If you enjoy reading Fogknife, you might also enjoy exploring the following websites — each of which I myself subscribe to, via their respective RSS feeds.

This list of links also appears in the sidebar of every Fogknife page, which in turn links back to this page. I reserve the right to update this list at any time, according to my own ongoing discovery (or tardy recollection) of other blogs that I admire. I order the list alphabetically, by website title.

(I also, of course, encourage all my fellow web-writers to add prominently visible link-lists like this to their own websites. Whether or not to refer to it as a “blogroll” I leave up to each individual writer.)

  • Daring Fireball — John Gruber writes about technology and culture, usually posting several updates every weekday. He has a particularly deep fascination with Apple technology, but I find that you needn’t share it to appreciate the breadth of his writing.

  • The Digital Antiquarian — Jimmy Maher writes long and deeply researched essays about digital history, with a particular focus on home computers and the cultures that they wrought around the world, and a particular focus within that on the games people played on those computers. There are bibliographies.

    Maher’s newer effort, The Analog Antiquarian, brings the same approach to other aspects of history, beginning in 2019 with an study on the strange journey the Pyramids of Giza have taken through human culture over the last few centuries.

  • Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling — Emily has been one of the most important voices and talents in the realm of interactive narrative since the start of this century. Her main role has shifted over the years from creator to toolmaker, but she has ever kept up her observations on the art-form through her blog, and continues to do so.

  • Ethan Persoff — A marvelous, comics-focused junk-shop of “political ephemera, drug hysteria, vintage sex & health items”, and quite a lot of original work as well. Every update, however infrequent, is a treasure.

  • Four Short Links — Nat Torkington comes through every weekday with just what it says on the tin. The “short” describes Torkington’s attached commentary, never longer than a paragraph; the material linked to might be anything at all.

  • Julia Evans — Julia is a technologist who writes frequently about on-the-job discoveries that pique her interest, sometimes compiling them into tidy zine-shaped explainers of core Linux system administration and development tools.

  • JWZ — Jamie Zawinski is a hacker-turned-club owner who shares all kinds of things. Includes frequent meditations on the realities of running a nightclub and otherwise living in an increasingly off-kilter San Francisco, and many topics besides.

  • Kottke.org — Jason Kottke has been running this arts-and-culture website since the previous century. Like its cousin Daring Fireball, it primarily presents an ongoing scroll of curated links with commentary. Kottke (along with his occasional guest bloggers) has become very good at this, with a broad eye for interesting material to share.

  • L. Rhodes Digest — The thoughtful and culture-spanning link-blog of an Atlanta-based writer, updated a few times every month.

  • Outside Your Heaven — Scholar and game designer Matthew Weise writes some of my favorite short essays on video games and cinema — often at the same time.

  • Superstition is All We Have Left — Daily meditations on a variety of topics by Lee Ricketts, related in a charmingly unique voice.

  • The Tao of Gaming — Interesting links and thoughtful original articles on board games and bridge.

  • Warren Ellis LTD — Ellis writes unceasingly for a variety of popular media, primarily comics and television, and blows off steam with a churn of blog / stream / podcast / newsletter projects. LTD is the most traditionally web-accessible of them, at the time of this writing, and as worthwhile a follow as any. Primary topics include contemporary art and the open web — whether considered separately or together.

  • Zarf Updates — My long-time friend and non-profit collaborator Andrew Plotkin has, like Emily Short, written for many years about interactive narrative, albeit with more of a focus on studying individual works of note. He keeps up this practice on this blog, alongside updates about various other projects he involves himself in.

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Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat’s Little Teeth follows a few days in the twisted-together lives of a young, queer, polyamorous tangle in the Pacific Northwest, rendering them all as various funny animals in a simple, expressive cartoon style. The point of view wanders around, but it mainly follows an endearingly grouchy fox girl (whose name, like most of the book’s characters, we never quite learn). Pushing thirty, she considers herself a village elder, slightly above the fray; she leaves it to the younger characters to have fights over bed-sharing and TV-control rights in the same breath.

A photograph of two pages from 'Little Teeth', depicting two funny-animal characters, a fox girl and a wolf boy, having a conversation in a subway car about impending relationship disaster.

