Cover of Babel-17Babel-17 was my first Delany novel, and long overdue. I liked it a lot!

From the start, it reminded me of the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending in the best ways. I have no doubt at all that Delany himself knew the difference between a star and a galaxy while writing this book, but the book itself does not split any such hairs. Such intentional confusions laid down early on set a tone of wondrous and unworried exploration of a deliciously strange universe.

Protagonist Rydra Wong fits a hypercompetent character archetype that doesn’t usually interest me. But in this case, I found myself quite charmed by the played-straight absurdity of her expertise: a poet of intergalactic reknown, a preternatural empath, a stunning beauty, and an ace starship captain, all while qualifying for a “30 under 30” list. With a name I only now realize might be a play on “right or wrong”, she blazes a trail that Buckaroo Banzai would follow almost two decades later.

Hired by the Handwavy Space Navy to research an alien language linked to interstellar sabotage, Rydra assembles a crew to find answers among the stars. She gathers this crew over a single night of wild partying, climaxing in a sort of bathhouse-arena where she chooses the best pilots after watching them struggle sweatily in nude zero-gee grappling games.

This book was written in the mid 1960s and it’s fantastic.

By the next morning, you see, she has built a crew utterly posthuman in both their individual physicality and their mutual interrelation. If I comprehend correctly, spaceships in Rydra’s world are powered by the lovemaking of bisexual thruples. The bulk of any crew comprises a platoon of rambunctious teenagers overseen by a nursemaid whose name is always “Slug”. And, naturally, the ship’s sensor array is run by a trio of discorporate entities, whom the book’s world refers to as merely “dead”, complete with a penchant for gothic imagery. I understood the author as doing his best to describe mind uploading without either himself or his 1966 readership having a ready vocabulary for it.

Once the plot really kicks in, and we start learning more about the mysterious, eponymous alien language, the more recent science fiction story that this novel foretells shifts solidly to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”—best known as the basis of the film Arrival. Babel-17, the language, is a hyper-compressed construct that can express staggeringly complex ideas in a handful of symbols. (I assume that Delany took inspiration from real-life “philosophical language” experiments of yore.) As Rydra teases its grammar apart, she starts to think like its speakers.

But unlike the gradual, emotional revelations that Arrival’s heptapods bring, thinking in Babel-17 gives you superpowers by overclocking your brain and helping you see the patterns undergirding all of reality. Rydra, caught in a net-like trap, touches it just so and it unravels. Later, she applies the exact same principles to break through a metaphorical net of attacking enemy spaceships. But, of course, doing that too much is bad for a merely human brain, and none of this gets her closer to her goal, so that’s her work cut out for her. And even though her ultimate discovery becomes arguably one of the few truly dated facets of this novel, I still found it satisfying and delightful.

The 2014 edition I read appears to be part of a set of Delany reprints by Open Road Media, each with an attractive cover by Michel Vrana and a lengthy, uncredited biography of Samuel R. Delany’s whole life and career so intimate in tone that I wonder whether it came from the author himself. All the books in this collection are well represented in both of the public libraries I have ebook access to, and I shall not hesitate to continue my explorations through them.

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I awoke today to the news that Perl’s long-time lead maintainer, Sawyer X, has resigned from the project. I wish to briefly and publicly express my gratitude for all he has accomplished for Perl over the years—and, unbeknownst to him, how he has positively affected my own life as well.

Sawyer had performed the crucial (and entirely volunteer) service of leading Perl’s technological development for many years, as well as acting as a public face and ambassador to the project at conferences and online events. However, I see one of his most important actions as one that stood apart from either of these roles: in late 2020, he co-founded the Perl Steering Council, a new, multi-person executive body that guides the Perl project’s ongoing direction.

One benefit that PSC brings to Perl, demonstrated today, is that the project can survive the sudden absence of one leader without becoming headless. While Sawyer’s departure feels like a blow in some ways, I also feel relieved knowing that PSC will keep the project afloat through any coming transition—and I feel grateful for Sawyer at making sure the council began to operate in full authority before he left.

