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Tag: interviews (page 1 of 3)

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Eroge, Chopped and Screwed

I interviewed @DataErase, AKA Maddison, for this week’s dispatch. You can also find her on Tumblr and her website. Full disclosure: I commissioned an artwork from Maddison before undertaking this interview — that’s not really a conflict of interest but you might want to know anyway. The text below has been lightly edited for readability.

Exolymph: What got you into glitch art?

@DataErase: I had a NES as a kid, around the same time that everyone else had N64s and stuff, so the games weren’t really in great condition. We had a copy of Super Mario 2 that eventually stopped showing the graphics correctly. I’d say that was a pretty early memory of me having an attachment to “glitch” as this sorta spooky aesthetic. Like computer ghosts trying to talk to you or something.

When I started making these images, back in 2012, out of screencaps from old PC-98 eroges, I started using that term to describe what I was doing.

Exolymph: Some of your source material is erotica that was made within the particular constraints of the time and the technology. if it’s not too personal, can you talk about the theme of sexuality in your own work?

@DataErase: I like anime and I’m a queer girl. Sometimes that has a lot of baggage attached to it. My work is kinky, for sure, but I see it more as an exploration of where I fit into these things. It’s more about subverting this kinda banal iconography that hentai during that time was made up of — and pulling a deeper, more meaningful thing out of it. Pulling flowers out of decaying flesh. Corrupting the corrupted, if you will.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: In many of your pieces there’s a sort of visual cacophony — lots of colors, lots of detail. Is that an aesthetic you consciously set out for, or did it evolve over time?

@DataErase: It was something that was always there, but I think over the years it definitely accelerated and got more intense. Personally, I really like over-detailed stuff! And very complex patterns! Those are things that I get excited about in art.

Exolymph: What drew you to making art with computer tools as opposed to a more traditional form?

@DataErase: I’m not very good at things involving the real world, I guess you could say. My drawings are very, very bad, hehehe. But I still get a kind of catharsis out of doodling. I’ve spent a long time having a relationship with computers and the internet, so using them to do most things feels more natural to me.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: Do you remember when you first started using computers? Was it for games, or something else?

@DataErase: Probably like elementary school? It wasn’t until I was eleven or so that I started fooling around on one of my dad’s old Mac desktops that he stopped using. It ran, like, OS 8. I played with a lot of retro game console emulators on it. I think the first games I played were the fan translations of Final Fantasy 5 and The Secret of Mana 2…

Exolymph: What do you struggle with when you make art? Are there parts of it that are difficult, or does the flow come easily?

@DataErase: Lately it’s been really hard to initiate the whole art-making process. Entering the mental space that I make art in. It’s a different mode of operating altogether! I don’t really think when I make my glitch collages, it just sorta happens?

So endeth the lesson. Maddison also has a Patreon that you can support!

The Staid Side of Money

I interviewed my Twitter friend Marc Hochstein, who is the editor-in-chief at American Banker, about finance and technology. (He didn’t speak with me in a professional capacity, but I think his workplace is helpful context.)

Hochstein started his career as a wire service reporter at Dow Jones. He called it a “character-building experience” that involved a lot of cold-calling day traders. The upshot is that Hochstein has been reporting on banks and finance for decades, so his perspective on recent industry developments is interesting.

(Why you should care about this: Our world runs on money. The financial-services industry is hyper-entwined with government, and together they’re the base-level system that everything else is built on top of. That’s actually a simplification since “everything else” and “finance” developed concurrently, but you get the idea.)

I think this quote sums up a lot:

In the last two years — maybe three or four years — there’s been a lot more interest in technology as a potentially transformational force, than there has been in a very long time. You could argue that banking was always, in a way, a technological industry, or always a data industry. There’s a quote from Walter Wriston, who was the chairman of Citicorp back in the ’80s and ’90s. I forget the exact verbatim quote, but it’s something like, “A bank is nothing but a data warehouse, that’s always what it’s been.”