We first meet the fox while she works up the nerve to dump her latest experimental date, and — mismanaging her own nascent old-lady cynicism — she proceeds to do so with a sloppy callousness that horrifies her friends. The inevitably dramatic backlash serves as backdrop for all the other threads that weave through Little Teeth’s 200 pages. The stakes remain low-key, in all cases; this is a “slice of life” comic depicting a bunch of young people in the throes of intense living-and-learning but not necessarily experiencing any singularly life-changing moments.

My favorite thread of Little Teeth’s fabric involves its most tidily self-contained story. One of the friends, a rising star in electronic music who calls herself “Slumber Party of One”, has become romantically involved with her on-stage collaborator. They want to keep this on the down-low for professional reasons, but “SPO1” feels happy to blithely ignore the strain this creates, to the other’s chagrin. When a YouTuber crashes into their dressing room before a show for a rumor-chasing interview, they find themselves forced to start confronting it, and entirely in the form of dodges and parries to the interviewer’s questions. A clever and graceful comedic drama, worth the price of admission in its own right.

The whole book wraps up soon after that story does, with the fox re-focusing her attention on her primary partner, and all the other tumbling critters experiencing moments of coincidentally quiet grace in their respective stories — with the sense that they’ll all resume careening around the next day, as well they should. Little Teeth made me smile and laugh a lot — I should note it’s very funny, with crackling dialogue and beautifully loose-goofy cartoon art all the way through — and I feel very happy to have spent a couple of evenings with it.

Disclosure: I purchased this book myself, prior to its publication, and I can’t remember how I learned about it. I bet it was someone’s retweet. Thank you, probable person who retweeted about this book maybe!

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On March 14 of this year, I restarted @AcrosticPi, a twitter bot I created in 2014. As its homepage explains, it attempts to post one digit of the decimal representation of π every 15 minutes. The bot tries to make this interesting by encoding this digit via the first word of an English-language post to Twitter, potentially created by anybody, and usually only a few minutes old. (Sometimes it doesn’t find any reasonable new tweets, and posts nothing, trying again with the same digit 15 minutes later.) It also updates its own user-profile message to indicate its current position in the sequence.

I intended @AcrosticPi as a sculpture which has an obvious meaning (or, at least, a pleasing pattern), and yet despite existing wholly on social media it proves entirely resistant to sharing. Like an art installation — my very favorite kind of sculpture — you have to “visit” @AcrosticPi in its context as a full Twitter-based stream to appreciate it. You cannot effectively retweet or otherwise pull-quote any part of it, at least not while continuing to present the tweet as part of the artwork. Displaying any of its individual tweets individually reverts them to their original, default context, removing any trace of the new role that @AcrosticPi gave them.

If you want to visually share the work, the best you can do is take a screenshot of your Twitter client with some slice of the sequence loaded up, much as you might take a photograph of your experience with an installed work an art museum. Thus my illustration for this post, a grab of my Tweetbot window from late last month.

To my good fortune, the six tweets that started the sequence off this year (decimal point included!) are benign, even pleasant in tone. Unsurprisingly, this attitude does not dependably hold. As I write this, 373 accounts follow @AcrosticPi, but I am not one of them; every time I try, I find myself unsubscribing after a few days, at most. Even though its RTs bring me joy so often, they also put disturbing stuff on my timeline, the very sort of thing that would get me to disable retweets on a friend’s account (a practice I wholeheartedly recommend).

It happens that short news messages that start with a number often go on to describe some crime, injustice, or other misfortune visited upon that many people. And, not always people: the most recent trigger came from an animal-rescue group’s claim of how many poor doggies and kitties needed immediate adoption from a certain shelter, else face destruction. My stomach flipped at the uninvited emotional manipulation, and I hit my own creation’s unfollow button. Yes, sometimes this does seem hypocritical of me, putting art out into the world that I myself can’t bear to look at. It weighs on me just enough to doom me to try again, every so often. Having written all this out, all right, look, I’ve gone and done it again. We’ll see how long I last this time.

Other than recounting bloody headlines like this, @AcrosticPi does manage to avoid a lot of more obviously uncomfortable material by way of an extremely conservative language-filter, one that discourages the bot’s retweeting pornography or other NSFW content. This ban encompasses a long list of words relating to human sexuality or anatomy, and this required me to override my own deeply conditioned distaste for automated filtering. If I learned that a web forum I used prevented its visitors from writing words like “gay” or “breast”, I would feel quite disgusted with it. I came to accept, though, that neither @AcrosticPi nor its audience would either miss anything or censor anyone by giving these entire lexical categories a pass. No speech suppression can possibly happen here, not when the critter’s entire modus operandi involves taking material that others have already, successfully published, and then re-publishing it in a surprising and — yes, let’s be frank — uninvited new context.

