My first second line

One of the best experiences on my recent trip to New Orleans was getting to witness a second line brass band parade from start to finish.

I was there with a friend documenting the work done by the social clubs that put them on, and as much I tried to stay on the sidelines and away from the action, every person I encountered and was introduced to was warm, gracious, and welcomed me as a guest in their space.

We began at the house where the procession started, awaited the kickoff at noon, and watched one brass band after another play out dance squads and parade kings and queens as they emerged from the home. Then we spent a few hours following the parade at various points.

I remember a moment early in the day, when the first groups were coming out of the house and I heard this incredible live music all around me along with all the smells of food and drink being prepared in the street and everyone was cheering on a dance squad decked out in matching suits with big feathers to accentuate their moves and then another brass band joined in and then there was the queen surrounded by 5 feet of feathers all around her head looking absolutely like queen of the entire planet earth. It hit every one of my senses at once. It was a celebration and a culture unlike anything I’d seen before. And it was beyond wonderful. I just lost it and started crying at the pure joy of everything happening all around me.

We followed our favorite brass bands for a few miles and walked up and down the route amidst all the people taking part. There were so many cool examples of people doing what they loved. There were bicycle clubs, motorcycle clubs, people on horses, people with huge 4x4s and people in lowriders. There were people selling burgers, beers, drinks, and cocktails from the backs of their cars and trucks. There were dogs everywhere and people with snakes and people smoking weed in the streets and dancing along and there were even cops at the start and finish of the procession but everyone was cool with each other. I didn’t hear a single voice raised in anger anywhere. I never saw the cops do anything but shake people’s hands and keep the party moving. It just was so many handshakes, hugs, and dancing for hours.

It was an entire day of pure joy and celebration of great music and people. And it happens every week! Over 40 Sundays per year! I was overwhelmed in the best way possible by the whole day and I couldn’t help but think it must be incredible to get to experience it every week. No matter how bad your week was, or how unfair things seem, there’s always the party on Sunday to feel good again and celebrate the best life has to offer.

Second lines are fucking incredible.

A small sample of what it sounded like

Visiting the Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum

Statues of the children that lived and died on the plantation were ever present throughout the grounds and our entry badges contained the stories of each one of them

When I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy a few years ago, I remember being shocked not just by the stories about today’s justice system, but the revelation that the first slavery museum in the US was opened to the public just a few years ago. Hundreds of years of detailed, brutal history and zero museums dedicated to it before 2014? I knew the next time I went to New Orleans, I would visit the Whitney Museum, and today I finally got to experience it.

I’d read Just Mercy, I’ve read the People’s History of the United States, I’ve read a bunch of Ta-Nehisi Coates, so I naively thought I had some idea of how bad slavery was.

After visiting and hearing the stories from my guide and seeing the displays, I really had no clue.

Think of the worst thing you can possibly imagine that one human being might do to another and know that what really took place was a hundred times worse.

It was a real journey today that I’m still processing. But it began immediately with a memorial showing the names of all the slaves that lived and died on the property, as it went from farming indigo to sugar cane.

Name after name after name, almost all of them anglicized to remove their history, family, and heritage. To remove their humanity. To reinforce they were property. To make it clear that they were little more than machinery for the farm. For profits. People can do horrible things to one another when their overseer doesn’t consider their slaves to be human and instead treats them like cheap, replaceable farm equipment.

In another memorial, we visited the results of a genealogy project that displayed 107,000 names of recorded slaves between 1719 and 1820 in Louisiana (this misses the 45 years at the height of slavery that followed). It was a tremendous amount to take in at once, just slab after slab of granite etched with thousands and thousands of names going all around a big open field around you.

Late in the tour, a third memorial was devoted to the 2,000 children who died on the plantations in just the local parish (parishes are treated in counties in Louisiana, there are 64 total). There we learned the birth rate on the plantations around New Orleans was -13%. That for every 100 children born into slavery, 113 died before they reached the age of an “adult” which is ten years old. This was the second time I cried this day.

The darkness and brutality of slavery was evident from start to finish on the tour. In the “Gold Coast” around New Orleans, slaves lived for only 7-10 years after arriving on plantations in the region, no matter what their starting ages were. Slave owners insured their property (including their slaves) and would get up to 75% of their investment back when slaves died, so plantation owners had every incentive to work everyone to death, making many times over what they paid thanks to their free labor and when their slaves did die, owners were rewarded by recouping most of their original investment. The entire economic system was designed to support it.

The utter danger of plantation work was made clear. Slaves on this plantation had to weed 1,800 acres of cane fields by hand, frequently encountering venomous snakes. Sugar cane was harvested with long sharp blades that could easily slice you open or take off a foot accidentally. Sugar cane processing started with huge grinders which caused gruesome accidents.

