I Am Not for Sale (But I Used to Be)

Several years ago I visited Charleston SC on a vacation. While there I toured the Aiken-Rhett House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and is now a museum. I love museums and I love old houses, but the Aiken-Rhett House is unique among all the old house museums I’ve ever been to: it retains an outbuilding that once contained slave quarters (discreetly described as “servants’ quarters” in the NRHP nomination form).

I arrived at the house shortly after it opened to visitors for the day, so had it pretty much to myself. I followed the audio tour through the main house, then walked out the back door. Two nearly identical buildings flanked the courtyard—to the left, the stables; to the right, the slaves’ quarters. I went up the stairs to the second floor, above the kitchen. The small rooms, which reminded me of a bargain motel, were where the slaves had once lived. They were mostly bare—I remember a wooden bed frame without a mattress and a simple wooden table—because slaves’ furnishings were not saved as heirlooms and very few have survived the years.

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Cut & Paste. Fold, Bend, Staple & Mutilate.

This past weekend I attended a reading of selections from William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch. I had not read the work before (it’s now on my TBR list), but I knew enough about the Beats to not be shocked by its strange, surreal and sometimes profane language.

In the discussion that followed the reading, someone mentioned there are now websites that will “translate” any text into Burroughs style and I have been eager to try them out. But first, a little background. Burroughs’ strange language is not merely the product of his mind, it is the product of his hands: after typing some of his text, he cut up the paper and rearranged the pieces, thus reordering the words and even inventing new words. That became the “final” version. This wasn’t Burroughs’ own invention (I learned that today by researching online), but he is the most widely-known practitioner of the technique. There’s a video of an interview with Burroughs that includes a short demonstration of the cut-up technique. You don’t need a demonstration, though; it’s easy enough to try it yourself with a printed text (that you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of art) and scissors.

Or you can do it virtually using online tools. This is fun to play with. Open up a text file on your computer—the odder the better—and give it a try!

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When Calls to Action Fail

It seems that every article I’ve read recently about social media engagement and non-profit management emphasizes the importance of a call to action. It’s not enough to tell your readers about yourself; you need to give them a push to follow it up with some kind of action. On that point I do not disagree. But these arbitrary deadlines remind me of infomercials and are at odds with the behavior I expect from respected non-profits. I’ve seen a few that, in my eyes, fail in a bit way: these arbitrary deadlines can make a casual reader think that donations are not needed after the deadline.

After spending the New Year’s weekend offline, I had a lot of catching up to do. Twitter and LinkedIn go on without me and some of my blogger friends didn’t take the weekend off.

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Can You Pass a Turing Test?

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:

For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.

Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.

Hashtag pretzels from the Tweet-up

In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.

Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.

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