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”

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

Announcing “National ‘Is This Your Card?’ Day”

One of the bread-and-butter moves of any magician is called “forcing a choice.” Basically, it means that when I ask you to “pick a card, any card”, I get to decide what card you get. For instance, you’re gonna get the Seven of Hearts.
This can be done a number of ways, from the inelegant (I have a gaffed deck consisting ENTIRELY of the Seven of Hearts-es), to the subtle (I say your name at EXACTLY the right time), to the in-between (Google “Hindu Shuffle“)
So by the time you’ve actually picked your card, the hard part of the trick is over, and the fun part is left: the “reveal”. After you replace the card in the deck, I could do any of the following:

Standard card-trick reveals:

  • Hold the deck up to my forehead and carefully detect the psychic emanations;
  • Carefully “levitate” the card out of the deck using a concealed pinky finger;
  • Point upwards, revealing that your card is STUCK TO THE ceiling (now we’re getting somewhere);
  • Ask you to take your iPhone and scan the QRCode P8tch on my jacket, at which point YOUR OWN MOM appears on the screen:

Penn and Teller’s 1987 videotape Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends had a particularly great reveal: on the tape was a 30-second snippet of generic news broadcast. Then the newscaster stopped for a moment, listening to their headset. “One moment, this just in… ..IS THIS YOUR CARD?” they asked, holding a giant card up to the screen. The idea is that you’d flub the trick, then say “ah screw it, let’s watch some television.” You put in the tape, instead of actual television. AND THE AWESOMENESS IS REVEALED.
Ladies and gentlemen, can you imagine the amazing reveals that we can come up with if we all POOL OUR TALENTS? Consider the following:

Amazing reveals possible if we pool our talents

You ask your mark to pick a card, any card. They replace the card in the deck, and you fumble hesitating-ly. “Uh… is your card the, uh… ACE OF SPADES?” you ask, hesitatingly, the flop-sweat standing out on your brow. “NO, you loser! Ha ha ha!” says your friend…
…until they see you staring upwards, into the sky. They follow your gaze, to see a small plane towing a banner behind it. The banner reads:
Can you imagine the possibilities, here? That one example already would easily be the best card trick I’ve ever done. And it can be done by anyone. Why, a hundred of us in the West Chester area could easily chip in five bucks each and hire a banner plane (I checked.)
In order to get this off the ground, we’d need to pick a day, call it “NATIONAL IS THIS YOUR CARD” day, and agree on what to do, collaboratively. For instance:

  • On “National Pick a Card Day”, everyone who is in the know must wear a red scarf. Or a blue carnation. Something TBD. That way, we’ll all know who’s in the know, and will depend on each other as a SECRET NETWORK OF SHILLS.
  • On “National Pick a Card Day”, if anyone wearing a red scarf asks you what time it is, you must respond by saying “Why, yes, it’s one second until… THE SEVEN OF HEARTS!” and produce a card from your shirt pocket.
  • On “National Pick a Card Day”, in-the-know restaurant servers will hide a seven of hearts under the lasagna if you give them the SECRET SIGN while ordering.
  • On “National Pick a Card Day”, everyone whose license plate ends in “9” will duct-tape a seven of hearts to their bumper. You must then ask your mark to “pick a card, any card” before they leave for work.
  • On “National Pick a Card Day”, a nationwide network of banner planes will fan out with the “YOUR CARD IS THE SEVEN OF HEARTS, SUCKER” message at precisely 5:30 PM.

Dr. Zibbs, I’m quite sure you can think of at least ten examples of fantastic reveals better than anything I’ve come up with. I’m asking you — will you co-sponsor this national day? Who’s with me?

Announcing “National ‘Is This Your Card?’ Day”

Port Jersey: Arr! Shiver me Forklifts!

Bayonne Harbor

Tikaro Interactive work took me to Port Jersey yesterday. Port Jersey, where the corrugated steel containers are stacked in enormous rusty ziggurats halfway to the sky. Port Jersey, East Coast home of the beloved boxcar alligator. Port Jersey, where brand-new Mercedes cars with tinted windows and empty license-plate frames roll off the ship in an orderly line.