As for how Sawyer’s work affected me personally: In the eternity-ago of February 2020, I noted a grant proposal I’d made to The Perl Foundation. It had its inspirational roots in an address that Sawyer had delivered to 2019’s annual Perl Conference, which laid out a number of challenges that the Perl community had to face in order to keep the language relevant and approachable—with better documentation chief among them.

My long-time friend and colleague Adam watched the same address, and encouraged me to answer that call. I ended up corresponding directly with Sawyer on the topic, where through email and video calls we hashed out the right project-scope I should seek. He insisted I think small, aiming for far more modest and achievable targets than I, straining the leash, had initial patience for. Of course he was correct, and that grant proposal to fix the documentation for a single function proved exactly right-sized for a lead-in project.

And that led to the style guide project, which led in turn to two parallel follow-ups: my own nascent leadership of Perl’s documentation project, and my first full-time job as a technical writer. I haven’t written much in public about either of these developments yet; the first remains under construction, and the second—well, that’s just my day job now. But three months in, I couldn’t be happier with the complete career transition it represents, and I have our Mr. X to thank for that.

So: thanks for everything, Sawyer.

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I’ve been playing a bit of Dicey Dungeons lately. I have various thoughts about the game, one of many roguelikes with which I have an ongoing off-and-on relationship. But today, I just want to mention my peculiar interaction with a tiny detail of its soundtrack.

“Step Right Up”, one of the game’s several background loops heard during combat, features a little blippity-buzzer that makes a repeating motif in a distinctive rising pattern. I can only describe as “Bah d’dah-dah, bah-d’dah-dah”. You can hear it repeated four times around the track’s 16-second mark:

While this feature appears again and again in this looped track, it reminds me so strongly of a vocal feature that appears only once in Talking Heads’s “Born Under Punches”, the first and absolutely not the most well-known track from that band’s seminal 1980 album Remain in Light.

After five minutes of a work that features David Byrne at his most jittery, punctuating his performance with sputters and screams and echolalic muttering, he chants “Don’t you miss it—don’t you miss it!” a single time over a lengthy fading repetition of the track’s only sung verse:

I listened to the whole of Remain in Light again and again as a teenager. I copied a friend’s CD of it onto a cassette tape, and I wore that tape out. Due to inescapable practicalities of time and math, I almost certainly played the album’s initial tracks significantly more than its later ones.

And that’s why, when I find myself having a particularly good run with Dicey Dugeons, my equipment arranged just right, you will hear me chanting “Don’t you miss it—don’t you miss it!” as I plow through one silly monster after another.

That’s all!

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Sometime around 2014, I acknowledged my move from Boston to Rhode Island by adopting a new avatar for my various online interactions. It looked like this:

A goofy-looking purple cartoon unicorn.

This fellow represents the output of “Unicornify”, a program by Benjamin Dumke-von der Ehe, when fed my email address as input. The program accepts any hexadecimal number of up to 64 digits, generating from it a remarkably expressive googly-eyed balloon-animal unicorn trotting across an otherworldly grassland. Here is another example, from a random sequence I just now typed in:

A different goofy-looking purple cartoon unicorn.

I discovered Unicornify by way of some link-du-jour site long ago, and quickly saw how my email address (after conversion into hexadecimal) resulted in that strikingly close-up portrait of a purple dude, its ping-pong-ball eyes looking quite pensive, while a rainbow shone subtly among the golden noodles of its mane. I embraced it as my new online representative immediately.

You can play with this too, I should add! While the open-source repository that once held the software went offline some time ago, a web-based Unicornify service still runs, though it can generate pictures no more than 128 pixels high. And if you simply wish to see a lot of example output, you can wade through the @UnicornOfTheDay Twitter account.