The worst was hearing that pressed and ground sugar cane had to be boiled down in these large, wide vats, going from largest to smallest as they boiled off all the water to get sugar. Anyone that’s ever done any kind of candy making today knows that getting just a drop of molten sugar on your skin can burn it deeply and severely. Imagine people tending boiling vats of sugar 24 hours a day in shifts for several months a year. Mixing and mixing around the clock, being exhausted, and trying not to make a mistake that can instantly kill you.

Slave quarters were appalling. And we learned there was no metal in the buildings, which were assembled with tongue-and-groove woodwork along with wooden dowels to hold beams together, as nails and spikes could be used as weapons, so they were completely omitted from construction.

I didn’t know most plantation owners and their families typically only visited during harvest, to oversee the most valuable part of the work from about October through December. All that pomp and circumstance of constructing those opulent buildings but they only got used a fraction of the year, with most rich families living in fancier New Orleans houses, or spending their summers on the coast to escape the heat and bugs on the farms.

The most disturbing aspect of the entire tour was hearing about the slave rebellion of 1811. It was the story of an elaborate escape, and the freeing of slaves at other plantations, but also their eventual capture, and their sentencing to death, and their decapitation, then finally the story of plantations mounting their heads on pikes to display along the river, to serve as a lesson to others to never try anything like it again.

Other things I learned that were new to me:

  • Automation revived slavery in the early 1800s. As the indigo trade was dying, it wasn’t economical to keep slaves, until the cotton gin and the paddle wheel steamboat and other processes to increase output made agriculture profitable again.
  • African resistance to diseases like malaria made them ideal slaves over any Europeans or indigenous people more susceptible to disease.
  • Today’s racists try to revise history to make slavery seem less barbaric because even they are aware in hindsight that slaves were humans and the actual practices that took place were almost unbelievably brutally barbaric.
  • In the 1800s you received more whips as punishment for having a pencil and paper (even if you were illiterate) than for escaping from the plantation.
  • Brooks brothers had a line of clothing for slaves to dress them up for auction day to fetch the highest price.
  • Plantation houses are placed, built, and landscaped to optimize for cool breezes off the river, and all those ideas were taken from their African slaves. African homes were constructed in these ways to keep homes as cool as possible in summers.
  • The blacksmiths and the cooks were the most valuable slaves on a plantation, and both had multiple apprentices aged 10 and up, there to learn the trade in case anything happened to their mentors so they could replace them quickly.

It’s fascinating to think how all of this history could be so easily forgotten, due to how little records were kept. The Whitney plantation has records on their slaves due to a variety of unusual circumstances. There was a lawsuit between two descendants of the family fighting over their fortune in the 1800s that introduced all their slave record keeping as evidence in the case. The children who died were recorded in church documents for their parish. The WPA did first person interviews in the 1930s with former slaves (who were all in their 80s and 90s) and recorded their stories of being children at the Whitney Plantation. Without any of these, details are forgotten and 200 years does a lot to soften memories. It’s abhorrent that we don’t have museums dedicated to this subject all over the country. Or that the first one in America opened in 2014.

Our guide Ali, was incredible. In fact, I’d suggest you phone ahead to make sure he’s your guide when you visit. He told grim stories and always broke them down to their elements. How people were separated and pitted against one another. How a tiny minority controlled a vast army of slaves. How you keep oppressed people down, how you keep them away from education, how you remove any shred of self-worth, and how you make it seem like there’s no other option.

He also connected those lessons to today. How we still continue to repeat these brutal processes to keep much of humanity down. How we live in a country where 1% controls the other 99% and makes laws to benefit the 1% and the other 99% go along with it. How tools of oppression worked then and still work today (we passed a large for-profit prison on the way to the plantation, which provides a sub-minimum wage workforce to companies and offers little-to-no rehabilitation to help prisoners escape the system)

Overall, it was a sobering and haunting day, and I’m still weighing the gravity of the visit. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about slavery should visit the Whitney Plantation.

It was an incredible experience I won’t ever forget.

Nine years

It was nine years ago today that I fell at home after passing out, and later learned I had a tumor growing at the base of my brain. Since then, it’s been good news as a drug regimen helped shrink the tumor and restore my hormone levels.

I’m still on two pills to this day, one keeps the tumor in check and the other makes my thyroid function.

Nine years on, I still remember Anil Dash posting this tweet. And I remember and thank Charlie Park for archiving all the related tweets on a site especially for it.

During my recovery, it was an amazing experience to see hundreds of people saying nice things about my work and I still periodically return to it when I need a pick me up. I’ve long said it was like getting to attend my own funeral and hear the eulogies and I’m thankful to all the nice things people said. It still keeps me going every day.

What do the new emoji mean?

