Rubik’s Cubes and Motivation

I’ve been very mildly interested in the Rubik’s cubes, on and off, for several years. Really mildly. Like, when I discover one in the house, maybe it will show up on the coffee table, and I’ll tinker with it for an hour or so while watching TV for several nights in a row. I want to solve it. I can get to a point that looks close to solved, but attempting to finish it proves that I’ve only managed to arrive at the actual difficult part. I’m interested in solving it. But I never have. Realistically, I probably never will.

Years ago, I read a story of a man who had taken 26 years to solve a Rubik’s cube. At first glance, the story is ridiculous, and the man insane, but a flavor of insane that I can appreciate.

He could have bought a book about Rubik’s cube solutions. He could have asked around for how to solve it. He could have looked it up online, and worked out the solution in an hour or 2. Instead he banged his head against it for 26 years.

If his goal was to have a solved Rubik’s cube, his approach was poor. If his goal was understand the technical steps required to solve a Rubik’s cube, his approach was poor. If his goal was to have the ability to find an unsolved Rubik’s cube, and be able to solve it, his approach was poor.

If his goal was to solve a puzzle, then 26 years was the required price.

Flat Earth

I’m pretty enamored with the idea of a flat earth. I don’t believe that the earth is actually flat, I think that the traditional, round earth explanation makes too much sense, and my opinion of humanity is such that I don’t think it would be possible to keep such a massive secret for long. But what I find entertaining about flat earth theory has much less to do with the various conspiracy theories required to prop it up (which I find generally boring), and more to do with the idea of institutionalized knowledge, our willingness to question, and what I as an individual know.

Flat earth supporters are compelling due to their complete unwillingness to accept any information that can’t be verified by them personally. Ok – Institutionalized science can’t be trusted. NASA definitely can’t be trusted. Governments can’t be trusted. But you, personally, individually, can trust yourself. (I mean, and me, the maker of a dramatic youtube video explaining how any fool can see the direction of the eclipse is proof of a flat earth).

Mistrusting anything you can’t personally verify would be an exhausting way to live – but it’s worth acknowledging that there’s something deeply satisfying about thinking independently, and drawing your own conclusions. It seems to transform a person’s experience away from one who is being told about the world and existence, to one who is discovering for themselves. It’s the difference between reading a book about cooking a dish, and cooking a dish. The difference between reading about an adventure and having an adventure.

Go try to convince somebody the earth is round. Or do the opposite, try to convince someone that the earth is flat. Take any “obvious” belief, and try to prove it one way or another. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Think about it.

Then figure out precisely how lizard people were involved, make a terrible youtube video, and send it to me.

Functional

This last summer, I built some shelves.  Actually, I built a lot of shelves.  Several distinct sets of shelves. If you were to survey the entirety of how I spent my time over the summer, by activity, sorted by “hours committed”, somehow, building shelves would definitely crack the top 5.   

But there was this one particular set of shelves that got under my skin. There’s a room in the basement that has traditionally been my office.  It’s out of the way, and it’s quiet, and it’s got a closet in it.  

Because this is not actually a bedroom, and it’s a bit out of the way, and there’s no other use for it, this closet evolved to be the place where we store extra food – the types of food items that land in the intersection  of voluminous and not commonly needed.  Because of the evolutionary nature of the storage system here, it was a mess.  We had some temporary wire shelves that sort of fit.  There was a lonely built in shelf from the previous owners of the house – which was unstable, sagging, and mostly secured to drywall.  And then there was just a jenga-esque pile of things that managed to basically sort itself based on how often we needed any one item.  Those which never got pulled out inevitably wound up on the bottom – while those commonly needed found themselves in coveted positions on the top.

I’m off track.  The basement flooded this summer, and quite a bit of stuff had to be thrown out – but more importantly, the closet had to be emptied.  Once the flooding was resolved, and the flooring was sorted, the time had come to re-commission the closet, to bring it back to it’s former glory.

This closet had always driven me crazy, because of its complete lack of purpose and direction.  I resolved to build shelves for it, to force some order on an unorderly situation.  Which brings me to the real point of this post, several hundred words later:  shelf building, much like Outback Steakhouse, has no rules.  And at first, this probably seems either patently absurd, or completely obvious.  It was neither to me.

The shelves could be built however I’d like for them to be – limited, I suppose, by the space, my tools and materials, and my imagination.  Oh, and the actual functional needs for the shelves.