By the time I moved to New York, the purple dude had started feeling a little long in the tooth (lack of apparent mouth notwithstanding). And so—exactly one year into the present distraction—I announced on Twitter my desire to hire an artist to redraw the critter. While needing a change, I had also come to feel attached to the otherwise unnamed unicorn. Not as a “fursona” or true alter-ego, but more of a calling-card, or a coat-of-arms, or even just a logo, without quite being any of those things either. I wanted to preserve its spirit but gift it with a new form, for a new chapter of my life.

I ended up hiring the comics artist Flynn Nicholls, on the recommendation of a friend who’d worked with him before. After confirming that he was currently open for small-potatoes commissions like mine—always ask first!—we traded some ideas around via email, and out came the following majestic creature:

Another goofy-looking purple cartoon unicorn, but this time hand-drawn instead of computer-generated.

Not what I expected to end up with, when I first got the idea to seek an artist, and that makes the beauty of it all the more profound. The new purple dude looks so wonderful when shrunk down to icon size, and I have allowed it to slowly hoof its away across all my networks, personal and professional.

I could not be happier with this outcome—and it would not shock me if, over time, I begin to gather an entire herd of bug-eyed equine representatives, drawn by many hands.

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Look, I have finally read a J.G. Ballard novel! I added this one to my ebook hold-list in early February, and it took a month to become available. For some reason, New York Public Library patrons seem particularly interested right now in satirical stories about people losing their minds while stuck in an apartment complex for months on end.

But is this satire? Ballard shoots the whole book through with such overt and masterful lampshading that he offers very little in the way of explanation for the novel’s true message or motive.

If you pick up the book expecting—as I did—a story about how the residents of the eponymous condominium tower gradually descend into violent madness, the book instead obliges you with inexplicable mayhem on the very first page, after which it never lets up. A protagonist overtly thinks “Huh, these arbitrary divisions of residents by level sure do resemble a racial or class conflict somehow!” before the end of the first chapter, tossing that crutch straight off a 40th-floor balcony lest readers try to steady themselves upon it.

The book has such a pure sense of its own purpose, and a confident manner in which it declines to “make sense”, because it knows it doesn’t need to. Were this a John M. Ford novel, one would read carefully to find the subtle magic-wielders lurking between the chapters to lend at least a supernatural grounding for the otherwise unmotivated events of High-Rise. No such rational explanation here, alas!

The narrative does hand us a single framing clue, at the start. We learn, in some opening dialogue among residents who had lived in the tower for some time, that it had that very day filled its thousandth and final unit. For the first time in its history, the high-rise had no vacancies: a solid layer-cake of squirming, striving humanity. The novel quietly invites us to conclude that this fact alone triggered the ensorcelment of all the tower’s residents, who decide as one to turn their backs on the world outside the building, establishing a new, self-contained anti-society ruled only by the most brutally pure forces of the human psyche. Each considers it an achingly beautiful project, even as it destroys them.

Ballard is clearly not the sort of author to write shadowy scenes of chthonic forces stirring in the basements, awakened by a long-delayed pattern finally snapping into place, ready to insinuate vile notions into the residents’ dreams. Instead, casual bottle-flinging in broad daylight commences without further—and, we must infer, unnecessary—explanation. The first inevitable defenestration happens before we even meet all the main characters.

By the time we arrive at the acts of incest and mass cannibalism which signal the story’s readiness to wrap up (or, anyway, gutter out), my calves ached from all the touring up and down the barricaded stairwells, and I felt as exhaustedly enthralled as any of the battered, bloodied accountants and sound engineers among the nightly raiding parties. Yes, I enjoyed reading this quite nasty little book, even if I could not recommend it without reservation, much less tell you why it was written.