I began writing this post just to acknowledge this sculpture’s fresh start. I’d originally launched the work prior to Fogknife’s own beginning, and so I thought I’d get an easy article out of it. But thinking about @AcrosticPi more than a little lets me discover a surprising amount of subtle depth in the output of this ridiculous little script, and ponder further directions I might take it. (Perhaps an open-mic reading of a contiguous swath of its numbers lay in our future.) At any rate: here’s to another 7.28 years of this little invention of mine continuing its absurd recitation of everyday joys and horrors, bound to the dance of an infinitely irrational cosmic constant.

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Photograph of a small, white, quad-propellor drone within a dimly lit glass case in a museum. 'Water is Life' is written in black ink on one side, and colored cloth is tied to its four legs: black, red, white, yellow, respectively.
Water Protector drone, photographed at Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

The most cyberpunk thing I’ve ever seen is a small, bullet-riddled drone, decorated in sacred colors, that survived its participation in American Indian resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I came across this critter at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology last month. The little museum’s two exhibits, as I write this, both involve Native American resistance to environmental degradation: one against the Trump administration’s desanctification of Bears Ears in Utah, and the other addressing the well-publicized protests against DAPL.

According to the placard that accompanied this case-displayed drone, it was operated by Myron Dewey, a journalist and filmmaker. Dewey is part of the the Water Protectors, a movement created around resistance to DAPL, led by the Sioux of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and joined by allies from across the country, both Native and otherwise.

Dewey was one of several protesters who used drones like this one to surveil the pipeline construction, the masses of gathered protestors, and the police and security forces hired to keep the protestors at bay. The police, in turn, felt free to fire on the civilian drones that watched them; this drone in particular bears a prominent bullet hole near its left leg, visible in this photo.

Strikingly, it also has four pieces of colored cloth tied to its four legs: white, yellow, black, and red, reading clockwise. These are the colors of the Lakota Medicine Wheel, a symbol held sacred by Native American Plains tribes. You can see that Dewey had also marked up the drone’s carapace with Water Protector slogans, but its subtle evocation of the Medicine Wheel struck me like a thunderbolt. By applying those colors, Dewey pressed this bland hunk of off-white consumer technology into a sort of religious-militant service. It feels to me that he also somehow transformed the drone itself into a “living” instance of the Wheel symbol, assisted by the drone’s own rounded-square shape.

I realize I have an easily-dazzled outsider’s vantage point, but I can’t deny how the thought of Indigenous protestors daubing drones’ legs in the four sacred colors and then flying them on surveillance missions over disputed land takes my breath away, more than — say — the thought of an overseas American soldier painting one up in stars and stripes and buzzing it around a battlefield, or something similarly pedestrian. Somehow, the Water Protectors’ use of symbology make their drones seem more like will-bearing agents than merely flag-bearing tools.

Videos shot by this and other drones play on a loop in the Haffenreffer Museum, and you can see them on YouTube as well. Many of its mechanical comrades did not survive their sorties, blasted from the skies by security forces — but this one did make it back to its operator, scarred but intact, its mission complete.

And that is the most cyberpunk thing I have ever seen.

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I attended a sort of lecture-duet at Brown University a few days ago, with Stephen Pinker and Paul Krugman giving their respective responses to the prompt question “Is humanity progressing?” This was my first drop-in to an installment of the university’s Janus Forum lecture series. While I get the impression that the two speakers invited to these events often take up starkly opposing views, Pinker and Krugman — while not agreeing, exactly — complemented one anothers’ points in interesting ways.

(This post expands some running side-channel commentary I phone-tapped into a private chatroom throughout the talk, which I hope explains its rather sketchy and illustration-free nature — I felt it worth expanding just the same.)

Pinker’s turn at the podium mainly involved a tour through a slide deck showing one line-chart after another that illustrated improvements in various human affairs — often with an X-axis traversing hundreds of years, and often with a focus on moving away from darkness than towards any particular light. Slavery, torture, child labor: all have stair-stepped downwards in their global prevalence since the 18th century, and have stayed low. International wars between great powers, once ubiquitous, have become a fading memory. All of these facts present an extremely unusual state of sustained peace and increasingly common prosperity when one takes in all of recorded human history.

