Ward Nicholson

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Emerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 3

Why would one stay away from public participation on the internet for so long, after having been so active before that? Why begin writing again online now? The time had come.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

An inner imperative for absence

Introversion and peaceful time away

With the internet having increasingly become a roiling and turbid fishbowl, what a lot of the preceding reasons for opting out covered in Part 2 really boil down to is my personality type as a serious introvert. Once I went to the sidelines, it didn’t take long to begin luxuriating in being out of the spotlight.

The internet is a curious double-edged sword if you’re an introvert. On the one hand, with a website or blog you can write and post from the sanctuary of your own home, while still interacting with people from a distance. On the face of it, this is less demanding and stressful than doing so in person. While I do okay in my personal life dealing with people one-on-one whom I don’t know, still, as an introvert, it is always going to be somewhat stressful unless it takes place in an intimate atmosphere with close friends you implicitly trust.

However… with conversations in person, at least people you don’t know tend to demonstrate basic politeness. The internet, on the other hand, seems to invite people to sound off with unbridled opinions and untempered emotions. This inevitably leads to conflict and people just itching to shoot down another person’s statements.

Getting out of practice with conflict. Conflict is something most introverts do not like. With email forums and then the Beyond Veg website, over time I learned to develop a thick skin and not take things too personally. But doing so isn’t a once-and-done thing if you’re an introvert — it doesn’t come naturally, at least not in my case. It’s something that’s an ongoing discipline or practice, as is simply being in the public eye more, and knowing how to handle yourself.

If you’re not keeping a “skill” sharp, you get rusty at it. As I got out of practice being on the sidelines for months and then years, the inertia of staying there took on a momentum of its own. Now that I am “putting myself back out there” online again, I’m attempting to do so in a more quiet, personal way. This is not to say that I am always one to avoid conflict. Push me far enough, and if the arena is something I am knowledgable about, I will respond with as much ammunition as called for. Respectfully so, in most cases, but with no holds barred intellectually.

With Beyond Veg, we addressed conflict head-on when needed and learned how to make hay of it in a calculated way (refer back to my “war games” comment in Part 2), and that is one reason the site thrived when it was active. But make no mistake, conflict is an emotional drain for most introverts, even when you learn how to handle it successfully and grow from it. For combative types who may be more extroverted, conflict can be exciting and energizing. But as an introvert, you have to set limits of some sort to keep it from becoming too consuming.

Other endeavors

Putting the freed-up time into other pursuits

Departing from active participation on the internet also freed up a lot of time. This is not to say that I regretted any of the time I had put into Beyond Veg or had previously spent on internet forums. I had great fun and learned a tremendous amount.

The partnership in Beyond Veg with Tom Billings and the confluence of events that brought us together was unusual, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. The timing was perfect, and we both happened to have extra space in our lives just at that juncture. Tom was going back to school for additional post-graduate work in statistics without a heavy workload, and with unfettered access to a top research library. My self-employment was at a low ebb without a clear direction to pursue career-wise for the time being, leaving me extra time as well. We had the time and the opportunity, and the circumstances came together.

Timing is everything. But these things have their season, then other events take you over, such as the repetitive stress injury (RSI) I was forced to deal with, or the need to strike out in a new direction with my career.

What did I do with the extra time? After the short-term ad agency gig that was mentioned in Part 2, where I used the time to deal with the RSI enigma, much of my time was devoted to building up and running the Leeward Productions custom promotional car tags business (also covered earlier). My business partner Lee and I worked together from 2003 through 2008, then he moved on to pursue his first love, fine arts, as a career. After shutting down the business for a year or two after that and exploring other options, I eventually decided to go back and retool the operation somewhat by starting to work with outside suppliers to produce and drop-ship license plates.