I know nothing else about Ballard or his oeuvre yet, so I can offer very little about his own motivations here, far apart from his characters. Did he find this scenario remotely believable, at face value? If not, did he have a satirical target other than the one he paints a too-obvious bulls-eye on at the start? I dunno, man, it was the 70s! Times were rough. Everybody was a lot more drunk back then, is my understanding, and you didn’t want to hang around the towers of Times Square for long…

I understand that a 2015 film adaptation of this novel exists; it seems highly unlikely that even if a movie narrative could get away with this novel’s level of pure violence and misanthropy, it could never resist the urge to add a layer of rational and visible underpinning to a novel that so flagrantly dares to do without. (I suppose I am doomed to see for myself.)

High-Rise really wants adaptation into a game, of course, with all its talk of violent excursions between numbered floors in search of cat-food loot caches, and psychopathic adventurers who literally “level up” as they gain in power and strength. But its 1975 publication date offers a tantalizing possibility: that the novel has actually and already helped inspire the earliest power-fantasy games. Its fluid-spattered, garbage-strewn, and utterly compelling DNA carried ahead into all the generations since of entertainment that offer escape through bashing one’s way inwards.

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Last week I discovered that Apple will happily replace the battery of out-of-warranty iPhones, even those as old as my first-generation SE. The fifty-dollar service charge offers an attractive alternative to the price of an entire, brand-new phone, but I felt much more interested by the chance to squeeze a few more years’ use out of this marvelous device. I have no desire to upgrade.

Six years ago I downgraded from a shiny new iPhone 6 to my well-worn 5, unable to cope with the newer model’s size and weight. As I wrote at the time, the phone had long since become an extension of my body, with the specifics of its physicality absolutely part of the fact. Apple nonchalantly but profoundly changing its mass and dimensions gave me an extremely modern but very real crisis of personal composition, a Ship of Theseus problem I hadn’t prepared for.

I never did change my tune about any of this stuff! I have only upgraded my phone once since writing that article, moving to the John Gruber-blessed iPhone SE in late 2016. When its battery inevitably became old enough to drain out within an hour or two of daytime use, I resolved to let the phone see me through the entirety of the Trump administration—after which I’d eject it from my life, perhaps like a biblical scapegoat, carrying the troubles of 2020 on its dented, discarded frame.

When we at last reached that happy milestone together, I did look around, skeptically. There is a new phone carrying the “SE” name, even heavier than that iPhone 6 I couldn’t abide in 2015. Apple’s smallest, lightest offering is the brand-new iPhone 12 Mini: about as heavy as the 6, and lacking the thumbprint-scanning technology that Apple abandoned for face-scanning before the pandemic struck. I didn’t want any of these.

Thus did I find myself in conversation with a fellow SE fan recently, sharing the pain of having these fantastic old phones with spry brains but senescent batteries. Since the iPod days, Apple has famously regarded batteries as an internal organ, not something for customers to tamper with, and of course they would rather tempt you with the latest year’s models when any machine’s battery starts its inevitable decline.

The conversation prompted me to finally scope out the iPhone SE battery-replacement landscape, fully expecting to nose around gray-market chop-shops, hopeful I’d find one operating in New York City during the pandemic. Imagine my reaction when the first search-engine hit belonged to that support page, with an invitation to bring my little phone to a nearby store and budget an hour or two for its rejuvenation!

And that is just what I did, and I couldn’t be happier about it. My SE runs the very latest iOS revision as well as any of its younger, larger cousins—and now it can finally do so while sitting in my pocket all day until its bedtime charge, just like old times.

Apple has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for encouraging a disposable mindset among its customers, and for valuing novelty and fashion over long-lived practical value. But I write this article in early 2021 on the 2012 MacBook whose battery I replaced in 2018, a service that Apple was pleased to extend onto my phone—as soon as I had worked up the gumption to ask, anyway. I feel grateful that the company does continue to quietly support their older, still-excellent models, even if they’d always prefer that you bought a new one instead.

If you rely on an iPhone SE—or another older iPhone model, whenever you happen to read this—do consider rolling into an Apple Store to schedule a battery replacement, as alternative to trading up for the latest model. For a few dozen dollars, really does feel like youthful vitality brought back to a withered limb.

