The Potent Kat

We’ve covered a great deal in our Digital Humanities course over the last week or so, from Bethany Nowviskie’s discourse on the origins of hack and yack, to the Seasons Don’t Fear the Reader vibe of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore.  Nowviskie’s piece delves into the inevitable polemics which develop in a 21st-century discussion about anything.  Turns out there’s nothing new, even in new things.

Sloan’s work is a fun and readable adventure story (I consumed all 300 pages in a single sitting with one meal in between) that brings together friends both old and new as facsimiles for technologies both old and new.  It’s a techno-age bildungsroman for a character who desperately needs the journey.  Without spoilers, I can say that the final point seems to be that the journey is all that matters.  There is no such thing as an actual destination in a world where everything is so interconnected as to be nothing more than a waystop onto something else.  What’s most telling is that the fantasy of the novel is a common popular-culture dream about what we can make computers do.  Too often on television or in film we’ll see a character furiously typing on a keyboard to do their “hacks” or whatever they’re making happen, and they’re doing it in real time.  At least Penumbra avoids that; it rightly portrays our hackers as people who set up their scripts and let them run, getting results back when the machines are good and damn ready to give them up.  The fantasy is a kind of distributed computing on steroids.  I’m not suggesting that distributed computing is a fantasy; if Bitcoin has taught us something (I was going to say about human greed, but we already knew that), it’s that DC is part and parcel of the 21st century.  Lots of it is happen around you and you don’t even know it.  The fantastic comes from how readily available resources are for our characters and the facility with which they appropriate them.  Sloan frames it as an easily-understandable and rational plot device, which is all you really want from an entertainment-as-social commentary; no one should read Penumbra as a tech manual, save for on perhaps the power of curating just the right people with just the right skills in your extended social circle.

The most powerful part of Penumbra is its feminist-positive message, via one of its main characters, Kat Potente.  Again, no spoilers.  Kat is a strong young woman without being a stereotype, who has a skill set, motivations, and desires; she gets involved with a man, but her relationship with him does not define her character.  Self-definition is left to Kat and Kat alone.  What defines her is her Kat-ness (no, no Everdenes).  Whether or not you might choose the same direction she does from the same position is left to your You-ness.

She’s definitely worth making a cocktail for.  Kat is a red haired nerdcore girl who doesn’t mind getting liquored up.  Early on, we find she’s taken the Einsteinian path to getting dressed—she just has multiple copies of the same clothes, most notably a red T-shirt with BAM! written on it. Playing on her name, I’ll offer you The Potent Kat.

The Potent Kat

(makes two drinks, because the only way to have one of these is with a friend)

6 oz. ghost pepper infused vodka

3 oz. cranberry juice

1.5 oz. orange juice

Dash orange bitters

¼ tsp chopped ginger

Lime wedge for garnish

Place all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker over crushed ice.  Shake until well-blended.  Strain into two martini glasses.  Garnish with lime wedge.

Infusing vodka with ghost peppers is rather easy.  Pour a quart of good vodka into a mason jar and drop in two medium-sized whole peppers (you can take off the stem if you want to).  Store for about two weeks.  Use with discretion.

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Let the Technology Fit the Ecology

Bruce Sterling tells us that we should stop saying “Smart Cities.”  He’s right, of course.  Cities are pretty stupid.  Population densities that range into numbers that need exponents are the first idiotic thing about them, but this isn’t intended to be a digression on cities themselves—it’s intended to consider what’s wrong with how we’re thinking about cities and how we can change the thought process.

First of all, we need to discard the “everyone has an equal amount of skin in the game” mentality.  Human progress is about advancing some people and leaving others behind.  The problem comes from being in the latter group.  We can’t stop building the pyramid just because that one old grease lady slipped under the rolling bit.  It’s not fair, it’s probably not desirable, but no amount of liberal arts degrees dreaming about our conjoined future is likely to change it.  We want to discard the “we just need to” mentality.  You know, we just need to make basic services available to everyone regardless of economic status or we just need to not pour millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere daily.  I’m a firm believer in sculpting the world you want to live in while existing in the one that’s real.  There’s no switch to throw that just changes things, especially human nature.  Stop trying to throw switches.

