The double-edged sword: but aren’t all swords double-edged? It is possible I don’t know a lot about swords. It seems reasonable that you would want a sword to cut both ways, swish swish slice slice slice, otherwise there is a lot of wasted motion because I have to “reset” in order to continue chopping at you. No?
Anyway, the double-edged sword of over-the-counter cold medicine. It certainly has drained the fluid from my nose, but it also seems to have drained the fluid from my whole head, and I needed some of that to lubricate thoughts, have saliva, and keep my joints moving without creaky noises. Instead I am a dusty paper-mache heap, a sentient piñata, and every time I turn my head there’s a nearly audible click as my eyeballs roll and slide to catch up. Breathe from both nostrils? Or lose your humanity? The Tylenol Severe Cold + Sinus devil’s bargain.
OKAY I GUESS
I am subscribed to so many of your newsletters. The free versions, that is. I suppose I understand where you are coming from, you produce amazing content that I love and if anyone out there wants to pay for it, they should certainly be welcome to do so. Pro: It is nice to get mail, and to have a nice blog post to read right there in the old in-box. Con: There are an awful lot of these nice blog posts, and while lots of them might be worth $50/year for special subscriber-only content, one can not reasonably subscribe to a whole bunch of $50/year newsletters. Why do you want to make me choose? Hey I have an idea: you put this amazing content in an INTERNET LOCATION, where I can go read it. I just invented blogs! What a great idea, damn.
Deja vu, incoming: there will be a ton of anger about my very mild criticism of newsletters, just as there was when, long ago in the “blogosphere,” I dared to opine that sponsored posts dilute a writer’s voice and make me uninterested in and suspicious of the other things they have to say, and that sidebar ads on a personal blog are ugly and lame and do you really want to talk about your personal precious life right next to a Duncan Hines cake mix video. I still have emails saved in a folder called SELLOUTS GET SENSITIVE: people who got really mad at that and wrote me full of righteous indignation and I HAVE A RIGHT TO MAKE A LIVING. Of course you do! Never said otherwise!
As for the newsletter thing, I don’t necessarily hate it. It is just strange, that’s all—when I have always conceived of my online diary as a sort of letter to whoever reads it—that the “new” model of writing online is literally writing a letter to subscribers. With (presumably?) slightly better letters going to those who choose to pay.
Whatever. It has officially, as I pompously announced on Twitter, been 20 years since I started putting my diary (this one right here!) online, and it is not moving to newsletter format. There won’t be ads, there won’t be sponsored posts, you don’t have to pay to read it. That is not because I am so fucking punk rock by any means (remember, I was an early sellout to the blog-into-(terrible)-book gold rush!) It is just because I don’t know any other way, and I like to type about what I am doing, and I don’t need your money because I do other stuff for money. Keep your money! Use it to pay your bills and buy candy and drugs.
Seeing this year’s English homework is giving me bad flashbacks to a kind of writing that I never have to do again—that sort of “essay question” response writing that calls out its tricks in order to be successfully graded. Parallel sentence structure? Check. Introductions, conclusions, transitions? Check. Narrative strategies? Check. These things (which are woefully lacking here!) are definitely part of “good writing,” but it sort of grinds my gears to see it all deconstructed and naked like that. Some people like deep dives—they like to note-by-note analyze a Bach Mass or a Prince guitar solo and see “why” it is so perfect and great—but it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, no? Like if you know how it works you will automatically be able to do it. Maybe (hopefully) you can learn enough to get a good AP exam score, or to faithfully play the notes of the Prince guitar solo, but by no means have you mastered the craft. Oh listen to me, “the craft.” I’m such an asshole. A Tylenol Severe Cold + Sinus asshole.
Here is an article that I think did a decent job of detailing the tension between the obvious need for psychiatric drugs and the blunt-force-instrument nature of their effects. Everyone is trying to figure themselves out and figure out how to live. Medication can be necessary to let people get on with the business of that (instead of, you know, spending all day hyperventilating in bed), but it does nothing to show you HOW to do it.
Speaking of figuring out how to live, how about we watch the video for “Just” again? This video may be where I really fell in love with Thom Yorke (long-time David Byrne fangirl; you know I love me a twitchy dancing man).
Also, recently unearthed: my little first-grade dude climbing the bus stop sign. He still has forearms of steel.
—mimi smartypants, while symptoms last.
I was recently honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Alongside Oakland Privacy and William Gibson, I received a 2019 Barlow/Pioneer Award. I was asked to give a speech. As I reflected on what got me to this place, I realized I needed to reckon with how I have benefited from men whose actions have helped uphold a patriarchal system that has hurt so many people. I needed to face my past in order to find a way to create space to move forward.
This is the speech I gave in accepting the award. I hope sharing it can help others who are struggling to make sense of current events. And those who want to make the tech industry to do better.
I cannot begin to express how honored I am to receive this award. My awe of the Electronic Frontier Foundation dates back to my teenage years. EFF has always inspired me to think deeply about what values should shape the internet. And so I want to talk about values tonight, and what happens when those values are lost, or violated, as we have seen recently in our industry and institutions.
But before I begin, I would like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence out of respect to all of those who have been raped, trafficked, harassed, and abused. For those of you who have been there, take this moment to breathe. For those who haven’t, take a moment to reflect on how the work that you do has enabled the harm of others, even when you never meant to.
The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.
The first blog post I ever wrote was about my own sexual assault. It was 1997 and my audience was two people. I didn’t even know what I was doing would be called blogging. Years later, when many more people started reading my blog, I erased many of those early blog posts because I didn’t want strangers to have to respond to those vulnerable posts. I obfuscated my history to make others more comfortable.
I was at the MIT Media Lab from 1999–2002. At the incoming student orientation dinner, an older faculty member sat down next to me. He looked at me and asked if love existed. I raised my eyebrow as he talked about how love was a mirage, but that sex and pleasure were real. That was my introduction to Marvin Minsky and to my new institutional home.
My time at the Media Lab was full of contradictions. I have so many positive memories of people and conversations. I can close my eyes and flash back to laughter and late night conversations. But my time there was also excruciating. I couldn’t afford my rent and did some things that still bother me in order to make it all work. I grew numb to the worst parts of the Demo or Die culture. I witnessed so much harassment, so much bullying that it all started to feel normal. Senior leaders told me that “students need to learn their place” and that “we don’t pay you to read, we don’t pay you to think, we pay you to do.” The final straw for me was when I was pressured to work with the Department of Defense to track terrorists in 2002.
After leaving the Lab, I channeled my energy into V-Day, an organization best known for producing “The Vagina Monologues,” but whose daily work is focused on ending violence against women and girls. I found solace in helping build online networks of feminists who were trying to help combat sexual assault and a culture of abuse. To this day, I work on issues like trafficking and combating the distribution of images depicting the commercial sexual abuse of minors on social media.
By 2003, I was in San Francisco, where I started meeting tech luminaries, people I had admired so deeply from afar. One told me that I was “kinda smart for a chick.” Others propositioned me. But some were really kind and supportive. Joi Ito became a dear friend and mentor. He was that guy who made sure I got home OK. He was also that guy who took being called-in seriously, changing his behavior in profound ways when I challenged him to reflect on the cost of his actions. That made me deeply respect him.
I also met John Perry Barlow around the same time. We became good friends and spent lots of time together. Here was another tech luminary who had my back when I needed him to. A few years later, he asked me to forgive a friend of his, a friend whose sexual predation I had witnessed first hand. He told me it was in the past and he wanted everyone to get along. I refused, unable to convey to him just how much his ask hurt me. Our relationship frayed and we only talked a few times in the last few years of his life.
So here we are… I’m receiving this award, named after Barlow less than a week after Joi resigned from an institution that nearly destroyed me after he socialized with and took money from a known pedophile. Let me be clear — this is deeply destabilizing for me. I am here today in-no-small-part because I benefited from the generosity of men who tolerated and, in effect, enabled unethical, immoral, and criminal men. And because of that privilege, I managed to keep moving forward even as the collateral damage of patriarchy stifled the voices of so many others around me. I am angry and sad, horrified and disturbed because I know all too well that this world is not meritocratic. I am also complicit in helping uphold these systems.
What’s happening at the Media Lab right now is emblematic of a broader set of issues plaguing the tech industry and society more generally. Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not. As an employee of Google in 2004, I watched my male colleagues ogle women coming to the cafeteria in our building from the second floor, making lewd comments. When I first visited TheFacebook in Palo Alto, I was greeted by a hyper-sexualized mural and a knowing look from the admin, one of the only women around. So many small moments seared into my brain, building up to a story of normalized misogyny. Fast forward fifteen years and there are countless stories of executive misconduct and purposeful suppression of the voices of women and sooooo many others whose bodies and experiences exclude them from the powerful elite. These are the toxic logics that have infested the tech industry. And, as an industry obsessed with scale, these are the toxic logics that the tech industry has amplified and normalized. The human costs of these logics continue to grow. Why are we tolerating sexual predators and sexual harassers in our industry? That’s not what inclusion means.
I am here today because I learned how to survive and thrive in a man’s world, to use my tongue wisely, watch my back, and dodge bullets. I am being honored because I figured out how to remove a few bricks in those fortified walls so that others could look in. But this isn’t enough.
I am grateful to EFF for this honor, but there are so many underrepresented and under-acknowledged voices out there trying to be heard who have been silenced. And they need to be here tonight and they need to be at tech’s tables. Around the world, they are asking for those in Silicon Valley to take their moral responsibilities seriously. They are asking everyone in the tech sector to take stock of their own complicity in what is unfolding and actively invite others in.
And so, if my recognition means anything, I need it to be a call to arms. We need to all stand up together and challenge the status quo. The tech industry must start to face The Great Reckoning head-on. My experiences are all-too common for women and other marginalized peoples in tech. And it it also all too common for well-meaning guys to do shitty things that make it worse for those that they believe they’re trying to support.
If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process. We need to bring back and reinvigorate the profession of quality assurance so that products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur. Call it security or call it safety, but it requires focusing on inclusion. After all, whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance.
“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society. Taking short-cuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.
The Great Reckoning is in front of us. How we respond to the calls for justice will shape the future of technology and society. We must hold accountable all who perpetuate, amplify, and enable hate, harm, and cruelty. But accountability without transformation is simply spectacle. We owe it to ourselves and to all of those who have been hurt to focus on the root of the problem. We also owe it to them to actively seek to not build certain technologies because the human cost is too great.
My ask of you is to honor me and my story by stepping back and reckoning with your own contributions to the current state of affairs. No one in tech — not you, not me — is an innocent bystander. We have all enabled this current state of affairs in one way or another. Thus, it is our responsibility to take action. How can you personally amplify underrepresented voices? How can you intentionally take time to listen to those who have been injured and understand their perspective? How can you personally stand up to injustice so that structural inequities aren’t further calcified? The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.
People can change. Institutions can change. But doing so requires all who harmed — and all who benefited from harm — to come forward, admit their mistakes, and actively take steps to change the power dynamics. It requires everyone to hold each other accountable, but also to aim for reconciliation not simply retribution. So as we leave here tonight, let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo.
