A detail from the painting 'The Death of Socrates', showing the cup passing from one hand to another.

“I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout,” I said. “I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come.”

Later this month, I will submit to my first routine colonoscopy. (“It’s time,” the doctor had informed me, gently.) Some hours prior to that, I will drink a tall glass of what we shyly call prep solution, formulated to drive the gut into a self-cleaning paroxysm so that the surveyors might, flashlights in hand, enjoy an unobstructed view of the property.

Bringing the heavy bottle home from my local CVS, it occurred to me that this voluntary action will mark, objectively and inarguably, the end of youth. More than my retirement from software engineering over the past few years; more than my primary-care doctor saying “You’re not a kid anymore” last year; more than my fiftieth birthday, still more than a year away. It feels right to choose a moment completely under my own control, and not a gradual shift, external pronouncement, or arbitrary calendar date.

So I will drink, bear the brief unpleasantness that must accompany any professional poisoning, and then sleep, feeling nothing at all while specialists practice their unpretty but necessary art on my lifeless body. And then, if Providence allows, I’ll awaken into the next part of my life—what Kurt Vonnegut called “the very different sorts of years to come” in Breakfast of Champions.

I am ready to cross this threshold. My life, in so many ways, has never been richer. I don’t assume that my peak of personal or professional quality lies behind me, even if the longer part of my lifespan might. Barely a year into my second career as a technical writer within a huge organization, I still have so much to learn, and I know that I can, and I want to do it.

I feel exceedingly well provisioned for the road ahead, even as I know that the pavement will start cracking, and the incline begin to steepen, as the milestones pass. Preparing to meet the challenges to come, I continue to exercise briefly but intensely every day, and maintain my modestly careful diet. And it still works: another doctor last month pronounced my arteries clean and my heart eager to give me as much as I ask of it, for the present.

I will continue to accept the gift, for as long as I find it offered to me.

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I regret racing straight to Pale Fire’s Wikipedia page the minute I finished it, too impatient to even attempt taking in its index. Nabokov, I quickly learned, did not scruple to speak openly about all the tricks and traps he laid throughout this proto-hypertext, in interviews contemporary with the book’s 1962 publication. At least I can feel relieved that, with dozens of critical studies about it flowering over the subsequent decades, the literary world wisely chose to read the author’s own explicit answer-key as just another interpretation.

Specifically, Nabokov cheerfully pointed out clues he hid around the text showing that “Kinbote” was a pen name for an eccentric professor, “Zembla” this person’s complete fabrication, and “Gradus” merely a disturbed local citizen. But the Wikipedia article goes on to describe real-world competing schools of “Kinbotists” and “Shadists” who disagree about the story’s “true” authorship, as well as a splinter group who credit Shade’s tragically departed daughter with literally ghost-writing the whole thing.

I am okay with all of this. I just wish I had allowed myself to sit with original text it a bit, first. Maybe the very nature of its kinetic, jumping-around nature inevitably encouraged me to just keep leaping past the final page and into the most obvious meta-text immediately available to me, sixty years later.

I feel driven to defend poor Kinbote this way: the text gives us permission to believe in Zembla, that distant northern land, since it transparently sets itself in world half a degree separate from our own. Shade’s home and university exist in a comfortably fictional college town, but then the text drives it a step further by placing New Wye in “Appalachia”. Kinbote, meanwhile, writes out his distracted exegesis in the western state of “Utana”. In context, we have no reason to think these are Kinbote’s fancy nicknames for (say) Pennsylvania and Montana; they are literally the names of two American states, in his world. We must either conclude that Kinbote’s grip on reality is utterly shattered—dissolving the whole text to meaningless, impotent raving—or accept that if his United States is so rearranged, then Europe might just have room for his beloved Zembla, as well.

But then, I have to tell you why I feel fairly certain that, even absent Wikipedia, I’d have arrived at an interpretation similar to Nabokov’s. The cadence of Kinbote’s storytelling, and especially his love for sprinkling “Zemblan” vocabulary lessons throughout his digressions, remind me so strongly of the stories my own own fabulist mother would tell of her childhood, raised (she would tell us) by a Norwegian community in downeast Maine. I wouldn’t understand until adulthood that she made up all these stories on the spot as needed, deploying “Norwegian” liberally to lend them credence. Reader, I have just now turned to the internet again to finally prove to myself that—yes—the Norwegian words for “cat” and “dog” are not, in fact, kisa and dusa.