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I quite enjoyed this New York Times feature by Jeremy Lechtzin that investigates the history of Brooklyn’s unusual street labels, filled with duplicate names and fractional numbers. Its current shape owes much to a ramshackle effort, all the way back in 1870, to repair a previous and also-bizarre number-and-naming scheme.

Perhaps the latter system ended up less chaotic than the former, but the project fell far short of its tidy ideal, and cost of huge sums of public money, time, and frustration. And as one with a history in both software development and project management in general, I found myself nodding along in sympathetic understanding to the well-meaning instigators of this 150-year-old disaster.

I also note that one of the main characters of the story, Brooklyn City Directory publisher George T. Lain, was only 24 when he began to agitate for a complete overhaul of the borough’s street numbers. He dreamed of the transformation it would bring to his business, while not caring much at all about how it might inconvenience literally everyone else. And I think: that sounds about right.

I too possessed a twenty-something’s unshakeable self-assurance when, in the middle-aughts, I committed a similar sin at my own workplace, too blinded by the utter brilliance of my own vision to seek input from anyone it would effect. You’ll never read it about it in any journal; unlike the fiasco Lain touched off, the scope reached only as far as a handful of science labs at Harvard. And, happily for those labs, mine was merely a software project, rather than a bureaucracy-laden civic overhaul: in the end, utterly forgettable, with no trace remaining of it today.

The scientists at these labs, you see, kept all their research data in Excel worksheets; innumerable separate documents bouncing around individual hard drives, with more generated by data-collecting robots every hour. The labs’ managers knew that this loose style left a lot of potential for digital publication and collaboration out of reach, and hired me to help invent design and implement improvements for collecting, storing, and sharing this data.

So, you know what I tried to do, of course: throw out those Excel sheets! Have the scientists instead use the glory of a full-stack bespoke web application! It would be glorious! There would be heat maps! I busied myself re-inventing everything that Excel could already do, except slower and harder to use, in the perhaps inevitable pattern of a young Perl hacker who dismissed Excel as software for normies. I may have conducted an interview or two about the researchers’ process, and let them tour me around the labs a bit, but I otherwise went it alone. I did not truly invite the researchers to work with me as co-designers, as I should have from the outset.

You can only imagine what a gut-punch I felt when I overheard a frustrated biologist dismiss my project as “this foolishness”, some time after it had started to roll out for use in the labs. The researchers could not help but see it as an obstacle, getting in the way of their work. Of course they did! I had doomed my effort through my complete failure to involve the project’s would-be users into its creation. They ended up with some weird thing made by an outsider, and everyone hated it. All that work ended up binned—and deservedly so—within a year or two of my departure from the job.

But I have, at least, a happy note to end on. When I read that story about the incompetent Brooklyn renumbering project, I did not think immediately of the quiet disaster at Harvard. I thought instead of my current job, where my hiring carries echoes of it: a technical writer invited to bring some order and focused attention to a heretofore freewheeling, developer-driven documentation process.

And I allowed the devils of Burn it all down! Rebuild in mine own image! to do their little dance, and then I dismissed them so I could turn my energy to asking those developers what’s worked for them so far, and research new ways to use the tools and techniques that the team already prefers.

I’ve learned a thing or two myself, since those days at Harvard, and I’ve built at least a couple of collaborative projects that didn’t collapse as soon as I took my hands off of them. I have a pretty good feeling that this project’s legacy will end up a little more orderly than the hubristic past misadventures of either Mr. Lain or myself.

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Last week, the day before I started my new job, I deleted more than 40,000 old tweets. This action came after some days of soul-searching, and then a bit of research on GitHub. I feel very glad that I did it, in the way one feels glad after a thorough cleaning of one’s work-space.