Pinker ended on an exhortation to not confuse his argument with a call for complacency: all of these advances came as a result of large-scale popular struggle, a project that demands ongoing maintenance and invention from all members of human society, always. He hopes, rather, that even during times of localized setbacks, the people engaged in this hard work can look at the bigger picture — and all the successes that their forebears had already achieved — and resist the temptation to marinate in fatalism.

I found Krugman’s talk a little less clear. His point seemed to be that everything Pinker said about the past was true, but alas we now find ourselves stuck in the present. We — and future generations — face challenges unlike anything overcome by those who came before us, and all of Pinker’s charts did not give give Krugman the confidence that all their positive-bending trends will continue through the current century.

Krugman’s freewheeling presentation noted ways that societal regression has happened in the present, or the near past: a decades-long spike in murders that plagued New York City, a downwards slump of life expectancy in Russia. He paired this with a much more dramatic example from the ancient world, holding up the decline and fall of Rome as proof that a civilization’s wealth, growth, and technological advancement cannot protect it from complete destruction, if things go badly enough.

I did like the simple social thought-experiment framing device that Krugman used to define societal regression, from the subjective point of view of one inside that society. Ask that person: If you could be live in any period of history up through today, what would you choose? Almost any rational and educated resident of the 20th or 21st-so-far centuries, already familiar with the gist of Pinker’s charts, would say “Right now”. (Or as Krugman himself said: “If I could trade places with Louis XIV, I wouldn’t do it! He didn’t have modern medicine. Or decent coffee.”) But when he casts his thoughts forward to imagine posing this question to a citizen of 2050 A.D., Krugman finds himself unable to assume the same response.

Krugman ended his talk on this applause-line: “We can screw this up massively, and there’s a pretty good chance that we will. Thanks.”

During the subsequent moderated mini-panel between the two speakers, they agreed that they didn’t disagree: if Pinker’s ultimate point was “We as a species have been wriggling in the right direction, and we can keep doing it,” Krugman’s was “But things can always go to hell if you let them,” and these positions really do not seem mutually exclusive.

Most of the questions during the Q-and-A period came from undergraduates in attendance, and I noted with interest how many focused on climate-change concerns — a topic that both speakers had lightly touched on, during their talks, but hadn’t put in the center of either argument. Both easily reeled off news and statistics that suggest the long-term ascendence of renewable energy, though Krugman added his already-familiar caveat that populist ignorance can still render it all moot, if allowed.

I felt glad that two students did get a chance to (respectfully!) call out Pinker and his charts from what we might caricature as very American-university viewpoints. One young man took him to task for perceived Eurocentricism of his data, and another young woman asked how his trend-lines showing increasing racial harmony made any sense because have you even seen the internet lately? Pinker accepted these challenges with a patient smile and responded deftly, to the latter point naming further studies that really do seem to indicate a decline in American racism — while also acknowledging that, yes, the internet allows once-isolated racists to find one another and combine into completely novel threats. Krugman, all about completely novel threats, nodded along.

Both speakers surprised me when they rebutted another student’s question regarding the short-term thinking shown by far too many people in power today, a suggestion I certainly find quite accurate. Krugman didn’t, though, taking the trouble to draw a distinction between short-term thinking and ill-informed thinking: mere ignorance, more than lack of will or direction, lies at the center of our troubles today. Pinker agreed with this, adding his observation that both government and college campuses in America tend to assign blame to malevolent people with evil agendas when they should focus instead on society’s failure to stop the spread of destructively ignorant ideas. And that gave me some prompting for personal and quiet reflection.

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The seal of the City of Providence. Its center illustration depicts a man in Puritan garb greeting a party of American Indians. Over their heads is written 'WHAT CHEER?'.

Three weeks ago I reported on my new drive to start treating my current city of residence as adoptive, and not merely my latest crash-pad. I bear, unexpectedly, an update of some small relevance: I’ve joined What Cheer Writers Club, a local nonprofit that offers a number of services to writers in Providence.

The club, itself only a year old, has a very lovely and modern co-working space right downtown with a number of interesting common areas, work-nooks, side-rooms, and studios. When I first toured it a couple of days ago, I felt a little dizzy: it didn’t seem like such a large, dedicated arts space could come into existence in the middle of a city, and so casually. I thought this way in part because I had spent 14 years living in the Boston area, where this project would have proved laughably, impossibly expensive. I have otherwise lived in very small cities — Newport, Bangor — whose miniscule populations could never have supported such an effort, either. In Providence, I may have found a city large enough to sustain arts resources like What Cheer, but not so large as to fall into the economic greenhouse effect that my beloved Boston and other coastal cities have fallen victim to? I can only speculate, but it feels worth hoping for.