But the banks — financial institutions in general — have been slow to upgrade their core technology, and for some understandable reasons. Changing the core of the bank is a hard thing to do. […] When times are good, when they’re making a lot of money, there’s no real impetus to change anything. And then when times are bad, they don’t have the resources to do anything. Or resources are scarce, I should say.

Hochstein pointed out that the “Uber narrative” hasn’t played out in finance like it has in other industries. He told me, “The barriers to entry are higher. The stakes are higher, because you’re talking about people’s money.” Fintech startups can’t afford to beg forgiveness instead of asking permission. Regulators don’t take kindly to that, and users don’t either.

Technology hasn’t shaken up finance as much as people in Silicon Valley might have expected. Over the last few years, Hochstein explained, “The rhetoric changed from ‘fintech is going to eat the banks’ lunch’ to ‘fintech is going to make banking better at what they do’.” Still, “it’s a little early to say” whether fintech is actually improving banking, or what the degree of change will be. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a profound effect, but it’s there.”

On the bright side, “Transferring money is slowly getting faster.” The Automated Clearing House is finally moving to same-day settlement. “Part of the reason why they did that, why they finally had an impetus to go there,” Hochstein said, “is because of things like Ripple, and bitcoin, and cryptocurrency, as well as real-time payment systems that you see in a lot of other countries.” Hochstein noted that regulators and the Fed have also been pushing in this direction.

I find this slightly mind-boggling. It’s a big deal that ACH is moving to same-day settlement — not real-time, just same-day. In the year 2017.

I asked Hochstein which issues are going to dominate a lot of attention going forward, and he mentioned “open banking” and data portability. Basically, banks have a tremendous amount of lock-in because of all the information they’ve collected and stored about your identity and your account activity.

There’s some talk of forcing banks to provide this information to competitors — or whoever else might be authorized by individuals, e.g. money-management apps like Mint — via API. Guess whether the banks want to do that!

In conclusion, finance gonna finance. Big companies gonna rent-seek. They change when they’re forced to, either by regulation (Dodd-Frank Act, for example) or by the competitive environment. In general, these institutions move slowly. On balance that’s actually a good thing, considering how much havoc they could potentially wreak.

Thank you to Marc Hochstein for talking to me — follow him on Twitter or read his articles.

Photo of the Wall Street bull by Sam Valadi.

Internet Influences and Old-School Artisanship

“Dissonance series is my body of work that explores a broken, futuristic dystopia where adornment is used as a means of coping with the environment around us. Dissonance is about a disharmony within the self and the coping mechanisms created.” — Alice Argyros

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

Artwork by Alice Argyros.

I interviewed Alice Argyros about the cyberpunk-inspired jewelry she creates. Since we did this via email, I’m just going to omit my questions and present Argyros’ answers like they’re an essay (lightly edited for readability). She said…

I actually had no idea what “cyberpunk” was until Asher of ReTech told me that my work leans in that direction. There was a boom of steampunk about ten years ago that I found intriguing. However, it was short-lived with all the mass production and nonsensical aesthetic decisions. There were some really great stories and comic books that came out of it, though.

Perhaps it’s the stories more than anything that draws me into the realm of cyberpunk. I currently have a collection of jewelry based on my own utopian world where people don’t pop pills to solve problems, they just alter the world around them. [Editor’s note: You can pry my pills out of my cold, dead hands! Venlafaxine forever.]

But as far as aesthetics, I’ve always loved the strong bold lines of Art Nouveau and dark tones of macabre art. Sergio Toppi is a huge inspiration of mine, with his illustrations utilizing asymmetrical balance and broken lines.

I didn’t always have this style with my jewelry. I got into metalsmithing back in college and it’s been a slow-moving career choice since then. There’s a fine line between doing what you want to do and doing what sells.

