Shakers: Co-ed Nerd Monks

Kate, Lydia, Barb and I are in the Berkshires right now, staying at a nice hotel for Thanksgiving where someone else cooked the turkey. It’s really tranquil and relaxing; I got a chance to read all 955 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which features cloistered, technology-loving ascetics living in a community separated from the outside secular world. And, given that it’s a Neal Stephenson book, they are for the most part asexual technology-loving ascetics.

So how do you do after reading a thousand pages about asexual technology-loving ascetics? Why, you visit Hancock Shaker Village, naturally!

Hancock Shaker Village

That’s a pretty labored intro, but the parallels between Stephenson’s “co-ed nerd monks” and the 19th-century Shakers goes beyond striking. Shakers started as an offshoot of Quakerism, but they placed heavy emphasis on end-times millennialism and charismatic worship. Unlike Quakers, they embraced music and dancing. They were celibate, but unlike “conventional” monasteries and convents, they didn’t wall off men from women — men and women had bedrooms on facing sides of the same halls, and carried their chairs across for nightly singalongs. They loved technology, and their community is packed with all kinds of sensible, clever, and carefully-planned labor-saving devices.

The kitchen in the ground floor of their big brick community house could have been a modern commercial food-service kitchen, except rendered in brick, marble, and iron instead of stainless steel. I am so not kidding about this: from the steam pressure cookers, to the ventilation hoods over the deep fryer, their early-1800s kitchen might as well have been a modern food-service layout.

Hancock Shaker Village kitchen

What’s most striking about this, to me, is that all this cutting-edge 1826 ingenuity was deployed by and for the women who worked in the kitchen. This is at a time when most women were cooking by kneeling at a hearth, not at high-tech ovens that are still up-to-date a hundred years later.

Shakers believed in, and practiced, total equality of the sexes — two male and two female ministers, two male and two female day-to-day work bosses — even two Christs: Jesus, and Mother Ann Lee. (Record scratch!) It’s totally obvious, looking at care and attention that the Shakers paid to both women’s and men’s work, that you don’t have to use some carefully-depreciated definition of “equal” to describe how they lived. As far as I can tell, they really and truly were capital-“E” Equal.

Hell, the Shakers invented the washing machine, which any watcher of historical-reenactment documentaries will tell you was the third messiah, at least for domestic women.

Hancock Shaker Village Sewing Room

Walking through the house is tiring, because your preconceptions about Shakers are getting smashed one after the other. I thought I knew the Shaker “austere” aesthetic, but it turns out all the floors in the building were painted bright yellow; likewise, the copious amounts of woodwork were all cheerful reds, yellows, and blues. The work rooms are set up so that folks can work in small groups, talking to each other. Everyone shared the work; just as the men’s and women’s technology was equal, so also there’s no separate, shabby “servant’s quarters”. The same care, attention, and planning has gone into space for every activity.

Hancock Shaker Village Basket Room

I had thought of Shaker lives as “ascetic”, but you have to stretch the garden-variety definition of “ascetic” pretty far when these folks are working in clean, well-lit, comfortable, and carefully-planned spaces, using excellent tools, and encouraged to use their creativity to improve those tools. Shakers improved the circular saw, and invented a vise to press round brooms (think of a witch’s broom) flat, then sew it that way in a more efficient shape (think of every other broom you’ve ever used.) The seven-hole privy had double-hung glass windows, and was neat, clean, snug, and well-lit.

The goddamn barn is practically a cathedral, with a very clever layout: centrally-ventilated haystack in the middle, cows around the perimeter. That’s more efficient than Sears mail-order barns being built a hundred years later. That doesn’t fit any definition of “ascetic” that means “uncomfortable” or “inconvenient”. It’s more… I guess, focused. Certainly not deprived.

