Penguin Theft

Reading this week:

  • Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations by Lina Benabdallah
  • Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David Van Reybrouck

We set out today to steal a penguin. The semester here at Yale as been dragging on a bit (they eliminated all the breaks, for reasons which made perfect sense, but man we don’t get a break), and we needed to switch things up and add some excitement to our life. So we went to Mystic Aquarium with the intent to steal a penguin.

The “we” in this scenario was me and my super amazing girlfriend. She will tell you that we did not in fact set out to steal a penguin, but instead went to Mystic Aquarium because it is a nice place to go and also that she has fond childhood memories of visiting every summer, but she is just trying to cover her tracks. We visited exactly a week ago from when this should be posted, so it was a slightly cool October day up in Mystic, and I was a bit surprised at how many people were there. They had timed tickets, so I had imagined relatively controlled crowds, but there were about as twice as many people as I would have really been comfortable with. And not to complain too heavily about children, but they’re excited to see beluga whales and less excited to stay six feet away from people. I can hardly blame ’em.

My super amazing girlfriend’s loyalties when it comes to favorite animals at the Mystic Aquarium is split between sharks and beluga whales. Luckily the whales are up first and we got to see them get fed and interact with people through the tank. They seemed to be having an alright time, so were a delight to watch, and by hanging out a bit we established ourselves as normal tourists instead of daring penguin thieves. You gotta establish your bonafides, you understand.

The biggest takeaway from the day was actually that the Mystic Aquarium is super into Halloween. There were Halloween decorations everywhere. The polar bear at the front had a giant spider in its mouth. The majority of the fish had to contend with new neighbors in the form of skulls and skeletons. There was an entire skeleton island in the marsh, and the rain forest exhibit featured incongruous pumpkins and unfortunately congruous black cats. Do they buy new stuff every year, or does the Mystic Aquarium have a gigantic warehouse of Halloween decorations stuffed to the gills 11 out of 12 months in the year?

Anyways, back to the heist. After passing by the seal and sea lion exhibits, where we admired their grace, beauty, and the fact that it kinda sounded like they were sneezing whenever they came up for air, we head up the marsh walkway. At Mystic, you split off the marsh walkway to get to the penguin exhibit. We spent a chunk of time here, to scope out the scene, and also (on our second go-around) to call my girlfriend’s sister, who loves penguins. Here I learned all the penguins have names consisting of two colors (“blue grey,” “yellow red,” etc), and are identified by beads on their armbands. We also learned that in captivity they lived for 30+ years and had regular appointments with an eye specialist. Most importantly, we learned that two penguins sitting in a little rock hut and looking out are very cute!

Unfortunately, there were just too many people, so we called off the heist for right then and decided to see the rest of the aquarium. After the penguins and the marsh, the rest of the exhibits were indoors, which we braved out of a love of sharks. I think I failed to take any good quality pictures of sharks, but I did take this photo of a blue lobster which, I am told, is very rare, and must also be a criminal, relegated as he was to an individualized jail. Poor thing.

There were also jellyfish, which I don’t normally really like because I have been stung by them before, but I figured they would make a cool gif. I also briefly was in awe of a living creature of such a different sort than the vertebrates I normally interact with, but that passed as I moved onto thinking about blog content:

After seeing all the indoor exhibits, we went outside and took another lap around the outdoor exhibits, but alas the potential for penguin thievery hadn’t improved any. So we went to go say goodbye to the belugas who, I am sure, were as sad to see us go as we were to leave them, and then exited via the gift shop. I managed to buy a lapel pin, despite them hiding them in the absolute least visible spot. We then set off to eat some seafood, which now that I think about it was probably in bad taste? Tasted good though. I also took this very nice picture (I think) of a pigeon:

Zoom Pedagogy

Reading this week:

  • Small Country by Gaël Faye

The pandemic hit and all my grad school classes went from being in-person to being on Zoom in the middle of a semester. I feel like this wasn’t as bad as it could have been (this is not a comment about the pandemic, which I don’t want to try to adequately address in a parenthetical). Since all of my classes had met in-person for half a semester, we all knew each other and so I think transitioning to seeing those same people on Zoom was pretty okay and you could maintain some of the same class dynamics. There were a lot of downsides, and frankly I couldn’t pay attention to online classes (I mostly just surfed Instagram in another tab), and my internet was pretty shitty then which made it difficult to attend class sometimes, but then again I had a pretty good excuse to simply not be in a class.

I dreaded the fall semester being online. I was pretty excited when Yale announced that we would be “hybrid,” which meant and as of this writing means a host of things, but I was excited for the chance to not be on Zoom. However, my internship over the summer was remote, so I got a lot more used to Zoom, and the prospect of being on Zoom all day no longer felt as bad. Plus my at-home setup improved significantly (I got a better chair and a second monitor), and now whenever I have to actually walk anywhere to go to an event it feels downright burdensome. All this is good, because all of the classes I am taking this semester are online anyways, so while some people are going to class in-person, I am not one of those people.

However, this has me thinking a lot about Zoom, and I think I have been to most versions of a Zoom class at this point, and so I think I have some authority to pontificate on the Dos and Don’ts of teaching over Zoom. My biggest regret on behalf of virtual students everywhere is that we missed a huge opportunity over the summer to really think through how an online class should work. The number one lesson we should all get out of this is that a Zoom class is not a regular class. I think a teacher that just tries to do their normal thing except into their webcam is not going to have crafted a particularly good experience. I also don’t think it would ever be easy to simply switch back and forth, because the kind of class you teach in person must be so different than the one on Zoom.

Other people have thought about this, but I don’t think we have thought about it enough. I particularly enjoyed this article about what videoconferencing could look like, and I think all the points are spot on. Zoom itself is probably a terrible way to classes in every scenario, and it is unfortunate that was what was ready to go when we all needed it. A quick google search for “zoom pedagogy” will also get you a number of articles giving you some tips, but I don’t think a lot of people have done that Google search. At the beginning of one of my classes this semester, the professor asked us to think of some ways to make sure the class was productive, and people were suggesting things like respect and making sure you do the readings. I was googling Zoom tips as fast as I could and people seemed surprised to be thinking about the idiosyncrasies of the Zoom format. All of which is to say we need to think more about how to teach a class over Zoom before we start barreling in! I shall now barrel into my thoughts:

An absolute minimum amount of time should be spent on Zoom. Staring at a computer screen is way shittier than staring at a teacher in real life, so I think lectures should not be held on Zoom. I think they should probably be pre-recorded, with automatic transcription added and then also posted in such a way that people can speed them up or slow them down. Then, class should be reserved for actual discussion and questions. Some teachers I know ask you to watch the pre-recorded lecture, and then just hold the lecture again. This is unhelpful and dumb.