I will tell you the real mystery that Pale Fire leaves me with, one looming larger to me than even its weird talk of poltergeists, or the hauntingly grave note that Kinbote ends on. Is Shade’s poem titled “Pale Fire” supposed to be good? I just don’t have the experience with poetry to confidently pass any kind of judgment on it, though I do have my suspicions that Nabokov intended us to read it as satire of a particular kind of poetic self-indulgence. The book primes us to expect comedy, after all, presenting the poem after a “preface” where Kinbote’s boasts about his sportscars and student-body catamites get suddenly interrupted by peevish complaints about all the noise outside his motel room. But that poem undeniably contains a multitude of transcendent peaks over its 999 lines even so, just as Kinbote’s notes manage to repeatedly harmonize with it despite their overt self-obsession.

I don’t know! It’s a good book, you should read it.

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A simple collage combining a photograph of the Moon with an old woodcut drawing of a mysterious hooded figure, captioned with 'Hadean Lands: an interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin'.
My own fan-art cover for this game.

This is a spoiler-free post. Executive summary of the links: An excellent hint book. A fascinating plot discussion.

I have completed my stream of Hadean Lands. It stretches across fourteen weekly episodes which average two hours apiece. To the best of my knowledge, this represents the world’s sole public recording of an end-to-end playthrough of this game. I extend warm gratitude to everyone who accompanied me by kibitzing in each week’s attached chat, and doubly to Andrew Plotkin, who acted as call-in guest for several episodes—and who, of course, wrote the game.

This post collects a few notes and observations about my experiences with the game, as well as links to important related media within the IF ecosystem. (I do have additional thoughts specific to the challenges and rewards of streaming interactive fiction, and shall save them for a future post.)

While not the author’s most accessible work, Hadean Lands stands among the most important digital experiments of the current century. Ritualistically binding itself to the strictures of the text adventure’s ancient format, the game cast itself into bold new territory, both mechanically and stylistically, when Zarf published it in 2014. Anyone interested in the study of interactive narrative would benefit from at least a few hours exploring this game’s strange world. (I suspect that a typical playthrough by an attentive player not trying to put on a show would take significantly less time than my own 28-hour performance.)

Hadean Lands demonstrates so much potential for how a game of information-keyed puzzles can work that I suspect it has already influenced more recent commercial work in the adventure-game space—including, but not limited to, the trend of time-loopy adventures that has appeared in its wake. (I would bet a four-eyed space frog that Outer Wilds is one, even though I wish it could have gone further in copying Hadean’s principle of avoiding player repetition.)

The work also stretches the boundaries of how subtle a video game’s story can afford to get, especially when it doesn’t center the player’s own labors. I stayed up late after wrapping the stream’s final episode reading this long discussion of the game’s plot, and felt abashed to find how many threads of Hadean’s plot I failed to even grasp, let alone unravel, even though I “won”. To some extent, I can pin the blame on the peculiar context of live-streaming, which tends to encourage a bright focus on mechanical action and solution, rather than the more quiet and contemplative play one would need in order to cognitively connect all the game’s disparate clues into a sensible narrative.

I never took the time to consider how the player character’s unusual qualities—their eidetic memory, their affinity for performing rote tasks again and again—might serve not just as a gameplay gimmick but as a narratively significant element of a greater story. Worse, I expressed impatience during the stream whenever I discovered information that didn’t have any clear bearing towards mechanical puzzle solving. “Ugh, more lore,” I’d groan, shutting myself (and my audience) out of half of the game’s pleasure. Truly “winning” Hadean Lands means not just arriving at the end, but having at least some notion of how it all came to pass. Laser-focus on bashing through the puzzles won’t get you there.

In particular, I see the influence of John M. Ford’s treacherously slippery storytelling style in this game. Two years ago I enjoyed both Ford’s The Dragon Waiting and Zarf’s exhaustive concordance of it; I find it unavoidable, in retrospect, to read Hadean Lands as an intentional extension of this tradition.