In some ways, I feel that my membership to this club is the first tangible thing that all my work on Fogknife has earned me. Half-price memberships are available, you see, to anyone who either earns a nonzero amount of their income from writing, or who publishes some free thing of any shape that has an audience of at least 150 people. While over 3,000 unique IP addresses pass through Fogknife.com every month, my much more stringent rules for counting regular readershipusing Bise, my own yardstick for this purpose — result in a number hovering right around 170. I delighted to see that What Cheer had set its minimum required audience level just underneath the water-line I found myself bobbing at with Fogknife, and took it as a sure a sign as any that I ought to join up.

That said, I know that I have a blog must count as one of the most attention-meltingly boring sentences possible, so in the few conversations I’ve had in What Cheer context so far I lead instead with I help run an interactive fiction nonprofit. I wouldn’t know how to begin measuring “my audience” there, so I feel no scruples about using Fogknife as my ticket in and IFTF as my claim to relevance. (Related: I late last year resolved to describe my role at IFTF when people in any context ask me what I do with my time, because my only other answer would be I write web software, which surely beats out the blogging claim in terms of making oneself look hopelessly uninteresting.)

At any rate, here I am, a ten-minute bus ride from my house. (Or a half-hour walk, when the weather favors it.) I plan to use the space to work on Fogknife content, and maybe the other services and opportunities that What Cheer offers will end up becoming part of my greater efforts involving Plerd or IndieWeb-related work — the pursuit of which I plan to resume come mid-summer. I look forward to finding out.

Something I didn’t know before moving to Providence last year: The city’s official motto is What Cheer? — yes, including the question mark. Given the graphics present on the city seal, I tacitly assumed it a historically mangled transliteration of an indigenous greeting, like the story of how Texas got its name (and a hundred more stories like it). But, not quite: according to Rhode Island’s own origin myths, it derives from the plain-English salutation that a party of Narragansett locals offered to Roger Williams as he crossed the Seekonk River to meet them for the first time. The phrase looks odd today, but — if I understand it correctly — it is merely the archaic construction of what we would today phrase as What’s up? or How’re you?

Therefore, should I wish to make myself very slightly happier for a moment, I now have the means to envision a variant of my city’s official seal, with the stately embossed motto replaced with ‘Sup? And that makes me smile.

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A large, stripy, longhaired cat glares up at the camera while lying down on a fancy gray office chair, in a somewhat messy office.
Twila models my new Steelcase Gesture.

About a month ago, the already strained relationship between my lower back and my cheap office chair, warped from a year or so of supporting my terrible posture, crossed the point of mutual tolerability. Every minute I spent seated meant five minutes of backache once I stood back up again. This had happened before, certainly, and in the past I’d respond by whistling up another no-name-brand, eh-good-enough chair from Amazon, which I’d use until it too collapsed a year or two later.

But this year, I raised my head shakily from under my knotted shoulders and twisted spine, and thought: why do I do this to myself? As — neither humble nor proud here — an information worker, I spend the deepest and most productive times of my day, every day, sitting down. It struck me, for the first time, that I should consider my chair not just a thing I sit on, but a literal and core part of my cyborg body. If I treat my phone an extension of my body, then my chair deserves the same consideration. It may not have the immediate consciousness-expanding nature of a smartphone, but it does have far more direct influence over the shape and health of my entire meat-self all day long.

I made the decision, at that moment, to go full Vimes’ Boots on the issue: since I could afford it, I would look into spending a lot of money once on a high-quality chair that would last a long time, rather then spend less money again and again on a series of crappy and hurtful chairs.

This involved overcoming a personal prejudice against fancy chairs. I recall the first time I heard about the Aeron, around the turn of the century. An office chair that costs over a thousand bucks?! In conversations from that era, it instantly became a joke, its presence serving as a signifier of gross Silicon Valley excess: something purchased by clueless overgrown children for their office-playpens, alongside foosball tables and Nerf cannons.