Teachers need to make a much larger effort to make the class interactive. I think any class without time in the breakout rooms is an entirely wasted class. Even in a class of 15 people I hate trying to pipe up with everybody, but throw me in a breakout room with 3-4 people and suddenly we can actually have a conversation about a topic. Then maybe we can report back to the class or something, but have your students spend time actually being able to interact with people. I also think teachers should incorporate polls or other interactive things to just make students have to focus back into the class once again. There are also plenty of game platforms teachers could use to help students interact.

Make sure to enforce breaks! For serious, take a five-minute break every hour. Staring at Zoom sucks.

Teachers need to radically modify their expectations for presence. I think almost all of my classes at least state that students should be on-camera “as much as possible,” with a potential exception for bandwidth. I think this is a bad expectation and needs to be eliminated. There is an equity issue here, where students might not have the space at home where they can feel comfortable presenting themselves, even with virtual backgrounds or whatnot. It also helps with bandwidth, and although like I said many make an exception for it, once it is the class norm to be on-camera people feel pressured to be on-camera. I personally also find it very distracting to have myself staring back at me, and I suspect that builds anxiety for a number of people about how they look and how they’re presenting themselves. I realize people are visible in a classroom, but it’s a much different environment when people are largely focused on the teacher and the students are just another member of the “audience.” On Zoom, everyone is on equal footing, and everyone can be watched, and given that you can see yourself you are very aware of this. Just eliminate this expectation to be on camera. Zoom is never going to be a good substitute for the classroom, and so it will take some getting used to but we need to establish different norms for that presence. Also in here should be a point about being very flexible about whether people can show up to class at all.

Teachers should call on people. As a guy who will pipe up readily in real-life class, I find it awkward to say anything in a Zoom class. It feels more like a performance I have to get ready for when I’m framed on a camera, and it’s just awkward to figure out who’s trying to talk or who is about to unmute or who has their virtual hand raised or their real hand raised or whatever. Teachers should be in charge of calling on people and coordinating who is speaking when. My super amazing girlfriend teaches a section with few enough students that they can all see each other on one Zoom screen and everyone can see who wants to talk, but Zoom can quickly scale to where that’s no longer really possible, and that changes too if someone is screen sharing. This is probably also a great opportunity to ensure equity in the classroom, and making sure it isn’t just white guys dominating a conversation. So just call on people.

These are just technology complaints. I don’t think you should try to play a video over Zoom. You run into bandwidth issues and it becomes choppy half the time and the other half of the time you listen to it without the audio because the teacher didn’t click the right button. My super amazing girlfriend thinks there shouldn’t be any videos in a class anyways, so there. Also please teachers double-check the breakout rooms. I spent part of a Spanish class in a breakout room by myself, which was kind of relaxing but not very helpful.

Overall, I actually think it is a really great thing that the world has become much more adept to videoconferencing. A year ago, if you wanted to meet someone virtually, that would have been difficult to coordinate. But now, I am able to ask a whole range of people all over the world for a Zoom call and that is a perfectly normal request people are adept at handling. I think that radically changes the ability to network and connect with people, because instead of dragging someone out to a Starbucks you just need to ask them to click a Zoom link, and you could be in say, Connecticut while they are in DC. I also was able to conduct an internship remotely that in other years would have been in DC. It was much different than an in-person internship I think, but I really really hope the world retains this capability. That would open up internships and other opportunities to all sorts of people who would not otherwise be able to move themselves to DC or New York for the summer, or who need to be able to take care of a child at home or any other reason they can’t sit in an office 9-5.

I really hope there are a lot of people out there really thinking through how to improve the online presence and online teaching paradigm, in ways that aren’t just improving the camera quality. Now that we’re all comfortable with the concept of having classes and meetings online, we can really think through a new paradigm to make it as good and equitable an experience as possible. A boy can dream.

Apple Picking Redux

Reading this week:

  • Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont

It is fall in New England so we went apple picking. Couple of points here. First, as you can tell from the title of this post including the word “Redux,” this was an event we also did last year, when it was also fall in New England (being a year ago, you understand). Despite the similarities in the season, and despite the fact that I again busted out my super sweet safari jacket (modelled above), there were a number of differences. I have not recently read any Steinbeck, so I didn’t ponder as closely how our adventure related to the plight of the American worker. I also haven’t talked about Marx nearly as much in the past few months as I did in the fall of last year. I feel very overworked this year; maybe the decline of Marx in my life and the increase in work is related.

The most significant difference between last year and this year, however, is the huge difference in the use of “we” in the sentence “we went apple picking.” Last year we got official funding from Yale to go on a group-bonding expedition, and so the we was a whole host of people. This year, “we” includes only myself and my super amazing awesome girlfriend, who is awesome, and who totally exists, despite the fact I felt weird about posting pictures of her here because I haven’t asked her about it. Unlike me, who is from the Southern land of Maryland, she is from New England, up in Massachusetts, and she goes apple picking every year. It is a pandemic and all, which is why we couldn’t go with all of our closest friends like we did last year, but going apple picking was a nice respite from the looming threat of death and a lifetime of heart damage.

We were not the only ones who felt this way! As you can’t see from the picture above (I really promise I was not the only person in the apple orchard that day), a number of people were there that day picking apples. But that’s not all! The orchard also had pears (I am fairly surprised by the wide range of fruit that grows up here in the frigid reaches of Connecticut), and people (including us) were picking those too. They had a corn maze that didn’t strike us as worth $7, but others disagreed. So it was a grand ole day staying warily apart from other people in a field as we picked various fruits off of trees. We filled up a whole bag, and took various photos so we can someday admire how young and sprightly we once were. Here, the super amazing girlfriend I have mentioned so often took an action shot of me picking an apple:

This was all very fun! We had a great time. I wish I had written this blog post closer to the actual event so I could relay to you more intimate details, instead of what I currently have, which is a hazy memory of having a really nice day outside among some trees.