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I’ve been a fan of emoji for many years, and every year I love seeing the new ones get released. They enter our phones and most of them are pretty descriptive, but you never know how people will adopt them, which of them will hit meme status, and ultimately what their meanings will entail.

To help quantify that scenario, my spouse, who is a psycholinguistics researcher that studies language, decided to start a quick survey just about the new emoji.

If you have a few minutes today, can you help us out and take the survey and give your take on the new faces of emoji in iOS 12.1?

New Hobby Horse with Erin McKean

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I just uploaded a new episode of Hobby Horse with Erin McKean. If you’ve never seen her blog Dress A Day, you’re in for a treat. Erin has spent the past 13 years documenting how she makes her own clothes, what patterns and fabrics she chooses and posts photos of the final product. She’s got a really amazing backstory too, starting as a kid when she fell in love with dictionaries and spent her life becoming a lexicographer.

Loss

I honestly have no idea how I’m going to handle it when someone that hosts a podcast I’ve listened to for hundreds of episodes over many years ends up dying.

I think about how much time face to face I spend with friends, even those I’ve known for over a decade, and then I contrast that with some podcasts where they’re on episode four hundred and something and I’ve heard them all going back many years.

Aside from immediate family, I don’t think I’ve spent thousands of hours interacting with almost anyone on earth.

Maybe I’ll feel like I did when Bowie and Prince died. Both made music that acted like a soundtrack to my life listened for thousands of hours over years, and both times it made me feel like an empty hole was just punched into me by their absence.

Voting

Most people don’t get how serious being denied the ability to vote is.

I was purged from voter rolls this year and I was pissed. I had heard about widespread, rampant voter purging and feared I was caught up in a bigger effort. I talked to my local city councilman who had connections to the county and election board and in the end we realized it was just one person reviewing past election records and he was worried my signature changed from my original Oregon voter registration from 15 years ago.

When I first showed up in the state, I was younger and took my time and probably did a legible signature, but over the years I’ve realized signatures barely matter much anymore and I’ve reduced mine to a much simpler squiggle, just to save time.

Apparently I had gotten a couple letters asking me to re-register that I missed, and the final one I saw was telling me I was officially ineligible to vote. I only had two months before today’s election day to re-register.

As I went to fill out the paperwork again, I realized how fucked up this was. It’s not “just a vote.” I was literally being denied one of our core constitutional rights by one guy with a clipboard judging me.

The gravity of it hit me on the way to the county records office. By the time I parked my car, I was fully prepared to file a lawsuit and contact the ACLU for resources if re-registering didn’t clear things up immediately.

It’s extraordinarily unfair when we remove the right to vote from anyone. Even people that served time for felonies still should keep their rights to vote when they get out. They did the time, paid the price, and still have a say in how the world works once they’ve gone through rehabilitation. They can also work as a check and balance on overzealous policing and imprisonment and should never be denied their constitutional right.

And I’ll never, ever understand anyone pushing for voter suppression of any kind. Even if the majority of people voted against my interests, every voter should be able to cast their ballots quickly, easily, and our shared goals should be as close as possible to 100% of eligible voters getting to vote in every election.

Anything less than that is fighting against a true democracy.

An IoT story

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A couple years ago, I had to have a difficult conversation with someone, all because of an Internet of Things device.

But first, let me back up.

Soon after the advent of WiFi-connected bathroom scales, I bought one. It was a little tricky to setup, but once it was on my network, it dutifully uploaded my morning weight to the cloud. I’ve used it for years to track my moving-average weight and keep tabs on my health. It continues to function and has worked flawlessly for nearly a decade. Batteries last over a year between changes!

The company I bought it from was eventually acquired by Nokia, and their old Flash graphs of all my data stopped working and their API disappeared and then one day I was forced to download a new Nokia health iPhone app especially for it.

The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.

But there was an unknown person.

The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.

I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.

Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.

When my spouse was pregnant with our first child, she wanted to play it safe and stay away from harsh cleaning chemicals, so we asked our neighbors and ended up hiring their house cleaner to scrub our bathrooms and spruce up our bedrooms once a week. It was a nice lifestyle splurge to pay for this service and it took a few chores off both our plates. Our housecleaner is a really nice person, and we talk regularly about how each of our families are doing, but usually we share small talk for a couple minutes before we both go back to our own work.

It’s totally natural that she jumped on the bathroom scale when cleaning the room to note her weight to herself, and there was no way for her to know it was connected wirelessly to the internet sharing her data on my account. I hated that I had years of her data without her knowledge.

I dreaded this entire situation, since it’s personal and invasive stuff. It reminds me of the time I got a house alarm installed, then promptly took off for a vacation and left the keys to a friend to house sit. When I got back, the alarm company’s iPhone app dutifully tracked every time my friend walked into and out of my house, along with recording when he went to sleep and when he woke up (he would enable it when asleep, turn it off when he woke up).