Many of us are aghast to learn that a pedophile had this much influence in tech, science, and academia, but so many more people face the personal and professional harm of exclusion, the emotional burden of never-ending subtle misogyny, the exhaustion from dodging daggers, and the nagging feeling that you’re going crazy as you try to get through each day. Let’s change the norms. Please help me.
we’re all taught how to justify history as it passes by
and it’s your world that comes crashing down
when the big boys decide to throw their weight around
but he said just roll with it baby make it your career
keep the home fires burning till america is in the clear
i think my body is as restless as my mind
and i’m not gonna roll with it this time
no, i’m not gonna roll with it this time
— Ani Difranco
A WHOLE LOT OF HUMANITY IN THE MORNING
The teen’s high school is on my way to the train so we walk a few blocks together. The rest of my commute is normally very introspective, solitary, and earbuds-and-reading-material intensive, with nary a word spoken until I get to my office and usually not even then. (Until about an hour in, when colleagues both near and distant start to realize they can ask me to solve their problems rather than making the slightest twitch toward self-sufficiency. Oh sorry do I sound bitter? START AGAIN.)
Today was very different! Near the train station, a kid headed toward (and wearing an ID from) the high school was zipping down the sidewalk on one of those weird skateboards with the bend in the middle. He was weaving all over the place and getting way too close to people on foot, and he then swerved right toward me, to the point where I had to step off into the parkway, so I said, calmly, “Careful.” The kid then spun around and yelled, “Fuck you, cunt!”
Which is QUITE the escalation!
I am not going to let that go, especially from a child, and especially when I did nothing wrong, so I also turned around and yelled, “Shut up and get your tiny dick to school!” I don’t know what happened after that. Hopefully he and his micropenis made it to class as it would be a shame to mess up your attendance record so early in the year.
After getting off the train I realized I had my very nice iced coffee cup with me but had forgotten to fill it with cold brew at home, so I stopped at one of the seventeen thousand Starbucks on the way to the office. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the coffee-additives bar and a lot of people seemed hell-bent on being FIRST to get to the half-and-half, but I had a pretty chill playlist going in my ears so just waited my turn.
A guy held the door for me on the way out and started talking about the scene inside, people just have no common courtesy, you know? Just say excuse me! What is the rush? We’re all trying to do the same thing and get on our way, sometimes you have to be patient! Normally my reaction would be ugh, why do we have to speak, but he was actually pretty pleasant and funny about it, so I pulled the earbuds out and we congenially bitched about the entitled rudeness of River North Starbucks customers for about half a block before parting ways.
So that was way more interaction than usual on a Thursday morning, plus way more trading of sexually charged insults than I ever expected, and now I am tired. No-Delete Thursday means you get all this plus (too much) more, without the benefit of reflection.
SIXTEEN GOING ON THREE AND A HALF
I realized that the very exasperating Big Questions from the teen (last entry) are just another way in which this age mimics toddlerhood. Toddlers are great at asking questions like “Why are apples?” and “Is five a lot?” Usually when you’re trying to parallel-park in the snow or something like that. Mom? Is five a lot? Um…it’s not a lot of M&Ms. It is a lot of severed heads. I realize all toddlers and all teens are different but in my case see also: increased need for sleep, dramatic expansion of palate/types of acceptable foods, more sophisticated sense of humor.
I have also come to learn that teenagers can take nothing, absolutely nothing, in stride. My kid is relatively drama-free and still, setbacks or everyday irritants get crabbed about. On the other hand, clearly no one ever really grows out of this behavior (may I direct the jury’s attention to Exhibit A: Twitter). I am far from the ideal practitioner of mindfulness but I find myself espousing its techniques on a weekly basis. My advice is just a drop in the fake-high-stakes bucket that modern teenagers are drowning in, though, with all these artificial SUCCESS DEADLINES like college admission, standardized tests, and deciding what to do with the rest of your life.
HERE IS WHERE I CONTRADICT ALL MY MINDFULNESS TALK BY LISTING EIGHT EXTREMELY MINOR THINGS THAT NONETHELESS BUG ME
—hashtag mimi smartypants.
GOT NO AIM AT ALL
Some people get all hopeful and excited when school starts. On the one hand I get it: New year! New me! New chances! On the other hand, maybe those people are just high on permanent markers and or poisoned by mechanical-pencil lead. For me the beginning of this school year has been nothing but an anxiety spiral. The tension between trying to provide Aaron with everything he needs to be successful vs letting him figure it all out independently (and possibly fail).* The horror of trying to help a shorter, stylish teen boy find clothes when he is as picky about fit as an elderly Italian tailor. The big unknown of college and how do you even start narrowing the options? The fun layer of gender anxiety on top of the normal teen anxieties.
*Inevitable! Not very high-stakes! Not really, at the end of the day, my problem! But parent feelings get all mixed up with kid feelings when bad things happen.
I also took about a million vacation days this year, between the London fun and the Pacific Northwest adventure. I do not regret one bit of it; but I have to pretty much work straight through 2019 now, particularly if I want to save vacation days for a thing that I do not want to talk about right now. VAGUEDIARY: ACTIVATE! (You know I’ll blab eventually. Be patient with me.)
The kid is feeling the anxiety too, in many small and large ways. Apparently one was supposed to have saved all the materials from a previous class in a binder to use in the next class—although this was literally never mentioned until the first day—so he is being punished for Marie Kondo-ing his schoolwork over the summer. (The teacher seems unable to give a straight answer as to how big a deal this is.) He is supposed to take an online class to fulfill an art credit that his aggressive schedule does not allow time for, but has a counselor explained how this works, despite diligent teen emailing? No. I hear reports that his Spanish teacher speaks in a Castilian monotone mumble that makes understanding difficult for the indifferent language-learner. And so on.
Then there was our whole existential conversation last night, when I was very tired and crabby and Not In The Mood. Do you have to “love” something to do it for a living? Do you have to have a “passion” for something to study it in college? How do you know if it’s the right thing? What if you change your mind? What if you get a job and it turns out you did not even need your degree at all? What if you are good at your job but you like it only okay; do you just do it until you die? Isn’t that kind of sad? Isn’t life kind of sad? How do you feel okay about that? How do you stop worrying and then getting mad at yourself for worrying?
My answers were much longer (and sometimes crabby), but generally thus—no; no; you don’t; that’s fine; check out your very own father, the “nearly-a-history-PhD” computer programmer; check out your very own mother, who has an entire successful career that she finds merely tolerable; meh, debatable: the idea is to have other good stuff in your life besides paid work; yes but so what, it’s what we’ve got; million-dollar question; I don’t know, DRUGS? SEX? ICE CREAM?
I’m sympathetic but sometimes I just cannot wrestle with the Big Questions out loud, especially when I am probably expected to impart some parental wisdom or (at least) comfort. Do you think I would have obfuscated my human despair with 20 years and 100 million words of published diary content if I felt content about these things? I love you! I’m sorry it sucks! Do what I do when it sucks: go to bed!
MORE SUMMERTIME SADNESS
In my upstairs bathroom I have a metal vertical thing that holds three extra rolls of toilet paper. As a proactive housekeeper and a fan of toilet paper, I usually grab two more rolls and fill the thing when there is only one roll left. After a few rounds of this I start to feel sorry for the bottom roll, coming close to having its time on the big stage and then BOOM, two more rolls dumped on its head. I have started to rotate Bottom Roll up to the top when this happens, and putting the new rolls on the bottom. Bottom Roll has been patient. Fair is fair.
Besides the yelly orange cat in the last entry, I forgot to make note of some of the other animals we saw on the Oregon/California trip. Elk! Lots of birds of prey! A cute skinny black snake that quickly got out of my way in the redwood forest! The snake was just lying there on the trail, in full sun, and went quickly back into the shadows as we approached. It was probably like ah fuck, I just got warmed up. Sorry snake.
Also, apologies if you saw my Twitter post and know this already but a mouse (apparently) got in our house and Murphy cat took care of it. I came downstairs at Ridiculous O’Clock in the morning and saw a weird something in the corner of the hall. What is that? Is it a cat toy? NO! (But also: YES! It used to be!) It was a small mouse, twisted and broken-necked and slightly damp, and Murphy was like YES YES IT WAS ME OH MY GOD SO COOL YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE. I am sure he has told the story four thousand times to the other cats by now and they are so sick of it.
I was seriously grossed out, but LT helped me clean up, and after thoroughly inspecting every bit of the house for poop, chewed-on things, and mouse urine (via blacklight), I do not believe we actually have a mouse problem. Why did this one come in? How did this one come in? How much, and how quickly, did it regret its mistake? (Murphy says: more mice please! It was awesome. Also look at my claws I’m totally the best.)
CHECK CHECK CHECK IT OUT
I also highly recommend that you listen to the monotonous-in-a-good-way, hazy-methadone-twilight, acoustic-droney-shoegaze album I Declare Nothing by Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe (of Brian Jonestown Massacre + other projects fame). Or maybe don’t listen to it if you have stuff to do as it quickly leads to lighting candles, popping 50 or so milligrams of THC, pouring some red wine, and wishing you still smoked cigarettes.
Other things I recommend: working out in the morning (it sounds like it sucks but it really doesn’t), reading more “young adult” books, using sticky velcro things to hang stuff instead of putting holes in your walls, solar-powered string lights, blue shop towels instead of paper towels for terrible messes, reaching out to your friends and planning a meet instead of waiting to be asked, and changing your frequently-barfing cat’s diet to 100% cans and cutting out the kibble cold turkey, no matter how pitifully she whimpers.
—mimi smartypants needs the amino acid taurine in order to thrive.
With the start of this academic year, I’m launching a new newsletter to explore technology that helps rather than hurts human understanding, and human understanding that helps us create better technology. It’s called Humane Ingenuity, and you can subscribe here. (It’s free, just drop your email address into that link.)
Subscribers to this blog know that it has largely focused on digital humanities. I’ll keep posting about that, and the newsletter will have significant digital humanities content, but I’m also seeking to broaden the scope and tackle some bigger issues that I’ve been thinking about recently (such as in my post on “Robin Sloan’s Fusion of Technology and Humanity“). And I’m hoping that the format of the newsletter, including input from the newsletter’s readers, can help shape these important discussions.
Here’s the first half of the first issue of Humane Ingenuity. I hope you’ll subscribe to catch the second half and all forthcoming issues.
Humane Ingenuity #1: The Big Reveal
An increasing array of cutting-edge, often computationally intensive methods can now reveal formerly hidden texts, images, and material culture from centuries ago, and make those documents available for search, discovery, and analysis. Note how in the following four case studies the emphasis is on the human; the futuristic technology is remarkable, but it is squarely focused on helping us understand human culture better.
If you look very closely, you can see that the stone ribs in these two vaults in Wells Cathedral are slightly different, even though they were supposed to be identical. Alexandrina Buchanan and Nicholas Webb noticed this too and wanted to know what it said about the creativity and input of the craftsmen into the design: how much latitude did they have to vary elements from the architectural plans, when were those decisions made, and by whom? Before construction or during it, or even on the spur of the moment, as the ribs were carved and converged on the ceiling? How can we recapture a decent sense of how people worked and thought from inert physical objects? What was the balance between the pursuit of idealized forms, and practical, seat-of-the-pants tinkering?