I have a saying, “My hands know more than my head.” Take away everything else in our lives and what we have left is our abilities; that is what defines us. I’m okay with being incredibly low-tech. I’m still able to do a lot of things despite being behind with the tech times. All I have is a website and Instagram. I don’t bother doing Pinterest and I just found out about 4chan and Reddit. Still have no idea what they are… really.

It’s also about being the kind of maker I want to be. I’m not into production lines and shipping out hundreds of little packages every month. Slow progress helps me keep everything in check, to choose my next step rationally.

Despite being low-tech, there is so much in the digital world that is absolutely fascinating. For example, there are incredibly talented artists who utilize technology to make things faster but are also more intricate. Check out the work of Nervous System when you get a chance. [Editor’s note: I also highly recommend this.]

In short, I don’t really feel downsized or inadequate for not utilizing technology to my advantage. Working with my hands is what makes me feel good. I know some of my more detailed works could be easily cut out with a laser cutter. It would certainly make the time go by faster.

But, not only is it an expensive piece of equipment, there is a part of me that would just be exhausted sitting in front of a computer instead of physically sitting at a bench and designing the work. I like to get my hands dirty.

I don’t really like to pass the time surfing the internet. So, I kind of hear about these outlets through conversations with people… which takes a while. It’s interesting to see what people are up to and some of these outlets are really good at showcasing that creativity. That’s why I to stick more to Instagram; it’s just an immediate way to see what people are doing without a lot of the drama.

Once you get into other social outlets, the temperature quickly changes. That’s why I steered clear of a lot of social media. I joined Facebook back when it came out years ago, and it was interesting to see the flow of information. But it has a way of pandering to our lowest, most basic pleasures by allowing people to pick and choose a reality based on their beliefs. Maybe it’s self-inflicted propaganda?

I don’t know, either way it got too difficult dealing with people always having an answer for everything but never questioning anything. That’s why I’ve limited which areas to expend my time. Another reason is the false sense of accomplishment we can get from these outlets. As an artist, it can be helpful to showcase what we do on these outlets but if we’re not actually communicating with galleries, emailing curators, and making strong connections, we aren’t doing much at all. We can’t get paid in “likes”!

I could appreciate the business side of being an artist a lot more if I didn’t have a day job. I’ve always enjoyed math but it’s difficult navigating taxes, licenses, and legal issues. Right now any free time I have, I’d rather spend it on designing and making instead of crunching numbers and filing papers.

As far as marketing goes, I’m pretty terrible at talking about my work. Artist markets can be difficult to navigate. I’m confident in my work but I’m not always confident when talking to people about my work. That’s the feeling I get from a lot of other artists and independent creatives as well. Luckily we have a local service here that caters towards helping women and small business owners get their feet on the ground. That’s been a huge help.

My closest cousin died a year back. She was the older sister I never had — dark, punk, goth princess with dreams of heading to the stars. I think it hurt me more than I ever though it would have.

I needed to get out of a slump. I took the attitude of, “Fuck it, I’m going to make what I want to make, regardless of what other people want.” This new turn helped me get back on track and has made me develop a stronger hold on the kind of artist I am. Whenever I hit any rough patches, I just tune into that inner punk nature we both had.

Go follow Argyros on Instagram and buy her jewelry.

Political Economics, I Guess

“Silicon valley ran out of ideas about three years ago and has been warming up stuff from the ’90s that didn’t quite work then. […] The way that Silicon Valley is structured, there needs to be a next big thing to invest in to get your returns.” — Bob Poekert

Bob Poekert's avatar on Twitter.

Bob Poekert’s avatar on Twitter.

I interviewed Bob Poekert, whose website has the unsurpassable URL Perhaps “interviewed” is not the right word, since my queries weren’t particularly cogent. Mainly we had a disjointed conversation in which I asked a lot of questions.

Poekert is a software engineer who I follow on Twitter and generally admire. He says interesting contrarian things like:

“all of the ‘machine learning’/’algorithms’ that it’s sensical to talk about being biased are rebranded actuarial science” — 1

(Per the Purdue Department of Mathematics, “An actuary is a business professional who analyzes the financial consequences of risk. Actuaries use mathematics, statistics, and financial theory to study uncertain future events, especially those of concern to insurance and pension programs.”)

