shame I felt for having done that very thing to so many people. Narcissistic conversation has been a big part of my last year. I’m more attuned to it because on the larger arena, we’re listening to each other so much better (recognising voices of minorities and the less privileged), and at the same time reacting so strongly to events and ideas, that we’re barely listening to anybody about anything.

On the smaller arena, bad listening has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting worse. As I look over my interactions of 2017, I see how some people never ever ask about my life, not even after I solicit, and they joyfully share, details of theirs. Others ask, but seem almost pained as I speak, switching the story back to themselves at the first breath I draw. One person has the habit of interjecting with a machine-gun-like “yup yup yup yup” that makes me cut myself short because I feel as if I’m taking up his precious time with my banalities.

Even when bad listeners pause long enough to hear you, there are elaborate rituals to invalidate you. It’s a common ploy to lie in wait to criticise your choices or recommendations, whether a film, city, restaurant, lifestyle, or opinion. This doesn’t mean everyone should love everything you do, but it’s easy to spot the difference between genuine disagreement with an understanding of your context, and an insecure person hitting back at you with glee, because they feel diminished when they don’t know everything.

The character George in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? described a “declension” that perfectly sums up the norm of conversation as competition: “Good, better, best, bested.” The word he used, declension, means both the variation of form of nouns or adjectives, and a moral deterioration. When conversation becomes competition, we lessen our world.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be messy–if you can’t make mistakes and cross lines with your friends, then what use friendship? I have allowed many people months of messiness, during which I felt deeply unheard, and sometimes put down or hit out at. When it gets too much, I am often messy myself in how I set my boundaries. But people with low awareness of their narcissicism, do not take kindly to boundary setting whether neat or messy, and they will drop you.

Luckily, you can test for narcissistic conversation long before being shut out. After you talk to a person, do you feel happy and energised, or drained and disregarded? If it’s the latter, is being dropped by them such a bad thing? Protecting yourself from narcissicism is empowering, but never forget to keep a close watch on the most cunning and insiduous narcissist of all—the one inside.

First published in Gulf News, January 16, 2018

Don’t run over anyone in 2018

The sound a car makes when it crashes into a human being is a loud bang—making you think at first it’s a car-on-car collision—but with an edge of meaty wetness that makes you realise something is very very wrong.

There was a musician outside the Target that that evening, as I waited with our dogs for my wife to run in and buy something. A tall man went past me, looking down at the ground and muttering loudly to himself, stepping as if he was randomly selecting the point in front of him to put his foot down. He was covered in carabiners, loops, buckles, and straps, in filthy clothes and with greasy hair, suggesting he was one of the many schizophrenic homeless people of Los Angeles County.

I was watching the musician when I heard the tyres screech, and then that awful sound. My eyes darted to the road behind, where I could see the crosswalk between two bushes. A black car went by with what looked like a piece falling off it. It was a person, being flung into the air just like they are in the movies, to land with a thump nearly ten feet from the crosswalk.

The musician dropped his guitar and sprinted right up to the victim, kneeling and cradling the man’s bleeding head in his arms. At some point he ripped off his own shirt to help stanch the flow. Meanwhile, I dialled those fateful, storied three digits: 9-1-1. As I walked over, I recognised the pants and straps, as the homeless man’s legs started to flail, either in agony or a seizure.

Now while the poor upset young driver probably wasn’t at fault (it’s likely the homeless man simply stepped onto the road), a road culture heavily skewed to favour cars helped cause this crash. There is a high-speed state highway at a choke point that features a downtown shopping district, a Metro station and three-track level crossing, a bus stop, a pedestrian crosswalk outside a busy department store, the entrance to the store car park just beyond that, and no shoulder at all.

Sadly I don’t have the space now to segue into the story of why this man, and nearly 58,000 others like him, is homeless in the richest state of one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s only in the last few years in America that I’ve met so many people at the opposite end of the political and ideological spectrum from me. People who will assert that while the accident is sad, the man is only out there because he chose not to avail of the opportunity to live the American Dream that is supposedly given to everybody in this country. And that while cars can be unsafe, if they boost the economy, it’s fine to give over our cities, woods, fields, and dreams to tarmac, parking lots, and a life where you’re in constant physical danger as you walk and drive from work and play.

The more I encounter this selfish, utterly unimaginative way of looking at the world, the more it makes me sad rather than angry. In the end though, whether you look at that accident as no more than two objects attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, or whether you see the story of capitalism and America, I want you to carry the echo of that sound in your head (remember what I said: a loud bang with a wet, meaty edge), and drive your self-propelled metal missile with more care, compassion, and awareness in 2018.

First published in Gulf News, January 2, 2018