In “Creativity in Three Dimensions: An Investigation of the Presbytery Aisles of Wells Cathedral,” they decided to find out by measuring each piece of stone much more carefully than can be done with the human eye. Prior scholarship on the cathedral—and the question of the creative latitude and ability of medieval stone craftsmen—had used 2-D drawings, which were not granular enough to reveal how each piece of the cathedral was shaped by hand to fit, or to slightly shape-shift, into the final pattern. High-resolution 3-D scans using a laser revealed so much more about the cathedral—and those who constructed it, because individual decisions and their sequence became far clearer.
Although the article gets technical at moments (both with respect to the 3-D laser and computer modeling process, and with respect to medieval philosophy and architectural terms), it’s worth reading to see how Buchanan and Webb reach their affirming, humanistic conclusion:
The geometrical experimentation involved was largely contingent on measurements derived from the existing structure and the Wells vaults show no interest in ideal forms (except, perhaps in the five-point arches). We have so far found no evidence of so-called “Platonic” geometry, nor use of proportional formulae such as the ad quadratum and ad triangulatum principles. Use of the “four known elements” rule evidenced masons’ “cunning”, but did not involve anything more than manipulation and measurement using dividers rather than a calibrated ruler and none of the processes used required even the simplest mathematics. The designs and plans are based on practical ingenuity rather than theoretical knowledge.
Last year at the Northeastern University Library we hosted a meeting on “hard OCR”—that is, physical texts that are currently very difficult to convert into digital texts using optical character recognition (OCR), a process that involves rapidly improving techniques like computer vision and machine learning. Representatives from libraries and archives, technology companies that have emerging AI tech (such as Google), and scholars with deep subject and language expertise all gathered to talk about how we could make progress in this area. (This meeting and the overall project by Ryan Cordell and David Smith of Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, “A Research Agenda for Historical and Multilingual Optical Character Recognition,” was generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)
OCRing modern printed books has become if not a solved problem at least incredibly good—the best OCR software gets a character right in these textual conversions 99% of the time. But older printed books, ancient and medieval written works, writing outside of the Romance languages (e.g., in Arabic, Sanskrit, or Chinese), rare languages (such as Cherokee, with its unique 85-character alphabet, which I covered on the What’s New podcast), and handwritten documents of any kind, remain extremely challenging, with success rates often below 80%, and in some cases as low as 40%. That means 1-3 characters are mistakenly translated by the computer in a five-character word. Not good at all.
The meeting began to imagine a promising union of language expertise from scholars in the humanities and the most advanced technology for “reading” digital images. If the computer (which in the modern case, really means an immensely powerful cloud of thousands of computers) has some ground-truth texts to work from—say, a few thousand documents in their original form and a parallel machine-readable version of those same texts, painstakingly created by a subject/language expert—then a machine-learning algorithm can be created to interpret with much greater accuracy new texts in that language or from that era. In other words, if you have 10,000 medieval manuscript pages perfectly rendered in XML, you can train a computer to give you a reasonably effective OCR tool for the next 1,000,000 pages.
Transkribus is one of the tools that works in just this fashion, and it has been used to transcribe 1,000 years of highly variant written works, in many languages, into machine-readable text. Thanks to the monks of the Hilandar Monastery, who kindly shared their medieval manuscripts, Quinn Dombrowski, a digital humanities scholar with a specialty in medieval Slavic texts, trained Transkribus in handwritten Cyrillic manuscripts, and calls the latest results from the tool “truly nothing short of miraculous.”
[Again, you can subscribe to Humane Ingenuity to receive the full first issue right here. Thanks.]
I took a trip with my family. Then we came back home. Then I went back to work and remembered that working is not as much fun as traveling. Weird.
Anyway, we flew to Portland and then drove down to San Francisco, stopping to hike and stay in some very odd Airbnbs along the way. At the end of the trip a bad thing happened. However, thinking about how the bad thing could have been much worse has given me all sorts of cheesy-cliché gratitude feelings. So come with me! First: to Portland!
The Portland sleeping spot was a tiny little doll’s house of an apartment, 600 square feet but somehow also two bedrooms, with lots of clever storage and perfectly proportioned built-in furniture. It awakened a long-dormant fantasy in me of living alone and having a dedicated place for everything; a life where everything gets put back in exactly that dedicated place, AHEM, no that is not at all a shout-out to my husband and child. Why would you ask that. This place was the apartment equivalent of having literal outlines of tools on the garage-wall pegboard. THE PEGBOARD LIFE, I (OCCASIONALLY) LONG FOR IT.
First we explored a Portland park to find the “Witch’s Castle” (which I noticed that all official Portland websites were careful to call the “Stone House”). Graffiti! Urine!
For a less urban experience, we drove out to the Mount Hood area and hiked a small part of the 2600-mile Pacific Crest trail, the part near Timberline Lodge. I guess the exterior of this lodge was used in The Shining, but I fall asleep when I try to watch that movie so it was not familiar to me. The views were very dramatic.
There were lots of chipmunks. I liked walking under the ski lifts. On the way out we saw a huge patch of dirty snow (in August!) and on the way back it was gone. WACKY. Wacky how the sun works in mountain-world.
Portland food: Hogan’s Goat pizza, Gateway Breakfast House, marijuana edibles. (For the adults.)
The next house was picked just because it was about halfway between Portland and where we wanted to be next, and because I never want to spend too long in the car. That said, I feel compelled to point out that LT was the one who picked it and booked it, out of a limited set of accommodations in the middle of nowhere (aka Wolf Creek, Oregon). I also feel that some of the features of the house, such as the outhouse and the upstairs-deck pee bucket (for nighttime), probably should have been listed more prominently in the description.
This place was a teeny cob house owned by elderly lesbians in a very, very remote location in the woods. Follow the emailed directions (since Google had not a clue), engage the 4-wheel drive on the rental car, go a mile down a dirt road past some chickens and a blue school bus with someone living in it, let yourself in the gate and you are home. No wifi, no phone service, just you and a pee bucket and a whole lot of Starhawk books. I worried a bit about meth’d-up Nazis coming to kill us in the night—the lock was a joke and no one would hear you scream—but honestly how would they even find the place.
Food here (since no restaurants for miles): salami, cheese, crackers, fruit, and wine we bought on the way. Evening entertainment: Sunset, weird animal noises in the dark, Aaron reading us Trivial Pursuit questions, drinking wine. Nighttime entertainment: me trying to use the pee bucket after all that wine. Morning entertainment: looking out the window and seeing a large orange cat patiently waiting at the gate. Aaron went down there to open it and the cat followed us into the house, yelling for salami and hard-boiled egg and everything else we were having for breakfast.
Next, several different redwood forest hikes. I like the big trees very much.
In Crescent City we ate more pizza and walked on the beach. It was low tide and thus CRABPOCALYPSE. Yum, say the seagulls. We ate the middles out of you.
Crescent City house was a grandpa-style house on the river. Redwood tree in the front yard, this in the backyard. We spent a solid hour just standing here and throwing rocks.
This house probably had the best shower of the trip. It is possible my appreciation of that shower was heightened after the night of the pee bucket.
Next we continued south, with lots of ocean views while driving, to the Mendocino/Little River area. Snuck through a cemetery to look at a blowhole/punch bowl.
The hotel had a fire pit so we did the usual, with beer.
Around this time LT started to feel unwell, with gradually worsening abdominal pain in a specific spot and none of the usual other symptoms that one can knock out with antacids or whatnot. As it got worse, we began to talk about medical care. Although it made me feel like a jerk, I proposed going driving the rest of the way to San Francisco if at all possible, because hospitals in an extremely small town? When you’re not at all sure what’s wrong? Maybe not. So it sucked, but we pushed on, straight to a (useless) urgent care that advised us to go to the emergency room. (Interestingly, when I asked the urgent-care nurse which hospital was closest, she said, “Zuckerberg is closest but…I wouldn’t go there.” Thanks! I will take your word for it!)
The ER we did take him to, in Bernal Heights, was not too bad; only a handful of people bleeding or vomiting or threatening to kill themselves. (It’s an emergency room in a big city—there’s always going to be SOME.) Scans, blood draw, elevated white cells = diverticulitis! How fun. How novel. How unexpected.
LT told us to go on to the apartment because there was really nothing more to be done. It was sad, but true, so Aaron and I took ourselves out for gelato and then back to our nice apartment in the Mission. Is that right? Do people say “the Mission”? Adding “District” like the maps do sounds stupid.) The apartment had a weird steep stairs (more of a ladder, really) behind a closed door, going up to an attic/crawlspace area. I was too chicken to investigate but Aaron wasn’t, and he reported that (a) the ceilings were too low to stand upright but (b) there was a twin mattress on the floor up there, a lamp with an extension cord, and a box of kleenex. San Francisco luxury! I was surprised that the creepy attic space was even part of our Airbnb and not being rented out separately to a Google employee for $1500/month.
Around dinnertime LT texted to say he was being kept overnight. Bad! Bad in a normal, human way—I don’t want LT to be in the hospital—but also bad in a weird, logistical, uniquely San Francisco way! We had planned to ditch the car on the way in to San Francisco, but since we ended up driving right to the hospital, it was now in a semi-sketchy unattended lot to the tune of $50/day, as well as being overdue at the rental place. This meant that I (a somewhat nervous driver under ideal circumstances) had to return it myself, in a city I don’t know, in a car I don’t understand, to a place I have never been. Aaron and Google Maps were my navigators to a tiny, very poorly marked, car rental return in SoMa (again: is this something people actually say?) I did not cry and hyperventilated only once, after multiple instances of overshooting the rental place due to the lack of signage, insane number of one-way streets, skateboarders, bus-only lanes (except not really because everyone goes in them to turn right), and old people in electric wheelchairs zooming out into traffic.
Ultimately, it worked! Car gone! Things were much better. Aaron and I walked down to the water and texted poor LT lots of photos. We’re looking at seals, you’re looking at your IV antibiotic drip! That’s fair, right?
He was discharged later the next day, just in time to get to our apartment and see us before we left for the Lights acoustic show. Which was so chill! She gave away signed prints, there were folding chairs on the main floor (although we went up to stand on the balcony rail because, as Aaron put it, “What if we get stuck behind someone with a huge head”), and she played for nearly two hours. The crowd was pleasant, bathrooms were clean, and I wasn’t even the oldest one there. Concert success.
We flew home to needy cats (YOU GAVE SALAMI TO A STRANGER????) and a ten-day supply of antibiotics for LT. No redwoods or ocean here, but on the other hand no pee bucket.
—mimi smartypants was very brave in the woods.
There it is!
The Unseen! I saw it!
But you literally could not have!
I did! The Unseen is real! And it was…seen!
—mimi smartypants is going to get us all killed.
CRUEL, CRUEL SUMMER (WITH FOOD AND DRINK)
The universe must have heard my whining in the last entry because suddenly everything’s coming up Mimi. Well, not work. If work were fun and fulfilling it would be called something else. But some things I was under-the-surface fretting about have resolved themselves, I got kind of serious about exercise and hydration and the right kind of socializing, and Chicago weather seems to be getting back to normal, meaning swinging between ABSOLUTELY LOVELY and WAY TOO HOT. I will take it over the every-other-hour tropical rainstorms of a few weeks ago.
I had brunch three weekends in a row, which was literally a New Year’s resolution. One brunch was at this Lincoln Park place that was VERY Lincoln Park. I could imagine Tinsley Mortimer and her amazing mom* eating there every Sunday. The food was good but I felt terrible for the waitstaff because the best-selling rosé was named “Sex” and how many times a day does some botox’d matron or shrieking sentient manicure “hilariously” order more Sex. God. I would slit my throat.