Sterling hints at the solution when he writes “Why trouble to ask the ‘citizens’ what they want from urban life, when you can accurately surveil the real actions of city’s ‘users’ and decode what they’re actually doing, as opposed to what they vaguely claim they might want to do?”  All we need to do is follow the money.  Or more to the point, make the money follow us.

The failure of a number of products in commercial marketplaces is that they were developed for the developers, not the end users.  “Smart cities” are the same.  Too often now we’re designing toward ideals instead of ideas.  Technology doesn’t change the foundations of what we, as human beings, want to do, it changes how we do it.  The way to develop smarter cities is to adapt to how people want to live, not attempt to chisel out some utopian fantasy of how you think they’re supposed to.  If your desire is to change the human experience for the better (something even the most cynical of us probably want), then recognize the inhabitants, as Sterling does, as consumers.  Let the technology fit the ecology, as it were.  Yes, I admit that I’m proud of that turn of phrase.

The greatest inventions in human history have tapped into the human experience, have resonated with what people want.  I encourage tech developers to explore the paths of human desire, even the basest of them, not for the ends of those paths, but how they’ll branch out.  A Robert Frost quote here would probably be great, but who has the time?  I’m trying to figure out what next great invention will come out of your porn addiction.

Which is, of course, a great name for a cocktail.  It’s something that you really enjoy, feel kind of bad about consuming, and is likely not particularly good for you in the long run.  I present Your Porn Addiction (since all things regretful start with tequila).

3 oz. high quality tequila

6 amarena cherries

.5 oz lime juice

Muddle the cherries in a cocktail shaker.  Strain off a half the juice and set aside.  Add crushed ice, tequila, and lime to the cocktail shaker.  Stir briskly, then pour entire contents into an Old Fashioned glass.  Drizzle the set aside juice on the time.  Garnish with a wedge of lime.

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The Smarter House

I love Alexa.  Or at least I love the idea of Alexa; in practice, the road is bumpier.  She makes me repeat myself far too often, for one thing.  Voice recognition has come a long way even in the last decade, but we’re quite a way from the fantasy of the house that talks to us, anticipates our needs, and fulfills our desires, because one of the limitations is how we interface with the so-called smart house.  Not that it’s particularly smart.  About half the time, when I ask questions like “Alexa, if I killed Justin Bieber, what would be the best place to hide the body?” she feigns ignorance.  Anyway, back to the limitation—we need to have more than one unit stationed around the house to get full coverage.  Whatever that means.  All I know is that we have two of them a little too close to each other, so we have to call one of them Alexa and one Echo so that they don’t both get confused.

It is, rather nice, however, when she can turn on lights for me.  In fact, that’s what it seems like she does the most.  We’re very proud that she can not only turn on lights, but dim and brighten them.  In fact, it’s a source of pride that we show off to every friend that hasn’t yet seen it.  “Look! 50%!!! Isn’t it awesome that we can talk to our lightbulbs?”

Technologically, it’s amazing, considering we’re not all that far away from candles being the top lighting tech.  It just seems like we spend a lot of time turning the lights on and off.  And changing the color.  Changing the color is never fails to get an ooh or an aah.  But have we fallen into the trap, as Bruce Schneier once said, of computing simply for computing’s sake?  Changing the theme to lavender is great and all, but am I holding some version of an electronic hammer looking for things to nail?  Is being able to turn on my hot tub from across town really all that useful?  Okay, yeah, if I want the thing up to temperature when we get back from dinner. But that’s a less important point than imagining the possibilities it might open to us.  I’m not talking about just turning stuff on and off or fulfilling some futurist vision of what my life is like subordinated to technology, but the other way around.  What can the technology do for me?  The question isn’t how can I make my house smarter, but how can my house make me smarter.  How does it help me make my life better?