Not to suggest that the puzzle-solving side of this game is easy, either! On that front I’m happy to report that Dan Fabulich’s brilliant hint book, posted to the web several years after Hadean Lands’s release, makes finishing this game a much more tenable proposition today. I discovered this carefully paced walkthrough in the middle of one of my stream’s episodes, and I feel certain I would have given up on this project without it. Dan wrote this guide in the style of Infocom’s famously gentle and patient “Invisiclues” books, and it fits this game perfectly. Everyone starting out on their own Hadean Lands journey should bookmark Dan’s post.

When written properly, an Invisiclues-style guide gives players plenty of chances to still feel like they solved every puzzle they needed hinting for. It offers nudges and observations and suggestions, not just hand-grasping walkthroughs. I turned to Dan’s guide every time I simply had no idea where to look next, especially after I’d uncovered most of the map. In many cases, a hint of “Have you visited such-and-such lately? Make sure you carefully examine everything there” was enough to unjam my attention and allow me and the chat participants to solve the subsequent thirty-seven steps of the current conundrum ourselves.

Finally: I still don’t know how to pronounce Ensign Sydney Ctesc’s name. During the stream I fumblingly went with [See-tesk], obviously incorrect by any measure. My usual go-to website for pronouncing diverse coworkers’ names offered no help, nor did Wikipedia, so I presume it’s a made-up amalgamation of other names. A near-analogue I did find suggests I could have hit the mark closer with something like [Tzesk]. Sydney, my man, you kind of suck, and I hope you got what’s coming to you, but you didn’t deserve me mangling your name so badly over the aither.

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Before February ends, I’d like to acknowledge that Fogknife wants to take a break. While I’ll keep the blog (and its RSS feed) online and ready for my next post, I shall also allow myself to not anticipate when that might occur. This is a change from the four-posts-a-month(-more-or-less) schedule I’ve kept since I started writing here in 2014.

I know only that I wish to give my public writing voice a rest, for a spell.

As I wrote last month, I have come to realize that my old life has ended. The jmac who for so many years defined himself as a jolly freelance hacker who did some writing on the side has passed away. The work of accepting this change represents an ongoing project. Lately, I come to more clearly see how need I need to put away more habits and aspects of my old life, clearing the work-space to let new and vital focuses and transformations have their full effect.

While I have no plans to retire Fogknife, I must let go of the expectations I’d set for it long ago. I know my core self well enough to know I can’t stay away indefinitely! One day I’ll return with new rules for how I’ll use this blog, ones that make sense for my new life. Until then, I need to step away and make more room to work on myself.

I will be well, and I hope you will be well too.

How to respond to this post.

My pole-star song for 2022 is David Byrne’s Here, the opening number to American Utopia. I saw it performed live by the show’s Byrne-led ensemble last week, after Amy scored front-and-center seats through a Broadway ticket lottery; “close enough to see the sweat”, as she described it to friends afterwards. I don’t think it’s too early to describe the experience as life-changing.

Here establishes the show’s framing metaphor of the human brain. The curtain rises on Byrne holding a neuro-anatomical model, and he proceeds to indicate various parts with his hands, addressing the audience like a lecturer. “Here is a region of abundant detail,” he sings, touching one part, and then another. “Here is an area of great confusion.”

Having seen it performed, several moments in the song make me shudder on re-listen. One is the moment when the first of the ensemble’s two dancers first joins Byrne on the stage, harmonizing with the chorus, and beginning the very gradual build-up of performers that fills the stage over the course of the initial numbers. Another happens at the close of Here’s second verse, when Byrne runs a finger along the fissure between the brain’s two hemispheres. “And here’s the connection,” he sings, “to the opposite side.”

That moment defines the show. Having lyrically activated the corpus callosum, the remainder of the song celebrates the brain’s cohesion into something greater than the sum of its parts; how the presence of that connection pulls all those sections together into a miraculous organ that can listen, comprehend, and dream. The rest of American Utopia frames itself around the idea of the brain as microcosm for human society, as a model for many discrete regions connecting to make something beautiful and amazing. Byrne monologues briefly between all the songs—a mix of original numbers and venerable Talking Heads favorites—to set them all in this context, and to share his motivations for creating a staged concert whose musicians are entirely mobile, playing only portable, wireless instruments.