*If you watch RHONY, and you give me some alcohol, I will (with very little prompting) start talking like Dale Mercer because I find her rude comments, spoken in a very posh Virginia accent, to be the best thing ever. In fact it may be hard to get me to stop talking like that.
One of my other brunches was pre-Pride parade, with Aaron and my sister-in-law. We walked down to a reasonably shady place to stand and noted the incredible amount of balloons involved this year. Some investigative reporter needs to EXPOSE the Big Gay Balloon Monopoly! There did not used to be this many balloons at Pride; I am not kidding.
I got in a minor argument with a lady who kept telling me to move over (nowhere to move to, we’re in a crowd situation in case you had not noticed) and that she was “stepping on my foot.” I replied pleasantly that no, she was fine standing where she was and was not at all stepping on my foot, and she started yelling about how she should know if she’s stepping on my foot or not. But conversely, I should know if my foot is being stepped on, yes? Oh the unknowable perceptions of the Other!
If it had gone on much longer I was going to offer her a THC edible to chill the fuck out but she abruptly left, to go not-step on someone else’s foot I guess. We got back to my sister-in-law’s place just before the rain and finished the day with rosé on the deck. (Not Sex.)
SOMETIMES I THINK THE CAT VET WANTS A VACATION HOME
We take our cats to a fancy cats-only vet practice. The upside of this is that the vets are, you know, full of cat knowledge. The downside is that they often come up with More Things You Should Do For Your Cats. Lola’s last batch o’ bloodwork showed that she might not be absorbing all the nutrients she needs from food, so the vet recommended we give her B12 injections. I probably will do this, as it is cheap and can be done at home, but damn. Is Lola a Edie-Sedgwick-style superstar in Warhol’s Factory? Or JFK reincarnated? Paging Dr Feelgood!
NOT A SPOILER
But Toy Story 4 is definitely implying a MFF throuple with Woody/Bo Peep/the Polly Pocket-esque Giggle McDimples—yes? (I will let you work on the Polly Pocket/polyamarous joke yourself.)
ALSO NOT A SPOILER
The New York Review of Books reissued “classics” is kind of a mishmash; some of the “forgotten” novels could happily have remained forgotten, but every once in a while there is a book where I wonder why I didn’t read it before, or why I was not assigned it in a literature class. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban is in the latter category. Very short, very dry, very depressing in a wry British way (but not ultimately despairing). It kind of reminded me both of (the original) The Office and a less-horny Nicholson Baker. Representative amusing bit, when William G, one of the protagonists, is at the aquarium:
The sign said: “The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…” I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.
He also refers to another aquarium resident as a “poor little civil-servant-looking leopard shark.” Anyway I am sure this book is not everyone’s cup of mopey-smirky tea but you can see why I like it.
Two personal-grooming recommendations:
Happy Friday! Make something today. A sandwich, a sentence. A baby! A photo. A joke. A paper bag puppet! Make anything. I think it will help.
—mimi smartypants uses her fangs to inject digestive fluid directly into the prey; liquifying the insides but leaving the exoskeleton more or less intact.
I spent some of last week at a wonderful larp (live action roleplaying) camp for kids run by Tidsreiser, and had a wonderful time. I have secretly wanted to try larping since I was a teenager, but there weren’t any local ones, then I didn’t dare try, and then I sort of forgot and just settled into being a boring grownup. Luckily, one of the advantages of having kids is you get to try out new stuff. So after a year of sitting around watching the kids battling and sneaking around the forest with their latex swords, and dropping them off at the Nordic Wizarding Academy (Trolldomsakademiet), I’ve started joining in a bit, and I absolutely love it.
After chatting with the fascinating game masters and larpwriters at last week’s camp, and trying out some more different kinds of larp there, I started thinking about what a great tool larping could be for teaching and research dissemination – perhaps especially in subjects like digital culture, or for our research on the cultural implications of machine vision, because one of our main goals is to think through ethical dilemmas – what kind of technologies do we want? What kinds of consequences could these technologies have? What might they lead to? A well-designed larp could give participants a rich opportunity to act out situations that require them to make choices about or experience various consequences of technology use. This post gathers some of my initial ideas about how to do that, and some links to other larps about technology people have told me about.
To my delight, when I started talking about this idea, I discovered that two of the larpwriters at the camp, Anita Myhre Andersen and Harald Misje, are also working with the University Museum here at the University of Bergen, which is just relaunching this autumn with a big plan to host more participatory forms of research dissemination. We’re going to meet up after the summer holidays to talk about possibilities.
So what would a larp about machine vision be like? There’d need to be some technology. At a minimum lots of cameras – surveillance cameras, body cams, smart baby monitors or smart door bell cameras. Somewhere, somebody watches those images, or someone can gain access to them somehow. Someone can maybe manipulate the images, share the images, alter the images. Perhaps there’s a website that participants could access from their phones with news, in-game blogs, private photo messaging – and perhaps some people might have access to more of this than others, and some might find ways to access “private” images by nefarious means. There might be tools that could (fictionally) analyse people’s emotions, health, attractiveness, mental state, whatever, based on the images. Maybe we could adapt some of the scenarios from this speculative design research paper by James Pierce: “Smart Home Security Cameras and Shifting Lines of Creepiness: A Design-Led Inquiry” (Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems).
I’m thinking participants would be given roles such as
Participants could be told that their character follows a specific ethical framework, such as utilitarianism, care ethics, deontology, ubuntu, confucianism etc. (If using this in teaching, I’d base it on Charles Ess’s chapter on ethical frameworks in his book Digital Media Ethics.)
Obviously these are all very early ideas, from a professor with very little larping experience (i.e. me), and we may end up doing something completely different.
To learn more about what’s out there, I posted a question to the Association of Internet Researchers’ mailing list to see if any fellow internet researchers had experience with using LARPs in connection with research. As usual for questions to the list, I got some great answers, both on and off list. Here are some of the projects, people and books people told me about.
The most developed LARP-based teaching program for universities that I’ve seen so far is Reacting to the Past at Barnard College in New York City. Reacting to the Past is a centre that has developed lots of LARPs for teaching history. They have a system that seems really well-thought out for taking games through various levels of development and play testing, and once a game is very thoroughly tested, they publish it so others can use it in their own teaching. Here are their published LARPs. Their focus is on historical situations, so none of their games seem to be directly applicable to the emphasis I want on ethical negotiations about possible near futures – except possibly Rage Against the Machine: Technology, Rebellion, and the Industrial Revolution. I’ve filled out the form to request to download the materials for that game, and am looking forwards to seeing how they have it set up.
I’ve also received tips about two different artist-researcher collaborations that have resulted in LARPs. Omsk social club developed a LARP at Somerset House earlier this year, based on research on digital intimacy by Alessandro Gandini and artist/curator Marija Bozinovska Jones. They’re still working on putting documentation online, but you can get some idea of how it worked from this short video:
Secondly, Martin Zeilinger responded to my question to the list to tell me about a series of LARPs developed by Ruth Catlow with Ben Vickers. Martin himself is currently in the early stages of developing a LARP with Ruth about cashless societies, aimed at 15-25 year olds. I found a description of one of Ruth and Ben’s earlier LARPs that explored the excitement about blockchain and tech startups in a workshop called ‘Role Play Your Way to Budgetary Blockchain Bliss’. The LARP was hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam in 2016, and conveniently for me, they wrote up a blog post about it. This LARP was designed like a hackathon set in a near future, where all the projects that were pitched were about cats, and participants were “assigned a cat-invested persona and the general goal of networking their way into a profitable enterprise for themselves, the cat community, and the hosting institution.” The blog post explains that after the pitches:
The rest of the first day gave chance to the multiplicity of attendees to ask, negotiate, and offer their skills to their favourite projects. It became rapidly clear that the diversity of the audience had different motivations, skills, and ideologies. Each participant performed a part of the complex ecosystem of fintech and start-ups: investors, developers, experts, scholars, and naive enthusiasts had the difficult task to sort out differences in order to build up lasting and successful alliances. Everyone had something to invest (time, energy, money, venues, a van full of cats) and something to get in return (profits, cat life improvement, patents, philanthropy aspirations).
It’d be pretty straightforward to copy this structure and make a kind of speculative startup hackathon for new machine vision-related technologies – and that could certainly lead to many ethical debates. I can imagine something like that working well for teaching, and being reasonably easy to carry out. I’d really like to make something more narrative, though.
Netprovs are another genre that has a lot in common with larps, and which we’ve been involved with in our research group. Netprov is sort of an online, written version of a larp, that lasts for a day, a week or several months. Rob Wittig wrote his MA thesis here on netprov, and he and his collaborator Mark Marino have explicitly compared netprov to larps. Scott Rettberg is planning a machine vision-themed netprov in our course DIKULT203: Electronic Literature this autumn, which should be fun, and which may provide good ideas for a larp on the topic as well.
Another thread to consider is design fiction, design ethnography and user enactments. A really interesting paper by Michael Warren Skirpan, Jacqueline Cameron and Tom Yeh describes an “immersive theater experience” called “Quantified Self”, designed to support audience reflection about ethical uses of personal data. They used a script and professional actors, asked audience members to share their social media data, and set up a number of technological apps and games that used that data in various ways. So this isn’t a larp, because the audience aren’t really actors driving the narrative: they stay firmly audience members, but participatory.
The show had an overarching narrative following an ethical conflict within a famous tech company, DesignCraft. Imme- diately upon signing up for the show, participants were invited to a party for their supposed friend, Amelia, who was a star employee at DesignCraft. As the story unravels, they learn that Amelia is an experimental AI created using their personal data, who, herself, has begun grappling with the ethics of how the company uses her and its vast trove of data.
Within this broader plot arc, main characters were written to offer contrasting perspectives on our issues. Don, the CEO of DesignCraft, represented a business and innovation per- spective. Lily, the chief data scientist of DesignCraft, held scientific and humanitarian views on the possibilities of Big Data while struggling with some privacy concerns. Felicia, an ex-DesignCraft employee, offered a critical lens of tech- nology infiltrating and destroying the best parts of human re- lations. Evan, a hacker, saw technology as an opportunity for exploitation and intended to similarly use it to exploit De- signCraft. Amelia, a humanoid AI, struggled with the idea of being merely an instrument for technology and the artifi- ciality of knowing people only through data. Felicity, an FBI agent, believed data could support a more secure society. Bo, the chief marketing officer at DesignCraft, felt strongly that technology was entertaining, useful, and enjoyable and was willing to make this trade-off for any privacy concern. Finally, Veronica, a reporter, was concerned about the politics and intentions of the companies working with everyone’s personal data.
Skirpan, Michael Warren, Jacqueline Cameron, and Tom Yeh. “More Than a Show: Using Personalized Immersive Theater to Educate and Engage the Public in Technology Ethics.” In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 464:1–464:13. CHI ’18. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174038.
But what I would really like is to develop something both more participatory than the immersive theater example, and more narrative than the artist-led larps, with events and conflicts and problems to solve. That’s probably quite ambitious and difficult. I am very much looking forwards to sitting down with Anita and Harald, who have lots of experience (good thing, since I have practically none).