Unfortunately, Alexa has no answer.  I asked her directly and she returned her normal apology, “Sorry, I’m not sure.”  I supposed I’ll be forced to figure it out for myself.

I’m going to percolate some thoughts on how design fiction informs actual design.  While I do, enjoy this week’s cocktail, one I’ve been ruminating on for some time, but only recently got the inspiration for.  I knew I wanted to blend cinnamon and bourbon.  I just didn’t know how to push it over the edge.  Enter turmeric.  Right over the top and then some, and since we’re over the top, this is a double-shot cocktail, which  I suppose we’ll call the Smart House for no other reason than Alexa doesn’t know who killed Cock Robin.

3 oz. high quality bourbon

1/2 oz. Grand Marinier

1 oz. cinnamon-turmeric simple syrup

Splash of soda

Make the cinnamon-turmeric simple syrup by using a normal recipe (1 cup water to 1 cup sugar), then adding ¼ teaspoon of both spices.  Fill an old-fashioned glass with crushed ice and pour in the first three ingredients.  Stir briskly, then add the splash of soda.  Garnish with an orange wedge.

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The Machines Are Learning (and So Are We)


“Whatever else they simulate” writes Dr. Steven E. Jones (who also happens to be our professor for the Digital Humanities course), “video games necessarily simulate the relation between human and computer.”  Dr. Jones contends that games provide a vital negotiation model between human and computer in our everted world.

It seems to me that games can provide the opportunity for computers to learn about us and us about them, and I mean in the good way, not the creepy Sci-Fi way that ends up with people getting murdered and roving tribes of refugees scavenging parts to assemble the Great EMP which will allow humanity to survive.  This learning can take the form of targeted marketing on social media platforms, or programs adapting to how we use them, and even in learning our preferences.

I was faced with this in the baseball sim that I’m currently playing and using as part of the Baseball VFW Project.  In this particular sim, you can serve as both the GM and field manager of your team.  There are AIs for everything in this game—running your minor league teams or your whole organization, a bench coach to help you with in-game strategy, an assistant GM to help you with trades and other organizational stuff, and a Scouting Director who helps you evaluate talent.  I found one of them figuring me out.

One of the sims I started was a post-expansion draft in 1961.  I’m now in the off-season before 1983 begins.  One of the things the Scouting Director does during the annual first-year player draft (the kids coming out of high school and college) is suggest who you might want to pick next.  The first ten rounds or so of the draft are pretty interesting, but then the players aren’t all that great, and you’re just picking over the bones of players who are never making it to the bigs anyway.  At any point in the draft, you can just put it on auto and the AI will complete the draft for you.

About 10 or 12 seasons ago, I noticed something.  Many of the players who the AI was suggesting for me were on the list I had come up with for myself before the drafts began.  I would go down the list, look for particular attributes, and reference the list during the draft.  As more time passed, the AI stopped suggesting just the best player still available, and started suggesting the ones that were most like the kind of player I like in the organization (focusing on their batting eye, speed, and defensive ability, as opposed to other attributes like power or stamina).  It’s not anywhere close to 100%, but the ratio has improved too significantly to be random.  The game knows what I like, even if its internal evaluation is different.

Conversely, I’m learning about what the AI values.  There have been times when I’ve drafted players who the Scouting Director recommended, just to see what would happen.  Like with all sports talent evaluation, it’s an inexact science, but I’ve come to learn why my particular Scouting Director (each has a coded personality) thinks highly of some players and not others.  Its particular kind of thinking has led me to choose players I might not otherwise have, and many of them have done reasonably well.  Our minor league organization has been the #1 ranked for more than a decade and we’ve built quite a dynasty; we’ve won 4 of the last 5 World Series.

Winning the Series means popping the champagne, so this week’s cocktail integrates a sparkler.