Ultimately, the show dreams of Americans, specifically, finding connection—for all their vast differences, and for all that has gone wrong. (Among the numbers is Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout, protesting racial injustice.) And performed today, American Utopia quite intentionally challenges the listener to put aside cynical thoughts of futility and hopelessness, and to consider other paths.

Hopelessness feel easier to come by today than ever before, but that doesn’t make it any healthier to swaddle your heart in. I needed to hear the suggestion of an alternative direction, and a reminder that even when things seem very bleak, one can gather personal energy and optimism by imagining a better future, and moving oneself in that direction.

On the topic of connection, the show catalyzed something I had experienced earlier that week. Apple’s Fitness+ channel, which I have been enjoying for the past year, recently added meditation guided-programming. In one recent episode, the instructor Christian Howard leads the audience through an unexpected and difficult emotional exercise. Think of a person you dislike, and then imagine the child deep inside them that just wants love and safety. And then imagine embracing and comforting that child. Just holding it for a few minutes.

The point, of course, is to see yourself in others, to see a common, shining, most-essential core shared by all individuals, and to acknowledge a similarity even when surface differences seem unbridgeable. It’s a bit of mental reality-folding I’ve heard from gurus in the recent past, most especially in the writings of Alan Watts, adapting Hindu cosmology for western audiences. It’s all very easy to forget! With music—with the experience of sitting just feet away from those performers, a memory I can revisit at any time by listening to the cast album—I hope it has seared itself more permanently into my own brain.

I have found ways to apply Byrne and Howard’s accidental amalgamation of sympathetic optimism into my life, starting with my day job that sees me working with lots of other people carrying their own desires and directions. It has already felt like a breakthrough. Time will tell whether this lasts beyond the intrinsic novelty of a new year, but I feel hopeful. (About feeling hopeful.)

None of this is easy. Byrne’s show is a wish to apply this on a national level, perhaps a global one. That’s a tall order! But that isn’t for me—one little neuron—to accomplish alone. I’ll take the lessons and that fortune saw fit to provide me with in the first days of this year, and do my best to light up the space around me, and I’ll see what might shine back as a result.

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My 2021 was less about accomplishment than revision. Most of it was good, and none of it was easy.


My relationship with the Perl programming language came to an uneven crescendo last year.

In January, I saw the language’s new documentation style guide published—a point of terrific personal and professional pride, and the largest direct contribution I’d made to this technology that I’d built my whole career upon. I applied the energy from that win into volunteering to propose and lead a new documentation team, an idea the Perl project’s steering council approved of enthusiastically.

And then, as an initial action, I applied on behalf of Perl to Google’s Season of Docs program, seeking funds that would let us hire an expert to audit Perl’s documentation. It worked! And just before the year ended, we published that audit’s results.

In between these wins, however, I had to dramatically curtail my own ongoing involvement with Perl. By late summer, I found myself with a leadership position at my new full-time job, which—when adding in my ongoing IFTF presidency—left me holding three leadership roles. Wisdom will tell you that priorities are like arms, and so I now had one too many. I made the difficult and painful decision to step away from leading Perl’s documentation efforts, just a few months after hyping myself up into it.

I realized only towards the end of the year that part of switching careers means that your earlier career has ended. Perhaps I’ll always think of myself as a hacker, but I do not call myself a programmer any more. I have barely written a line of code in any language since beginning my current job, six months ago.

I think I’ll find some balance here, in time. I did write a little Perl one-off script a couple of weeks ago in order to divvy up some reading assignments to my work-team. It felt very good! But the intense, decades-long relationship I’ve enjoyed with Perl—and with programming in general—has come to an end.

Part of my motivation for writing this post was funerary: I wanted to publicly acknowledge this ending, and reflect on it. I can let myself feel a little sad that this once-central part of my personal and professional identity, one which I’d always assumed would last my whole life, has instead come to its coda. I hope I can look back on this time of my life with gratitude, and allow that feeling to suffuse my new and ongoing occupations.