(And here’s a rather fun NRK documentary som 2011 about Anita – the kids’ larp in the forest is still going strong, and we played a version of the murder master at the camp last week.)
Here are some names of people doing relevant work that people have suggested:
Also I was recommended the following books:
If you know about larps about technology and society, or that are used for research dissemination or teaching, please leave a comment! I would love to know more!
WHO DID THIS
Honestly I am so sad today. There is no reason for it. Someone reached into my brain and let out all the bathwater and HEY I WAS USING THAT BATHWATER it was where the happy chemicals were stored. Gone now, down the drain along with the soap scum and the remnants of that bath bomb from the Christmas stocking. I am so so so-so, a frog behind glass, an argument going in circles. My mouth is the smallest wavy line and I am wearing the Depression Cardigan (a shapeless olive thing). Brackish, messy, monstrous. I feel like the stuff in the Roomba’s dirt cup.
The following are not precipitating factors but they are contributing in their own small way:
The good news is that this is definitely a Mood and not a Condition. I know the difference. Maybe I should just take off this fucking cardigan, make and eat a pan of macaroni and cheese, take a Xanax, burn a PTO day to sleep all day.
Observed: I was eating dinner at a brewery and had an obstructed view of the sign listing all the beers. From my vantage point I could see that one of them had a name ending in “SWIPE” and I sincerely hoped for ASSWIPE (mmm, so hoppy!) but it turned out to be SIDESWIPE. Oh well.
Also observed: a dog that looked like Bjork. Sadly I could not get a photo.
Culture, written, except no thank you: I get a daily email of what ebooks have suddenly gone on sale (the microeconomics of that publishing phenomenon are fascinating, btw: but we don’t have time for that now). Occasionally something on my to-read list pops up on there and I get it for cheap, but it is mostly a roundup of that have a very good reason to be priced at $1.99. Honestly for some of them you’d need to pay me $1.99 to read it. I feel sorry for the person who writes the descriptions—here is a sampling of phrases, all from different books you can unfortunately buy.
Culture, musical: I am on a concert ticket buying spree; now all someone has to do is supply me with methamphetamine so I have the energy for all these shows. Lithics! Colleen Green and Dressy Bessy! Lights! Adult Mom! Various festivals!* And Sleater-Kinney, of course! I was a little “hmmm” about the single that came out but it has grown on me a bit, and honestly S-K could probably put out a track of free-form didgeridoo** jazz and I would give it a chance. Fangirl 4 Lyfe, sorry/not sorry.
*Neighborhood ones that happen that have like one or two good bands playing. I don’t do the giant festivals because that is way too much outdoor-bathroom action.
**The worst instrument. Petition to rename it the didgeriDON’T. Or to misquote Freckle, “Sometimes things that are indigenous…are worse.”
Culture, musical, soundtrack: Five songs that played while I wrote this diary entry.
Co-worker, on the elevator: Wow, the fog this morning! Just a solid wall of gray.
Me: Yeah, it’s like being dead.
Me [at my floor]: Welp, have a good day!
—mimi smartypants is still the thug that you love to hate.
I went to San Diego for a work conference and barely got off the hotel property, partly because of being busy and partly because we were marooned way out in the bay and you had to cross twelve streets to get just about anywhere. The times I did cross all those bleak and foot-traffic-free streets I was amazed at San Diego’s insane scooter investment. I think I stopped counting at eight different scooter companies, all stupid colors of the stupid rainbow, and literally just piled up and abandoned all over the place. I swear San Diego has more scooters than humans. City planners: COOL IT ON THE SCOOTERS.
One of the times I did leave the hotel, I walked past all those scooters and to a part of San Diego that the city actually touts as something worth seeing: Seaport Village. I apologize if you are a fan but Seaport Village is creepy as hell. I suppose it has a good view of the water and all, but only visit if you are a fan of a “gated community” feel and multiple opportunities to buy “Life’s a Beach” handpainted wineglasses for your bachelorette party. Good lord I could not leave fast enough.
Educational sessions at the conference were good but because I am shy and suck at “networking,” all the socializing and business-talk (ie: wine and complaints) was done with people I already work with. Two work friends and I bought a great deal of wine at the hotel bar one night, including rounds bought by the bartender* because we are cool and a round bought by some weird old guy because (a) we are cool and (b) we were lined up at the bar like so: cute redhead/cute blonde/cute brunette (ME), and he probably thought he had stumbled into some businesswoman porno. We said thanks and toasted him and he did not press for interaction (thankfully), so I did not have to shut anything down. Never forget that you are under no obligation, ever, to talk to anyone. This is Mimi’s #1 Life Tip and it’s shocking how many people have not internalized it.
*The bartender was the kind I do not like, who eavesdrops on your conversation even when he is not directly serving you and then tries to interject with his own uninteresting stories. He found out we are from Chicago and spun a tale of how he loads up on multiple cases of Old Style when he visits Chicago, in order to lug it back to San Diego.
Speaking of shutting dudes down, I got in my first airplane fight!
Mid-flight, the guy across the aisle from me started to watch a documentary about sharks on his iPad, with the sound on and no earbuds. ON A PLANE.
I stared at him pointedly for a while, my whole body turned to make it clear what was happening. He kept glancing over and smiling nervously. After about four of those glances I asked, “Would you like to borrow some earbuds?”
Shark Douche: No, thanks.
Me: I really think you should. Or I could get some for you from the flight attendant.
SD: I’m good.
Me: Or, alternate plan, you could turn off the SOUND and use closed captioning.
SD: Why though?
Me [slowly and through extremely gritted teeth]: Because. I already know. A lot. About sharks.
IT’S IN THE CAN
Aaron and I went to one of the films in the Buster Keaton retrospective at the Music Box (The General) and I had forgotten how strangely modern certain moments of the film are. There’s a whole physical/romantic comedy thing where he’s trying to stuff the female lead in a sack to sneak her somewhere, and a whole thing where he gets frustrated with her ditziness (but not in a mean way, at all). There’s also the deadpan “oh god this again” of Buster Keaton that is pretty much a 1920s Jim Halpert. It made me want to watch more silent films. (At least the good ones. They are not all gems, of course.)
Not silent, but here is one of my favorite Marx Brothers bits of randomness:
I feel due for a strange interlude; maybe I’ll have one this summer. Strange interludes are often in the summer, it seems? Maybe because it’s a bounded stretch of time with weird weather (at least in the Midwest). I remember the high school summer where I worked in the video store all day and watched film versions of Hamlet at night. I was involved in a flirtation with a girl drummer in a local band called Dolphin Rape, I wrote a lot of poems, and I ate a lot of Taco Bell bean burritos and carrot sticks dipped in mustard. What’s the 40-something version of that summer? Tell me and I will make it happen.
—mimi smartypants wants to smile for boring girls, would walk a mile for boring girls.
IT’S JUST A BUNCH OF STUFF THAT HAPPENED
There was a deer on my block last night, just crossing the street and heading into someone’s yard to (probably) munch on their well-tended flowers and plants. The deer was safely not in the road at all but some guy driving down the block stopped to honk at it. What was the point of that? Honk honk honk hey deer! You’re a deer! I hate that guy.
I have heard that the Chicago neighborhood deer are actually becoming a problem. No natural predators (I assume our sporadic urban coyotes are too weak/inexperienced/more in the mood to eat rotisserie chicken carcasses than actually hunt). There are too many deer and this is why they are frequently leaving the not-at-all-confines of the forest preserve and showing up near our bungalows. I do not know if the park district is actually considering a cull or if we all just have to understand that THEY’RE DEER/THEY’RE QUEER*/GET USED TO IT.** I propose a Neighborhood Naked Bow Hunt, to foster teamwork, camaraderie, and a nihilistic foretaste of future desperate and apocalyptic times. Please put your name and address on this sheet and indicate whether you can bring face paint and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
*Presumably at least some of the deer are? Here.
I was reading more about old-timey disease outbreaks and came across probably the greatest “Limitations” section of any science article ever:
“These problems are, and will probably ever remain, among the inscrutable secrets of nature. They belong to a class of questions radically inaccessible to the human intelligence. What the forces are which generate phenomena we cannot tell. We know as little of the vital force itself as of the poison-forces which have the power to disturb or oppress it.”
God I love that. “Here’s some science, but let’s get real; not only do we not know, no one will ever know.” That gets you off a lot of hooks.
SEEN YET NOT SEEN
I just set up my out-of-office message but it is a bit of a lie—Wednesday to Friday I am technically on the clock because I will be at a conference in San Diego, which means I am expected to answer email and generally be virtually available. But: not in the office. But: if you’re sending me an email, do you really expect or need me to be in the office? There should be a business-world-acceptable way to convey “I’m at a work thing and reading email; I just am not going to particularly care about it.” (This is a quick one and I doubt I’ll get too far out the door of the conference hotel. I am not even going to ask for taco recommendations as it would be kidding myself and ultimately just too sad.)
But first! A three-day weekend. I am going to run around like a maniac for some of it, with an epic and long-overdue Target run, gym plans, and taking the kid to both a haircut and a blood draw. (I said: “You’re leaving bits of yourself all over town tomorrow! You’d better hope your hairdresser isn’t into witchcraft and make sure you don’t get the voodoo phlebotomist!”) (Did you know that I am not funny? If you don’t even get the teenage eyeroll, it’s probably time for new material.) I also am going to the THEATER (say it in a fancy voice) with a pal and grilling meats with my family and planning several naps, as well as reading The Witch Elm (finally—had been on my list forever), a book that I think has ended my weird little streak of nonfiction books, at least assuming I can find another novel just as well put-together as this one. Also assuming I do not go insane.
—mimi smartypants is fictitious trash.
I AM ONLY DOING AN OKAY JOB
A week or so ago I attended one of my very sporadic yoga classes—this was a fancy one with candles and live music and I took it with a friend. It was fine but the instructor was way too proud of us. Oh you’re doing great. Good breathing! Oh feel that stretch, yeah? You all are fabulous. I do empathize with yoga instructors and the very difficult task they have trying to provide the right kind of experience for everyone; I bet Yoga People are much more demanding/particular about that than, like, bootcamp people, who mostly just want to exercise and leave. Probably some people in my class felt extra-supported and peaceful through all the affirmations. I felt patronized, and maybe kind of giggly when complimented on my breathing. Thanks! I’ve been doing it a long time!
Afterwards the friend and I went down the street for beer because toxins out, toxins in.
NOT EVERYONE LIKES ME (IT’S OKAY)
The yoga friend is someone from work. A few recent happenings (hello vagueblogging!) have sent me into Introspective Mode re: friendships. The hurdles to havng adult friends are a total meme-cliche at this point, but for me the difficulties, such as they are, are more about my own strengths and limitations, about what I want from friends and how to go about getting it. I have worked at my place of employment a long-ass time; I am an indifferent happy-hour-attender, a rare lunch-goer, and probably have a reputation as a bit of a crab or weirdo. Nonetheless, there are a few people who like me and I like them, and we do things outside of work, and I don’t need to be on guard or watch what I say because we trust each other.
In contrast, I moved to my neighborhood nearly a decade ago and right away started meeting a large network of people (women) who seemed fun. Who seemed to do things together; and how convenient to do things in your neighborhood! I attended a few of the things. The things were moderately fun. I mentally started to put a few of the people on the “maybe a friend” list. But it turned out that their group was possibly not as open as it first seemed, and now sometimes on my infrequent Facebook visits I will see large groups of these people getting together, in the neighborhood, for holidays or wine and I live on the same street, but: sure.