The Bubbling Smash

The Bubbling Smash is a take on a classic fruit smash.  The only ingredients you need are

1.5 oz. good bourbon

½ an orange

Sparkling wine, such as prosecco or champagne

½ tsp raw sugar


In a cocktail shaker (never the glass), muddle the pulp of the orange with a bit of crushed ice and the sugar.  Fill half the shaker with crushed ice and pour in the bourbon.  Shake well, and strain into a martini glass.  Fill the glass the rest of the way with the sparkler.  Garnish with an orange peel.

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Baseball, Veterans, and the Hovercar

I’ve decided what my final project will be for the Digital Humanities course.  It’s call the Baseball VFW Project.

From World War I through Vietnam, Major League Baseball players left their chosen profession to serve their country.  The Baseball VFW Project chronicles the lives of those players:  the units they served in, their baseball careers, and what they did afterward.

There will be a website with a searchable database, individual profiles, photo gallery, links to news stories, historical information regarding the players’ units.  Perhaps more.

But that’s not all.  One of the burning questions among baseball fans is “what if?”  What if Ted Williams hadn’t served in both WWII and Korea?  What if DiMaggio hadn’t missed three full years in his prime?  What would Major League Baseball have looked like if not for all the players who served in from 1941-1945, the period in which the largest percentage of them were way from the game.

The Baseball VFW Project will endeavor to offer a possibility.  Using the baseball simulation program Out of the Park Baseball, we will run as many sims as possible to generate such a picture.  We’ll feature statistical and sociological analysis.  Of course, we can’t actually divorce history from the things that were historical—much of America’s later success and identity came out of WWII.  But we’ll take a peak at what America’s game could have been.

Although the project will focus on baseball-playing veterans of all eras, since our simulation focus is on the early 1940’s, this week’s cocktail is a variation on one of the decade’s most popular drinks, the Sidecar.

Like the decade it comes from, the Sidecar is straightforward, consisting of three elements:  cognac, orange liquer, and lemon juice.  The glass is rimmed with sugar and the drink garnished with a lemon peel.  My exploration involved going all-in on the orange route and adding an element of spice.  I call this forward-looking version the Hovercar.

3 oz. cognac

1.5 oz. Grand Marinier

1.5 oz freshly squeezed orange juice

2 drops Cat in Heat Chairman Meow’s Revenge Scorpion Pepper hot sauce

Cinnamon sugar for rim

Basil leaf for garnish


Rim the glass with cinnamon sugar.  Mix all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice; shake well.  Strain into a martini glass.  Garnish with basil.

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Mining Data

For science and math, I get data mining.  It makes perfect sense, since it can be completely objective and the edges are pretty square.  I even do a little of it myself in researching baseball stuff.  It also makes sense to me in cooking and mixology, in which we can search on relationships between ingredients.  In what percentage of drinks does Luxardo intersect with Cherry Bitters?  We can point to evidence that tarragon is the most-used herb with scallops.  And so on and so on.

When we get to literature, however, I start to get lost.  The boundaries are lots fuzzier.  I read this week’s chapter on text mining and Dr. Jeoffrey Rockwell’s article “What is Text Analysis, Really?” While I got most of it from a theoretical standpoint, the practical was lost on me.  I investigated one of the popular tools, Voyant.  Things got cloudier.  Other than the word cloud, I had no idea what I was looking at.  I put in a scene from The Merchant of Venice, and the tools did their thing.  There were links and lines and relationships.  There were graphs of document segments (whatever they are).  What it all meant was beyond me.  The TermsBerry was cool looking, but I had no context for what I was supposed to understand.  I thought that maybe a piece I know even better would help, so I put in the Prologue from Henry V.  A thing or two more revealed itself, as I found it linking phrases around the word “like,” but when I went to Correlations and there were numeric relationships, I was once again lost.  Obviously, I need more training on the tool.

There’s good news.  This coming week, we’re going to a lecture by the aforementioned Dr. Rockwell.  I assume that all questions will be answered—or I will once again be left with the impression that the broad idea of text mining involves a great deal of idealistic and high-flung rhetoric that sounds great, but the reality of which leaves most of us scratching our heads.