Many years later, though, I had the impression that the legitimacy of these pricey chairs had somehow outlasted this particular association. And so, I polled the friends who dwell in a couple of social chat channels about fancy-chair choices, and found myself a little surprised at the prevalence of fancy-chair ownership among them. The Herman Miller Mirra came up as the most frequently cited make and model. (Now sold only as the “Mirra 2”, which I took as a testament to the chair’s longevity; at least one friend claimed 15 years of ongoing use from one seat.)

I then turned to Wirecutter, a sort of low-key Consumer Reports competitor that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit over the last decade, and discovered without much surprise that they have their own office-chair recommendation: the Steelcase Gesture, with the Aeron as runner-up. Feeling like I’d narrowed it down to a couple of models, I found myself too shy to just turn to Amazon like usual; I wanted to do this right, and that meant taking something for an in-person test-sit before purchase. So I located two high-end office-furniture stores in my city. The one specializing in Herman Miller furniture did not pick up their phone on a Sunday afternoon, and the one selling Steelcase did. I made an appointment to come visit.

At this point, I started to share my plans with other friends, and with Twitter, putting a self-deprecatory slant on it; the concept still held a whiff of the dot-com, to me. But feedback that friends tossed back proved strongly and unanimously in favor of this purchase.

In the end, I rolled home with one fully-assembled, gray-with-black-highlights Steelcase Gesture chair, whose photograph accompanies this post. I paid a little under $1,000 for it, including sales tax. As of today I have used it for three full work-weeks, and I feel very happy with it.

My back pain went away instantly, as expected, and as would happen with just about any new chair. Beyond that, though, my shoulders unexpectedly feel better than ever. The Wirecutter review emphasized the chair’s super-adjustable armrests, a feature that didn’t really impress me in writing, since I can’t say that I’ve ever paid any attention at all to my working armrest situation. But that’s the thing! In retrospect, keeping my arms in an unsupported typing position for hours every day would of course make my shoulders feel knotted up and shot through with pain by sunset — a phenomenon which, I fear, has only become more pronounced as I get older. But this pain has stopped, and I have reason to suspect that all credit goes to my new chair’s armests.

I twist and pull and fiddle with these new armests all day long. When I sit down to work I fold them inwards, almost in front of my gut, reminding me of the safety-bar on a roller-coaster car. I also tend to adjust them asymmetrically, because — something I hadn’t really noticed about myself before, prior to this unexpected chance to collect evidence — I tend to hold my left arm closer to my body when typing. At any rate, both my elbows now lie at rest while I work, the Gesture’s armests moving to catch them where they naturally fall — and three weeks have passed since I’ve felt that awful ghostly fireplace poker pressing into the meat around left shoulder-blade come 5 PM. When I do feel that twinge starting to return, it’s on days where I spent a few hours in a coffee-shop seat, or some other inferior contrivance.

One last subtle point about the Gesture’s armrests: as that photo shows, they comprise horizontal “paddles” that pivot on rods attached to their aft ends. As such, they jut out in front, which means that — assuming you adjust them high enough — they pass over the surface of your desk, instead of bumping into it as typical of any more common armrest. This lets you tuck your chair in, if you wish, while continuing to receive the armrests’ full benefit. Sometimes I do this myself, and I hadn’t really noticed that I did until a friend at whom I was subjecting my chair-ravings over the phone asked me about the chair’s under-desk-tuckability. Just one more thing for me to rave about, that.

I have no regrets at all about this purchase — which, since I bought new, includes a twelve-year warranty. Today, I strongly recommend that any of my fellow at-home freelancers who have heretofore parked their butts only on dime-a-dozen chairs, and who have the room in their budget for a (wholly tax-deductible!) thousand-dollar office-furniture purchase, to consider their options for a thoroughly body-respecting chair upgrade.

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Like many of my friends, I quite enjoyed the Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, a smart and engaging fantasy that borrows Groundhog Day’s template to tell a new story about the importance of interpersonal connections between grown-ups in an increasingly mad world. Entirely aside from its plot, though, various scenes showing one of the two protagonists attending a party, or inviting a friend to coffee, hit me like a boot to the backside. I… I used to do these things. My brain steamed as my blood flash-boiled with the realization that I have not been able to so casually invite any friend out to coffee in years, not since moving away from Boston to Rhode Island.