Because of the timeline on this shelf public works project – the flooding, the intervening weeks of basement cleanup/flooring work, and the slow process of beginning to put things back into the room/closet, I had known for weeks that I intended to build shelves, before I actually committed to buying materials and starting to build.  Had the scenario been different – had we been moving into this house, and decided we needed built-in shelving in that closet right away, and we really couldn’t finish putting stuff away until it was done, the question would have been different.  I’d have just bought some plywood, a box of screws, and bolted things into the walls at reasonable heights.  This represented, to me, the most reasonable, practical approach.  Minimally expensive in both time and money, and maximally functional.

But I had time.  And I had the space just rolling around in the back of my head for weeks, while I did other things.  And every time I went to get it over with, to go buy some plywood and some screws to just bolt things into the walls at reasonable heights, and I found an excuse, and I avoided it.  I didn’t really know why at the time, and I still don’t really know why now, I just couldn’t do it.

Eventually, the shelves could wait no longer – they had to be built.   So I got to work.  I still couldn’t bring myself to slap together some plywood and screws.  Instead, I came up with a “plan” involving a lot of dimensional wood, and a lot of joints.  And most notably, no screws.  No fasteners of any kind.  This got stuck in my head, like a commercial jingle that you can’t quite shake free:  The shelves couldn’t have any fasteners.  Screws took on meaning in my mind: at best representing an uninteresting shortcut, a victory of technology – but more honestly as a blight.  A blight representing a lack of interesting thought, even, somehow, a blight representing our eternal willingness to sacrifice beauty for convenience.  A lot of weight to put on an assuming little piece of metal that probably costs $.01 individually.

So I built the shelves without screws.  I spent hours fighting with cuts and joints and thinking through how the various puzzle pieces I was cutting would all fit together.

And they look relatively nice, which is largely meaningless because no one (not even me) ever goes in that room.

I’m not down on screws.  They’re useful.  I’ve probably gone through 2 boxes of screws since those shelves in various other projects, and that’s fine – but somehow it felt good to acknowledge that the the only path, the only purpose, does not have to be maximum utility at minimum cost.  It felt good to build something in which there was a purpose – even if I couldn’t, and still can’t identify it clearly –  beyond functionality. 

I needed those shelves needed to be something greater than their function.  I’m still not sure what it was I needed them to be, but it’s nice to admit that such a decision is possible.

Time Spent

Dinnertime rolls around last night, and I come in.  I’m completely covered with sawdust.  It’s in my hair, it’s in my beard, it’s all over my clothes.  I’ve been holed up in the garage for several hours.  Brittney asks how it’s going. Is it getting close?  Can she look at it?

It’s not getting close.  In fact, for all intents and purposes, I still haven’t started. 


I’m making a new bedframe right now. The existing one we have was cheap, and has become wobbly in a way that no amount of tightening will resolve.  Frustrating, but a fact of life when you buy cheap furniture.

So I set out to build a new bedframe out of wood – not exactly because I was convinced that I wanted to build a beautiful, handcrafted bedframe – honestly, I don’t know if I have that kind of commitment in me right now.  More honestly, I wanted a strong bedframe that didn’t cost several hundred dollars, and definitely won’t wobble.  It needs to look good enough, not amazing.

Brittney had been sending vaguely threatening text messages linking to expensive bedframes on Wayfair, or cheaper ones that I was sure would loosen and leave us back where we are now.  So I went and bought some lumber.

And I got to work overcomplicating it.  I had, in my head, a very particular joint for the legs.  It’s not a joint I had made before, but nearly every joint is one I haven’t made before, so that’s fine.  But now I’ve spent 5 hours in the cold garage repeatedly affirming that I do not have a simple way to make the leg joint I’ve deemed a requirement for the bed.  I need to make 4.  After 3 attempts, I have 0.

This is brutal.  Demoralizing.  Exhausting.  But still, somehow, it’s valuable.  Or maybe not valuable, but unavoidable.  Necessary.  Sometimes you spend several hours fighting with the one dumb joint you thought you were going to use just so you can feel good about the other, simpler one, that you scoffed at to begin with.

It’s a new morning.  I’m going to make 4 new bedframe legs.

Aggressively Useless

There’s a dark shadow over my life. 

It casts itself on everything – what I see, touch, do, think.  It’s particularly concerned with how I spend my time.  How early I wake up, what I do once I’m up.  What I think about when I’m eating breakfast.  It envelops my morning routine like a thick fog, enveloping all around it.