This apple picking is a healthy activity, involving healthy fruit and walking outside in the fresh air, so we had to rectify that with a trip to the farm store on the way out. This particular farm store was much more of a supermarket, but it had cider donuts and cider and that is what we were there for so we were quite successful in that. I took two pictures of things that were funny:

The image on the left I enjoy because it makes me feel bad for the plantains, whom I am sure would like to be defined as something other than what they are not. And as a fan of plantains, I want to defend them here by saying if they’re not as sweet, they’re just as nice. The image on the right is an AMERICAN chicken pie, which is not the funny part. The funny part is right under that label, which I hope you can see, which says NO VEGETABLES, which I think is just a standard food label but I like to think it speaks to the AMERICANness of the pie.

After all this we went home. Please stick with me, I will write better blog posts in the future. I am quite swamped with work!!!

Development Apps

I googled “Africa cellphone” to find this picture, and I know I have seen it on at least one company’s marketing materials.

Reading this week:

  • Kenya: The Struggle for a New Constitutional Order edited by Godwin R. Murunga, Duncan Okello, and Anders Sjögren

I spent the summer at an internship reviewing old grants for development projects. This was a lot more interesting than it sounds!! There were all sorts of grant applications, from all over the world, and grantees provided regular updates on their progress. That meant as I reviewed the old grants I got to see these people face new problems and overcome them (or not).

The major schtick of the place I was interning was that they did innovative ideas. This is the 21st century, so a lot of time “innovation” is synonymous with “cell phone app.” This isn’t exactly crazy; a lot of the reason that development is hard is that development requires interconnectedness between people, and the whole point of cell phones is to make that easier. So I reviewed a number of app grants. Like all the grants, these too were pretty interesting to me mostly because of all the unexpected problems that people ran into.

Before we get too into this, I want to apologize for vague blogging. Seems like a lot of work to get permission to publish people’s processes, so I’m just going to allude to stuff.

The app with perhaps the most lessons learned had to be one that was designed to help with patient follow-up. Right from the outset they wanted to make it usable to the most number of people possible, so they designed it to be used on feature phones, aka dumb phones. This is a good instinct! They worked real hard to make it super accessible. But man were some of their assumptions off.

One of the funniest to me is that they discovered just how limited some people’s phones were. They initially designed it so you had to reply with a text message, like “yes” or “no,” typing that stuff out T9 style. But then they discovered that some people didn’t even have the capability to do that, and had to switch it up so you could just reply with a number, like “1” or “2” (one creative solution to this technology problem was that some people just gave smartphones to their target audience; for one of those developers, the deal was that if you got a smartphone you were supposed to text vital information to people with dumbphones).

Another assumption they made was that people could read. They figured out a lot of their users were in fact illiterate, and had memorized the menu. That was actually the sort of problem I had read about before! I can’t find the original article I read detailing it, but over in India YouTube has become the search engine of choice for many people. Two things made that possible: really cheap data, and voice search. This WSJ article makes voice search (aka voice-to-text into the search box) just sound like a feature they just added for fun, but there is a huge number of illiterate phone users in India. However, these illiterate users can just talk to their phone, and get a video back, which gets around the reading thing (I’m not worried about this as some Black Mirror future scenario, but it kinda plays into this analysis that everyone in Star Wars is functionally illiterate). This pops up all the time in apps and app designers should think about how to make their app usable by the illiterate (Maybe the blind or disabled too? Dream big). Ignitia, which texts weather forecasts to farmers, found that using keywords consistently helps illiterate farmers decipher their forecasts (they text things along the lines of “Heavy rain today. Sun tomorrow.” Farmers can recognize “rain” in the first sentence, and know it will rain today, and that “sun” in the second sentence means no rain tomorrow).

Yet another non-intuitive assumption that designers made is that every phone or phone number corresponded to a particular person. This was a bad assumption! A lot of times a single phone would be shared between several people, such as a group of friends or a family. I didn’t actually discover anyone who came up with an elegant way to solve this problem, but if you’re designing an app make sure that it can be used by several people on the same phone pretty smoothly. And maybe don’t just send a push notification for sensitive information? Yet another company ran into a problem when people’s phone numbers kept changing. They tried to maintain a database of people’s contact information, but people would switch service providers all the time, and therefore switch phone numbers, whenever a different service provided a slightly better deal. The company’s database got out of date really quick, and again I didn’t see them come up with an elegant solution to solve it. Things to keep in mind!

Another thing just from my personal experience using a phone in a rural village in Zambia is that make sure your app doesn’t use a lot of data! Optimize the shit out of that thing! And data access can be spotty! Make sure your app works with only an intermittent connection to data! I have a lot of vague hypothetical thoughts about this, but make sure your app also functions elegantly when it reconnects to data! Don’t have it download out of date stuff just because it was in the queue! And make sure that your app can pick up right where it left off after a failed download, instead of making a large download start over just because data was interrupted for a second!

One solution people have tried to implement to the whole data being expensive thing is to subsidize their user’s data cost. Unless you have the engineering chops of Facebook, this is probably a bad idea. My favorite was one company that had it set up so that their agents were supposed to text them back, and so had provided their agents with prepaid texting plans. Turns out their agents used all their text messages to chat up girls, and when the time came to actually use their text messages for their intended purpose, they had none left. The company had to switch to a different system to avoid having to get their agents to text them, all because they couldn’t resist hitting on women. Men, amiright?

There were more lessons, but they’re hard to convey in a vagueblog. I also think that the best design ideas for development apps are yet to come. There are a whole lot of efforts to leverage the technology, but I don’t know if I’ve seen a “killer app” (or, since it’s for development, “lifesaving app”) for the developing world. That being said, there are a number I like. A few different apps that give users information via a map (like vegetation data) have been good, so maybe better geospatial information could be useful. I also like the simple implementations; one company trains people in first aid, and then loads onto their phones refresher videos so they can review the lessons at any time. Very neat! Maybe excellent avenues to pursue. The deepest lesson however is, like everything else in development, to let your users guide your app. You’ll find they manage to use it for things you didn’t think of, and have suggestions that could make it way better.