In January, a startup hired me into my first full-time technical writing job. It laid me off in May, at which point I was already seeking a position elsewhere. I found it a month later at Google, where I have remained since, and where I expect I shall continue to reside for some time.

Joining Google involved another painful decision, even apart from the ensuing need to step back from Perl documentation. Choosing Google meant declining another opportunity, offered by a good friend, to work as a contracted technical writer for a nonprofit whose work is very important to me. For reasons too complex for this post—and more than a mere difference in salary figures—accepting Google’s offer was my only rational option. I do not regret my choice, but I can still feel the hurt from it.

This career shift has contained layered disruptions: not only does this work represent my first truly full-time job since 2005, but I discovered only in August—two months after joining the company—that Google had hired me into a senior role, and expected me to organize and lead a team of writers. I like to think I rose to the call, which involved weeks of especially intense professional development, communication, and improvisation.

I greet the new year wobbling like a just-born calf: standing, looking ahead, determined to roll through all the tumbles to come. The tumbling takes place mostly in spreadsheets and internal task-management tools, but I have managed to author a paragraph here and there within the product’s public documentation. I hope I can accomplish significantly more technical writing in 2022.

Interactive fiction

At the end of the year, I discovered the joy of streaming interactive fiction, with an emphasis on reading aloud. The happiness this has brought me has only intensified since I wrote that post. I have put more time into customizing my YouTube gaming channel, and have announced an intention to stream games—mostly text games—at least once a week for the foreseeable future.

Back in the early summer, IFTF welcomed several new board members, the culmination of a long effort by the board to reorganize the nonprofit into a longer-term mode that requires less intense attention from a more diverse band of core volunteers. It’s worked out quite well!

This year challenges me to address the organization’s long-dangling succession question. I now have a deadline to find my replacement as president: due to new term limits we established, I cannot retain my board seat past March of 2023. I’ll have been president for seven years by then, which is probably around two years too many.

Setting a positive precedent of succession is a crucial hurdle for any nonprofit that intends to outlast its founders’ initial involvement. I feel like I have the resources to do this right; it’s on me to actually apply them.


Amy and I bought an apartment. A first for either of us, let alone both of us.


I deleted 40,000 old tweets, and declared that I’d stop posting freely to Twitter. Against my own expectations at the time, I have actually stuck to this. With rare exceptions, all my tweets in 2021 were replies, retweets, sharing media, or starting conversations with non-rhetorical questions. No more unfiltered top-of-mind babbling of whatever seems funny at the time (and which I might regret for the rest of my life, five years later).

I try to stick to Peter Sagal’s rules of Twitter: share and amplify that which informs or delights, and nothing else. This may work against Twitter’s core design of making people as “engaged” as possible by upsetting and infuriating them, but it’s the only way I intend to use social media from now on.

Did I mention how happy the streaming has made me? Yes? OK. Well, thank you for reading. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope the coming year has good things for us both.

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For much of 2020 and 2021, both of my home’s game consoles suffered from a mysterious and irritating problem: their wireless controllers had terrible lag. Switch or PlayStation games that required precision input had become essentially unplayable: I could press a button and quickly lift up my thumb again before the on-screen character reacted.

I’d occasionally research this issue online, but seldom found useful advice. (Even today, the first hit for a search I just tried begins by advising that you play with a wired connection, instead.) We moved house in the late summer of 2021, giving me the opportunity to approach the problem fresh, and I’m happy to report that I do think I’ve overcome it.

The two steps I took, in the order that I tried them:

  1. I moved our apartment’s wifi router away from our game-console stack. One of the few useful suggestions I did find online blamed signal interference, and suggested putting distance between one’s consoles and radio devices like routers. Setting up our new apartment from scratch made this option more feasible than usual.

    In our last place, we had very literally stacked our consoles right on top of the wifi router! So, we stopped doing that.

  2. I turned on my TV’s “game mode” for the HDMI inputs that each console used. As my TV’s explanatory text put it, this trades off high-as-possible video quality in favor of maximizing display responsiveness, pushing out images to the screen as fast as it can.