My point is: that is fine! It would not have been fine when I was younger. I would have been wondering how exactly I screwed up in the previous get-togethers. I would have been paranoid or defensive that different life circumstances (working full-time, having an only child, not having given birth, being newer to move here, etc) meant that I was being excluded on purpose. I may have been sad or self-loathing, or I may have been all like FUCK THOSE BITCHES and carried a full, simmering pot of Resentment Glögg in my heart that constantly threatened to spill over. But now I am old and I think, Oh well, those were not the
droids friends you were looking for. That is fine. (I am saying that it’s fine too much and I’m worried you won’t believe me. It really is fine!)
It still seems that the very best adult friendships are the utterly bizarre “instant connection” ones, where I am drawn to someone in person or online, and eventually one of us writes the awkward email or direct message that goes like this: “Hey we should do something in person/without our spouses/when we’re a little more sober than this.” Boom, instant real true friend. I guess it is the adult version of meeting on the playground or at camp.
I AM SCARED! AND ANGRY! AND ANGRY! AND SCARED!
Hey wait I actually do have a reason to be miffed at my neighbors, or at least at one of their creatures, and it is not the least bit friendship-related!
There is an outdoor (pet) cat that roams around my block. I disagree with this for so many reasons (we live in CHICAGO it is not a FARM), but let’s not start that now. The point is, this cat likes to be in my yard. It sometimes poops in my yard, and I clean that up, swearing the whole time.* Seeing this cat through the windows upsets my indoor cat trio greatly—particularly Murphy, who has grown into a giant absolute unit of a 2-year-old boy cat but (I suspect) still feels a little insecure about his place in the cat pack.
Cats are very stupid. There literally is something called redirected aggression where something scary happens (another cat, a bookcase falling over) and all of a sudden all the cats are panicking and acting like they have never met their sibling cats ever in their whole lives. Outdoor cat startled Murphy by being actually on my windowsill, looking in, and Murphy lost his damn mind. There was hissing and worse, SCREAMING. He attacked Rocko (who also started screaming, no surprise). He attacked Lola. Everyone got all tangled up in a bad spot, near the staircases and some interior doors, where there is no easy escape. Rocko freaked out even harder and attacked MY KID. Aaron was literally standing on a chair in the home office swatting at a snarling ball of Rocko-fur with a throw pillow, and he still got scratched and received a hole in his pants. Eventually I shoved Murphy down into the basement but—I am not kidding—it took almost 48 very tedious hours to reintroduce all the cats. All would seem calm and then Rocko or Lola would walk around the corner, making Murphy puff up like HOLY FUCK WHO IS THAT. All this drama because somebody would rather keep their cat outside. Come on man.
*There was a recent Reddit thread about how to keep your house smelling good if you have pets, and the number of people who said, “My cat goes outside to poop” really started to irritate me. I have a hunch you don’t ALL live in the woods, miles from neighbors! Guess where your cat is pooping? My yard!
(NOT) HAMMER TIME
Although it’s a very old true-crime story, sometimes I think about the woman who strangled her hitman. He was kind of a dumb hitman, picking a hammer as his hitman weapon. So messy! So inconvenient! So personal! Was that the hitman’s choice, or was the husband a gross weirdo who wanted that? And why would you want that? Anyway, it is good that the hitman did (bring a dumb weapon), and it is good that Susan survived and that the husband went to jail. As for the hitman, I guess you reap what you motherfucking sow. I bet that guy had an outdoor cat.
—mimi smartypants, professional rhombus.
On April 1 I told Twitter what I was cooking for dinner. (Why? I do not know.) Then I decided to tell Twitter what I was cooking for dinner as often as possible for the month of April, a move that on the one hand seemed like a dumb self-indulgent overshare (LIKE TWITTER IN GENERAL) but on the other resulted in several adults-with-family-cooking-responsibilities telling me that they appreciated another source of input on the meal planning front. In retrospect April was exactly the wrong month to try to be a completist about reporting my dinners, since my family and I spent a week of it in London for spring break. We ate dinners in London, but I did not cook any of them. We ate fish and chips and excellent pizza and roast chicken and some surprisingly great gnocchi at a pub in Chelsea. Also, in an airplane over the Atlantic I was served a delicious hot sandwich. I was actually a bit freaked at how much I enjoyed it. What’s the deal with airplane food, indeed.
London is a great food city now, but food is still not really the point of it for me or LT, and certainly not for the kid, who views all food in terms of grams of protein and units of energy to turn into more doorframe pull-ups or whatever. Our London consisted of a few predictable tourist things, like the Tower (hello ravens)* and Hampton Court,** and a few more out-of-the-way things, like Greenwich*** and Hampstead**** and my beloved cholera pump.*****
*A sign on their aviary said that the ravens’ favorite treat is a “blood-soaked biscuits.” Honestly: same.
**It was a beautiful day and
Cardinal Wosley King Henry sure had a beautiful castle, but man were there a lot of crabby children and screaming toddlers there. I would not have been surprised to hear that some of them were parentally abandoned in the hedge maze. Good luck, you ungrateful moppets! Happy navigating!
***Reached via new (to me) high-speed water taxi! I may just be a whore for boats, but I thought it was a fun ride and it works with the Oyster card.
****Another beautiful day and a paradise for (a) cute dogs and (b) people like us who like to look at cute dogs. Also, Keats’ house! He only lived in it for two years but probably contracted tuberculosis in that very house, so that’s cool. (Wait, no it’s not. I forget that not everyone is as fascinated by infectious disease as I am.)
*****Speaking of: cholera pump! We took a special detour on a hot afternoon so I could see it in person. The cholera map (don’t drink the water!) is probably the most famous “Figure 1” in epidemiology, curiously not reproduced in the eBook, but available in a cool interactive version here.
My favorite bit of the eBook are the pages and pages of publisher advertisements for other books. Thirty-seven pages in all! Including Mr. T. J. Ashton’s blockbuster, “On The Diseases, Injuries, and Malformations Of The Rectum And Anus,” which was blurbed by The Lancet AND The New York Journal of Medicine! That is a must-read.
We stayed in a cute, if insanely overheated, Airbnb apartment near University College London (a name that Aaron found amusingly redundant, and that led to the coinage of similar names like “Market Shop” and “Stadium Arena”). It had a balcony, but that was rendered unusable by the presence of a pigeon nest and two juvenile pigeons inside, as well as a large quantity of bird poop and the comings and goings of a nervous mother pigeon. On the plus side, the sliding glass doors turned the life journey of these pigeons into a private-showing nature documentary, and by the time we left the babies were standing up and stretching their wings more often than not. Bon voyage, air rats!
The only other notable things that happened in London were that LT accidentally (I hope that doesn’t need to be said) slammed my hand in the car door of an Uber. It hurt like hell and I am sure I frightened the driver with my tears and colorful oaths, but there was no lasting damage. I will revengefully injure LT at a time of my choosing. (Just kidding.) Also I got to see my friend from college, she lives all the way out in Brighton and I sent a (I hope) politely worded email saying that we really were not planning to visit Naughty Brighton on this particular trip, but if she wanted to make the journey to London we would happily take her out for a meal. We had to dodge Extinction Rebellion protests when she arrived at Marble Arch but soon were settled in an Iraqi restaurant sharing a bottle of wine, and then at a pub full of overdressed chavs and chavettes sharing another, so I am very glad I reached out.
BESIDES THE GOOD SANDWICH
On the way home the plane seatback entertainment was showing Hard Knocks, that HBO show about an NFL team’s training camp and preseason. I love this show because (a) I am a sucker for behind-the-scenes stuff and sports documentaries in general, and (b) because many of the big giant football guys are very quotable. There was one bit where the team was playing a nighttime preseason game and a tight end looks up, notices the sky, and says:
“All right, the moon. I can draw energy from it. [pause] That’s dope.”
I kind of can’t stop thinking about that or saying it. I looked this guy up and he is no longer playing football professionally but has retired to pursue “spiritual healing and his passion for crystals.” OKAY.
—mimi smartypants conveys in an agreeable and epistolary style some most important truths.
I returned a dress (purchased online, naturally) to the Michigan Avenue LOFT store. Save a stamp! Give a store clerk easy tasks to do! If you have time to lean you have time to
clean process my return.
Clerk: Anything wrong with it?
Me: No. It just looks weird on me.
Clerk: I have to tell you something. This dress looks weird on everyone.
Me: Thank you for saying that!
Clerk: I’m serious! I’ve processed so many returns for it. Everyone who works here tried it on because it was so cute and not a single person bought it. Cute idea, bad execution.
Me: Maybe it’s cursed! An ancient curse! Cursed dress!
Clerk: …uh, maybe. Credit back to your Visa?
I’m currently obsessed with the idea of cursed objects because of my Wine Ordeal. My parents were going on a road trip to visit a relative, and my mom asked me to buy this certain bottle of wine, with an older, weirder version of our last name on the label, to bring to said relative. The wine is only sold at Eataly; even Binny’s would have to special-order it. I work near(ish) the Eataly on Ohio.
(Keep in mind that my work likes to keep me so busy that I usually cram a hastily microwaved Amy’s burrito in my mouth at lunchtime and only go out of the building if I have an errand. For instance: this wine thing.)
Day 1: I go out at lunchtime to get some Trader Joe’s groceries, thinking I will stop and get the wine on the way back to the office. I did not. I realized that in the elevator up to my office. D’oh!
Day 2: Shit is crazy. I spend lunch chained to a content management system.
Day 3: I head out to Eataly. Hello! I am here! Security guard at the door says that they are “closed for a private event.” In the middle of a weekday. Is the private event all over the store? Apparently so. Can I buy some wine? No I cannot. I go back to work.
Day 4: Hooray for me! I buy the wine! It is twenty dollars (my mom will give me the money, but it had better be good because (a) the family name is on it [kind of] and (b) good wine can be had for half that). I put it in a tote bag along with some work papers. Then, and this is important, I go out drinking with one of my best friends. This part is also important: she drinks beer, and I decide to drink wine. (Not the wine I just bought.) I love wine. Me and Malbec, we get along so well. It is usually pretty easy for me to say no thank you, I have had enough beer. It is not so easy to say that to wine. I’m not sure I’ve ever said it to wine. My friend is fun and I love her. (And wine!) I stay out much later than intended and rideshare home.
Day 5: I am getting ready for work and realize I no longer have the tote bag. With the (cursed) wine and (more importantly) the work shit. The bar does not have it. I contact the Uber driver, using the “lost item” thingy on the app, and we talk on the phone and he says he can deliver it to me that evening. There’s a $20 charge or something like that. I need the work-related stuff and I am fond of the tote bag, so fine. This Uber driver now knows my actual phone number (slight yikes). But I am grateful. I thank him.
Evening of day 5: Uber driver texts that he’s near my house, I say I’ll come out and grab my stuff and once again, give effusive thanks. He pulls up, gets out, and hands me the tote bag. The other stuff is there, but it is obvious there is no wine.