It’s extremely easy to take logs of seemingly innocuous data and paint an intrusive picture of someone’s personal life and habits, and it was no fun to have years of (very personal) data on someone without their knowledge. People are protective about their personal data and it’s natural to want to keep that stuff confidential. But my stupid bathroom scale and its stupid iPhone app removed any sense of privacy.

I promised myself that I’d tell her the next time I saw her. I wanted to apologize, explain how it happened, how it was a big accident, and that it was information I wished I didn’t have.

How do you even start this kind of conversation? I role-played different scenarios and mulled it over in my head for days.

The next week when our house cleaner arrived to clean our bathrooms, I took her aside and explained that my bathroom scale was connected to the internet and tracking everyone that steps on it. I learned through a software update that it was tracking her too for years, and I was deeply sorry for that.

To my surprise, she was kind of impressed a bathroom scale could even do that, and was fine that I saw her data. She had lost weight in a long-term program that forced her to share her weight every week with a public group, so it was par for the course.

It all worked out in the end, but I’ll never forget how much I dreaded having that conversation.

Why I continue to endure the internet of things

I don’t mind that my love of internet-connected gadgets makes me a punchline on a podcast but just to give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s my Apple Home app currently showing a bunch of failed connections because my Wemo Bridge died for no reason last week. This also means none of these lights are automatically turning on or off any more.

As I was resetting, restoring, and setting all of the lights up again, it was natural to pause for a moment to think about why I keep doing this.

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I think this all goes back to the early 1980s. My brother got one of those Radio Shack 150-in-1 electronic kits and we used it to build a variety of little machines. Once, when we figured out how the light sensor could be wired to the siren, we devised a trick.

We emptied a dresser drawer of clothing, put the kit rigged to go off inside it, and waited in the next room for our mom to put away some clean laundry in the drawer. She eventually opened the drawer, the light sensor hit, and the siren automatically wailed. I remember socks were everywhere around the room and my mom was yelling at us that it wasn’t funny.

Ever since that day, I’ve wanted computers to do all the pesky annoying tasks in my life. After the Radioshack kit, I soon graduated to putting automatic timers on lamps, but those were simple and batteries eventually wore out.

In the late 1990s, I got into x10, the new standard for lamps that let them talk to computers over electrical wires, and at one point I had an apartment in LA with a variety of light bulbs and switches controlled by my PC. Yet still, the systems weren’t very smart and mine couldn’t distinguish weekends from weekdays and I would frequently find myself in a pitch black apartment at exactly 11:00PM whether I was ready to go to sleep or not.

At some point in the early 2000s, the x10 standard grew up and a few more standards got popular, and at one point I had timers on lights around the house that were a bit smarter. I could set lights to turn on at sunset and turn off at a certain time, but I could also add +/- 15min of “drift” to automatically randomize the times things turned off and on so they didn’t look too predictable to outsiders.

A few years ago, I decided to dip back into this when internet-connected devices started appearing, and when Apple released Homekit, it kind of sent everything into overdrive for me.

Right now, I have a few hue bulbs, a bunch of Wemo wall switches, light switches, and room sensors all around the house, a garage door that connects to my wifi, and a couple August door locks. With this mix of devices and the Apple Home app, I have basic stuff like front yard and backyard lights that come on at sunset and go off later in the evening. I can daisy-chain things together to get the lights in the garage to turn on when someone opens the garage door for five minutes, but only at night. I can also do things like turn on my office light when I walk in the room and don’t auto-turn it off if I’m still inside it.

And yet.

This stuff has historically been super buggy. Things will work, then just up and die for no reason a week later. A sensor will lose the wifi connection briefly and never come back online. Things are generally improving but I feel like x10 in the early 2000s was more reliable than what we have today.

For about six months, everything worked great in Homekit. And after a rocky start, my wifi garage door actually became reliable for a good solid period of time. Then iOS 12 came out. And then Wemo updated the firmware on all their devices. Then one of my mesh-network wifi points stopped seeing the others. And for the last two months, things have randomly worked about half the time, and failed spectacularly.

I keep plugging away at this stuff, and I don’t think it’s outlandish to expect it to work, and work forever once you set things up. I think we can get there, but with our mish-mash of standards and hodge-podge devices and wifi, it’s not a smooth or predictable area of technology.

I’m still convinced technology can improve people’s lives and help everyone out, by letting us set up recipes and schedules that are truly reliable enough to be set-it-and-forget-it. It’s not asking too much to think this tech can free us up to spend our time and energy on more important things than remembering to turn on the porch light every evening.

I still think we can get there, no matter how rocky the road currently seems. At least I hope we can. I’ll keep trying, no matter how many times it fails on me.