Gang Violence

Reading this week:

  • African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks edited by Mats Utas

I was reading, as I am wont to do, the New York Times, when I came across this article:

Veterans Fortify the Ranks of Militias Aligned With Trump’s Views

It, uh, it sparked some feelings and thoughts and frankly I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Fortunately I have a blog on which I can write whatever half-baked thoughts I have, and also fortunately no one ever reads it so there is little risk of repercussion. So here we go.

The article is about the so-called “militias” (“armed gangs” or “terrorists” is a better term) that have grown over the past decade or so, and as you have gleaned from the headline, how a number of them include a high percentage of veterans.

My first half-baked idea has to do with the type of gun nut who thinks the second amendment exists because people might have to literally take up arms against a tyrannical government. This, in the 21st century, always seemed more than a bit whack to me, mostly because I don’t think it would work. While there are more guns than people in the US, gun ownership is concentrated in a fairly small number of people, and the government’s military has the advantage of things like warships with Tomahawk missiles and special forces soldiers and satellites and drones and all the other things that make it really effective at killing people, more so than civilians with rifles, even if they are assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. I have other objections to the general notion, including the fact that if you want to overthrow a government violent rebellion isn’t even the best way to go about it, but let’s just stick with the government-versus-people scenario.

Mostly I need a convenient place to stick this link, but first off the Pentagon has wargamed a scenario where it goes against a domestic threat. I don’t know what their assumptions are, but the probably deciding factor in a second civil war is which way the military would go in the scenario. This is part of what that New York Times article speaks to, I think. I think that the veterans in these groups sort of assume that the military would be on their side. On one level, that’s not a crazy assumption. I know I just said you can’t pigeonhole veterans, but I think it is fair to say that the military leans right on the political spectrum. I would hesitate to ascribe that, Heinlein-style, to any particular characteristics of the military lifestyle. I think the military mostly recruits from right-leaning areas of the country and so the people that wind up in the military are right-leaning. So these gangs/militias are right-wing, they have right-wing veterans who know a bunch of other right-wing military, so they might assume that the military would favor these groups. Not a crazy assumption.

The next half-baked notion I want to talk about has to do with the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. First off, and I will mention this because I don’t know where else to put this in, but I took the Oath of Office as a Peace Corps Volunteer which really threw me off. I didn’t know we did that, and so I was surprised when it happened, and for a while there I really had to think about my role in the Peace Corps and how I would defend and uphold the Constitution if called upon. I eventually just decided the enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, weren’t going to be storming into my Zambian village, and gave up thinking about it. But of course I took the oath far more often as a member of the military.

The most significant thing I want to point out in this half-baked section is that upholding that oath is not necessarily a straightforward thing to do. This intersects with the article when it comes to the Oath Keepers. They’re another one of these gangs, but their schtick is that they claim to be continuing their oath to uphold, etc. The fact that these guys can claim to be doing that while the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” should be telling. Like I just said, I took the oath a lot as a member of the military. Specifically, as an officer, I took the Oath of Office. However, enlisted members of the military, and therefore the majority of the military, take the Oath of Enlistment. These are pretty similar, except that the Oath of Enlistment includes specifically the line that they swear to obey “the orders of the officers appointed over me,” while officers simply don’t swear that.

Why the difference? I always figured it was because while saying you’re going to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” sounds all nice and straightforward, man that is hard to put into practice. If you were to be serious about it, every single person who swears that oath would need to be a constitutional scholar. How else could you decide with any certainty whether or not any particular order you are given is against your oath to uphold and defend the Constitution?

I don’t think you could spin a scenario that would be obvious 100% of the time. If, as a member of the military, your commanding officer orders you to storm the White House and capture the President, that seems pretty straightforwardly like an unlawful order and unconstitutional. But then again what if the President is there illegally, because he refused to concede in a contested election, or something? Then maybe getting him out of there is pretty constitutional? But how is any member of the military really supposed to be able to tell? Even if you’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I’m going to bet you’re probably not an expert on that sort of thing, and you’re just going to have to go with the best advice you can get. If you’re some enlisted guy, what chance do you have?

The answer to the conundrum is mostly “well this doesn’t really come up all that often,” and the other part of the answer is the difference between the Oath of Enlistment and the Oath of Office, mentioned above. Every member of the military has an obligation to not follow an unlawful order. But for enlisted members (in my interpretation), the default assumption is that an order given to you by an officer is probably lawful. Unless there is a pretty specific reason you should know it’s unlawful, you won’t be faulted for carrying out those orders (and I think the bar is pretty high; you can seriously argue after massacring a village that you were just following orders). Officers, on the other hand, don’t get that pass. You have a responsibility, as an officer, to not simply assume an order you are given is lawful, and actively counter all those orders that you receive that don’t pass that bar.

But then again, I just pointed out that even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs probably isn’t going to be an expert on these things. So how is some random junior officer to know what to do? This is why I don’t think the military is likely to break from the government in power. In a scenario where the legality of a given order is in question, I personally think the military is going to default to the most conservative approach (do you have to emphasize “small-c” in writing?), which will be to follow orders. Even the almost universally beloved (within the military) “Mad Dog” Mattis will make the legally shaky move to deploy troops to the southern border when asked, and only actually balk when it came to not deploying troops to Syria. All that to say, I don’t think there is much chance of the military breaking with the government, even if the government orders it to deploy against American civilians.