“Make sure everything’s in there,” the Uber driver says, giving me a creepy smile. I was suddenly very very Done with this guy and did not want to give him the satisfaction of letting on that I knew he had stolen my wine. “Yup, seems like!” I practically yelled. “Goodbye!” I did not add “forever.” I did not add “asshole.” He (wisely) did not try to get the $20 charge for delivering the lost item; the $20 wine makes us even, I guess. Asshole.
Day 6: I buy the goddamned wine (again). I carry it home in that same tote bag, and I never once let go of the tote bag strap on the El. My mom drops by to pick up the wine. I point to it from across the kitchen and make her literally take it out of the house herself, because clearly the next step is that it shatters on the kitchen floor and I lose an eye to the flying glass.
—mimi smartypants has seen enough to eye you, but too much to try you.
I’ve got a new piece over at The Atlantic on Barack Obama’s prospective presidential library, which will be digital rather than physical. This has caused some consternation. We need to realize, however, that the Obama library is already largely digital:
The vast majority of the record his presidency left behind consists not of evocative handwritten notes, printed cable transmissions, and black-and-white photographs, but email, Word docs, and JPEGs. The question now is how to leverage its digital nature to make it maximally useful and used.
This almost-entirely digital collection, and its unwieldy scale and multiple formats, should sound familiar to all of us. Over the past two decades, we have each become unwitting archivists for our own supersized collections, as we have adopted forms of communication that are prolific and easy to create, and that accumulate over time into numbers that dwarf our printed record and can easily mount into a pile of digital files that borders on shameful hoarding. I have over 300,000 email messages going back to my first email address in the 1990s (including an eye-watering 75,000 that I have sent), and 30,000 digital photos. This is what happens when work life meets Microsoft Office and our smartphone cameras meet kids and pets.
Will we have lost something in this transition? Of course. Keeping a dedicated archival staff in close proximity to a bounded paper-based collection yields real benefits. Having a researcher who is on site discover a key note on the back of a typescript page is also special.
However, although the analog world can foster great serendipity, it does not have a monopoly on such fortunate discoveries. Digital collections have a serendipity all their own.
Please do read the whole article for my thoughts about how we should approach the design of this digital library, and the possibilities it will enable, including broad access and new forms of research.
MATRICULATE AT THIS (GRABS CROTCH)
Accompanied the kid to a college “fair” recently and I think events like that are going to be dead in five years. It seems mostly like a crowded and low-tech way to leave your information with schools and start to get lots of mail. Maybe it would be useful if you had never been on the internet in your life?
Also there are all these shadowy companies now, intertwined with high school guidance departments in what is probably a monopolistic and unethical way, that I guess run some weird proprietary algorithm and give you a list of where you are likely to be accepted. BACK IN MY DAY [elderly wheeze] you mostly just tried to write a decent essay and hoped for the best. I literally think I filled out a paper application for my alma mater. With a typewriter, because I wanted it to LOOK GOOD.
Lately it seems that I’m morphing into some sort of Zen Person, trusting the universe and all that shit, which irritates me greatly. My mental image of myself is more of a tightly wound Business Rodent, smoking and stressing out and unable to stop the rodent thoughts in my head. But now it’s like J. Jonah Jameson went camping and ate a strong edible and realized he didn’t really need pictures of Spider-Man to consider his career a success. What is a picture anyway? J. Jonah Jameson got high, read some later Wittgenstein, and realized that a picture of Spider-Man wouldn’t have any meaning on its own but would acquire meaning only by being put to specific uses and pushed into existence through language. Where was I going with this.
Anyway, my baby is a sophomore and unsure what he wants in a college, but I’m starting to think (Zen Person style) that the specifics might not matter so much.* Although I am not the one attending said college, here’s what I want as a mom: not TOO far away (four-hour drive or less? Something like that? I’m flexible), a place where he finds his people, graduate in four years with a degree and not too much debt, ability to have some kind of independent research project or work experience that can translate into getting that all-important first job. And those wants can be realized at lots of colleges! Lots and lots!
*This recent news about the “side door” college admissions scandal notwithstanding. I read the whole DOJ report on my lunch hour, and while it was gross and embarrassing I really enjoyed the wiretap phone transcripts after the FBI flipped the guy in charge. Basically the crimes were already done but they asked him to call each of the indicted folks back and be like “Hey remember that crime we did? I just want you to acknowledge that we did that crime. Here’s how to cover it up. Can you repeat that after me? That we did that crime together but we’re going to cover up the crime in such and such a way? Thanks, dude.” Holy shit, HANG UP if you do a crime and then get a call like that. Don’t you people ever watch TV?
In keeping with my vow to be physically present in as few retail establishments as possible,* I use Stitch Fix and mostly like it. It’s great as long as you are not looking for specific clothing pieces but are okay with making a Pinterest board of clothes** you like and trusting the stylists to send you similar stuff.
But speaking of trust, I recently requested a different stylist after she bugged me about colors for three shipments in a row. “Please tell me what colors you like for spring!” “Are there any other colors you like besides black and gray?” I already branched out into maroons and wines! What do you want from me?
This last missive was the one that broke me, where she wrote something like, “As we move into spring, black and gray will become hard to find, so let me know what other colors you like!” Oh sure, IMPOSSIBLE to find black clothing once spring hits. Nary a piece of black or gray cloth in the land! It’s okay if you find my monochrome professionally frustrating, but don’t LIE.
*TREND STORY: GEN-X’ERS ARE KILLING BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES
**My Stitch Fix board sometimes turns into aspirational Look At This Fashion Lady: I Either Want To Fuck Her Or Be Her. As in, less about my lifestyle and my particular body and my clothing needs and more about a dream of a different life. But hey that’s Pinterest in general. So maybe I’m doing it exactly right.
—mimi smartypants in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.
When Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History 15 years ago, we spent a lot of time thinking about the overall tone and approach of the book. It seemed to us that there were, on the one hand, a lot of our colleagues in professional history who were adamantly opposed to the use of digital media and technology, and, on the other hand, a rapidly growing number of people outside the academy who were extremely enthusiastic about the application of computers and computer networks to every aspect of society.
For the lack of better words—we struggled to avoid loaded ones like “Luddites”—we called these two diametrically opposed groups the “technoskeptics” and the “cyberenthusiasts” in our introduction, “The Promises and Perils of Digital History“:
Step back in time and open the pages of the inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, and prophecies of an optimistic digital future call out to you. Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman confidently proclaims an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that will displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.” John Browning, a friend of the magazine’s founders and later the Executive Editor of Wired UK, rhapsodizes about how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Not to be outdone by his authors, Wired publisher Louis Rossetto links the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”
Although the Wired prophets could not contain their enthusiasm, the technoskeptics fretted about a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—“the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”
Reading passionate polemics such as these, Roy and I decided that it would be the animating theme of Digital History to find a sensible middle position between these two poles. Part of this approach was pragmatic—we wanted to understand how history could, and likely would, be created and disseminated given all of this new digital technology—but part of it was also temperamental and even a little personal for the two of us: we both loved history, including its very analog and tactile aspects of working with archives and printed works, but we were also both avid computer hobbyists and felt that the digital world could do some uncanny, unparalleled things. So we sought a profoundly humanistic, but also technologically sophisticated, position on which to base the pursuit of knowledge.
* * *
Robin Sloan is a novelist who has published two books, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, that are very much about this intersection between the humanistic and the technological. Beyond his very successful work as an author, he has had a career at new media companies that are often associated with cyberenthusiasm, including Twitter and Current TV, and he has also spent considerable time engaging in crafts often associated with technoskepticism, including the production of artisanal olive oil, old-school printing, and 80s-era music-making. In this larger context of his vocations and avocations, his novels seem like an attempt to find that very same, if elusive, via media between the incredible power and potential of modern technology and the humanizing warmth of our prior, analog world.
Unlike some other contemporary novelists and nonfiction writers who work in the often tense borderlands between the present and future, Sloan neither can bring himself to buy fully into the utopian dreams of Silicon Valley—although he’s clearly tickled and even wowed by the way it constantly produces unusual, boundless new tech—nor can he simply conclude that we should throw away our smartphones and move off the grid. Although he clearly loves the peculiar, inventive shapes and functions of older technology, he doesn’t badger us with a cynical jeremiad to return to some imagined purity inherent in, say, vinyl records, nor will he overdo it with an uncritical ode to our augmented-reality, gene-edited future.
Instead, his helpful approach is to put the old and new into lively conversation with each other. In his first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan set the magic of an old bookstore in conversation with the full power of Google’s server farm. In his latest novel, Sourdough, he set the organic craft of the farmer’s market and the culinary artisanry of Chez Panisse in conversation with biohacked CRISPRed food and the automation of assembly robots.
But this was in the published version of the novel. In a revealing abandoned first draft of Sourdough that Sloan made available (as a Risograph printing, of course) to those who subscribe to his newsletter, he started the novel rather differently. In the introduction to this discarded draft, titled Treasured Subscribers, Sloan briefly notes that “these were not the right characters doing the right things.” I think he’s absolutely right about that, but it’s worth unpacking exactly why, because in doing so we can understand a bit better how Sloan pursues that elusive via media, and how in turn we might discover and promote humane technology in a rapidly changing world.
[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Sourdough yet, I’ve kept the plot twists mostly hidden, but as you’ll see, the following contains one critical character revelation. Please stop what you’re doing, read the book, and return here.]
Treasured Subscribers begins with a similar overarching narrative concept as Sourdough: a capable, intelligent young woman moves to the Bay Area and becomes part of a mysterious underground organization that focuses on artisanal food, and that is orchestrated by a charismatic leader. Mina Fisher, a writer, lands a new marketing job at Intrepid Cellars, led by one Wolfram Wild, who refuses to carry a smartphone or use a laptop. Wild barks text and directions for his newsletter on craft food and wine offerings over what we can only assume is an aging Motorola flip phone as he travels to far-flung fields and vineyards. In short, Wild appears to be a kind of gastronomic J. Peterman, globetrotting for foodie finds. The only hint of future tech in Treasured Subscribers is a quick mention of “Chernobyl honey,” although it’s framed as just another oddball discovery rather than—as Sourdough makes much more plain—an intriguing exercise in modding traditional food through science-fiction-y means. Wild seems too busy tracking down a cider mentioned by Flaubert to think about, or articulate, the significance of irradiated apiaries.
By itself, this seems like not such a bad setup for a novel, but the problem here is that if one wishes to explore, maximally, the intersection and possibilities of human craft and high tech, one can’t have a flattened figure like Wolfram Wild, who sticks with Windows 95 on an aging PC tower. (Given the implicit nod to Stephen Wolfram in Wild’s name, I wonder if Sloan planned to eventually reveal other computational layers to the character, but it’s not there in the first chapter.) In order for Sloan’s fiction to consider the tension between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm, and to find some potential resolution that is both excitingly technological and reassuringly human, he can’t have straw men at either pole. Had Sloan continued with Treasured Subscribers, it would have been all too easy for the reader to dismiss Wild, cheer for Mina, and resolve any artisanal/digital divide in favor of an app for aged Bordeaux. To generate some real debate in the reader’s mind, you need more multidimensional, sophisticated characters who can speak cogently and passionately about the advantages of technology, while also being cognizant of the impact of that technology on society. A clamshell cellphone-brandishing foodie J. Peterman won’t do.