Bayonne Harbor
Just a lane away, separated by a ten foot wire fence, beat-up SUVs with no license plates are rolling the other direction, onto another ship. There’s nothing orderly about THAT line: Kenyan guys in knee-length T-shirts shout angrily at Eastern European guys with tracksuits and buzz cuts, both gesticulating wildly while clutching cellphones. It’s not really what you imagine when you think of a busy wharf — for one thing, it’s 99% asphalt and wire, and only 1% crumbling brick buildings (and 0% tarry barrels.) But it’s exotic in its own way, that’s for sure.

I’ll attempt to break down the reality of Port Jersey and how it differs from my boyhood expectations, based mostly on Hornblower books and pirate fiction:

td.pirate {vertical-align: top;
border-bottom: 1px solid #CCC;

Imaginary Pirate Wharf Port Jersey
Watch caps, muscular forearms, and tattoos Knee-length T-shirts, enormous potbellies, and shaved heads
Tarry barrels, guarded by wizened men with crooked daggers Blue igloo coolers, guarded by eleven-year-old kids in folding chairs and hoodie sweatshirts
Stacks of iron chests swaddled up in tarry netting Sky-high pyramids of corrugated steel containers
Reek of salt water, mud and fish Reek of salt water, mud and diesel exhaust
Grog bars on every corner Aluminum lunch vans every 500 yards
Cobblestones and brick Asphalt and wire fence
Stern-looking English marines with truncheons Stern-looking entrance-booth guards with blue jackets, walkie-talkies, and clipboards
Dray horses Twelve-foot forklifts
Cutlasses Cellphones
Terrifying scowls Terrifying scowls

I was delighted to find, though, that a lot of the language is still the same from that day to this, and so in the course of work I’m having to look up lots of nautical terms like “drayage” and “lading”, and calculating how much pirate insurance costs. And to determine inspection percentage rates, which is the number of sacks of flour in a hundred we have to cut open with bayonets, to see if the caliph has tried to hide sand inside instead. OKAY THERE ARE NO BAYONETS, but all in all it’s a pretty fun analogue.

UPDATE: Ooh, here’s a really nice panorama taken from the spot I visited. Can you see the cruise ship in the background?

Port Jersey: Arr! Shiver me Forklifts!

Tikaro X-Fin Submarine: UH-OH CAVITATION!

I liked the X-fin control planes on the USS Albacore in Portsmouth, NH, so much that I asked my friend Kenn Munk to make an Albacore X-Fin Growmone, with a Tikaro Interactive logo on it:

Albacore X-Fin Growmone

I think it looks awesome, and makes it just that crucial bit easier to imagine that I actually own a badass submarine. However, Guerilla Drive-In projectionist and submarine veteran Subewl pointed this out:

“Gentlemen, gentlemen… bubbles? What we have here is a failure to understand tactics. Bubbles is cavitation… is noise… equals a torpedo up the rear.”

Whoops! That’s on the short list of places I don’t want a torpedo. Thanks for the advice, Eric!

Tikaro Interactive logo
Anyhow, you can get a glimpse of the new Tikaro Interactive company logo (also by Kenn Munk), there on the fin. It’s intended to evoke a gear and a pixel. There’s also some bristle-block, some virus, and some harbor mine mixed in there. Plus the letter “Y”. I like how the gear teeth break the perspective a little, and I especially like the square “chop” that Kenn put it in. I’ve already ordered the rubber stamp and made some tattoo stencils.

I love this logo. As a bonuse the “gearxel” works as a stencil, and I could easily imagine it roughly spray-painted on the side of a Syd Mead flying dumpster — it has a “futuristic dystopian heavy industry zaibatsu” look, and if I’m a sucker for anything it’s futuristic dystoptian heavy industry zaibatsu.

What do you think? You can see the logo on Flickr here.

Tikaro X-Fin Submarine: UH-OH CAVITATION!