The final half-baked bit is the alignment of these armed gangs. A few points here. The original NYT article I linked to notes that these gangs are “traditionally” anti-government. That makes sense to me, from a “the second amendment is in case we have to take up arms against a tyrannical government” perspective. But the alignment of a number of these groups have been changing, and again as the article notes “as [the militias] have inserted themselves in cities with large protests, the groups have found themselves sometimes welcomed by local law enforcement” (I personally wonder how much of that is due to the efforts of white supremacists actively working to infiltrate both the military and law enforcement, so that it’s not so much law enforcement welcoming the militias, but simply a case of overlapping membership). But these gangs aligning themselves in any way with either law enforcement or the military really undercuts the notion of fighting against a tyrannical government. It’s hard to say you’re defending the people of the United States when you kill those people. However, the point I was trying to wander to is that although I think it is unlikely that the military will break with the government, if these gangs are aligned with the government, they could wind up on the same side anyways. The real driving force behind these gangs isn’t to uphold freedom and democracy (because frankly you can’t do that from behind a gun), but just hateful, fearful, American racism. If your goal is to kill Black and brown people, aligning yourself with the American government is historically not a bad way to go about it.

Those are my half-baked thoughts. Maybe someday they’ll coalesce into something meaningful.

DeLorean Upgrades

Reading this week:

  • Politics in Africa: A New Introduction by Nana K. Poku and Anna Mdee

So as I have mentioned before, I own a DeLorean. DeLoreans are the most amazing car ever made, but also they have some design flaws. Plus, they’re all about 40 years old now, so they’re bound to have some quirks. A common one is a voltage leakage somewhere in the car, which means that if you leave the car alone long enough, you’ll come back to a drained battery, which sucks. Since I only ever drive the thing about once a week, I have long had installed a battery disconnect, so that when I park it I disconnect the battery.

This is pretty straightforward and easy. The battery compartment in the DeLorean is actually in the interior, behind the passenger seat. So the usual thing I do is sit down in the driver’s seat, reach over, move the passenger seat forward, reach into the battery compartment, and connect or disconnect the battery. It is a perfectly fine solution. Except that, you know, it probably takes a solid five seconds or something to do, and you wind up putting your arm at a weird angle, which, like, come on. So I decided there was a better solution. I started poking around for different battery disconnect solenoids I could find in the internet, before discovering that DeLorean Parts Northwest already had a kit put together. So I bought that.

The center console with one of the dummy switches removed. The two switches on the driver’s side are for the windows, though the switch for the passenger window is actually supposed to be right next to the passenger’s seat. It got moved by a shop I hired to install a new radio but who subsequently wound up breaking the gear shifter. That’s just how DeLorean repair typically goes, but the switch position has been bothering me for years now and the other thing I wanted to do today was put it back.

What they sent me is what is pictured up top. You got the solenoid, a chunk of battery wire, a toggle switch that’s already wired up, another thing for continual 12V power I didn’t wind up using, and some connectors and stuff. The kit is advertised in part as a security device – the toggle switch is supposed to be hidden somewhere, so a would-be thief wouldn’t actually know how to get the car started. I decided against that. The center console of the DeLorean, you see, has five switches… or so it appears. Two of the switches are for the windows, one is for the rear window defroster, and two of the buttons are just fake. They’re “dummy switches,” just for decoration. They do, however, just scream to be used, so I wanted to put the toggle switch in place of one of those. My initial idea was to get like a super cool red toggle switch thingy, but then I got a better idea to try to 3D print a switch cover that looks like the other DeLorean switches, but housed the toggle switch for the kit. So I learned how to do 3D cad for the first time and bashed this together:

Getting it printed was a whole different adventure. The number of 3D printers I don’t have access to right now is frankly astounding. I bought my dad one years ago, but my parents are moving and his is in storage. Yale has a center with 3D printers, but it is currently closed for COVID. New Haven Free Public Library also has 3D printers, and they are also closed. There are all the online services, but they were more expensive than I thought they would be, so turns out our local print shop in fact has 3D printer services, but the 3D printing guy was on vacation when I called, and when he showed back up, they were out of black filament, so I had to wait another week. Really frankly astounding.

Anyways. It was almost time to rip the car apart. But first, shopping! It was pretty impressive, if I say so myself, the level of stereotypical manliness that went into the Saturday morning when I did this. First I climbed into my 80’s sports car and drove to the hardware store, where I bought some connectors and some tools. Then I drove to the autoparts store, where I bought more parts for my sports car. Then I drove home, and started working on my sports car.

Stuff I bought so I could do this install. Buying small amounts of wire is annoying and expensive.

I actually approached the process with a large amount of trepidation. I am very good at taking the car apart, and not so good at putting it back together. Some things I have gotten good at via repetition, such as replacing the thermostat, and one time I did an alternator belt change in the nuke school parking lot while wearing my uniform. Of course, there was that time back in high school that I would up shattering the window and then drove to my girlfriend’s place just so I could cry on her shoulder. True story. But today went pretty well!

The first step (after taking out the battery) was to install the new solenoid in the battery compartment. For that I had to drill some holes in the fiberglass of the battery compartment. I was worried about that both because drilling random holes in the car feels dangerous, especially around electrical stuff, and also didn’t have a drill, which made it harder, lemme tell ya. But I got it installed with the provided bolts, so that worked. Then I had to take off the center console, made significantly simpler by following the instructions in the official DeLorean repair manual I purchased. I could have been smarter about where I put my bolts and screws, but in the end I got them all back in the right spot (pretty sure). The parts on my DeLorean don’t fit the greatest after 40 years of amateur repairs, but the people in the Lowe’s parking lot today thought it looked pristine, so I guess it’s fine.

Tools, phone for listening to podcasts, and repair manual.

The next step was measuring out the wire and then attaching the connection hardware. I repurposed the engine cover as a workbench. Hopefully I didn’t lose any little parts into the engine or anything. This all went perfectly fine which was nice, and then I really just had to attach everything up after running the wires into the right spot. I took the opportunity to clean some dust out so that was good. I didn’t do anything fancy with the wire runs; they just wound up snaking into the battery compartment through the normal battery compartment opening, and are hidden by the interior fabric that just flaps down in that spot. So you can’t see anything unless you dig and I didn’t have to fret about putting more holes in the car.

At this point I did a test by connecting the battery back up, and it worked great! You flip a switch, the solenoid gives a satisfying “thunk,” and then the car can operate or it can’t. Very neat! I disconnected the battery wire again, and managed to get the center console back together, only temporarily putting the gear shifter through the tear in the leather caused by the gear shifter getting pushed through the leather last time the center console was reassembled. I cleaned everything up, put my now very scattered tools away, and the day was complete, with no crying! This is a feat for me!