Bodyweight strength training

During the year or two in between closing and relaunching Leeward Productions, I went to the local university career-placement center to look into potential new careers, and took the usual personality and career-aptitude tests. Aside from finding out my Meyers-Briggs personality type  — basically someone who likes to sit around by themselves and think a lot :-) :-/ which doesn’t pay too well :-( — and attending the yearly spring-semester career fair, which produced no results, I decided to start a small lawn-mowing business to make ends meet.

And while this seemed to be a temporary dead-end detour, it led to something unexpected: it got me involved with bodyweight strength training, in a roundabout way.

Ectomorph vs. macho mesomorphs. Most of my life since I was a teenager I have been a distance runner, with the exception of a dozen years in my mid-20s to mid-30s after becoming self-employed launching and running my first business as a freelance typesetter. Strength-training was not something I had ever had any interest in. Not just because of my naturally very slender (ectomorph) body type, but because I found it sapped my energy for running when I was training for high-level competition. (Well, it also held no interest for me because of the excessively macho posturing and testosterone-driven, no-pain-no-gain, screaming, bellowing, and snorting ethos that tends to characterize the field. If one can even call it an ethos, that is, rather than simply unbridled id.) And I never had any sort of inferiority complex about not being a strong guy.

Getting that first toe-hold… er, arm-hold. But the weed-eating work required for the lawn-mowing was murder on my arms. The first lawn-mowing season, it took three months to build up to where I could handle a 30- or 45-minute or hour’s session of weed-eating after mowing somebody’s lawn. I enjoyed getting to the point where my arms could handle it, though, and just the feeling of the additional strength and muscular robustness it gave me. Consequently, when the first season of mowing was over, I didn’t want to lose what had taken so much effort to gain. So without knowing anything much about what I was doing, I started doing regular push-ups to try and maintain the strength I had built. (Pull-ups would have been a better choice since they specifically help with forearm strength — what you need most for weed-eating work.)

The next year’s lawn-mowing business lasted only about halfway through the season, after which I had restarted Leeward Productions. I was also beginning to realize and experience, though, that with advancing middle age, the idea of “balance” in all things including physical fitness was going to be more and more crucial in staying healthy and active as I continued to age. No longer disdainful of strength training as I had once been, I started the slow process of learning and teaching myself from online sources about how best to pursue strength development. It has been a continuing interest since.

Fonts, fonts, and more fonts

To backtrack a bit in the narrative here, something else that took up a tremendous amount of my time at one point — a full year and a half of my spare time evenings and weekends — was a typeface classification project I pursued when Lee Shiney and I were partnering in Leeward Productions. Part of my half of the business was to design promotional license plates for customers who didn’t already have a design on hand for us to print.

There were two challenges here. First, it was often necessary to rebuild customer logos from scratch, if all they could provide was a low-resolution file unsuitable for screen-printing. This often involved identifying the typeface their logo employed, if one was used as part of it. Second, if I needed to create a plate design on my own, finding a suitable typeface with the right characteristics for a particular “look and feel” also meant finding the “right” typeface.

Toward a universal taxonomy of typefaces. I had a large font library of thousands of the most commonly used fonts, and then some. Lots of interesting but hard-to-remember typefaces that would be perfect in the right circumstances for the right customer who wanted a certain look and feel.

But finding the needle in the haystack could be time-consuming. Even if you remembered a typeface you had seen before and wanted to use, you might not find it because you couldn’t remember the name or which foundry had created it. I became fascinated with the challenge of how to logically categorize fonts in a visual way that was quickly scannable, according to both the underlying physical features and characteristics making up their construction, as well as by their subjective look and feel.

I had already done some of this kind of thing back in the day when I was a typesetter in the 1980s and 1990s, when I created reference lists of my font library for clients. But that was child’s play compared to the thousands of typefaces that most of us graphic designers now worked with a couple of decades later, with the explosion in typeface design that followed on the heels of the desktop publishing revolution.

Melding the objective and subjective into one. This time around, I wanted to be much more rigorous and exacting, using both the objective features and subjective look and feel of fonts to arrive at an overarching classification scheme that could handle both ways of approaching the task. And as I pursued the idea and got deeper into the project, I found there were many objective features that equated to certain subjective perceptions.