This move, made due to career necessity, had left my wife and I in a strange social limbo: we didn’t live far enough away from our Boston friends to feel obligated to make new ones, but nor did we live close enough to easily visit any of them. We have made attempts to rebalance this, in the years since. When we first came to Rhode Island we lived near my wife’s then-new job in Newport, a season-dependent island town whose essential loneliness I described in one of this blog’s earliest posts. Last year we relocated to Providence, a much livelier city — which is to say, a city at all — specifically to remedy the malaise we both felt in Newport. It let us stay within commuter-range of Amy’s job, and also nudging ourselves about a half-hour closer to Boston in the bargain.

Scored by that rubric alone, it worked! We both took to the city immediately, feeling much more at-home in the denser environment, with its great variety of cuisine, a new and interesting urban landscape to explore, and easier access to our old friends (though still a good hour’s drive away from any, assuming light traffic).

But because Amy’s ongoing career climb means that the next step up her ladder could land us anywhere, I avoided tying myself down to the city in any way deeper than that. Consciously or otherwise, I didn’t consider myself a permanent resident of Providence. I treated our apartment like a weekend rental with an uncertain check-out date, enjoying the scenery well enough, but doing nothing to risk recognizing it as my home. I sought no new social contacts, I attended no gatherings, and I visited no landmarks, public services, or regional curiosities other than the most obvious. I instead kept all my social affairs to the internet, supplemented with a visit to the Boston area once or twice every month.

This was a mistake. While I have shipped some of my best public work as a Rhode Island resident — Plerd, my tenure with IFComp, and launching the non-profit corporation I helped build around it — I did so while burning through the socially sourced spiritual fuel I had built up over 15 years living among my Boston friends, and doing nothing to replace it. By the start of this year, I’d sat utterly depleted for some time, and didn’t quite realize it. Russian Doll cold-cocked me with its frank presentation of basic social interactions I once took for granted, and in whose unwitting absence I suddenly found myself starving.

After that TV show spun my head around, I made some changes. Yes, we might still pack up and leave at any moment, but what of it? Before the show’s credits rolled, I had made a new resolution. So long as I live in a particular city — and with no definite plans lying on the table to change that — then I should plug in, working myself into all the culture made by the people who actually own up to living and working there.

So, some changes I’ve made, just within the last few month or so:

I visit Brown University’s page of public events once per week, and copy everything that looks interesting onto my personal calendar. And then I actually go to some of them. (I have so far attended a lecture on a modular fireplace that that Benjamin Franklin invented, and a presentation by a RISD professor about embracing uncertainty in goal-oriented design projects.)

I push myself to go to local live shows and entertainments. My wife gets credit here for surprising me with a ticket to black odyssey at the Trinity Rep playhouse for my birthday in January. Since then I’ve attended a little weird show of Twin Peaks-inspired music acts, and a giant radio-friendly concert at the local sports arena. Against all logic, I’ve also started to enjoy watching Providence’s minor-league hockey team play; fifteen bucks buys you a rink-side evening of socially acceptable blood-sport and a dose of regional pride.

Finally, following Russian Doll’s accidental advice most directly, I invited a couple of Providence-dwelling acquaintances out to coffee. They proposed meeting in a coffee house I had no idea existed, despite living near it for an entire year, and then we succeeded in having a conversation of such an astoundingly meandering nature that we landed upon the discovery that one of them had a fan-cartoon printed in the letters column of a circa-1990 issue of the ultra-obscure indie comic book Tales of the Beanworld, the very same issue that contained a letters-column fan-cartoon by me.

I can think of no surer sign that I had put myself upon an extremely correct path.

Appendix: here are the two pages of “Do-It-Yourself Beanworld” contest winners from that issue of Tales of the Beanworld, which I called “fan-cartoons” for sake of a simpler narrative. I invite the reader to perform their own research for further context. (Click either image to embiggen.)

Several strange comic strips that rather defy easy explanation, I'm afraid. Several more strange comic strips that rather defy easy explanation, I'm afraid.

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For many years, I have held Facebook at arm’s length, without the resolve to actually drop it.

While I used to enjoy the website as enthusiastically as your uncle does, I started feeling less impressed with it way back in the salad days of Farmville. Facebook began to encourage us to waste our time and attention on mind-numbing treadmills that kept us clicking and rewarded us for getting all our friends hooked too, and that seemed bad enough. Of course, its mounting offenses against family, society, and civilization have only multiplied in both scale and enormity in the time since, right on up through destabilizing the modern world’s bedrock democracies. (Including the one I happen to live in.)