    We’ve owned this TV for a while, and I don’t know if this option appeared with a recent OS upgrade, or if I’d simply never looked for it before.

In retrospect, I suspect that the latter step helped more than the former; I well remember how satisfied I felt when I tried my newly configured TV inputs, and saw the screen respond to the controller with neither delay nor any detectable picture degradation. But physically separating the router did seem to alleviate the problem to some degree before that, so I include it here for the sake of completeness.

So that’s my very short how-to for this rather modern gaming problem, and I hope it helps some future person searching the web for answers. I shall now pick up Hollow Knight where I’d last left it off, some 20 months ago.

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I’m pleased to announce the completion of a new and thorough information-architecture study of Perl’s developer documentation, conducted and written by Khawar Latif Khan. This represents an exhaustive audit by a communications expert of Perl’s enormous documentation collection, which in the typical manner of long-lived open-source projects has accrued over many years by countless contributors.

Khawar’s work includes a number of reports and recommendations for Perl’s development team to pursue, with the goal of making the language’s vast and often intimidating documentation more friendly and accessible to newcomers.

Relevant links:

This project was organized by me, with assistance from The Perl Foundation (the nonprofit that helps fund Perl), and with the knowledge and approval of the Perl Steering Council (the volunteer body that manages Perl development). Funding came from Google, via its annual Season of Docs program. Google’s financial contribution allowed us to hire Khawar as a paid professional, a phenomenon seen so seldomly in open-source projects—even ubiquitous and venerable ones like Perl.

My sincere gratitude goes out to Khawar, Google, and the many individuals from the Perl and technical-writing communities who helped make this project possible. I extend special thanks to Doug Orleans for introducing me to Season of Docs at the start of this year.

I hope that the Perl team finds the work inspiring and instructive towards future development.

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Screenshot of OBS, with a Hadean Lands game set up for broadcast.

This month saw me bit by the streaming bug, playing Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin’s Hadean Lands for four hours, spread across two sessions. I set up a YouTube playlist that contains these two recordings. I plan to add further sessions to it, once I resume play after the holidays.

Doing this makes me feel very happy. I’ve wanted to play traditional, parser-based IF in public view like this for many years! Not only do I love this strange old style of adventure game, I love reading out loud for small audiences. Streaming lets me combine these while also encouraging me to actually finish some of these games. Text games often play a little better as a group activity, after all—especially the more puzzly ones, like Hadean Lands, where a few extra pairs of eyes on the action can help you return to details quite easily missed when playing alone.

It took me so long to finally wade into the streaming-pool because no inexpensive, Mac-friendly streaming solution existed whenever I checked, every year or two. But today, there is OBS, and I have to say that it is very good. I had never heard of it before friends with recent streaming experience unanimously recommended it to me, when I asked their advice last month. They were all correct: OBS is a best-case-scenario gem of an open-source, cross-platform application.

While its interface initially overwhelms and presents a number of rough spots, I nonetheless found myself able to speak its language quite quickly. Within a few hours of noodling around, I’d set up a basic “scene” collecting the three windows comprising a Hadean Lands session, all laid out and sized independently from my computer’s desktop view. I also made a handful of separate scenes, such as a zoomed-in map view for calling attention to my in-game location, and dropped a thematically appropriate NASA photograph of a lunar landscape behind it all in order to fill out the empty spots.

OBS hand-held me from there through the mechanics of actually setting up, performing, and recording my streams. YouTube is one of several platforms for which it offers a level of integration so complete that it helped me discover features I had never noticed through the service’s own website. I ended up attaching OBS to the YouTube channel I’d made a few years ago for dumping occasional PlayStation recordings onto, and that feels as fine a fit as any other.

I’m so pleased with the results! Other than some mysterious and occasional flickering in the game’s main text window, the problems that crop up during these first two broadcasts have been my own fault, all first-time-out mistakes. Both episodes, for example, feature my switching to the map view to discuss something map-appropriate, and then forgetting to switch back to the game-view for several minutes. Furthermore, the first episode opens with 15 minutes of dead air, and the second one has me unwittingly muting my headphones halfway in, resulting in my rudely talking right over Zarf’s guest author-commentary for quite a while before realizing the situation.