It inserts itself in my choices about what to read, what to watch, and always, always, what to do.

It particularly likes to get its hands on thoughts around leisure.  Even on the weekend the shadow shows up – maybe even darker, more demanding than other days.  It drapes itself over my bed as soon as I open my eyes Saturday morning.  Sundays are no better. 

This shadow is a demand – a demand for progress, a demand for value, a demand for usefulness.  It permeates everything around me.  And it makes it hard to do things like write, just to write.  Now I have to write useful things.  Things that other people might find interesting, or valuable, or thought provoking.  Or things that might make me think more clearly.  Or things that will just make me a better writer, for some long term, as-yet-not-foreseen purpose.

It’s not just writing that gets ruined.  Watching TV?  That has to have some deeper value – some learning or insight.  Books need to be deep and philosophical, or maybe they need to be self help books, or best of all, books to help me succeed at work.  Exercise has to be as efficient and impactful as possible.  Can’t just run slowly because I feel like it.  I’ve got to be on a plan, perfectly prescribed, and backed up by science.  Or people who sound like they could like, know some science.  If I’m going to commit to ‘leisure’, fine, but activities should be carefully planned to maximize said leisure, thus ensuring that essential-non-productive time is kept to a minimum.

This shadow is everywhere.  Its presence dominates the lives of myself and the people around me.  I don’t know if I can stop that, I’m not at all sure I want to.  Still, a little rebellion is good, to keep things on balance.  Finding a little extra time to do something without greater value (a distraction, maybe) isn’t quite enough – to rebel, you’ve got to make sure it’s clear that this is no accident, not a slip up, but an act, a statement, defiance.

What better way to assert oneself as an agent in control of his faculties than to do something that no one could possibly argue in favor of.  Learn how to find water using a divining rod.  Binge watch an entire reality TV series.  Learn something – but make it something so esoteric that no one can possibly make an argument that it will be useful to you professionally or personally.

Just try, for a bit, being purposefully, aggressively, useless.

Freedom and Identity

I’ve been sick this past week.  Pretty sick actually – I haven’t been this sick in a long time.  My throat was badly swollen and inflamed, so I couldn’t really eat anything, and I was weak and achy.  I had a consistent fever for several days. When I have a fever, it seems every time I drift off to sleep I end up in a repeating loop of a dream just strange and uncomfortable enough to shake me back to consciousness.  

It seems every time I get sick enough to be significantly inconvenienced, I get a little starry eyed and philosophical.  I think that’s because it’s such a forced change in perspective – one day, I am my normal self: my body is functioning “properly”, or at least as I’ve grown accustomed to it functioning.  I can sleep, I can eat, I can run or ride a bike,  I can work and concentrate for extended periods of time.  The next day, without warning or reason, I can’t sleep. I can’t eat, so I’m weak all the time.  I can’t walk up the stairs without feeling dizzy and out of breath.  Lack of sleep has left my thoughts disjointed, sometimes incoherent.

The difference in my abilities between the two days is stark, and out of my control.


We’ve all got identities that we associate with, that we lovingly (or not-so-lovingly) craft, massage, and develop over years.  We use these identities as a narrative to describe who we are, or maybe who we want to be, or maybe who we’re afraid we are.  I think most people hold this internal narrative dearly.  I do.

My identity has a lot to say about me physically being a person who enjoys running, hiking, mountain biking, skiing.  Being in reasonably good physical shape.  Walking for no other purpose than to walk. 

Mental ability and attitudes might be even more important to my identity.  I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person.  I think of myself as a problem solver, who can, with the right time and motivation, understand the roots of a problem, and suggest a solution.  I think of myself as self reliant.

Other people might particularly value being a hard worker, being honest, being family oriented, being reliable, being a good friend.  Being committed to a cause or an ideal.


Now I have to get into freedom for a bit to attempt to tie this all together.  It seems important to us to be able to choose the tenets of our identities personally, individually.  “Follow your heart”.  “Be Yourself”.  “Follow your dreams”. 

We put a lot of weight on the individuality of each of our identities, and that individuality can only come via the distinctly individual freedom to choose the pillars of those identities.  The way a person views himself, the parts of him he chooses to deem exemplary or important are meaningful.


Getting sick unveils a problem that I may know rationally, but don’t often have to face directly:  All of the points of my (non-exhaustive) list of self identity tenets can be taken from me, as is so neatly demonstrated when I’m sick.  I can’t run.  I can’t hike, I can’t go on long walks.  I can’t really even think straight.  I can’t pay much attention to my kids, or enjoy spending time with them, at least not in the ways that I’m familiar with.