Hancock Shaker Village Round Barn

So all in all I feel like I was disabused of a whole bunch of bad preconceptions about Shakers, including the old saw that “they died out because they banned sex HAW HAW HAW.” Shakers adopted kids, treated them pretty decently (as the kid-height furniture and the clever, humane, rhyming table-manners lessons attest), and had great commercial success selling seeds, capes, and furniture to the outside world. With just 6,000 members at their peak (and no “deep bench” of lay practitioners), maybe they never reached a sustainable mass. The whole “two Jesus” thing, which put them out in the cold as far as Christian orthodoxy goes, couldn’t have helped there. Regardless, it was a really thought-provoking visit, and piqued my interest. I’ve ordered a book containing the Shaker’s day-to-day rules, the “Millennial Laws”, and look forward to seeing what’s in there!

There are some more pictures that I took up on Flickr.

Update: I’ve been Googling around, trying to find the text of the Millenial Laws, which was the day-to-day book of practice that the Shakers used. I’m surprised that it’s not available on Gutenberg, or anything. There lots of opinions about the Shakers online, but very little primary material. Which, I suppose, stands to reason. I ordered a book that has the Millenial Laws in it. I also found Adam Gopnik’s 2006 piece in the New Yorker, which struck me as pretty flip; he explains Shaker organization with a casual “crowded poor people learn to hate disorder with a passion that for the wealthy is only a pastime”, and goes on to point out how Groucho Marx couldn’t let his peas touch his applesauce. Because of THE TENEMENTS, you know. Huh? It seems like the Shakers are everyone’s football. I’ll be interested to read some more.

Shakers: Co-ed Nerd Monks

The New West Chester Web Development Space

Tikaro Interactive (by which I mean me, my desk, and my Lucky Dotcom Chair) has moved offices! I’ve teamed up with some really excellent Philadelphia web developers to start a shared office space. We’re at
20 North Darlington Street in West Chester, right above local ice-cream and donut shop West Chester Scoop. For those of you that know the area, that’s right behind the new justice center. It’s the brick building in the middle of this picture:

West Chester Scoop Panorama

The best thing about an office space above a donut shop, besides the constant access to fresh coffee, is the delicious smell of fresh donuts. The worst thing about an office space above a donut shop is also the delicious smell of fresh donuts. To see if it was do-able, we spent a day working in the front office (with no furniture yet):

Working above the donut shop

That’s Randy Schmidt and Chris Conley from Ümlatte, and Jason Tremblay of Alert My Banjos. These are the fellows that put together purty iPhone app iSepta. Randy just launched isFeasting, which is a microblogging service to show what you’ve been eating. Jason is the programmer behind

Here’s my side of one of the three rooms above Scoop. I’m about halfway through the pcoress of surrounding my computer with houseplants, which I’ve always wanted to do. My desk drawers are still in the old office:

West Chester Scoop office

As a part of the lease we negotiated, we get to name and design a sundae. Any suggestions?

The New West Chester Web Development Space

According to Lydia, I’m “Lifting Plates”

I triumphed over my skinny veins and gave platelets in West Chester this morning. Kate came and visit after dropping Lydia off at playschool, and took this picture (while trying not to look at the needl-y bits):

Donating Platelets

Here’s what happens:

  1. The blood goes out your left arm
  2. It’s centrifuged in the machine next to you, and the platelets are taken out.
  3. The blood GOES BACK IN your right arm.

It’s extremely futuristic and awesome. You can learn more about it at the American Red Cross website.

Additional benefit: you don’t get weak afterwards, since you haven’t lost any blood. Also: you get gauze on both forearms like a prizefighter. Also: your blood goes through a whole series of krazy straws, and then you can gross out your wife and anyone who will listen about it.

It takes about two hours, which is a long time, and you better remember to turn the SMS alert off on your iPhone, or you’ll be sitting there wondering if the "ding ding!" from your pocket is a Pingdom "site down" alert. But you can’t use your hands to check. THANKS A LOT FOR THE INCESSANT SMS REMINDERS, STEVE JOBS 😛

Anyhow, you can find out more about giving platelets by visiting

According to Lydia, I’m “Lifting Plates”

Okay, somebody hand me a shovel!