I apologized profusely to the author after that latter mishap, and thus we remain friends who shall return to the game on Sunday, January 2 at 6 PM Eastern time. In fact, I plan to keep at it for as many Sunday evenings as necessary until finally completing the adventure. And I reserve the right to keep streaming further adventures on Sundays beyond those, if it still feels good.

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Consider adding a guide to pronouncing your name to your online profile pages—especially if you have reason to believe that people likely to say it aloud, including those from other linguistic cultures, might have trouble with it.

I recognize that personal-profile real estate is scarce and sacred, so just as I feel about advertising your preferred pronouns, I don’t consider this extra work obligatory for all. I merely point out its availability as a tool to help people address or refer to you in the ways you prefer.

In my day job, I have the good fortune to interact every day with colleagues from all around the world. This doesn’t merely expose me to the brilliant diversity of human naming conventions; it challenges me to participate as an accurate and respectful invoker of all those names, in an act of fundamental office politesse. And in a related bit of good fortune, my workplace lets employees attach a recording of themselves pronouncing their own names to their company-intranet home pages. If set, this recording appears as an orange “Play” button by the employee’s name. I always appreciate seeing it there, especially before a meeting, or a presentation where I plan to offer a shout-out to a colleague.

I have used this feature with my own name. Experience teaches me that pretty much everyone gets “Jason” right on the first try*, but “McIntosh” often leaves people guessing as to the hidden vowel, and where the stress goes. Years ago, in fact, I added a pronunciation guide to my personal homepage, linking to a recording behind my name’s transliteration into IPA. While that link’s text might be a bit too obscure, I felt right about the link itself then, and I still do today.

And yet, despite what seems like obvious utility to me, online platforms that increasingly concern themselves with pronoun display give surprisingly short shrift to basic pronunciation. My employer’s profile-management webpage offers its pronunciation-upload tool underneath a set of pronoun-display options that take up far more vertical space, including explanations for their existence and links to more information. One can see a similar effect in tools like Slack, where administrators can set up pronoun display with a top-level toggle, but name-pronunciation is available only as a custom field—and thus, I expect, very rarely set up.

I suppose this is at least in fact an effect of novelty, what with the entire notion of pronoun display being only a few years old, and the conversation around it still feeling fresh. But its high relative importance versus name-pronunciation still seems strange to me, because pronunciation help seems so much more generally applicable for my day-to-day interactions!

Perhaps this won’t always be the case, but as of today, I can use various social cues and conventions to almost always correctly guess at a non-correction-worthy third-person pronoun for someone I have just met. When I do get it wrong, I apologize, course-correct, and move on. Those old-fashioned proper nouns, however, prove a slipperier challenge: one very easy for me to get wrong, even when they’re printed right there in front of me, and with the person’s appearance or other cues offering little if any help.

You certainly don’t need to use a fancy tool or upload a recording someplace to make this work! Any profile offering a free-text field makes this possible. My inspiration for today’s post, in fact, came from Quinta Jurecic’s Twitter profile, which (as of autumn 2021) contains a text-friendly phonetic guide to “Quinta Jurecic”. (The partial use of an emoji-based rebus, while non-standard, makes it especially memorable!) This sort of phonetic spelling is what I use when I email people to confirm my planned pronunciation prior to a name-dropping them in a public presentation, if I can’t find a recording or guide elsewhere.

You could make the argument that it is not a person’s responsibility to constantly—or even passively—teach other people to pronounce their name correctly, and that this is especially true when the name belongs to a marginalized or “foreign” person operating within a hegemonic culture. You would not be wrong! I would never insist that anyone do extra work to save me a little research. I merely wish to bring attention to the option for personal consideration, and state a further wish that more online platforms that center the display of names also provide tools that encourage mindfulness and confidence regarding the respectful pronunciation of those names.

* More frequently than you might guess, people tag me with entirely different names. “Justin” is far and away my most popular sincere misnomer. But this does not strike me as a pronunciation problem—and as I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, I feel too amused to issue a correction when it happens, most times.

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