Sloan solved this problem in multiple ways in the production version of Sourdough. In the published novel, the protagonist is the young Lois Clary, a software developer who gets a job automating robot arms at General Dexterity, and learns baking at night from two lively undocumented immigrants and their equally animated starter dough. General Dexterity is led by a charismatic tech leader, Andrei, who can articulate the remarkable features of robotic hands and their potential role in work. Also hanging out at the unabashed cyberenthusiast pole, ready for conversation and debate, is the founder and CEO of Slurry Systems, the maker of artificial, nutritious, and disgusting foods of the future, Dr. Klamath. And Clary ends up working at—yes, here it returns from Treasured Subscribers, but in a different form—an underground craft food market, which is chockablock with artisanal cheeses and beverages made by off-duty scientists and a librarian who maintains a San Francisco version of the New York Public Library’s menu collection. Tech and craft are in rich, helpful collision.
The most important character, however, for our purposes here, is the delightfully named Charlotte Clingstone, who is the head of the legendary Café Candide, and the stand-in for Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, pioneered the locavore craft food movement, and normally a fictional Waters would be a novel’s unrelenting resident technoskeptic. But in a key twist, it turns out at the end of Sourdough that Clingstone also underwrites futuristic high-tech foodie endeavors—including that “Chernobyl honey” that is a carryover from Treasured Subscribers. Clingstone both defends the craft of the farm-to-table kitchen while seeing it as important to explore the next phase of food through robotics, radiation, and RNA.
As Sourdough develops with these characters, it can thus ask in a deeper way than Treasured Subscribers whether and how we can fuse tech know-how with humanistic values; whether it’s possible to exist in a world in which a robotic hand kneads dough but the process also involves an organic, magical yeast and well-paid workers; whether that starter dough should be gene sequenced to produce artificial, nutritious, and delicious food at scale; and how craft-worthy human labor and creativity can exist in the algorithmic, technological society that is quickly approaching. The only way to find out is to experiment with the technical and digital while keeping one’s heart in the mode of more traditional human pursuits. Sloan’s protagonist, Lois, thus follows an emotional arc between developing code and developing bread.
* * *
I suppose we shouldn’t make that much of an abandoned first draft of a novel (he says 1,000 words into an exploratory blog post), but reading Treasured Subscribers has made me think again about the right middle way between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm that we tried to find in Digital History. Certainly the skepticism side has been on the sharp ascent as Silicon Valley has continually been tone-deaf and inhumane in important areas like privacy. Certainly we need a good healthy dose of that criticism, which is valid. But at the end of the day, when it’s time to put down the newspaper and pick up the novel, Robin Sloan holds out hope for some forms of sophisticated technology that are attuned to and serve humanistic ends. We need a bit of that hope, too.
Robin Sloan is willing to give both the artisanal and the technical their own proper limelight and honest appraisal. Indeed, much of what makes his writing both fun and thoughtful is that rather than toning down cyberenthusiasm and technoskepticism to find a sensible middle, he instead uses fiction to turn them up to 11 and toward each other, to see what new harmonious sounds, if any, emerge from the cacophony. Sloan looks for the white light from the overlapping bright colors of the analog and digital worlds. Like the synthesizers he also loves—robotic computer loops intertwined with the soul of music—he seeks the fusion of the radically technological and the profoundly human.
TAKE A NUMBER
I took a personal day recently and I did not spend it in any of my top-twenty first-choice ways. (On the list: enormous nap/enormous reading-in-bed, making a lasagna from scratch including the noodles, private karaoke room with a ‘90s gangsta-rap playlist, taking a book to a quiet daytime old-man bar and drinking fourteen Old Styles.) Instead I spent 2 hours of it at the Social Security office! The reason was more gender paperwork, as it is my fondest wish that there be nothing outstanding regarding this business by the time Aaron turns 18. I will do everything in my motherly power to ensure he will be able to launch himself further out into the universe with no lingering bullshit.
One thing that internationally adopting and then having a child transition has done for me: I am becoming a real pro at this kind of document-wrangling. I should write up some tips and tricks and put them online. One thing I can tell you right now, for free (LOL, every single thing I have ever told you is for free)—a US passport is the key that unlocks a lot of other shit. Get one for your kid ASAP, it’s the most useful ID they will ever have. If you need to change names on a whole bunch of documents, passport office should be stop #2 after you have the court order. (And about that court order, I’m convinced it’s worth it to have a lawyer help you—there is lots of advice online about do-it-yourself name-changing but we got a fast court date and our asses saved from a scheduling mistake by virtue of our lawyer knowing the judge. Pay the money! Call Saul!) (Or rather, call someone good at family law.)
Anyway, on my day off I went to the gym and then bopped on down to the Social Security office, timing it to be there right when it opened (9 am). I arrived at 9:08 and I know this from my parking app, which I conservatively (so I thought) had loaded up with 30 minutes worth of parking. HA HA HA HA HA. There were literally 100 people ahead of me once I got a number, so there must have been a line at the door just like at an all-ages show at the Metro. I got to witness 2 full-scale meltdowns from my fellow citizens. One resulted in a very dramatic flinging of papers at the window and a storming out (the employee at that window is my absolute hero for taking a long, ennui-heavy slurp of her Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and then calling the next number). The other was some old lady who I guess had A Problem Too Complex for the service window and was called to the back office; when the security guard sensibly asked to take a look in her bag before she waltzed into a government office she started yelling about how humiliating that was. I guess she doesn’t go to the airport very often.
That security guard was another saintly human who respectfully explained that it wasn’t meant to be humiliating, it’s a safety policy, etc etc blah blah while she shrieked and sprayed spittle in his direction. Dear World: I recommend you never ever EVER give me a badge or a nightstick or any kind of peacekeeping authority because I have a feeling I would go full jackbooted thug—not in a violent way but more in a “we are not doing this” way. I would throw people like her out of everywhere. I would march people out to the street the minute they started acting the fool. There would be lawsuits about me. I know the Social Security office isn’t very fun but adults need to learn how to hold it together.
STATE OF THE FEELS
Speaking of the kid, I am already thinking about summer, and am torn between encouragement/insistence that he apply for various programs, internships, and experience-providing “jobs,” or just signing him up for lots of time at the woodshop, the pottery studio, weeks of chilling at home, being my clean-the-house elf while I work, and playing guitar for hours. Maybe I’m projecting because lately I have been a thousand percent OVER IT when it comes to my career,* but you have your whole life to be productive and gobble up accomplishments like a good little Pac-Man. Maybe take one last summer for creativity and loafing about because soon enough summer will mean jack shit.
*Supposedly I will have been 25 years at my workplace (not my exact job, but my workplace) this year. That is a bit of creative accounting on their part as it seems I got partial credit for the period of time when I quit and fucked off to the Middle East on my husband’s fellowship and spent a year violating the terms of my “housewife” visa by working for cash at an advertising agency. I’ll take the anniversary, though. I was told to choose a longevity “gift” worth five hundred dollars and because I listen to everything Natalie Dee says I bought myself that insanely expensive hair dryer. Owning it makes me feel gross in a Monopoly-Man capitalist way but gee my hair
smells looks terrific.
A friend of mine tried to give me shit for being Gen-X and yet anachronistically staying at the same company for so long like a 1950s dad but my job situation has never been irretrievably broken so I have never fixed it. Sorry for getting promoted a whole bunch, dude. You smell a tiny bit envious of my unbroken tedium. I will admit that right now I am in a mode of WHY WHY WHY MUST I WORK WHY MUST MY LIFE BE SO CONSTRAINED but that is more about working in general (because the last time I was unemployed for more than a few months was like…1988?) than it is about my particular work situation.
COME ON SPRING
After all that California-map-studying and Twitter crowd-sourcing, LT found cheap tickets to London for spring break so: new plan! We will do museums and formal gardens and save redwoods and tacos for the summertime. If there is a summertime. Ever.
—mimi smartypants: those disco synthesizers, those daily tranquilizers.
THANKS FOR NOTHING, LUMPNECK
I did indeed go to the doctor about the lump in my neck noticed by the dentist, and the doctor was like huh that’s a lump all right. But (continued the doctor), I know nothing and will say nothing, reassuring or otherwise. Go get an ultrasound appointment! It will take a week to schedule and in the meantime you can entertain alarming visions of dying of cancer at a very critical point in your kid’s growing-up process.
I did as I was told and a nice ultrasound lady put lube all over my neck and rolled a high-tech version of one of those nonsense “jade rollers” on me while looking at squiggles on a screen. It took forever and she was very exuberant and carefree in her application of neck lube, which meant some got in my hair. Just search for the “radiology technician” tag on Pornhub, you’ll probably find the video.
Long story short, my lump is a lump of nothing, just a slightly enlarged lymph node. Maybe it is a lump of Miller High Life, and I need to drink more Millers High Life to push it on through. Maybe it is a lump of ennui. Something fun that happened, though, was that OTHER stuff showed up on the scan, namely some “thyroid nodules.” Isn’t a “nodule” in your body basically a tumor? But “nodule” sounds nicer. My doctor pretty much told me that the nodules ain’t no thing, particularly if I’m not having thyroid symptoms (I’m not). She said, “By the age of 60, more than half of women will have thyroid nodules.” EXCUSE ME, I’m not 60 but whatever. If you’re going to be blase about nodules (pssst: tumors), so shall I.
My family went to the symphony for some very dull and BLATBLATBLAT horn-filled 20th-century piece (it really was not enjoyable—and I say that as a modern-composers FAN) and also what everyone had really bought the tickets for, the Mozart Requiem. I only cried a little bit. It’s a weird piece really, because the first part is the most amazing orgasm-in-your-pants piece of music in human history, and the rest is only really good Mozart (which of course means “better than 99% of anything ever”). That’s what you get for dying before you finish stuff!
More music! I am a bad playlist-maker, but I like trying new things, so I tend to just randomly add anything that looks good or that Spotify recommends to me, and then I play my giant playlist on shuffle. If I’m like Christ What Is This Shit when something unfamiliar comes on I go back and delete the song from the list. The last three times I did that, all the CWITS songs were by CHVRCHES. Sorry, CHVRCHES, I guess I just don’t like you although Spotify’s algorithms REALLY think I should. Also, that is a very popular method of naming bands or artists for the past five years. You change a letter to another letter or add superfluous letters (Wavves, Alvvays) you go all uppercase or all lowercase (mxmtoon, dodie, R.LUM.R, pronoun, FIDLAR). Or both, as in the aforementioned. If modern life is going to be baffling and make you feel like everyone else got the memo and you didn’t, then it is very fitting that we can’t pronounce the names of any of the bands we like.
A SHORT LIST OF THINGS I MISS
HOW DARK IS THIS MACHINE
Vote tomorrow, Chicago! Yeah I know, all of you have been telling me smugly for like a month how you voted already. I just can’t get behind early voting, it takes the fun out of it somehow. So I’ll be there in the booth bright and early, even though I don’t particularly want any of these assholes to become mayor and my alderman’s race is a “who will do the least damage” situation. There are ballot proposals too, and I figured out I’m voting yes on all of them. Those things usually infuriate me because they are always written so poorly and have the most misleading titles. The Efficiency And Safety Everything Is Great Initiative With No Proposals As To Paying For It! The Fairness And Happiness Completely Toothless Constitutional Amendment! Do you not want a thing to not not happen? Check YES or NO.
—mimi smartypants just died in your arms tonight.