After using Twitter’s own tools to download an archive of everything I’d ever posted to the system, I ran the program delete-tweets by Koen Rouwhorst, which takes that archive’s main data-file as input. A few hours later, it had finished scrubbing my account clean of every tweet with few-to-no likes or retweets, reaching all the way back to April 2008. It left only a couple of thousand tweets behind.

Because it does use a locally downloaded archive as input, Rouwhorst’s program works as a simple, one-off solution for a Twitter-account cleanup. I looked into following up with Micah Lee’s semiphemeral, designed to run on a regular basis, burning up stale Twitter interactions on a rolling schedule. It can also un-like every tweet you’ve ever liked, which appealed to me. But, it has a lengthy startup procedure of its own—including, apparently, the necessity of re-liking every tweet you’ve liked before it can un-like it, which runs the risk of sending thousands of spammy notifications. So, I decided to stick with the single sweep-through of delete-tweets, paired with the less frequent, more mindful tweeting habit I started practicing earlier this month. I can always run that script again every so often manually, now that I know how.

The weekend before I reported to work for the first time, I soaked in a rich stew of mixed emotions—as I imagine most anyone in my situation would. Some of it stemmed from my departing the full-time freelance life for the first time in well over a decade, exchanging it for a new career in a practice for which I’d never before collected a salary.

But some of my uncertainty had an even more specific source. I still felt rattled by the John Roderick incident, and I had witnessed several other people since then lose their jobs by making misconstruable tweets in our permanent dry-tinder political climate.

One example: the writer Wil Wilkinson grimly joked about President Biden’s calls for unity only days after Capitol rioters had called for Mike Pence to be hung. Right-wing agents swiftly reframed the ambiguously worded tweet as Wilkinson himself demanding a lynching, and the organization he worked for immediately fired him.

And another: The New York Times fired editor Lauren Wolfe after she tweeted having “chills” watching the new president’s plane land. Given this lightweight but arguable faux pas for a news reporter, right-wingers once again wasted no time in seizing upon and expanding it into evidence of an anti-Republican conspiracy, and an embarrassment to the Times.

Preparing to begin my first full-time job since the start of the social-media era, I came to realize how this fact alone frightened me a little. Nervousness about starting a new professional venture is one thing; feeling personally exposed, vulnerable, and unsafe because of it is quite another.

So that’s why I did what I did, and doing it immediately brought a sense of great relief. Whatever the unlikelihood that a misguided mob or individual malefactor might target me sometime in the future, I felt more secure in the knowledge that I had vastly reduced the acreage of forgotten social-media posts that someone could potentially extract from context and use against me, my colleagues, or my family.

As a fun side-effect, the 2,000 or so tweets that survived this torching all stand among my better “work” on Twitter, and I have had some fun scrolling through them. I doubt I’d ever have seen any again, had I not burned away all the lesser tweets surrounding and obscuring them.

And before I ran the script, as a just-in-case measure, I preserved the two tweets I recalled as achieving anything like virality. Just for fun, they bookend this blog post. They are much further apart in both popularity and timestamp than I had remembered, and I doubt I’ll ever again write another tweet that will crack the 1,000-like barrier.

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Cover of a 1970s fashion magazine with a drawing of two men wearing colorful period leisure suitsWhat little I’d seen of Disco Elysium from screenshots and fanart had led me to dismiss it, after its 2019 release, as something “wacky” or heavy-handed. But when I finally played it myself a couple of months ago, on the gentle insistence of several friends, I found something delightfully subtle: the finest commercially published adventure game I’d played since Night in the Woods.

This detective story opens with both the “you have amnesia” and the “slob in a shitty apartment” tropes, and almost immediately subverts both. The amnesia presents no mystery: you find out exactly who you are (a veteran detective prone to chemical benders) and what you’re supposed to be doing (investigating a corpse found hanging in a hostel’s backyard) within the first minutes of play.

