Spot the Dumb

It took a deliberate and focused effort to enter the stack. Now, I’m entering a period of deliberate unfocused-ness. To me, that means walking many paths in parallel. One of those paths is a novella and its two adjacent mini-projects, and their respective initial forays have already begun. They’ve also created an opportunity for a teeny, tiny game called “Spot the Dumb”. Here’s how it works:

  • I’m going to describe one of these initial forays
  • There is a Dumb buried within it
  • The aim of the game is to find it

If you, dear reader, have even the barest shred of human decency you won’t notice the Dumb until I explicitly reveal it. I will find this uplifting and it will reaffirm to me that I Am Very Smart. It’s okay if you notice it before that, though; just know that my self-worth will be dealt a mortal blow and require revivification. Another important note: finding more Dumbs than the one I explicitly reveal will also negatively impact my sense of self. Your conscience; your call. 

Let the game begin

Right, let’s play Spot the Dumb!

Dramatic music; previously bright lights dim abruptly.

During my sporadic and currently non-existent meditation practice there has been one constant annoyance: time. Specifically, the measurement of it. 

A key element of meditation is escaping the counting of time and focusing on the experience of it. Unfortunately, for most non-monks this escape into qualitative time has to occur in a framework that is basically dependent on quantitative time. Yes, I speak of goddamn modernity. 

The result is that meditation has to be shoe-horned into our daily routines like any other activity or obligation. And because meditative practice has a tendency to be emphasised as a morning practice—in the mornings we are unsullied by the impurities of daily life, apparently—most people can’t practice for an unknown, unbounded amount of time. Which means that there has to be something that enforces an end. Often, it’s a timer.

Timers are useful things, I’ll admit. But there are certain types of timers I don’t want to pollute my meditation practice with: 

  • Those represented on a screen
  • Those that have loud and/or annoying alarm sounds
  • Those that tick intrusively
  • Those too delicate or ill-shaped to be repeatedly slipped into a pocket or shoved in a bag
  • Those that have a distracting visual element
  • Those that are obviously made of synthetic materials

I want something small, simple, elegant, robust and conducive to the profound contemplative heights I’m obviously going to achieve. I suspect something like this already exists, but I still decided to make my own. Or at least to think of it. I didn’t enjoy formal education that much at all so I recreated one particular manifestation of what it could be in Barker; I intended to do the same using the novella as a lever.

The timer I imagined was the opposite of the above:

  • It was not a smooth, shiny rectangle
  • It did not make an awful sound at zero (it perhaps made none and used a visual cue instead)
  • It did not have distinct tick sounds (though it could have a pleasant continuous sound)
  • It is did not break easily during everyday use and abuse
  • It had a soothing visual element which could be arbitrarily toggled on or off
  • Its outer was made of natural materials

This, I reasoned, should be simple.

The first thing I started with was the increments of my timer. Seconds aren’t really appropriate to mediation (as I view it), so what could be the replacement? 

The face of the timer should be circular, like a clock face. Aha, wouldn’t it be good if the increments of the timer were based on the timer’s hand completing a single full circuit of its circumference? And wouldn’t it be extra good if switching between those increments could be as simple as moving some marker up or down the length of the timer’s hand? 

The circumference of a circle (its diameter multiplied by pi) gives some nice values that suggested something like:

  • Increment one: 6 seconds
  • Increment two: 60 seconds
  • Increment three: 6 minutes

Those seem like nice, meditation friendly times. The first increment, for example, is roughly correlated with the “magic number” associated with many breathing practices from different disciplines. See James Nestor’s Breath for more on that.

With such a simple way to switch between these lovely increments, the timer would require just a simple mechanism to rotate at a steady rate. But what would this mechanism actually sit in?

I began to think about housings—wood, yes, with a nicely curved back and a cute little foldaway kickstand. Perhaps a folding cover to protect the timer face when it is stowed? Size? About as big as the palm of a hand ought to do it. Hmm, there’d need to be a way to either count completed circuits up or down to an arbitrary, user-defined number. Perhaps choosing a clock-wise rotation of the hand for up counts and anti-clockwise for down counts would work?

And wouldn’t it be cool if—like visualisations that demonstrate the tempo of box breathing—the hand itself wasn’t just a boring straight line. What if it was something fancy, more visually alluing, like a logarithmic spiral?

This highly speculative outline is what was accompanying me when I actually sat down and tried to work some of this stuff out, aiming to start accumulating the level of detail required for a prototype. I was somewhere between thirty minutes and an hour into my idle imaginings before the Dumb struck.

Me on a rope, being spun by a giant

I will reveal the Dumb with a story. 

Imagine that—for whatever reason—I have grossly offended a giant. Because I’m a gentleman I allow him to select my punishment. This particular giant is an elite athlete training ferociously for the hammer throw in the upcoming giant olympics. The giant informs me that my humanoid shape and the likelihood of my body contorting into strange shapes could act as a novel training stimulus. The giant has elected to attach me to the end of a rope and swing me furiously in a circle.

This giant is a very good hammer thrower. I am but a metre from the giant’s body as I am spun, and it’s horrendously painful, so I alternate my desperate attempts at breathing with expletives about his lineage. 

This elite, hammer throwing giant stops spinning me, swaps the current rope for a longer one, and spins me again. This time, my desperate attempts at breathing are alternated with moments of unconsciousness.

This is the Dumb: moving a marker up or down the length of a timer’s hand doesn’t alter how long it takes the marker to do a full circuit. It travels a shorter or longer distance, sure, but the time it takes remains the same. In the case of the hammer-throwing giant: tethered to the longer rope, I spin much faster than I did when I was tethered to the giant’s shorter rope (assuming the giant rotates at the same speed). Hence the unconsciousness.

Dumb it up

The above is an example of someone—me—entering a completely unfamiliar domain—physics? product design?—and stacking basic errors atop shaky assumptions. But it’s okay. A novice in any domain will encounter many Dumbs. Ideally, these Dumbs will be inconsequential and easy to remedy. Sometimes, they will not be that. This is also okay because it’s unlikely to happen. Novices are usually treated as novices and remain unable to access anything that could cause too much damage at once.

Which means that if you’re a novice like me the explicit aim should be to dumb it up as quickly as possible. Beyond even the standard rate of Dumb caused by a person attempting a new thing. The dumbing-down can be left to the experts.