The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

A man in our town is so fond of the short stories of Lydia Davis that he never wants to see a photograph of her. He explains that for him, she is a texture of words, and if asked to elaborate will explain that the composite portrait offered by her overlapping and exactly-sketched characters, which are almost certainly no more or less autobiographical than those of other writers but which somehow, due to the concision and clarity of her style, seem to embody a consistent presence, is more satisfying than any mere mechanical reproduction of her physical appearance could be expected to be.

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Shoal Bay, Nelson Bay, Newcastle

 

Top to bottom: Tomaree Mountain at the mouth of Port Stephens; a blue-faced honeyeater; WWII history in Mermaids, the breakfast cafe at the Ramada Resort we stayed in; a puffer fish we found on the track halfway up the mountain; view from the top; two photos of the WWII gun emplacements; a bizarre sloping mall at Nelson Bay; view across the Hunter from the Newcastle foreshore

Here Comes Everybody

So literally the day after blogging about being off Twitter and #WhyIStayOnMastodon, a big crowd of Australian left twitter, including most of my mutuals, showed up in the Fediverse. So much for my plan to ease off the compulsive Mastodon checking.

This isn’t the first wave of birdsite refugees to hit Mastodon and it won’t be the last, although there are signs that we’ve reached some sort of threshold where the new arrivals start finding enough to talk about that they stick around. But I thought I should post a few things about what I’ve noticed about the place, and how it is, and isn’t, like Twitter.

It’s not just Mastodon. There are different types of software in the federated social media sphere which can federating with one another using the OStatus and ActivityPub protocols, one of which was developed for GNU Social, which came first. There’s also Pleroma, which is younger than Mastodon. And there’s drama.

There’s also drama within Mastodon, most interestingly about how the project is governed. This is normal and healthy, and how free software should work.

There’s no one Fediverse. This has always been true of Twitter, which is what phrases like “X Twitter” imply: different slices of the thing have their own cultures. It’s even more true in the fediverse, where each instance has its own moderation policy, and (sometimes) its own topical focus and (more rarely) custom software modifications, as in oulipo.social, which rejects all posts containing the letter ‘e’, or its anti-instance, dolphin.town. Mastodon’s culture of strong local moderation and content warnings — and its reputation as a safe haven for furries, people of colour and queer and trans folk who were fed up with Twitter’s miserable efforts at countering abuse — can give the impression that it’s trying to be one big earnest safe space: as can the anti-Nazi policies which most instances, particularly the ones in EU jurisdictions, are happy to enforce. But some instances are, or have been, a lot more 4chan-like. Any fediverse server is free to block federation from any other, and in late 2017 and early 2018 there seemed to be some kind of instance block war going on, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. I think it reached some sort of equilibrium, but a mass influx of shitposters from political Twitter is just the sort of thing which could fire things up again. Conflict of this sort is inherent in the federated model, and there’s no telling what will happen if things are really snowballing.

Actually, content warnings are good. If I were asked to sum up the difference in ethos between Mastodon and other services I’ve used, I’d say that it tries to give you the most explicit control about what you let people see, on the most granular level. That’s why the privacy settings for individual posts can seem over-the-top, but actually make sense, and it’s why content warnings are a really good way to communicate to your readers what a post contains or is trying to do. Spoiler alert: it’s about letting people not read your post if it’s not relevant to them or would harm them, or give them spoilers. And when used properly, they can add the crucial dimension of timing to a good shitpost. (Apparently, Pleroma calls them ‘subjects’, so I guess someone was triggered by the term ‘content warning’).

Irony still works here. As do the usual range of shitposting strategies. (People were trying to get ‘pooptooting’ happening, but it never took off.) I’ve seem people say things like “will there be weird Mastodon like there was weird Twitter”, as if the whole lifecycle of the platform will recapitulate itself, but social media is Heraclitus’ river where the water is made of terrible memes and references to 90s culture, and you can’t step into it twice, nor would you necessarily want to. But Mastodon has been evolving its own vocabulary of in-jokes, because it’s full of clowns like you and me.

Earnestness works too. It still feels like it’s at the stage where you can make connections with people about shared interests, and the communities haven’t gotten too hidebound. It’s still absurdly friendly, if you’re used to Twitter. It can also be really long-winded and obsessive.

It has its problems. It’s still got too many straight white blokes who work with computers on it, and if anything, the recent Twitter influx seems to be making that worse. I don’t know what we can do about that other than to follow, pay attention to and boost other voices as much as possible.

Oh, and retweets are boosts now, which is what they always were. I’ve always thought that the best Twitter filter would be to block everyone who has a ‘RT ≠ endorsement’ disclaimer in their bio, and Mastodon has made it explicit: if you spread something around, you’re helping it, whether you like it or not.

If you give it a go, my primary Mastodon account is @mikelynch@icosahedron.website

Various moods

There are now two disposable razor blades on the sink, because my son started transitioning two months ago and the testosterone gel is working.

