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.

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

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Under cover of my birthday, I indulge in some personal news. Later this month I will join Hydrolix, a tiny startup with a very specific database product, as a full-time technical writer. This fulfills the career pivot I began to ponder 18 months ago, and represents both my first new job as a New Yorker and my first salaried job in over 15 years.

I am excited to start. While I expect that I will not have much to say about the job per se in public channels like this one, I also anticipate that returning to stable employment will juice up my creative and personal-toolmaking work. After my last freelance contract ended in March, I did use my pandemic-context “vacation” on projects like Whim and the still-unreleased chat thing—and all that energy petered out right around the six-month mark. I look forward to its return.

Of course, 2021 has gotten off to a wild start for all of us! I see so much hope pushing up through all the shudderingly literal death and chaos that has suffocated us for so long, and I can’t help but see this new employment as a very personal facet of that hope.

By god, we’ve fought and won ourselves a shot at building a viable future, just when it seemed like any reason for optimism had vanished forever. Let’s get to work.

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A few evenings ago, charged to pick up some groceries but awake beyond the closing time of the supermarket across the street, I strolled to a store about a twenty-minute walk from my home in West Harlem. My return walk through unfamiliar New York streets, heavy bags slowing my stride, made my wind mander to thoughts of—what else?—Spider-Man.

First, I remembered a tweet someone had made earlier in the pandemic, noting the bizarre ease with which they’d come to think of slipping on a mask before heading out as something normal. “Who do I think I am, Spider-Man?”

Then I recalled that I had built on that person’s work with a tweet of my own, reframing the observation as a personal timeline. I just now dug it up, and I am sorry to report that I didn’t offer any attribution to the original tweet, so I can’t link to that. But here’s mine anyway:

I meant what I wrote, though, and the recollection during my walk made me once again think warmly about how the Spider-Man mythos has grown and diversified since my own prime comics-reading time. This is most obvious in the introduction of Miles Morales, who—like most people, I imagine—I know mainly from Into the Spider-Verse, as well as the latest Spider-Man video game.

I haven’t played the games, but Amy has, ridding New York of one super-powered menace after another on our living-room TV. Spider Man: Miles Morales is well-written enough that I followed along with the major plot beats over the few calendar-days it took for Amy-as-Miles to vanquish its villains.

I especially enjoyed the fun way it frames a particular facet of career growth in this vision of Miles. The game’s first few missions feature a running gag where New Yorkers in trouble express relief at seeing Spidey swoop in, then disappointment that it’s “Spidey #2”, Peter Parker’s scrawny protege in his off-brand super-suit. A cranky bodega owner, upset about his lost cat, doesn’t think anything of asking poor Miles where the “real” Spider-Man is. (He’s on vacation.)

But, of course, Miles does good, and the game ends with that same bodega guy proudly telling a news crew “That’s our Spider-Man!”—by which he means, Harlem’s, the neighborhood where Miles lives and where most of the game’s story unfolds.

Thinking about this during my walk brought me to a very satisfying realization, tying something in from deep Spidey lore. From the very start of the character’s history, reaching all the way back to his introduction in the early 1960s, Peter Parker liked to call himself “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”—a casual absurdity to deflect his own freakishness with a smile, referring to himself as a a local public figure as comforting and commonplace as a mail carrier.

But Miles’s debut meant that New York now has two Spider-Mans (at least in the video game’s continuity), and that meant that Miles can turn Peter’s offhand joke into a Spider-Man vision statement, something he can make literally true—at least for one neighborhood!

What a marvelously subtle new twist on a sixty-year-old superhero’s catchphrase, made apparent to me only as I wound through real-life uptown streets on my way home from Food Town. I love it.

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Warnock and Biden, elbow-bumping.

Things I demand from my federal government in 2021:

  1. Control of the pandemic. Use laws and spend money to bring us to the tread-water place we should have arrived at six months ago, had federal leadership with any care or competence existed.

    At the same time, set up and execute a federal plan to get those vaccines into every American arm, paired with a public information program, safely and efficiently.

    And then leave all that new infrastructure in place to prepare for future pandemics, and to minimize their impact. Global warming guarantees that global disease is part of our shared human future, now.

    But, in the shorter term: let us all breathe freely again by Christmas.

  2. Accountability for sedition. From Trump himself, to cronies who sought to undo unfavorable election results, to the selfie-posting MAGA chuds in Wednesday’s horrifying photographs: let none who so flagrantly tried to steer American democracy into the rocks get away with it.

    Whether motivated by greed, cowardice, or mass delusion, those who broke laws for Trump’s sake during his presidency must be apprehended and tried fairly, and those who used their positions of power to merely skirt the law must instead pay an appropriate political price.

    Make every one into an example, relevant for generations to come.

  3. Security of the election system. Whether by DC statehood, federal holidays for election days, or new laws mandating ballot access or forbidding gerrymandering: we must both repair the nation’s frayed and battered election system, and harden it against further tampering from anti-democratic forces both foreign and domestic.