I can’t quite articulate why the straw that broke my will to tolerate any further Facebook in my life came from yesterday’s story by Casey Newton for The Verge, detailing how Facebook flays the minds and souls of underpaid contract laborers as meat-shields against its own users’ taste for posting unimaginably graphic content. A horrible story, but not a new one — really, an update on an open secret about Facebook’s operations that gets covered every couple of years. And the life-destroying horrors perpetrated by Facebook here happen on a personal scale, not a societal one.

But whatever the reason, the thought snapped into my head during a shower later that day that I should remove documented support for Facebook from Plerd. So I did. I announced that in a tweet, where I said that I had also recommended to IFTF’s board that it cease its own Facebook use. (In fact, we quietly agreed to do this months ago, and have been slowly cleaning up towards-Facebook links and such on the IFTF website whenever we happen to work on adjacent stuff.)

This begged for a rather obvious follow-through step, of course. So, here is a post I published to my personal Facebook page yesterday evening. A couple of hours later I started to feel a little embarrassed by the strident tone, but my intent remains true as stated, so I let it stand. It contains references to my IndieWeb work, which I very much look forward to resuming later this year, once I complete a number of unrelated obligations.

Hi folks,

For reasons that I hope are very obvious, I have concluded that Facebook is an unrepentantly evil company that actively seeks to make the world worse. Unlike even the most rapacious energy companies, Facebook’s world-worsening is not a by-product of its business; it is the very thing it traffics in.

After several journalistic investigations and congressional inquiries and waxen-faced promises to do better, Facebook clearly has no intent to change its course, ever. As such, I cannot in good conscience do anything to encourage its ongoing use.

Barring truly unexpected turns of events, I do not plan to post again to Facebook, in any fashion, for any reason.

I will keep my FB account for the time being, for that handful of friends and family whom FB Messenger is their main communication channel.

I plan to be available for the rest of my life at jmac.org, where I blog regularly (via fogknife.com) and keep all my contact and other information up to date. My email address (jmac@jmac.org) and my phone number will never change.

I plan to keep my Twitter handle @JmacDotOrg indefinitely, as well.

Thank you for understanding. I plan to fight like hell to keep the internet wild and open, and give people the tools to make use of it without selling themselves and their families to relentlessly evil corporations who would be glad to destroy civilization if it meant that they’d be on top of the final heap.

I hope I’ll see you out in that wonderful wilderness. You know where to find me.

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A 2015 Fogknife post about the time my cat came back from the vet and didn’t move or eat for a couple of days has become one of the most-visited articles on this website. When I first noticed that trend, I added a summary to the top of the article, the better to more quickly calm the nerves of worried cat companions who found their way there via search engines.

I just now updated this leading paragraph again, so that it reads this way:

Summary: Our cat had a stressful vet visit, and for days she acted worryingly sick and lethargic. She lost her appetite for kibble, and that made things worse. Offering her a little bit of soft, aromatic food, like mashed-up tunafish, re-stimulated her appetite. She ate it up and recovered swiftly from there.

My motivation came from a very nice email I received yesterday from one concerned cat owner who had found their way to this article. They wanted to express gratitude for the reassurance my happy-ending story offered, what with their own cat in the midst of a similarly worrying post-vet malaise. I very much appreciated the letter, feeling quite touched by the gesture.

However, it seemed clear that my first attempt at a summary didn’t make clear enough that the article offered active advice on top of mere reassurance, and I blame only myself and my typically meandering narrative style here. I replied to suggest that my worried correspondent try what I did with Ada, offering their kitty a little dish of soft food with a strong smell to rekindle its appetite.

And I received another reply within hours: the cat in question ate up the food, cried for more, and then got up to go chow down on its kibble-bowl once again. Just like with Ada, years ago! I felt such a rush of pride and relief at my ability to help — coupled with a drive to try improving the wording of that old article once again, since it seems I have described a syndrome and recovery-path not unique to my own old cat. And so that is what I did.

In a funny coincidence, I had just that morning returned from the local vet’s office, the first time I had done so since moving to Providence last year. While my purpose was routine — just giving the two little monsters I currently live with their annual rabies shot — sitting in a strange veterinary clinic brought very bittersweet memories to mind. This left me in an especially receptive state to feeling feline sympathies, when that first email came, and the resulting exchange may have felt like a slightly steeper emotional roller-coaster for me than I would have on another day. It left a deep impact that I can contemplate whenever I want to remind myself why I keep a blog.

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