And now, before and after shots!

Battery compartment before:

Battery compartment after:

Center console before (you already saw it but here it is again):

And center console after:

Ain’t it a beauty????

Postscript:

Okay when I wrote the rest of the above I didn’t actually have my little button cover yet. I just got it today and installed the sucker, and um, well I’m happy with it, but it could be a lot better. So turns out I messed a few things up. First off I had planned on just ramming through a piece of a paperclip as the hinge, figuring the PLA of the print would be easy to melt through. And it was! But what was not easy was getting anything resembling an actual hinge to work, and I quit before I completely melted the thing. I also didn’t actually measure the hole it was supposed to be mounted into, and just measured one of the dummy switches, which was a mistake because turns out the dummy switch is designed the way it is because the hole was smaller than I thought it was, not because they were cheap on plastic, so I wound up having to chop off a chunk of it using a kitchen knife heated up with a grill lighter. This is the detritus of all those efforts:

After all that, turns out I chopped off the bits not quite center (because like, I was using a kitchen knife heated with a grill lighter) and so when I installed it into the center console it didn’t quite fit center, so the actual button itself is no longer flush with the level of the button housing. At this point, I was just happy the button itself went into the button cover rather nicely:

These pictures taken before I had chopped off all the necessary bits; doesn’t it look nice though?!

Overall I am pretty happy with the project. It is functional and it looks pretty nice actually. I mean, clearly it was printed out of PLA and boshed in there, but I think the power symbol on top of the button housing turned out really well. And it mostly sticks on there, despite the lack of hinge. The advantage of 3D printing is of course rapid prototyping, and I have all sorts of ideas of how to make it better, but printing this one cost me $37 because I don’t own my own printer. I am considering changing that. We shall see.

Infrastructure in Zambia

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This is another in my burgeoning genre of “op-eds I tried to publish somewhere else but couldn’t so here you go.” I wrote it in fall of last year when I knew slightly less about African infrastructure development.

For the past two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbala District, Zambia, teaching fish farming to rural farmers. I also worked on projects in malaria and HIV prevention, nutrition, and women’s empowerment. I was enthusiastic about the work and unlike many PCVs I came back feeling energized about the ability to impact change in developing countries. But I also came back convinced that in a whole career of development work, there is nothing anyone could do in that village that would help them as much as building a paved road would.

My village was a mere 12km from the town of Mbala and connected via a dirt road. The quality of the road changed throughout the year, with the community spending weeks repairing it during the dry season only to have the rainy season carve deep chasms and massive mud pits into it. When rain hadn’t turned the road into a river, it took a 4×4 Land Cruiser about an hour to make the trip. Based on my experiences with that road, I have become an absolute convert to the school of infrastructure development.

I think the biggest long-term impact of building infrastructure will be on education. Newly hired teachers in Zambia are assigned to rural schools which probably don’t have access to electricity or running water. Teachers work as hard as they can to get transferred from these schools as quickly as possible. Building a road to a village followed quickly by power lines means rural schools will be better able to recruit and keep teachers so the kids in a village actually have a shot at education.

Even in schools with the best teachers, the lack of infrastructure massively hampers education. There are basic problems: students in Zambia have a required computer course to graduate secondary school, but at a school without electricity students will never see a computer, let alone get experience on one. Schools in Zambia are also responsible for printing standardized tests. At a school near me, which had only one government teacher and no electricity, printing these tests meant he had to walk 12km to town during the week. After printing them, he then had to walk back, leaving his students without a teacher for the day. With electricity and a printer, this all-day task becomes a 20-minute one.

Better infrastructure leads directly to better health outcomes. One of the major determining factors for the risk of a child dying of malaria in Zambia is the distance between that child and the nearest hospital. Right now, a child sick with malaria faces a walk under the African sun or an impossibly expensive taxi ride. Hiring a taxi to drive to my village over the dirt road cost 150-200 kwatcha. The farmers I knew struggled to earn 60 kwatcha for school fees every year. But in Zambia, paved roads are quickly followed by minibus service provided by plucky entrepreneurs. A minibus service over the same distance on a paved road would probably cost about 10 kwatcha. With paved roads, a sick child can actually get to a hospital when they need one.

Patients living with HIV have to travel to the hospital monthly to receive their medicine. An all-day 24km round trip walk every month can be insurmountable. That paved road and minibus service would save their lives too. Lacking their own transportation, health outreach workers rarely if ever make it to distant villages. A paved road makes it possible for these workers to actually go out and conduct bed net checks, provide training on malaria transmission and sexual health, and help make sure people are sticking to their regimens. Northern Zambia has one of the highest rates of malaria and HIV and both are problems that will never be kept in check until the infrastructure network is in place to make sure change happens.

The existence of basic infrastructure spurs other aid and development. Despite there being a variety of NGOs based in the town of Mbala, none of them operated in my area. They were willing to drive 50km west along the paved Chinese-built Mbala-Nakonde road (pictured up top), where they could access target villages in under an hour from town, but would not drive 12km east over a dirt road to my village. A village with a paved road is suddenly actually connected to the world’s development resources.

Roads extend the rule of law. The police in Zambia are chronically underfunded, and getting them to travel to a rural village often requires covering their expenses. Given the difficulty of getting to a rural village like mine, the police are unlikely to ever come. With a road in place, the police can actually show up. It would be easier for every other aspect of government to show up too: forestry officers can come and fight illegal logging, land surveyors can come and do the inspections necessary for rural farmers to get deeds to their farms, and the list goes on.

The United States has not helped to contribute to Zambian road infrastructure. From 2013-2018, the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent $332 million to help upgrade Lusaka’s water supply, which is necessary infrastructure I support, but nothing advertises America’s good will like a road. I never heard anyone talk about the water supply, but every road I traveled over people knew exactly who built it. Zambia is nearing completion of their Link 8000 project, named for the 8201km of roads constructed under the program. This should have been an ideal project for the US to get involved in; it was initiated by the local government and had clear, tangible goals. The US was invited to participate, but did not join. Zambia turned to China for funding instead, with work done by Chinese contractors. Spending America’s time and money on basic road infrastructure is a fantastic way to show the world how to do it right: at a reasonable cost, with as much skill and technology transfer as possible, to produce a high-quality product. Every kilometer of road America helps pave accrues good will and helps improve people’s lives.