    And, yes: one way to do that, in the shorter term, is to significantly expand the political power of the Democratic party, the sole viable and demonstrably pro-democracy political party in America at present. A broken situation that must change, but we must apply this patch until the poisoned but tenacious Republican party permanently loses its grip on power.

That’s it. Get those three things done, this year.

There’s so much else to work on, problems of worldwide importance that the United States must help solve. Our government is large, and our people are smart and versatile; I’m sure that we will in fact make progress on these problems as well.

But until we take care of the above three priorities, we leave the fence open for political regressives to waltz in and wreck all that progress just a few years down the road.

I intend to not repeat 2009 in 2021. While I might generally approve of the newly empowered party’s platform, I will absolutely not assume that its members will just do the right thing without the vigilant attention of their constituents.

With a new kind of grim hope, I look forward to trying this again.

Image credit: AP

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One for the brag sheet:

I finished the documentation project I’d alluded to last October. Several weeks ater setting out to draft some initial standards for Perl’s core documentation, I returned with a proposed style guide and a set of research notes.

After several more weeks of discussion with many smart people, I can proudly report that the language’s maintainers accepted a revised and improved version of the document into Perl’s main version-control branch. Starting with the next release of Perl—that’ll be version 5.34, by my clock—you’ll be able to type man perldocstyle on your command line and see my writing. (And in the meantime, you can preview it on Perl’s documentation website.) Not bad!

Next comes the hard part. I included among my research notes the recommendation that Perl launch its own documentation sub-project, led by its own small team, in the pattern of every other language or FOSS project that I studied for this work. Over the holidays, I’ve been in touch with Perl’s maintenance team as well as Perl’s brand-new steering council with a proposal for such a body.

Obviously, this conversation is only just beginning, but I’ve reason to feel encouraged already. In the interim, I send my love and respect to the Rust, Python, Raku, and Linux Kernel documentation teams, all of whom unwittingly contributed to this ongoing project through their respectively excellent and open work. And, of course, my gratitude goes out to The Perl Foundation for funding this work in the first place.

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I’ve read about half of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside, a weird-SF novel that my friend Marc backhandedly recommended after I complained of feeling mortally terrified by some Donald Judd sculptures. While I may have had my fill of this story for now, I have enjoyed my time with it so far.

It posits a far-distant future where humans have colonized the galaxy, but at the cost of overt subjugation by their own AIs. For all that, though, we still enjoy a pretty good deal: the main character is an ingenious young engineer whose autism plays a central role in her career, within a society that puts its neurodivergent citizens to work in fields that play to their strengths while supporting their special needs. Not bad, for a trade-off of having a city or space station reduced to its constituent atoms now and again when a scientist accidentally makes a “heretical” discovery in the eyes of their AI overlords.

This character is written so thoroughly that I very quickly caught a strong Philip K. Dick current from the novel, along an axis that PKD pastiches rarely explore. Dick liked to center his own work around protagonists with mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, and built entire science-fictional worlds around the topic. The Outside clearly wishes to explore similar possibilities through SF, with an authorial voice displaying at least as much empathy for mental disability as Dick ever had.

Following a hunch before I wrote this post, I confirmed with The Outside’s about-the-author page that Hoffmann identifies as a person with autism. I don’t know how much Dick carried similar identifications, but he wrote about schizophrenia in his novels with not just interest but a startling level of empathic understanding, often to the point of letting this understanding (as much as possible in the 1960s) drive his stories’ plots and settings. My brother Ricky, who has lived with schizophrenia for most of his life, recognizes a certain genuineness in Dick’s novels, and treasures them for it. I see and appreciate a rare and similar genuineness in Hoffmann’s work.

But much as I liked these central, autistic characters in Hoffmann’s novel, the other people it presents all hit rather dully. The secondary protagonist, introduced as an intimidating super-genius cyborg, has POV scenes reducing him to mainly capricious decisions and unforced errors. He’s primarily motivated by fear of his boss, a wincingly cartoonish villain given to make You will not fail me a second time! speeches to trembling lackeys. I found it quite hard to feel any connection with the cyborg’s struggles, and actively dreaded the next scene involving his superior—and not for the right reasons.

Between the friction I continuously felt against the writing style and the impending deadline to finish it—this being a library-loaned ebook, and quite a lengthy one—I think I need to call it good at around the halfway mark.

Still, as a Providence expat I always like to see fresh attempts to remix ol’ Lovecraft, our own homegrown problematic fave, by discarding his uglier hangups and decanting his core themes into stories with modern social awareness by a diverse authorship. This particular story mixes good old mind-blasting cosmic horrors with the unusual mental perspective of its protagonist, and that’s such a fantastic concept that I feel utterly doomed to keep turning the pages of this one until the unknowable and uncaring force powering the library loan on my Amazon Kindle rips it screaming out of my hands about 18 hours. So, that feels only appropriate.

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