Now that Obama’s the President-Elect, I want someone in a wool serge suit to show up on my doorstep and hand me a shovel so I can get to work helping undo the damage of the last eight years: “that retaining wall over there needs a-shorin’ up, friend!” “We got to dig us a channel to fix that there credit logjam!” “See that little kitty up in the tree? That kitty is CITIZEN’S PRIVACY RIGHTS, and we need you to climb up there and rescue it!”

I’m tremendously excited to see that has launched; it’s the “office of the President-Elect”, and seems like it’s gonna play the role of that fellow in the serge suit. Well, I hope so, anyway. I’ve crawled over the site, looking for volunteer opportunities, but haven’t found any so far (that hasn’t stopped me from doing some Googling; the domain name was registered by “Blue State Digital”, so I sent them an email.

Okay, somebody hand me a shovel!

Barb Wins!

Kate’s mom Barb McIlvaine Smith won a narrowly-contested election in 2006, taking the 156th district seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by about 28 votes. This after a recount that lasted six weeks, all while Bob had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. It was a really difficult time.

Barb won the seat, though, giving the PA House a Democratic majority, and she’s been doing a great job there. She passed puppy-mill legislation, balanced the state budget, strode into a room full of cigar-chewing politicos and smashed their porkpie hats, and when a train was speeding towards a broken bridge, she used her body to fill the gap in the rail. Jokes aside, she’s a great legislator. Just as a for-instance, she takes the train to work, does not accept a state car, and posts all her legislative expenses online. Barb was a Republican most of her life — a “fiscal conservative”, and I wish to GOD I knew where all those old-school republicans that I could respect have gone.

Barb’s opponent ran a tacky and comically inept campaign, smearing her by: sending out flyers that referenced senate bills (Barb is is the house, not the senate!), digging up as an “environmental scandal” (using a real-live private investigator!) that Barb, a dedicated environmentalist, had a part-time job for a few months as an accounts-payable clerk for Toll Brothers in the eighties, and (my favorite), lifting this photo I took from Flickr and putting it on a mailer claiming Barb was “Milking Taxpayers!”


It’s hard to know how much righteous anger to summon when you’re getting stuff in the mail that is:

  1. Disingenuous (grr!)
  2. Factually incorrect, in many cases (GRR!!)
  3. Contain apostrophization and homonym errors (SMASH!!!!), but then are
  4. Just plain INEFFECTIVE. (cue sad trombone noise.)
    The prevailing voter reaction on getting the “Milking Taxpayers” mailer seemed to be “oh look! Barb knows how to milk a cow! She’s enjoying herself! Yay for Barb!”

Okay, enough venting about that, here’s the great news. Last time, Barb won by 23 votes. This year (drum roll, please)… by 2,200 votes! Hurrah!

BARBARA MCILVAINE SMITH (DEM).  .  .  .    18,143   53.23
SHANNON ROYER (REP) .  .  .  .  .  .  .    15,909   46.68
WRITE-IN.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .        32     .09

Congratulations, Barb, on your victory, and by winning on a campaign that just talked about your record. Here’s to two more years of kicking butt in Harrisburg, and I can’t wait to see, in two more years, what the attack mailers do with this photo!

You know, now that this election is over, I find that I do have more to say about my disgust and embarrassment at the way the state Republican Campaign Committee conducted themselves during this election.

The attack mailers against Barb were comically inept, it’s true, but it reveals an overall pattern of aiming low that really makes me angry. WHERE, for god’s sake, are the “fiscal conservative” republicans? The republicans that I could have an argument with and respect? “Spend less on social services, because X!” “Invest more in infrastructure, but not through risky bond issues, because Y!” “Lower taxes, because economic theory Z!” I could have an argument about that, and have full respect for the other person.