(Also, Poekert said on the phone with me, “[The label] AI is something you slap on your project if you want to get funding, and has been since the ’80s.” But of course, what “AI” means has changed substantially over time. “It’s because somebody realized that they could get more funding for their startup if they started calling it ‘artificial intelligence’.” Automated decision trees used to count as AI.)

“what culture you grew up in, what language you speak, and how much money your parents have matter more for diversity than race or gender” — 2

“the single best thing the government could do for the economy is making it low-risk for low-income people to start businesses” — 3

“globalization has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and it can pull a billion more out” — 4

“the ‘technology industry’ (read: internet) was never about technology, it’s about developing new markets” — 5

Currently Poekert isn’t employed in the standard sense. He told me, “I’m actually working a video client, like a Youtube client, for people who don’t have internet all the time.” For instance, you could queue up videos and watch then later, even when you’re sans internet. (Poekert notes, “most people in the world are going to have intermittent internet for the foreseeable future.”)

Poekert has a background in computer science. He spent two years studying that subject in college before he quit to work at at, which later morphed into Twitch. Circa 2012, Poekert joined Priceonomics, but was eventually laid off when the company switched strategies.

I asked Poekert about Donald Trump. He said that DJT “definitely tapped into something,” using the analogy of a fungus-ridden log. The fungus is dormant for ages before any mushrooms sprout. “There’s something that’s been, like, growing and festering for a really long time,” Poekert told me. “It’s just a more visible version” of a familiar trend.

Forty percent of the electorate feels like their economic opportunities are decreasing. They are convinced that their children will do worse than they did. You can spin this with the Bernie Sander narrative of needing to address inequality — or the Trump narrative of needing to address inequality. Recommended remedies are different but the emotional appeal is similar.

Poekert remarked, in reference to economists’ assumptions, “It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone is a rational actor.” But that world doesn’t actually exist.

Bot-Writer for Hire

Courtney Stanton is one of the cofounders of Feel Train, a small bespoke creative studio. (Longtime readers may remember that I interviewed the other half of Feel Train, Darius Kazemi, back in December.) This week Stanton and I spoke on the phone for about an hour, discussing their background and current work.

A brief introduction to Feel Train: their clients have marketing goals, but the kind of advertising that Feel Train facilitates is much more participatory and experimental than, say, a billboard or a branded hashtag. Feel Train publishes projects like a fortune-telling bot and a book-concept generator. The company is also a worker-owned co-op, with bylaws stating that it can never expand beyond eight members.

So why is this cyberpunk? Feel Train’s work is actually kind of the optimistic flip-side of cyberpunk — they represent a NewCo world in which small-scale entrepreneurs can leverage technology to make a living while playing to their strengths and sticking to their principles.

For example, Feel Train turned down a client because the client’s company policy required background checks. Stanton explained, “We believe everyone has the right to work” and background checks serve as an impediment to that. “The thing I can change is the place I work at, which is what I have done and what Darius has done.”

Photo by Robin Zebrowski.

Photo by Robin Zebrowski.

So, on a conceptual level, what ties together Feel Train’s work? Stanton used an interesting metaphor: “I like creating sort of temporary spaces where people can explore questions or role-play.” They added, “The internet is fantastic for that.”

So how does that actually work? “When I talk to clients I talk about the ‘velvet rope’ strategy. You set up a little space and let people invite themselves in.” This differs from the way “traditional marketing and advertising tends to bombard you”. By contrast, Feel Train’s projects are supposed to be “something that’s actually genuinely interested to individuals, and… cool.”

Stanton explained, “The response I’m looking for is much lower-key. The ‘hmm’ response as opposed to like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to retweet that Cheetos tweet.'” They told me, “I’m always thinking about the fifty-fifty person who’s a little curious” rather than rabidly fanatical.