The challenge in creating the Data Mine cocktail involves then something that sounds right, but once you drink leaves you wondering what just happened.  Of course, that would be a pretty terrible thing to foist upon you, so I’ll leave you with this herbal variant on the classic Aviation cocktail.


5-6 full basil leaves

2 oz. high quality gin

½ oz. Luxardo

¼ oz. Crème de violette

¾ oz. lemon juice


Muddle the basil in the bottom of the cocktail shaker.  Add cubed ice, then the liquid ingredients.  Shake well, strain into a martini glass.  Garnish with a basil sprig.



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Gripping Agrippa

In the midst of this week’s discussion of markup, including TEI, XML, HTML, and more, the thing which has struck my imagination most is Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).  Nominally a 1992 art project between artist Dennis Ashbaugh, author William Gibson, and publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., it’s basically a work of art designed to destroy itself so that people who wanted to experience it had to solve the puzzle.  The Agrippa Files is a scholarly website/archival projected dedicated to the work.  The entire project is a book in a heavy case made to look like an old relic, 42 pages of DNA sequences set in double columns of 42 lines each, copperplate aquatint etchings by Ashbaugh, and Gibson’s poem on a self-erasing diskette buried in the pages of the book.

The primary question I have to ask myself here is “what’s the point?”  The contents seem secondary to the packaging, if you will.  There are press releases, scholarly writings, and more on the Agrippa Files site, leading me to deduce that the work being a thing is more important than what the work is.  More to the point, it seems intentionally created for a shadow culture to develop around the work.  The piece makes its statement by what it does in the broader culture by simply existing.  Knowing Gibson, this may be what he intended in the first place.

I’m all for artistic exploration, even at its most incomprehensible.  We never know what we’re going to find when we open ourselves to possibilities.  Works may be intended to do one thing or another, but once they’re complete, the author/creator’s intention is inconsequential. Whatever Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) is, it stands testament to the ancient idea of throwing everything onto the wall and seeing what sticks.  What we want and what we get may be radically different things, which is the nature of exploration in the first place.

If I were to do an Agrippa cocktail, it would be either one that consumed itself or one that you couldn’t actually drink, but had to simply muse on the existence of.  Perhaps it would be one that you had to reconstruct at some point.  All those ideas are patently silly.

Instead, I’m going to make something based on the non-scholarly thing that’s taking up some of my free time, playing Out of the Park Developments Baseball.  The short version is that it’s a computer baseball sim in which you can play the team’s GM or field manager or both, building your team to compete either in real historical leagues or in fantasy leagues that you make up.  I started with my beloved Baltimore Orioles in 1969.  Through some clever trades and draft picks, we’ve managed to win the World Series every year from 69-79 save for one.  Two thirds of the way through 1980, we’re running away with things again.  That was getting boring, so I’m now trying something new.

I went back to 1961 (an expansion year, with more expansion to come in 1962), released all the players from all the teams, and held a draft.  But we’re drifting away from the point.  I want to make a drink in honor of my beloved Orioles.

The colors are obviously black and orange.  The Black-Eyed Susan is the state flower, so there’s an herbal flavor I think can work with.  Black becomes the problem, because it’s going to obscure any other colors, although I suspect that a black drink garnished with orange fits the bill.

This one actually took some experimentation.  I ran through some dark rum and orange variants, but here’s what I settled on.  One of the orange things I ended up using is Orangecello—yep, there’s an orange version of Limoncello, although I suspect it should be called arancello.

The Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

3 oz. Wild Turkey Bourbon 101.

3 oz. Ginger Beer

1 oz. arancello

.25 oz crème de violette

Shake the first three ingredients over ice, strain into cocktail glass. Using the back of a spoon, float the crème de violette around the edges.  Because it’s slightly heavier, it’ll float down to the bottom of the drink, giving you the two-tone orange and black.  I obviously neglected to garnish this one—if I were up in Maryland, I’d go find a Black Eyed Susan to float on the top.  Part of the reason to use the crème de violette is to evoke a floral quality, which would get multiplied with an actual flower floating there.

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