Instead, the amnesia allows gives you, the player, wonderful leeway to role-play a well-defined character who already has a middle-aged man’s life experience, professional skills, and social connections, living in a deliciously two-degrees-off alt-universe Eastern Europe-ish city. You can set him back on his disturbingly self-destructive course, or rescue and reform him into something better.

Or that’s the illusion, anyway! I played the game only once and I marveled at how much latitude I felt with my choices. I initially went hard into acting like a scary nightmare-cop while pursuing the case, because I enjoyed the mix of hilarious and horrifying consequences. (The game’s loading screens overtly encourage you to try strange actions, because cops can get away with a lot of weird shit.) But then I made a shocking discovery about my character that—I decided—sobered him on the spot. From then on, he and I shaped him into more of a Dale Cooper type: an honorable cop who happens to employ unusual methods, with half an eye trained deep beyond reality’s shabby veil.

The game nudged me into this decision by providing me, right then, with a one-time, irreversible opportunity to change the cop’s appearance: symbolic severance from his destructive path, though the writing is too good to be that overt about it. I took it and immediately regretted it, and all the characters regretted it, and it felt perfect.

More to the point, it felt like the hand of Providence, rather than the achingly ingenious stroke of interactive narrative that surely lay behind it.

I know enough about game design to know that the really good adventure games appear far broader in possibility than they really are, and make you feel like you’ve taken a grand trek through unmapped wilderness when you actually followed a very carefully laid trail. I suspect that happened here, and I don’t care. I loved each of the 40 or so hours I spent playing this.

Disco Elysium seems built on a highly customized CRPG engine, even though it contains no CRPG-style combat. You do have stats, and the stats are NPCs, each one a voice in your drug-shattered bicameral mind. As you start to level up and spend skill points, the game becomes more of an internal conversation. As you level up more, all your stats start arguing with each other, and with you. Some of them start giving you quests. I don’t even want to begin to describe this, not here.

It’s all so well written, and surprised me again and again. I had so, so much fun with it. I didn’t complete every side-plot, but I did get to dance so hard after an extremely lucky die roll that I briefly broke reality—in a game full of beautifully, disastrously blown die rolls, all of which I embraced in their ever-piling catastrophe. This gave me one of the most joyous single moments I felt in all of 2020.

My only piece of advice for new players: don’t worry about the in-game clock. I didn’t realize until I was nearly to the end that time doesn’t pass while you, the player, read text. (It can pass between actions, during long conversations or chains of choice-driven actions, but does not advance while you read and think.) Had I known this earlier, I would have read more slowly and enjoyed the game even more.

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Close-up photo of some delicious baked beans.For the last two weeks, I have avoided all posting to Twitter other than links, replies, and retweets. That leaves out the sort of offhand “microblogging” that has described the bulk of my Twitter use over the last dozen years. I don’t expect I’ll continue this reduced-use pattern indefinitely, but for the time being I feel comfortable with it.

I wish to minimize my own voice on Twitter, for now.

I didn’t plan on starting this change in behavior, but it resulted naturally from a harrowing few days that kicked off two weeks ago, involving two very different instances of mob violence. One you certainly know about; the other you’d have seen only if “extremely online”, at least to a certain degree. Both were fueled at least in part by Twitter, and both appalled me so much as to make me feel quite shy about continuing to use the platform unrestricted.

You already know that one is the deadly white-supremacist, anti-democratic mob attack on the U.S. Capitol—a still-developing story that, as I write this, has no name for the history books yet. I don’t need to describe it here (and it’d feel premature anyway). It’s the later-occurring of the events that scared me off Twitter, as well, so let’s come back to it.

The earlier event, unrelated to that awful attack and preceding it by about three days, was the internet-wide excoriation of the musician and podcaster John Roderick after he posted some bad tweets. I don’t know Mr. Roderick personally, but I do feel a very personal and emotional connection to his work. Watching a vast online mob assemble within hours to destroy the source of this work shocked and disturbed me deeply.