When something uniquely stupid happens in Australian politics, the feeling of relief that comes when I remember that I quit Twitter. This even makes the Clive Palmer billboards easier to handle. It seems clear that Twitter is never going to fix its problems: corporations don’t often change their characters, any more than people do, and Twitter’s personality has always been one of mealy-mouthed neglect. At this stage, harassment and abuse are part of their business model: each time nazis or fans chase someone off their platform, each time the President has another meltdown, it’s more publicity for them. They’ve made the political crisis part of their business model, a way to position themselves in the market. I really miss it but they’re just grifters and they don’t deserve the communities which have formed there, or any more of our trust.

I took on a bit more extracurricular work than I could manage last month but it’s all finished now. I’m still enjoying the feeling of not having to work on code after dinner most nights. I can just tune out or write or watch TV.

Seeing the five naked-eye planets lined up from horizon to horizon. Mercury’s not visible any more but you can still see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars every clear evening. Both Venus and Mars are spectacular right now.

The flipside, in a way, of Twitter regret, is compulsively checking Mastodon, even though I’ve only made a few and fleeting connections there. Somehow, compulsively checking something which I’m not that invested in seems healthier, more mindless, like worry beads. There was a hashtag going around on it a couple of weeks ago, #WhyIStayOnMastodon: I said because I wanted to see where it went. There isn’t going to be “a new Twitter” because this whole thing is still in a state of constant flux, platforms come and go on this thing we call “the internet” and act like we’re old hands because we’ve seen its first few decades. So many people will tell you all about what it represents but I don’t think we know that yet. Mastodon can seem like the early days of the web, probably because the programmer-to-normie ratio is still very high, but it’s also something new and evolving its own culture. It’s healthy to not know where this particular part of it is going or if it will last.

Also, there are heaps of trans folk there. Most of my irl trans acquaintances are my son’s friends, it does me good to connect with a wider community.

There’s another whole blog post in how I feel about JavaScript right now, in the final stages of a long project where I feel like I’ve spent too much time trying to code in a language which I’ve always defended but which honestly has a lot of flaws. I’ve had moments lately where I worry that my ability to code is going away with age, or, what’s worse, that I’m too old to be learning new things. This is a symptom both of depression and of mild burnout on the stuff I’ve been working on, and I’m trying to wait for it to pass.

Diaries

I told myself, and I wrote here, that I was going to blog more, about a month ago, and nothing much has come of it. For a while now I’ve been trying to write five hundred words each day, which sometimes is fiction and sometimes essays which end up as blog posts, either here or on mikelynch.org, but which is mostly a diary.

There have been other times when I’ve been going through troubles that I’ve written regularly. After a spell of frantic and introspective journal-keeping after getting divorced in 2003, I went off it, because it didn’t seem to help with my depression and in some ways made it worse. I felt like I was just rolling around in my problems and not doing anything about them. The ritual of putting pen to paper was comforting, but the actual writing wasn’t amounting to anything, and it meant that the most creative activity which I did was also concentrating on all the reasons why I was sad. I’ve still got an envelope somewhere containing a thick wad of foolscap which I sealed away when I decided to stop keeping that journal. I haven’t ever been tempted to open it.

My daily writing now has felt more productive, even if it’s not that much more worth reading. Every now I’ll go back over it — the fact that I’m doing it on a laptop rather than a notepad makes this easier — and it’s sometimes embarrassing to see me write down the same insight, something I’ve figured out in therapy or while running that struck me as particularly helpful or wise, months apart, often using almost the same words, with no self-awareness that I’d already been over that ground. Maybe the lesson here is that keeping a diary is more useful if one re-reads it, so that things don’t get lost.

There’s another reason for this kind of delayed stutter, and that’s fear. Mostly, the repetitions I’m thinking of are writing about, or writing around, something which I need to tell someone or do with someone, and which I’m afraid of. Writing about it is, in a way, a delaying tactic. Instead of getting up the courage to have a difficult conversation, I can write five hundred words about it. It is a useful way to put my thoughts in order, but it’s also a sop: I get the satisfaction of having done something, and ticked off a daily self-care task, without the danger of actually doing the thing which I’m afraid of doing.

I do, eventually, mostly, get around to doing these things, and I shouldn’t be hard on myself about the slow and repetitive nature of the process. There’s far more repetition in my head, where I worry about these things and have imaginary versions of the conversations which I’m delaying. By turning them into something that’s a little more concrete — even if it’s the evanescent form of a text file on a laptop — I make them more real, something I’m less likely, even if only marginally, to forget about or put off.

City2Surf

This is the third time I’ve run in the City2Surf. I’ve been running regularly for about seven years and you’d think I’d be getting used to it, but every time I finish the 14k from Hyde Park to Bondi I can’t quite believe that I did it.

Last year I finished in 88m, which is just under the 90m qualifying time for a green bib. I hadn’t really thought much about that until I got to the bib collection at Darling Harbour on Saturday and saw how small the green queues were compared to the blue, yellow and orange ones. There were thousands of us, but a small fraction of the total. I don’t think I’ve ever qualified for any kind of race before: it made me feel a bit like I was a part of an elite, but mostly that I was among the very slowest part of that elite.

It also meant that I had to get up earlier than usual.