Feel Train’s bots are bounded experiences. “Some of it is time-based — it’ll only [tweet] like once a day. You’re only getting so much interaction with it. That’s […] the little pocket of play, your window of participation for the day.” Of course, “A lot of our design is based on not violating Twitter’s guidelines, because you don’t want to get the content shut down.”

The bots are also closed systems in terms of what they say. “They don’t go off script; they don’t break character.” Stanton explained, “They have guidelines in terms of what they’re going to talk about. They’re never going to leave the narrative area.”

This is the result of painstaking research, writing, and testing. “Especially in the early design phases, I take in a lot of information about the world, like the narrative world” of the project. Again, “the bot’s never going to deviate from what we put in our spreadsheet.”

How does it feel to put together a bot corpus? “Really different [from other kinds of writing]. It took me back to high school, when you’re doing sentence-diagramming.” The process isn’t linear. Rather, “You’re mentally composing a hundred different sentences,” questioning, “Would this word sound good next to all of these ones?”

And then there’s QA. Does the output fit expectations and meet Feel Train’s standards? Stanton told me they generate hundreds of samples and read through each and every one, looking for patterns, noting which templates feel repetitive or awkward.

“It’s still the process of rough draft, and then you do polish passes and polish passes. It’s just that instead of editing a normal manuscript, it’s slightly more disjointed.” Stanton compared testing and editing a bot corpus to grinding in a video game — “You do the same level over and over again.”

At the end you have something like @staywokebot, a Feel Train collaboration with activist DeRay Mckesson that tweets inspirational messages to its followers, grounded in Black American history.

Remember what Courtney Stanton does the next time someone tries to convince you that a cogent bot runs on magical AI rather than crafted human planning 😉

Follow @feeltraincoop and @q0rtz to keep up with the company and Stanton themself.

The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder Opens Up (Sorta, At Least a Little Bit)

Breakmaster Cylinder is a pseudonymous musician on the internet.

They made the opening and closing theme songs for the popular podcast Reply All, which is how I know about them, and did a Song Exploder interview about the process of creating those songs.

Their music combines IRL instruments and virtuoso-level chopping and screwing. Breakmaster Cylinder is the audio version of a glitch artist.

I reached out on Twitter to ask if they were interested in doing an interview. Breakmaster Cylinder said yes. We conducted the Q&A via DM, so it’s heavily edited for this format.

Probably best to listen to their tracks while you read! (See also: Person B Productions, the PBP Soundcloud, and Breakmaster Cylinder on Bandcamp.)

Exolymph: How did you get into making music? Did you start out traditional and then move to your eclectic, multi-instrument, digitally crafted form? Or were you always a sort of postmodern audio-collage artist?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Traditional! Classical. Lessons.

But as a wee cylinder I’d do that double-tape-deck stereo trick where you’d put some music on deck A, put a blank tape on deck B, record a single second of music from A to B, replace the first tape, add another second of sound, and just keep going until you had some weird kind of chop music.

Later I had raver friends and I would make them little albums, with sweet Fruity Loops 3. Which I miss.

Exolymph: Did you go straight from being a smol cylinder to your current incarnation? Did you have to work shitty normal jobs in between, or… ?

Breakmaster Cylinder: There were rungs, sure. Normal pedestrian rungs, approached haphazardly. Varying degrees of success; varying rates of turnover. I feel like life’s circumstances have a way of resetting themselves every three years or so. There are a lot of “eras”.

That’s off topic. I’m grateful and lucky that people are listening and now even hiring me. It’s been well over a decade getting to this point. I had help from now-defunct web label Breakbit Music, and from Alex Goldman and Reply All who are amazing.

I must continue to rise and fulfill my destiny, bestowed upon me at birth by the spirit of my great, great, great, great, great grandperson Baroque Master Cylinder.

Exolymph: When / why / how did you decide to be pseudonymous?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Early on. It feels right. Everybody has band names anyway. Not so different.