Instead, the local Republicans this cycle prepared, published, and came within a whisker of handing out a mailer trying to link our incumbent Democratic state senator to terrorism, showing a picture of him accepting an award from a suspiciously middle-eastern looking man. Who was that suspicious-looking man? THE UNIVERSALLY BELOVED CHIEF OF STAFF AT THE @#$@#@$# CHESTER COUNTY HOSPITAL. Once that was discovered, the local committee hurriedly pulled the piece. Excuse me while I ask Star Trek’s Captain Picard to express my sentiment:

I am not posting this because I want to kick the republicans while they are down, but because I hope they will join me in agreeing that the republican party – nationally and locally – has gotten itself down a really weird, bad, and destructive blind alley. Where are the good republicans? Where are the ones that think that, from the point of view of the state, marriage is a tax issue? Where are the ones that don’t just say knee-jerk “lower taxes”, but instead say “spend frugally, reasonably, and wisely in the long run, so spend less here and here?”

Shee-it, it makes me want to switch parties and pitch in to reboot the Rs. I want a party across the aisle that I can reach out to, have a conversation with, and hammer out an agreement with, not have to do all this fearmongering. I AM SICK AND TIRED OF PEOPLE SPREADING FEAR, and I really really really want to work together with ALL Americans — not just the ones that I agree with — so that we can have a @#$@#$ COUNTRY again.

Update 2:
Local blogger Rodeo Princess posted a really wonderful, thoughtful story about her experience as a poll watcher yesterday.

Barb Wins!

Another reason why you should move to West Chester: SECRET MOBILE ROBOTIC PIPE ORGANS

IMG_0039.JPGSince Christmas carol season is coming up, we decided to buy a used console piano. We went to Philip Jamison’s workshop to have a look at one. It’s in a square brick building, in an alley, in downtown West Chester.

Little did we suspect his shop is crammed with AMAZING PUNCH-CARD POWERED PNEUMATIC ROBOT ORGANS. MOBILE robot organs! These street organs (here’s what one sounds like) are unbelievably awesome, from the pneumatic actuators that drive the little figures, to the mechanisms that trip the mercury switches, to the… okay, I’m hyperventilating here. Just look at the pictures on Flickr!

Gad, I KNEW West Chester was a town with a million surprises. All the organs are in tiptop operating shape. Philip turned them on for us, causing Pennsylvania State Representative Barbara McIlvaine Smith to giggle like a little girl.


Fanfold cards loaded, ready to go.
All the organs are controlled by punch-cards; metal teeth interact with the cards, and pneumatic tubes deliver all the motion. Even the lights, on one of his machines: with awesome punch-card actuated mercury switches, flashing away in the dark internal guts of the machine. Those cafe organs were designed to replace human dance bands; I can’t imagine how menacing (and futuristic) it must have seemed!

This is definitely the most exciting Secret Workshop discovery I have made since the secret free tech school in a South Bronx Basement. Do you think Philip could teach me to punch a new fan-book, so I could have MY OWN THEME SONG come out of the mobile street organ?

UPDATE: A little bit more Googling tells me that two of Philip’s organs are draaiorgels. Draaiorgels were a common site in 1850s up to 1950s Amsterdam (and, I guess, still are!)

It turns out that my idea of getting a new punch-card book of I’m alright (actually, that was Kate’s selection) is not a new one. Apparently, there’s a community of punch-card musicians who are still making arrangements for these MOBILE ROBOT ORGANS. Here’s a YouTube video of a different draaiorgel playing Basshunter. Hypnotic video of the punch-card feed starts at about one minute:

Imagine finding a garage packed full of these, all operating, RIGHT IN YOUR BACK YARD, while you were looking for something totally else. I had no idea. Un-freaking-BELIEVABLE. I’m going to ask Harold if he’d be interested in photographing them; these robotic organs seem right up his alley!

Another reason why you should move to West Chester: SECRET MOBILE ROBOTIC PIPE ORGANS