I was able to come up with a hierarchically nested, tree-like classification scheme of perhaps a dozen or so overarching top-level categories (beginning with serif, sans serif, slab serif, script, blackletter, etc.), and another two or three nested levels within each of those categories, totaling 600 or 700 categories in all. Which sounds complicated at first blush, but because of the logically nested scheme, it’s actually fairly easy to “drill down” and locate a specific type of font once you’ve learned the fundamentals of the system.

I’ve been using this system ever since, but as mentioned, it took a year and a half of evenings and weekends to classify several thousand typefaces and flesh out the scheme to its full extent. It was something that staying on the sidelines of the net enabled that I couldn’t have done otherwise if I had been trying to run a busy website at the same time. Especially since I was already running a business.

I won’t go into this font classification project any further here, but if you like, you can find out more about the system elsewhere on the site, which I named FontCompass.

Privacy concerns

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I remained on the net’s sidelines was because of fears over the personal privacy issue, which I had my own misgivings about over a decade before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s program of total spying all the time on everyone. An all-seeing eye continuously recording data on all Americans indiscriminately that can be dipped into at any time, should the spooks and powers that be take a special interest in someone — well, there are almost no words for how invasive that is.

Like many introverts, not to mention just plain regular people, I find the idea of a whole constellation of one’s personal details being laid bare for some secret government agency very troubling and disconcerting. Not to mention the telcos are getting in on the act through all our cellphones as well.

The potential future dark side. To me, it’s not a matter of whether you have anything particularly “secret” to hide, but rather feeling like your life details should be your own, not for others to track and trail and mine and spy on you for. Nominally, the spooks do this only to track criminals and terrorists. But we all know of eras in history when things turned fascist and many innocent people’s lives were ruined because of the government turning against the citizenry.

This is not to mention the prospect of other power plays today, with companies who subscribe to the telcos’ snooping programs, or who may be keen to get at other private data sources, licking their chops with the intent of taking advantage of us commercially. As one example, there is the specter of insurance companies potentially denying health coverage, or offering it only at astronomical rates, to someone with a genetic predisposition the person cannot do anything about, that may or may not ever develop into a chronic medical condition.

Even if one doesn’t believe any of the above is a real threat to law-abiding citizens now, the future is unpredictable. Especially given where the United States seems to be headed, toward more and more centralized state and corporate control over the citizenry’s lives, I would not want to be making any bets against this information being used to extort individuals at some point. And besides, just on principle, who welcomes their every move being spied on? I don’t think I see too many hands going up out there.

Universal electronic surveillance requires cheap, abundant energy. So I needed time to think through these issues and how much I wanted to divulge about myself on an ongoing basis online with an outspoken blog or website. In the end, I have come to the conclusion that for the time being, there is no stopping or avoiding the huge, impersonal, privacy-invading juggernaut until our current growth-at-any-cost economy and civilization begin to hit the wall of serious long-term resource decline.

It is relatively cheap fossil-fuel energy that enables powering things like the huge data centers employed in the everywhere-all-the-time electronic surveillance effort — without that energy, the program isn’t sustainable. And so it will only be once our resource base begins an inexorable decline due to ongoing depletion (just hitting the initial stages now, but still early in the game) that highly complex and energy-expensive endeavors like the NSA’s will begin to founder. At that point, energy will have become so much more precious that only the day-to-day, life-enabling tasks of our society will warrant burning it. That is still some time off, however.

Don’t be stupid. In the meantime, it is not so much a matter of acquiescing to the futility of attempting to keep one’s life private from corporations or the government. One does need to learn to live with it, but also needn’t reveal everything online. And it is likely that whatever one reveals online probably doesn’t tell the spy agencies anything they don’t already know anyway, as long as what one reveals is not too personal.