Exolymph: Do you think it helps you, from a branding perspective? I don’t know if you think of yourself primarily as an artist or a businessperson or both — though I’m guessing artist.

Breakmaster Cylinder: I just don’t wanna be out there. I don’t matter. It’s nice to be any / every / nobody.

I am figuring out the business bit. I think it does help, though. Reply All started calling me mysterious. Mysteries are nice. I hear that someone Alex Goldman has known in real life for a long time thinks we’re the same person. [Goldman is one of the hosts of Reply All.]

Also, revealing myself would detract from my presidential bid.

It’s such a fine line between jokes and lies, innit?

[Breakmaster Cylinder then asked me some questions about myself, which caught me off guard because that rarely happens during interviews. Redacted, mainly because I’ve already written about the topics for Exolymph.]

Psychedelic punch bowl, reminiscent of Breakmaster Cylinder.

Photo by Bill Smith.

Exolymph: Who inspired you? Who are your influences? (Besides Bach.)

Breakmaster Cylinder: It IS an interesting attitude [referring to cyberpunk]. I’m ready for chips and Minority Report-style DAWs (music-writing software) and like… generally whatever Imogen Heap is doing with her fucked-up crazy Samus arm.

Nearly twenty years ago I wanted to be SquarepusherBig Loada and Go Plastic are incredible albums that blew my mind. The first was done on drum machines; the second was his first-ever album on a computer and it’s unbelievable. No one has ever topped his break programming and that seems weird to me by now.

These days he sucks so, so, so badly. [Edited to add this note from Breakmaster Cylinder: “In retrospect, I regret my choice of words. Squarepusher doesn’t suck; he is an incredible genius who plays bass better than I can do anything. I just can’t make it through any of his new albums.”]

Exolymph: What a bummer. Why do you think that happened?

Breakmaster Cylinder: I got into an Uber a couple of months ago and out of nowhere the driver was like, “I MAKE NEXT-LEVEL JUNGLE BEEEEEATS! DO YOU LIKE JUNGLE MUSIC?!” and started playing me Squarepusher.

Also his own beats, which were really, really good, actually. We spent an hour driving to the airport, playing each other songs. And he expressed how he’d like to jump-kick Squarepusher for sucking so badly now.

I want to say “jump-kick” was the term. Maybe it was “kick-slap”. Now I’m pretty sure “slap” was in there.

Anyway, I guess I’m not the only one who thinks so.

As for WHY, I don’t know! But none of my favorite bands from twenty years ago are still good now. Or even made it past, say, three quality albums.

I’m afraid of this.

And now that I’m writing music for background scoring for other people’s projects, I’m afraid of sounding watered-down. Because I need to be simpler for a while.

I’m saving up some serious weirdness though. I hope. Or, I mean… I hope it is interpreted as such.

Exolymph: Circling back to you being cyberpunk — does that seem weird to you? Does how you’re perceived in general seem weird?

Breakmaster Cylinder: I’m an internet musician in the Daft Punk ripoff helmet. Cyberpunk it is. Hack the planet.

I am blown away by how nice people are to me, mostly.

Yes, seeing how people view me is weird. But then… that’s weird anyway.

Ooh! I wired a baseball glove into a five-fingered drum machine once. CYBERPUNK.

Exolymph: Why are you blown away by how nice people are? What kind of nice?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Oh, I dunno, just the regular kind, I guess. People have nice things to say about the music. Sometimes they pay for albums they don’t have to. Sometimes they tell me about their lives at or DM me at weird hours. For being a disconnected space creature, the reaction has been surprisingly personal.

There are few haters. But those who are quickly prove themselves to be professional haters who I wasn’t gonna make happy anyway. So that’s okay.

Also pleasant weirdos. This dude who would freestyle text-rap emails to me about cocaine at like four in the morning. I wonder what happened to him.