Of course, my sickness was temporary, and I’m feeling better already – tomorrow, I’ll likely be back to normal, and it will feel great, and I’ll go back to enjoying exercising the muscles of what makes me “me”.  But we might consider this just a lucky break.  Tomorrow I could be hit by a car, and have a broken hip never heal quite right.  I could end up with an infection that results in losing a limb. I could become paralyzed from the neck down.  It’s easy to identify the many ways that the physical traits I hold dear to who I am as a person might be lost.

Illness and exhaustion can change my willingness to use mental energy where I don’t absolutely have to.  Chronic illness could do this in a way that never ends, never gets better. Neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s can alter my ability to think and remember.  Even my mind, my thoughts, my personality, aren’t safe, aren’t static, and can be taken.

All of these things can happen without warning, and without my control – I cannot take steps to absolutely prevent events that will take away one or all of the tenets of my self identity, but leave me, mercilessly, living. 

We do not have complete freedom to choose the pillars of our identities, we’re choosing from a select subset of possibilities that we happen to be attainable based on our life circumstances.  This set of possibilities changes as life goes on – items can go off the list (as we get older, we’re less likely to be capable of significant athletic pursuit), and items can come onto the list (we learn new things, we come into money, we evolve as people).

So the nice thing about a particularly obnoxious bout with strep throat is, I suppose,  the opportunity to be reminded of who you think you are, and how little freedom you have to choose to be that person permanently.

Worry

It’s dark outside.  I’ve been riding all day.  I left Wakeeney, Kansas before 7 this morning, and now it’s after 11.  I finally found a place to camp – at least, I think it’s a place to camp.  It was dark when I pulled up, and there’s no one around.  There’s no camp host, no designated camping spots – I just pulled the bike near some trees in what seemed to be a clearing, in what I am very much hoping is Hoosier National Forest, and pitched my tent.  It’s so hot.  Unbearably hot.

I can’t bring myself to try to go to sleep yet – I’m still wound up from a long day of riding, and really, it’s so hot.  So I sit, sweaty and sticking to my little backpacking camp chair in the dark.  No book, no music, no campfire, I’m too tired for any of that.  Just the dark.  I watch the fireflies flicker.

I’m here now.  I’m comfortable.  I’m fine. I’m on schedule even! Still, I can’t escape the sinking feeling in my stomach – the one that is so insistent that it’s all about to go wrong.  Or worse, that it’s already gone wrong, and I’m too incompetent to realize it.  It’s been with me for the entirety of the 2 days since I left home.  


I’m not a mechanic.  I’m not really even mechanically inclined.  In spite of that, last summer, I bought an old motorcycle, and deemed myself fit to both ride and maintain it.  For the most part, this has been smooth going – stuff stops working, I furiously google until I have a guess for what it is, and manage to fix it.  I read endlessly on motorcycle forums to find new things that might go wrong, and try to decide what needs to be overhauled next.

I buy tools and parts.  I mess things up, then figure out how to fix what I broke.  I break down on occasion.  I read, and read some more.  I put together a toolkit with the things most likely to keep me running on a long trip.

I’m still no mechanic, but slowly, steadily, I’m building a mental model of how the bike works – what happens when I start it, what to check when it feels like the engine is going faster than the wheels, what it means when it feels like the handlebars are bouncing too much.  What the bike should sound like when I’m on the highway, and what it should sound like when I’m pulling away from a stoplight.


I’m a thousand miles from home, sitting peacefully on a quiet Indiana night, and I’m convinced the bike has an oil leak. 

My suspicion started last night, in Kansas.  I had pulled up, let the bike cool down for a while, and checked the oil sight window – and just at the bottom was a hint of an oil line.  It should be right in the middle, maybe even a little over.  If I lost that much oil in the 400 miles that day, I was in real trouble on a 6000 mile trip.  

Tonight, reluctantly, I tap on my phone’s light and walk around to check the sight window.  No oil.  Of course.  What did I expect?

I check around the bottom of the engine for signs of dripping, and don’t find any indication of leaking oil.  I am not comforted, just further convinced of my own incompetence.  Probably all real motorcycle mechanics know that leaking oil shoots out the handlebars or something, I don’t know.  I just know I’m going to be stranded here, lead astray by my own hubris.  I’m sure of it.

There’s nothing to be done but sit in the sticky humidity and ponder where it all went wrong. 