American Samoa Op-Ed

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The citizenship status of American Samoans has long bothered me. The status of all the people in the outlaying territories of the United States has bothered me since I was stationed in Guam, but America Samoa seemed particularly egregious. People forget that these places even exist; I knew a guy from Guam that liked to quiz people to get them to name the five territories, and I don’t know if I ever saw anyone get it. With the most recent upswell of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was thinking about American Samoans and how they were screwed by a lack of citizenship, so I decided to write an op-ed about it. After some Googling, turns out the situation was more complex than I thought, but I tried to write an op-ed about it anyways. After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that as a white guy who’s never even been to America Samoa, I wasn’t in a great position to speak to the issues in a way that ensured I was getting them right. I pondered trying to reach out to some American Samoans to see if I had successfully grasped the issues, but then worried I would be just trying to find a random American Samoan only to confirm my own viewpoints. So I decided to not try to get it published in any publication more widely read than my blog that no one reads, but I needed to get it out of my head. This is that attempt at an op-ed: 

As the United States continues to reckon with the racist legacies of its systems, I think an appropriate issue to raise is the citizenship status of American Samoans. Despite being a part of the United States, and under US jurisdiction, the people of American Samoa are not citizens, but are instead “US nationals.” The most straightforward way to say it is that this renders them second-class citizens, but of course they are not citizens at all. Because of their status, American Samoans are unable to hold certain federal jobs, vote in federal elections, or run for elected office. And as a mark of their status, their passports are stamped “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

American Samoan’s status as US nationals is rooted in the Insular Cases – a series of Supreme Court cases decided in 1901, during one of the most aggressive periods of US overseas expansion. During those cases, the Court invented a doctrine that allowed the United States to extend sovereignty over foreign lands, but without necessarily granting the people in those lands rights under the Constitution. The United States wanted the resources, but not the people. They believed that the “primitive” people inhabiting the Pacific islands the United States was claiming as its own were unworthy of full inclusion into the “civilized” society of the mainland, or else that granting them full citizenship could potentially “dilute” the US racial makeup.

The reason, therefore, that American Samoans are not automatically granted US citizenship at birth is rooted in century-old racism. On this topic we have luckily progressed somewhat – unlike in American Samoa, the people in the other US territories, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands are citizens from birth. They gained this right via acts of Congress, as required by the Insular Cases.

In the 120 years since the US acquired the islands, there have in fact been several attempts to grant the people of American Samoa birthright citizenship. The most recent was last December, when a federal judge in Utah ruled that American Samoans had automatic citizenship under the Constitution, a ruling he immediately stayed pending appeals. However, these attempts have been opposed every single time by an extremely invested actor: the local government of American Samoa itself. The government of American Samoa fears that automatic citizenship would fundamentally threaten their way of life.

The American Samoan way of life, or fa’a Samoa, is rooted in communal land ownership and community networks. The American Samoans fear that, were they to fall under an increased scrutiny by the United States government, this method of communal land ownership would be declared unconstitutional and lead to the destruction of their culture. Based on the experience of other indigenous groups in the United States, I would say they are right to worry.

Here is the central tragedy of American Samoan’s position: their status as US nationals, and the indignities that heaps upon them, is because of outright racism in the burgeoning American Empire over a century ago. However, it is that same status that protects them from another aspect of American racism, the racism that disrespects native culture and indigenous ways of life, and has historically opened up native lands to expropriation and exploitation by colonizers and settlers.

There has to be a better solution than the status quo. American Samoans are able to gain full US citizenship via an abbreviated naturalization process that requires living in a US state or territory other than American Samoa for three months and paying $725 in fees. These requirements can be burdensome, preventing American Samoans that desire it from obtaining citizenship. Congress could instead allow American Samoans to automatically become citizens upon request, without a fee.

A better solution, of course, would be a United States that allowed for automatic citizenship to all the people under its jurisdiction, while managing to respect indigenous peoples and their ways of life. With a political movement dedicated to undoing the consequences of white supremacy against Black and Indigenous people of color, that America might be possible. In the meantime, it would help simply to grant American Samoans an easier path towards claiming the rights they deserve.

The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum

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Two weekends ago, as you’re reading this, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum. I have a pretty strong affinity with Susan B., because when I was really young my mom had saved for me a Susan B. Anthony dollar, which I could look at if I asked really nice, with mom retrieving it from a box she kept in her room. I had three teddy bears, and they cycled through several sets of names because I kept forgetting them, until I named them “Susan,” “B,” and “Anthony” (Susan looked kinda like a “girl” bear I guess, and then B was dressed in a small t-shirt that had a picture of a pig on it diving into a pool, so B was “cool,” and got the “cool” name of “B,” and Anthony wore a little sweater so he was a nerd and Anthony was a nerd name).

So of all the places in the Berkshires, my aforementioned super amazing girlfriend had never been here because it was only opened about 10 years ago and she had never gotten around to it. That made it a convenient place for the two of us to go to, together. And plus, the centennial of women’s suffrage is coming up on August 26th, so that’s neat. Anyways, what with the pandemic and all, the place had timed tickets, and we arrived at 11:28 am, with the website having sternly warned us to wait in our car until the previous tour group had cleared out and there was sufficient social distance between us and them to be able to enter, at which point staff would come retrieve us. Except when we arrived, we were the only car in the four-car parking lot, and the place looked deserted, so we wandered up. We had the place to ourselves the whole time, which was nice, because it is not a large museum.

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The whole place is about four rooms. It’s pretty well done for what it is, and with the pandemic they (well, the one nice woman working there) handed us a tablet for a self-guided audio tour. You enter in the kitchen, divert into a pantry that holds the history of the house’s restoration and journey towards museum-dom, and then enter into the intensely named “birthing room,” where Susan B. herself and three of her siblings were born. In the kitchen and birthing room, they have some information on her early life and Quaker upbringing, and some excellent examples of needlework, so that is cool. The next room has a store display, and the story about how her dad was selling alcohol for a while, but then after a man died of exposure due to being drunk (someone else sold it to him, not Susan B.’s dad), he forswore it. There is also a cutout of Susan B. Anthony, with which you can take a selfie.