Photo 12-8-18, 6 47 55 am

The green runners start right after the wheelchair athletes and the frankly implausible reds, who have demonstrated the ability to run the course in under an hour. Starting early is great because there’s a lot less time standing around freezing on College St while FM radio presenters yell at you over loudspeakers. There’s still a bit of that, as you can see.

Photo 12-8-18, 7 45 51 am

I wasn’t expecting too much this year as my form’s been a bit off. One of the things which keeps me running is that it’s good for my mood, but that cuts both ways. When my mood’s poor or I’m stressed, which has been the case for a lot of this year, my pace goes down. But running with the green pack was really good. In previous years I’ve spent a lot of time dodging people who’ve slowed down to a walk, which is a bit stressful, but very few green runners did that before Heartbreak Hill. So the first six Ks seemed to fly.

I needed to take a break twice up the Hill: my main City2Surf aspiration is to make it all the way up to Vaucluse without needing to do this. Coming around the hairpin bend at the top, we met an icy southerly which we’d been sheltered from thus far: it made the last stretch a bit more of a struggle than usual. One thing that also seems to be part of the green pack was getting barracked by fellow runners: when I broke into a walk in the final stretch a bloke behind me yelled, in a not unfriendly tone, “COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!”

Photo 12-8-18, 9 36 19 am (1).jpg

My other C2S aspiration is to have a decent expression on my face when I take a finish-line selfie.

Photo 12-8-18, 10 08 38 am.jpg

Even though I wasn’t expecting to, I improved my time to 87m, so I’ll get to keep my green status till 2020 (qualification lasts for two years, for some reason). The other great thing about it is that Bondi wasn’t anywhere near as crowded when I got there, so I could get a yoghurt and a coffee and a beer without too much hassle, and take in some accidental glitch art from this video screen showing the wheelchair racer’s presentation.

Various compulsions

I’ve taken Twitter breaks before, from a week to a month in length, because it messes with my head: it’s like I have a little cloud of arguments and jokes following me around, and I’m always distracted, either by anger or by the ever-present urge to turn a situation or a stray thought into a sentence which can get me some dopamine. My current break is the longest I’ve had, and I did it for a slightly different reason.

Once I’ve started checking Twitter in a given twenty-four hour period, I can’t let go of it. I’ll keep checking it at short intervals, unless interrupted by something which forces me to focus my attention elsewhere, like driving or eating. This year, my compulsive urge to check it became dramatically worse, and I tried to stay off it until after 5pm. This seemed to be going OK, until I noticed that every afternoon at 4:30 or so I’d get a massive knot in my stomach. It was the first time I’d ever had Twitter make me anxious before I’d even read it, so I decided to give it a rest for a while, and then the while turned into a couple of months.

I still miss it and one of the things on my to-do list is to prune my follow list back to under a hundred people, or maybe just start a new account and follow back anyone who cares enough to follow me, but neither of these things is very high up my to-do list. Which is annoying: over the years Twitter has provided me with a form of social connection which has been really important to me, and I’m not very good at making connections in more traditional ways, so it’s left me feeling a bit isolated.

What’s also annoying is that the compulsiveness itself hasn’t gone away, it seems to have displaced itself into other behaviours which honestly aren’t much better than Twitter:

Hatereading rationalist blogs. I’ve been unhealthily fascinated with places like LessWrong since I first found out about them, and a few months ago I actually added Slate Star Codex to my RSS reader. These people write so much that following what’s going on at all requires way more effort than it would be worth even if they were any good. But they’re not. I still want someone to do a “Serial” style podcast about a group of American psychiatric outpatients who slowly discover that their doctor is running an incredibly earnest and verbose blog in which he tries to reverse-engineer every form of human activity in order to solve the world and prevent a harmful AI from eating our brains.

Compulsively checking the output of my Twitter bots. Yes, I know that this is a bit sad, but I’m sure I can’t be the only botteur who does it.

Trying to keep up with the Trump megathreads on Metafilter, which is like trying to keep up with a screaming mob. Even if you agree with them, it’s not advisable.

Checking Mastodon. This seems healthier than Twitter, or, at least, it doesn’t wind me up as much. But it’s less worthwhile as a source of social connection. It might improve: I remember a while in 2009 or so when Twitter seemed a bit pointless, and then for some reason, some threshold in my corner of the social graph was passed and it seemed to take off. Mastodon, or my slice of it, has better politics but too many people complaining about how software and computers are terrible and we should burn them down and start again.

Reading Wikipedia articles. I was one of those kids who read an entire encyclopaedia (the World Book) just because it was comforting and full of facts, although I got an aversion to several letters because their volumes contained articles which were not comforting at all: D for Disease, H for Heart (disease). Looking up obscure topics in astrophysics or biology and reading through thousands of words of the output of the internet’s Bouvards and Pécuchets is not something of which I’m proud, but it’s better, again, than reading Scott Alexander.

I’ve started using a site blocker to keep me off the worst of these places altogether and restrict my access to the less bad ones. I’m hoping to get some compulsive behaviours going which are constructive, like posting things here, and drawing again, and writing more stories.