I will neither document nor defend Roderick’s tweets here. I will link to his apology for them, which includes a recognition for the ways that his words hurt people, however unintentionally. Two weeks ago I saw friends feel compelled to share painful stories about their childhoods, triggered into unwanted recollection by Roderick’s ill-told story. To that extent, I understand and sympathize with the response—especially in the initial hours of the web-wide reaction, before the outraged and arguably justified mockery of Roderick’s tweets had metastasized into a focused effort to isolate and ruin him personally.

I can also share my own truth that, through his podcasts, Roderick’s voice has for many years accompanied my daily chores and travels more days than not: an ongoing source of raconteurish humor, comfort, and wisdom. More profoundly, he wrote and recorded the song I associate with my middle brother’s death, which happened one year ago this month. It’s become the theme for Pete’s tragically sudden departure; to this day I cannot describe the song to someone without my emotions overwhelming me.

I’ve been on the internet a long time. I have absolutely cheered on, popcorn emoji in hand, entertaining dogpile-takedowns of hapless nobodies I’d never heard of the day before. This was the first time I had felt connected with the prey. The event has permanently changed my relationship with social media.

It feels unfair to say that it hurt me to see so many friends on Twitter and elsewhere spend the better part of a day gleefully banding together to tear apart a complete stranger to them, just because I value this person’s work. I feel like I should reserve “hurt” for those friends that Roderick’s words did wound. I can only relate how upsetting it felt to see people I know and respect, prompted by the irresistible energy of a rising rage-chorus, choose to make this particular activity one of their first creative endeavors of the new year.

Various people invited me to join in the festivities throughout the day, culminating in a friend posting a public “call-out” that tagged me and others as people who followed the reprehensible Roderick’s Twitter account. At that moment, I logged out of Twitter, and everything else consumed with the topic: Slack, IRC, and even more obscure chat systems. After Roderick posted his apology, I returned, but in the quieter mode I described earlier, and a mode I have remained in since.

The date of that apology letter, January 5, may induce a wince: it stands out as the day before the Capitol insurrection, yet another “before-time”, the last day of a lost world.

One aspect of the next two days stood out to me, still disturbed by the unrelated events of earlier that week. I watched glumly as much of my Twitter feed wasted no time at all accusing the Capitol and DC police forces of working with the insurrectionists. People held up rapidly traded evidence like snatches of recorded conversation, selfies taken with rioters, or the fact that the cops made few on-site arrests. All undeniable, all inviting infuriating comparison to the brutal police presence at last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and all as entirely resistant to the most basic contextual consideration as anything else Twitter’s group-mind latches its talons into.

The truth, as now revealed in longer-form news stories that have begun to arrive in the days since the attack, presents a simpler story, one lacking the thrill of conspiracy. Surprised and vastly outnumbered by an armed mob with murder in their throats, the police had to tactically improvise in order to fulfill their mission of protecting the Capitol’s legislators and staff first and foremost, and then minimizing civilian casualties. That means de-escalation, and sometimes—these days—that means selfies.

It also means self-sacrifice: dozens of police were injured, one fatally. And it means lasting mental trauma and anguish suffered by the people who very literally stepped in to take the brunt of the unprecedented, unbelievable assault perpetrated on the seat of American government by thousands of American citizens bent on destroying democracy. At least one officer has taken his own life in the aftermath.

Social media isn’t interested in any of that, very much, at least not in the heat of the moment. It sees a wrong, and it demands a target. I’ve been complicit in this for years, but the John Roderick incident of two weeks ago helped open my eyes to how harmful it all is, fueling cynicism and misdirected rage, again and again, when there exist so many other things for us to more fruitfully direct our group anger towards.

And so, for now, I lower my voice. I cannot fix this aspect of such-as-it-is social media. I don’t know that it is fixable. So long as I feel compelled to continue participating in it, I will—but I will also minimize my exposed surface while doing so.

This article was also posted to the “social_media” section of

Image credit: “Mmm…baked beans” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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