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It is in the fourth and actually final room that you get to the jam-packed story of Susan B. Anthony’s journey in advocacy and the suffrage movement. I had not realized that she was active in both the temperance and anti-slavery movements, and a friend of Frederick Douglass. Good thing I went to the museum!

Besides the displays, this is the room that really assembled a small but significant number of artifacts from the suffrage movement. I was drawn to some of the obvious, hit-you-over-the-head parallels to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Race and racism played a part even in the suffragette movement, as the figurine (on the left in the below, hastily assembled collage) clearly demonstrates. They seem to have had a hand-held laminated sheet to give some insight into the statue, but that was missing due to COVID, so I don’t know exactly what the statue means but I can make some guesses. And when it comes to Black Lives Matter, people are aghast that protests can turn violent, and property damage can ensue. I don’t want to delve into whether it is BLM protesters or right-wing agitators actually breaking windows, but the museum told us that the suffragettes would carry around toffee hammers like the ones below specifically to break windows as a form of protest. The toffee hammers were convenient, because the suffragettes could hide them in their purses, and breaking windows was convenient, because how else do the powerless assert power? For all the vapors people get over broken windows, I gotta say, it worked at least once, you know? The pin is only included because I found it witty.

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One thing I had to keep reminding myself of was that there were actually huge swaths of people out there that were very much against women’s suffrage. That was tough to remember because so many of the anti-suffrage pamphlets focused on the terrible world that awaited if women were given the vote. From the perspective of 2020, I think they read as awesome and amazing. Women hanging out on street corners chatting! Women wearing pants! Women achieving financial independence and having interests outside the home! And below is a terrible vision of a “future inauguration,” with a badass looking woman laying down, I assume, some truths, while other women listen and a sad-looking man in the corner carries around a ribbon on a pillow. I thought to myself “heck yeah” before I realized this was supposed to be bad:

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And with that the Susan B. Anthony birthplace museum was done. I actually managed to buy some lapel pins here, so that was cool. They also had a lovely garden full of Black-Eyes Susans outside, which I always like because heck yeah, Maryland, though it wasn’t until I wrote this blog post that I realized why they wanted Black Eyed Susans, and it wasn’t until I googled it and scrolled way down on this webpage that I figured out it wasn’t a pun on her name and the flowers were from the Anthony family homestead on West Road, apparently. Anyways. A lovely little museum, and remember, wear a mask:

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The Clark Museum

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Two weeks ago, as you’re reading this, my super amazing girlfriend and I were back in the Berkshires! The major upswing for you is that I have included a picture of some cute cows at the top!

But in addition to hanging out with entertaining farm animals, we also decided to get some culture in, and visited The Clark, which is an art museum. For social distancing measures, they had timed tickets, and we decided to get there as early as possible. When we arrived there were some early rains, courtesy of Isaias, leading to a somewhat gloomy-looking scene in their courtyard outside:

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The existence of The Clark made me ponder what is the ideal number of art museums to have. This museum surprised me; I had never ever heard of them, but they had Degas and Stuart and Monet and Renoir and Van Gogh and Rodin! Surely there is a number of art museums that is too high; if there were too many, you could never collect all those artists all in one place. Then again maybe an art museum for every individual person would make more room for newer artists and lesser-known artists instead of just these sorta dudes. It also has to be possible to have too few art museums. The Louvre, I hear, is pretty great, but already you can never get through it all. If all of earth’s art were crammed into one spot, then very few people could get to it, and no one could appreciate it.

When I walk around art museums, I like to take pictures. I think it gives me a sense of ownership over the pictures. I also really enjoy art museum gift shops, because they let you in some way take the art home. This is perhaps not the best way to appreciate art, but it does let me share with you versions of the artworks that are far worse than what you would see in person, by virtue of being taken on my just okay camera with my just okay eye for framing. My favorite was the piece below, titled “Reverie – The Letter:”

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Sometimes this whole “take a picture of the artwork so I can feel like I took a piece of it home” also extends to the physical pieces the wind up in these places, like the below. I have been meaning to check if I could find either of these things to buy and keep in the home, each for very specific reasons. The thing on the left is apparently a nutmeg grinder, and I have very fond memories of grinding fresh nutmeg over painkillers, so you can see why it appealed to me. The thing on the right, on the other hand, is called “sugar nippers,” which is inherently hilarious and you can also see why I would want one.

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I also sometimes take pictures of things in art museums that are only tangentially related to art. I noticed that the museum took great care to make the clamps that were holding pieces of artwork down blended into whatever they were clamping. They really put some effort into this! You can see some of those efforts in the collage below. On the painting, they made sure to do some sorta pointillist thing to make the clamps blend in, and on both of the statues they painted in some marbling which I found impressive. I just thought they were some fantastic little details:

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There is also another theme that is sure to get my attention in art museums, and that is boats! The gift shop had a postcard of the below painting, so I did in fact get to take some of the artwork home, but they didn’t have any lapel pins for sale. The Berkshires has a severe lack of lapel pins, frankly. Someone should get on that.

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The Clark is actually separated into at least two parts, and they had a separate annex where they were exhibiting some work by Lin May Saeed which was very interesting. There was one large piece done out of paper that really spoke to me because I had previously read The Marsh Arabs.

To get to the annex you had to take a ~8 minute walk on some trails outside the museum. We took different paths to get up there and to get back. The walk up took us through the woods which was lovely. The rain had just let up, so they were quiet and peaceful. On the way back we took a different path which took us by a field which apparently sometimes has cows. The fence pictured below is an artwork titled “Teaching a Cow How to Draw” by Analia Saban, a title which to me has strong Cow Tools vibes. But it seemed to me to be a pretty nice fence, and I think it was raw wood, so it would be interesting to see it age into the landscape.

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By the time we had made it down to The Clark proper, the sun was largely out and the museum had started to get more crowded, so people were out and about in the courtyard that had been rather rainy and gloomy just a bit before. It was nice to see the place populated, pandemic-related concerns aside. Places like that only come alive when there are people in them:

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