Living in fear shuts down too many avenues of communication that are the lingua franca of commerce and social interaction in our daily lives. The key is in one’s relationship with them, using them judiciously and awarely, so as not to become too swallowed up. As you tend to find the longer you live, balance is the key.

Resurfacing online

As mentioned in this blog’s first post, the initial impetus for establishing a personal presence online again was business-related. Here, I had in mind generating additional business for both my custom promotional car tags business (my main line of self-employment at the time) as well as my proofreading service for advertising agencies. The idea was that if I started getting involved and up to speed with social networking, and began engaging with people online again, over time the awareness and connections established might convert to business leads.

While I had planned to make purely personal blog posts all along as well, once I actually got a few posts under my belt, I realized what I had missed in being away from writing online publicly for so long: the creativity and self-expression involved. True, I had that to an extent with the custom car tags business (for instance, see these examples of my design work), but the creativity involved there was often directed by clients, not me. But the upshot was that I decided, once the business sections of the site were up, to make the blog the primary focus of the new website.

“Do what you love, and the money…” yeah, maybe. I am not someone who puts too much stock in the adage “do what you love, and the money will follow” as very practical in most cases — at least not in today’s economy. But that said, it is certainly true that you will probably not be your happiest unless you’re getting paid to do what you love the most. (For the record, I think this platitude, good intentions behind it aside, partakes of Pollyanna-ish thinking, and is just as likely to lead to financial failure or indebtedness as financial success in today’s hard-nosed world.)

On the other hand, one must make their way in the world, and it can be very difficult finding the right balance between doing what you need to stay afloat financially and also finding time to do what makes you happy. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs underscores, it is hard to focus on higher-level needs like “self-actualization” (“doing what you love,” in so many words), when you don’t have a base of underlying security, i.e., in today’s world, operating on stable economic ground.

The dangers of work as identity. Having always been a very practical sort, this was the main reason I had focused on my self-employed endeavors for such a long season after the Beyond Veg project. And not that I don’t enjoy my work life to a significant degree. In fact, based on what I can tell of surveys on job satisfaction, or the lack thereof at the hands of the corporate overlords that be these days, as a “self-employed” I probably find my work more fulfilling than most. But there’s a lot more to life than work, or should be, in my book — I’m not someone who stakes their identity on their occupation, or thinks it is necessarily a good idea.

In the work world of today which is so starkly separated from the natural world we evolved in and are designed for, what you do for work — unless you are an exceptionally fortunate individual — is not the same as the things you do in your free time, or that you would pursue more fully if you didn’t have to work for a living at all. But at some point, the tension between the pull of these two demands on your soul, and having to sacrifice the latter for the former, becomes harder and harder to ignore. Especially as one ages, mortality begins tapping you on the shoulder more insistently than before. You begin asking yourself the question: “If not now, when?”

Coming full circle

It’s funny, thinking back… Despite excelling academically, and with the career expectations that come with that, I was never very interested in typical “success.” (Success here being defined as choosing among the options in life that society sanctions as desirable, and makes the most available or the most profitable monetarily.) Perhaps somewhat to my detriment financially — despite being very practical-minded on the one hand in doing what is needed to keep the material side of life working — almost like a split-personality, I have always been more attracted to the more nonmaterialistic, human side of life when it comes to “maximizing one’s potential.”

The kid just doesn’t get it. When I was in high school, I was much more interested in becoming the best distance runner I could be. And the pull was more than just the accomplishment involved. To a considerable degree, it was self-mastery, but also more than that, even. It was an immersion in the feeling of supreme physical fitness that only those who are fully devoted to achieving physical excellence know. The direct, inner, kinesthetic experience of the prowess of “being a good animal” puts one in touch with a core aspect of what it means to be a fully human being, a representative of the animal species homo sapiens. This is something that accomplishments in other areas can never really replicate.