After a bit of good old fashioned wallowing, I look at the bike again, from my chair.  It’s parked on the soft grass, on a slight slant.  it’s leaning slightly to the left.  The oil sight window is on the right side of the engine.  Logically, I know that this means the oil would have settled in a way that would be invisible in the sight window.  To check the oil that way, the bike has to be level.  Not seeing the oil in the sight window is meaningless.  

Now that I think of it, I had this same thought last night, in Kansas.  The bike was leaning left then too, and I knew it.  Logically, the evidence provided by the sight window tells me nothing – and I knew it both nights. but still, I can’t shake the idea that there is an oil leak.

I’m now faced with a discrepancy – between what I can reason, and what I feel.  I’m a rational person.  I know there’s no reason to suspect an oil leak if I have no evidence of an oil leak.  And yet, as I talk myself through this, rationally, logically, the very real feeling rock in the pit of my stomach does not go away.  I’m unwilling to trust logic.  The bike is not going to make it, I just know.

The next morning, is cool, damp, and pleasant.  I pack up the tent, load the bike, and it starts like an anxious toddler who has been told we’re going to the park.  The bike purrs through the misty Indiana hills.  It’s some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever experienced. At the first town I come across, I find a gas station to head inside and pick up oil to refill what’s been lost.  Coming back out, I check the sight window.  Here, parked on level ground, I can see what I rationally understood last night – no oil had been lost.  The bike was fine.  It ran for 5500 more miles, and got me home (almost) without issue.


I couldn’t stop thinking about this night for the rest of the trip.  I had no evidence to believe that the bike was not fine, but it wasn’t enough.  I was far more willing to believe my fears than reason.  My brain wanted, needed something to worry about, and it wasn’t about to let a little reason get in the way of that.

Worry is a hell of a drug.

Distraction

I often think of watching TV as a distraction.  

The word itself is important.  Distraction.  It seems like it comes unbidden from somewhere outside of the normal noise of my daily thoughts – below, above, I don’t know – but I don’t think about the activity, and decide on the world “distraction” – it’s already there.

I used to go through long, involved thought exercises, trying to distill out exactly why I was fixated on this idea – distraction – an idea that feels powerful and important to me, but also has been difficult to nail down, to keep in place long enough to actually understand and form an opinion worthy of action on.

Having had difficulty defining what I’m really talking about, all I can do to give it shape is to work backward from practical examples and hope something meaningful appears:

Playing video games?  Distraction.  Eating junk food?  Distraction.  Facebook?  Distraction.  Twitter?  Distraction.

Some things are less clear.  Cleaning the garage? Maybe a distraction.  Reading a book?  Harder to say, but probably not a distraction. Going for a walk?  Watching a good movie?  Somehow, in spite of my judgement of TV, watching a movie often, is not condemned as “distraction”.

Going for a run?  Writing? Working?  Decidedly not distractions.


What about the term I seem to have chosen to describe these things?

distraction

I was reminded of this thought a few days ago when my brother referred to something as “indulgence”.  Indulgence and distraction have something in common – both can only exist in the face of a larger goal.  You indulge in something as a respite from what you’ve identified to be your true goal, your true direction.

Distraction, similarly, can only exist against the backdrop of a larger goal, a greater purpose, or _something_ demanding our attention.


With this in mind, what is the common thread between the activities I deem “distraction”?  Does it even make sense, or is it just an unexamined artifact from youth, or popular culture?  Does it have any value as a concept?

My best guess is that I’ll deem anything a distraction that does not have any benefit beyond the moments that I’m engaged in the activity.  Watching a funny TV show can be enjoyable, but there’s rarely a lasting benefit.  Eating junk food is great in the moments when the food is in your mouth, and terrible immediately after. Facebook… Oh facebook.

On the other hand, cleaning the garage is valuable for a period of time, or at least until it’s messy again.  Going for a run is exercise, and much of the benefit comes after the period you spend in the activity.  Reading a good book can help you understand yourself, or the world, a bit better.  Working  earns money, to be used later.

Essentially, the common thread seems to be delayed gratification.  I’ve decided, on some level, that delayed gratification is good, and instant gratification, at least instant gratification without any lasting (positive) effect, is bad.


Back to the term.  distraction.  If the practical common thread is about lasting benefit, what can be extrapolated from the term _distraction_?  With this criteria, one would call these activities distractions from the _real goal_, which would have to be constant, incessant, improvement.  Or, to take values away, constant, inexorable movement, in _some_ direction.

