Willow

Willow is an SMS-bot that sends you gentle, daily reminders to breathe.

It was conceived mostly by my partner Meirav, and built by me over a few days. There are plenty of apps encouraging mindfulness, but we liked the simple and low maintenance nature of text messaging.

The tech stack includes:

  • A google spreadsheet backend to input the daily reminders
  • A twilio client responsible for sending and receiving messages
  • A node + express server handling the incoming messages
  • a cron script that runs

The source code is here: https://github.com/jffng/willow-chatbot/

Join by texting “unicorn” to nine one seven – four five six – nine eight zero seven, and support the project’s costs by sending a donation.

Noise Altering

I’ve been thinking about noise: how much of it exists, its characteristics, and the lengths to which we go to remove it from our lives.

Not too long ago it was assumed that clean water’s not important, that seeing the stars is not that important. But now it is. And now I think we’re realizing quiet is important, and we need silence — that silence is not a luxury, but it’s essential.

Gordon Hempton — acoustic ecologist on a mission to “save quiet for the benefit of all life.”

Thinking about the above citation, it’s difficult for me to imagine a time when we assumed clean water was not important. It’s equally difficult to imagine that silence being important is a novel idea.

What feels more true is that silence is, by today’s standards, a luxury. For people who live in densely populated areas, finding an extended period of silence can be nearly impossible. To me this lack of silence is a function of two compounding factors:

  • Economic systems whereby being proximate to large numbers of other people is the most efficient form of having basic needs met.
  • Population growth.

Thus, the great majority of us live in places with other people; this is not novel, but a fact of life. And we’ve evolved to be unable to shut off our ears without technological intervention; we cannot close our ears like we can our eyes or mouths.

Since we have no way of eliminating it at its essence, I’m interested in exploring ways of reframing silence. Taking an oblique strategy might involve understanding and exploring its opposite: noise. I think sound whose intention has no purpose for the person experiencing it could be characterized as noise.


In 2014, I made a web-audio experiment with Laura Juo-Hsin Chen called “Tune in, tune out”. The experience would analyze the ambient environmental sound around the visitor, and use it as input into a musical experience — translating it into something remotely melodic.

Screenshot of the website

I’d like to revisit and update this experience, with a greater appreciation and attention to the sonic quality of the piece. Here was our original blurb:

We started idea of filtering out the “sound of the sound”. So much effort and energy has gone into our attempts to “escape” our immediate sonic environment: conversations, distracting noises, and try to drown out the surrounding chaos.

There’s no denying the need to focus, and there’s also no shortage of aural distractions, especially living in urban areas. “Tune In, Tune Out” offers an alternative to the music and tools we use to tune out the noise around us, channeling that very noise into a sonic landscape.

Leave Tracks

Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks.

And that means, don’t do just for yourself, because in the end it’s not going to be fully satisfying. I think you will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived.

And there’s no satisfaction that a person can gain from what people call “turning over a bug”, that’s equal to the satisfaction that you get from knowing that you have made another’s life, your community, a little better for your effort.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Thank you, for your effort, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Empty Plate Radio – August 2020

I recorded a mix for Empty Plate Radio that aired this past Monday. It’s all house and techno from Chicago and Detroit.

DJing has not been a main focus nor creative outlet for me these past few months given the current climate. Still, making this mix was cathartic and offered me a chance to reflect again on house and techno’s Black and Midwestern roots. I’m proud of it.

Tracklist

Nefarious Stranger – Theo Parrish
Niiko — Jay Daniel
Crushed (Original Mix) – KMFH
Nothing to Fear – Rick Wade
Higher — Black Loops
I Feel Rhythm – Ron Trent
Struggle 4 – DJ Bone, Subject Detroit
Struggle 2 – DJ Bone
Feeling It – Gene Hunt
Deep Subliminal – Rick Wade
Hysperia Soul (Kaytronik’s Violence Dub) – Jovonn, Karizma
Winston’s Midnight Disco – Waajeed
Nothing to Fear – Kyle Hall
Be Free (Mike Huckaby Edit) – Jovonn
Don’t Do It Like That (Do It Like This) – Nexus 21, Donna Black

The language for creativity

It’s a frequently cited trope that art derives from experiences of suffering and pain. The discussion of the conditions for the creation of great art is usually a tired one, painted in broad strokes with its participants citing heartbreak, conflict, suicide, poverty.

But the following passage from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes a different turn and tone, opening me to consider how we else we can approach this question.

Once, at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched with gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.

But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration?

In the novel, the protagonist has clearly lived through many traumas — as the child of a single mother / refugee who beats him as a reflection of her own lived trauma of escape from Vietnam, to growing up queer with a first lover who is addicted to opioids, to the simple reality of not being white in America.

Seen through this lens, the question posed about the language of creativity is a hopeful one. Yet it is also rhetorical, loaded with the seemingly impossible attempt to live in harmony having experienced such trauma. Amplifying this struggle is the reality of a society that does not value justice and healing for those most vulnerable among us.


In my mind, the only real qualification for the creation of art is that it reflects the intention and experiences of its author. Perhaps it’s merely easier to reflect pain and suffering because there is so much of it; much harder to imagine harmony and regeneration because there are so few lived experiences of it.

Still, I’m left with a deep impression by this book and its protagonist having the strength and courage to ask the question differently.

Playing the Hot Hand

Book recommendations have been flowing lately given our collective rush to educate ourselves on systemic racism in America, a frenzied attempt to make up for the failures of our educational systems and previous lack of personal accountability.

While this is well-intentioned, it may be particularly challenging when a practice of reading doesn’t already exist within the reader.

My friend Kenneth told me about his strategy, which he calls “Playing the Hot Hand”. The idea is simple:

Read three books at a time.

Kenneth

This might sound obscene, especially if you aren’t accustomed to reading regularly. But by keeping multiple books in rotation and reading the most engaging book at any given moment, you decouple the habit of reading from book selection. I think this is crucial if you want to develop a sustainable habit of reading.

It’s easy to feel guilt or stagnation if you’ve lost some momentum or interest in a book. But by “playing the hot hand”, you can make slower progress on books you still have the intention to read, while increasing the likelihood that you’re reading something that fully captures your mind and attention.

I have a hunch this idea could benefit the development of any sustainable practice. Thanks Kenneth.

Minor Feelings

Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult — in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.

Cathy Park Hong

Put another way, minor feelings are the ones we set aside to avoid making white people feel bad.