The big questions: Bzzzt, no decent answers. In college that push continued for a time, but I also became just as interested in plumbing the answers to the “big questions” of life: Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? Is this life “it,” or is there anything beyond — or afterward? Is there a God that makes any difference to existence, that is anything more than a childish, dependency-based fantasy projection of the ultimate mommy or daddy? Beyond the question of God, what is the nature of the universe? Is it a nondual unity or instead an intertwining, interdependent system of yin and yang at root? What is consciousness? Is there such a thing as so-called spiritual enlightenment? If so, then what? If not, then what?

Plumbing the answers to these questions continued for perhaps 15 years before I began coming to the conclusion that whatever one’s answers, there is still always life to be lived, and how one lives it is much more important. As far as I could tell, most people who supposedly had “the” answers to these questions — judging by actions rather than words — did not seem to be any more enlightened, psychologically sane, caring, understanding, happy, or virtuous than anyone else. Very often less so.

The self-employed Dreamtime. At the same time that I was pursuing answers to these riddles of existence, I pursued the dream of self-employment, of more self-determination and fulfillment in the work world. I had already experienced the stultification, the bald psychological and dictatorial coercion, and the interpersonal insanity and office-politicking that pervaded most businesses, along with the deranged, growth-at-any-cost ambition that drove and warped those at the top of the heap — creating the environment governing the dog-eat-dog business world at large. To which my entire being had involuntarily put its foot down, saying “no, thank you” in no uncertain terms (expletive deleted).

After which, I discovered that self-employment, while far more fulfilling, was just as hard a road but in a different way. Except for a limited number of “plum” self-employed occupations like, say, the medical profession, law, dentistry, optometry, CPA practice, financial or actuarial consulting — even plumbing — and so forth, just keeping one’s ship afloat from one year to the next was a continual challenge.

Then there was the Beyond Veg effort, which was one of the most genuinely satisfying undertakings I had been involved in to that point. Yet after that had run its course, it did not seem possible to continue taking the time I desired for my personal pursuits while keeping afloat financially.

Another beginning

At any rate, after pulling back and going to the sidelines, I began to bring more of a long-term focus to bear on my career. Now that that is on a more even keel, I have made my way back into the more creatively fulfilling side of things again with this blog. And I am finding myself happier in the writing of it than I have been now in some time.

Not that I was unhappy before, but in retrospect things had become too one-dimensional, too circumscribed by external demands. Which is understandable in the world we now inhabit, with a faltering economy putting mounting pressure on most to keep their lives functioning without falling behind or going into debt. But balance has become more my gauge now, along with the need to reactivate the more self-expressive side to living for the sake of the soul.

I don’t know where this new “project” will lead, but it has become clear it was time for something different, a movement toward some other equilibrium. For that reason, it is enough in itself for now. It is good to have come full circle and to be starting out anew, once again.

End of 3-part series
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2 Responses to Emerging online after 15 years of radio silence, Part 3

  1. Thank you for the welcome back! Getting back in the saddle has been a long time coming.

    Deciding how much and what to reveal of the FontCompass system is tricky. I’ve had that on the back burner because it’s a “catch-22”: generating attention and enthusiasm for it will require revealing enough of the system that others can “get” how it works — and experience that “aha” moment. But the more I reveal of it, the more the possibility looms that someone might steal it out from under me. The key ingredient, the “secret sauce,” so to speak, is really simply the classification scheme itself, which is purely an “informational” thing.

    It’s real value, though, is in the implementation, which would require creating an entire website. The best-case scenario would be to create the website on a private development server, then release it all at once to stake out the territory preemptively. However, I don’t have the kind of time it would take to do that by myself.

    I would need to team up with at least one other person, more likely two or three, and that would require a very high level of personal trust (including a confidentiality agreement). Then beyond that, there would be how to evaluate the web-development talent, typographic experience, and other relevant skill levels of such people ahead of time. And of course, there’d be the financial side of things, sharing in any potential proceeds, etc.

    It’s something I need to give more thought to, but haven’t had time to do as yet, with the other things on my plate.

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