Humans (or maybe just humans in a similar demographic to me) value constant movement, constant improvement, so deeply, that I don’t think we ever stop to examine it.  Why do we do that?  Is it even what we want?

What if constant movement, constant improvement is just distraction from something else? What if telling ourselves that we value forward motion above all else is a way of distracting from something more uncomfortable?

Forward, ever forward.

Eccentricity

People employed in tech have come to rely on an idea:  Everything can be measured.  Every interaction a user has with a website or application we’ve built – where their cursor goes, how long they last on any given page.  It can all be measured, it can all be tested and compared.

Countless consultants, technologies, entire businesses have sprung up to facilitate the aggregate measure and analysis of this kind of data.  How do users respond to a slight change in verbiage?  Will users react favorably if we change the order of a checkout flow? Does the color of this button matter?

With enough data, with enough users, with enough measured interactions, the shape that materializes is seems to be the average customer, user, human.  The context is often pretty narrow (“How does the average human visiting my site behave?”), but still – people are tirelessly working to distill broad, generic, useful insights into how the average human thinks and behaves from the specific actions of huge swaths of people.


Growing up, I’d classify someone as “eccentric” as a way to put a friendly spin on reality, which is that I thought they were so odd as to deserve to be identified, categorized, as something distinct – outside of the circle of “acceptable social acquaintance”.  I’d willingly interact with them, even be a friend, but all this was done in spite of said eccentricity, certainly not because of it.

People who dressed a little weird – not in a way that demanded attention, just off.  Or who were a little too into something.  Maybe a sport.  Maybe religion.  Or who couldn’t quite get what was acceptable to like, to dislike.

As an adult, I find myself characterizing it by anything that raises an eyebrow.  Or maybe anything that elicits a reaction – a reaction like “That seems like a waste of [time|money|effort]”.  “That seems silly”.  “I can’t believe they did that”. 


I can’t help to start to overlay the same types of big data aggregate analyses onto real life people, people I see and interact with every day.  Why we wear what we wear (shoes!), why we eat what we eat, read what we read, what we choose to spend money, time, and effort on.  How much of what makes me me is really just manifestation of the average human in my demographic?

Against that background, it feels like the only thing that differentiates, that matters in identifying who a person is is where they deviate from the norm.  The scenarios in which one person clicks a link  but very few others do.  Maybe a person’s eccentricities – the collection of behaviors, actions, reactions – which baffle or even concern their peers and acquaintances, are actually the most meaningful things about them.

Most of us manage to fit the norm most of the time – either because we just do naturally, or because where we don’t, we’re trained to avoid sticking out.  As a result, the eccentricities – the rough edges, the pieces that don’t fit – can be identified as being somehow so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t smooth them out, or because we care about them so deeply that we’d prefer to leave them as they are.

And that’s interesting.  That’s all.

The Fireplace

There's a fireplace in my house.  A wood burning fireplace.  It's not particularly grand.   It sits toward the corner of the living room.  An important piece to the feel of the room, but not exactly the focal point.

I use it often in the winter – at night while we hang out in the living room on a cold night, or in the afternoon while I sit and read a book.

At our last house, there was a gas fireplace.  You flipped a switch and you had fire.

It was easy to use.  It was reliable.  It was more effective at heating the room – utilizing a built-in blower to push warm air out into the room. It was safer.  No sparks or flaming embers could hop out of the flames and onto the carpet, as it was completely enclosed. It was cleaner too.  There was no possibility of getting soot from a fire poker on the carpet, or my pants.  There was no ash to carelessly knock out.

The gas fireplace was a better product by every measure.

And yet, we rarely used it.

A gas fire burns the same way every time.  It never changes.  Its reliability – in theory a great advantage – was the thing it got the most wrong. 

Apparently I don't want a fireplace as a way to heat a room.  The furnace heats the house just fine.  It seems I also don't want a fireplace to set the ambiance of a room – thoughtful lighting and interior design can do a fine job of that.

The value of the wood burning fireplace is in all the things that it gets wrong as a useful household appliance.  It is the opposite of sterile, reliable, or predictable.  I watch logs smoke, light, burn, and turn to ash in ways that I didn't precisely plan out, that may require my attention or intervention.  It revels in change, in ephemerality.  And I enjoy that.

The utility we find in products, experiences, relationships is often completely unrelated to what is advertised or assumed.  It's easy to assume then, at a glance, that there is no utility.