Another guy has informed me that he’s building a booth for Burning Man where people can have my music blasted directly into their perineums.

It’s just a lovely planet you’ve got here. Or anyway, I get to interact with the nice part of it.

That’s a warp, folks. As linked above: Breakmaster Cylinder on SoundcloudPerson B Productions, the PBP Soundcloud, and Breakmaster Cylinder on Bandcamp.

The Girl with the Augmented Body and a DIY Manufacturing Habit

Reddit user SexyCyborg is a web developer who lives and works in Shenzhen, China. She is also a 3D printing enthusiast whose projects include a wrist mount for her tiny drones and a hot-pink replica of her own body. As her username implies, SexyCyborg has body modifications, the most prominent being her breasts. She explains in her Pastebin FAQ:

“I could not get longer legs (height is most important in China) so I decided a big chest was the next best thing for looking better (or at least more interesting). I am a transhumanist with an interest in any kind of human augmentation. Any robot parts I can get I would — that’s why ‘Cyborg’.”

She tends to dress in very short crop-tops, tight denim skirts, and stripper heels. Because she combines technical prowess and unusual aesthetics, SexyCyborg has gotten copious attention — some of it admiration, but most of it slut-shaming. (Just look at the comments she’s responded to on Reddit.) She maintains that the norms are different in Shenzhen, and the puritanical reactions come from Westerners.

Again from the FAQ:

“I live in a city of 12 million and not a single other person has my style [of] clothing or my body mods. I don’t know a person in my profession who looks like me. As a creative person that is a source of pride, as person living in a society [where] we are taught from an early age to value conformity above all else it is also very challenging.”

Given all of this context, I reached out to SexyCyborg for an interview. We messaged back on forth on Reddit. As usual, the following exchange is lightly edited for readability.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

Exolymph: How did you get into 3D printing?

SexyCyborg: In June 2015 we had our yearly Maker Faire here in Shenzhen. I decided to make some LED clothing for the closing night party — LED clothing is a tradition at Maker Faire parties. I didn’t really know what I was doing, just plugging some off-the-shelf stuff together.

I had a LiPo battery that I planned to just stick in my pocket, but some of my friends told me that was not safe. I’d used TinkerCAD a little bit, so I watched some more YouTube videos and made a little box for the battery. Actually took a lot of tries to figure out how to get the screws to work. It was a good learning experience. I borrowed a little Up! 3D printer that had been unused, sitting in a box at a friend’s place, and got to work.

The end result got a lot of attention, or I did, or some combination of the two. I’m not an engineer or anything, and seeing your picture online in other countries is pretty cool for a regular girl who’s never traveled further than SE Asia.

After that, well, if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. So I got into the habit of making little things for around the house or little toys for the neighbors’ kids. 3D-printed things are still a big novelty for most people, so you get a lot of face giving them as gifts and being able to use a 3D printer.

I try to make a point of focusing on functional prints. Too many people just download and print endless Yoda heads and other “standard” designs, which defeats the purpose of having a printer. It’s like being one of those guys who owns a fancy expensive DSLR camera and talks all about bodies and lenses but never really takes good pictures for people to enjoy.

Exolymph: Do you see parallels between software or web development and the process of designing and making physical objects?

SexyCyborg: I’m sure there are but all my code is for work and all my hardware stuff is for fun. The code stuff is just basic contract work — code monkey stuff. So I don’t get to be very creative. The hardware is where I get to do what I like. Using OpenSCAD is kind of fun though (in moderation) since it’s pretty much coding a physical object.

Exolymph: Have you ever thought about making objects for sale or anything like that?

SexyCyborg: Could happen. Our firewall issues here in China are making writing decent code pretty tough these days. It’s hard to stay up-to-date and hard to have any sort of a workflow when VPNs are so flaky right now. Even the best coders use Google — a lot. Mostly I prefer to open-source all my designs as a sort of statement to other Chinese about giving back to the online communities that have given us so much. If I could do that and still earn a living it would be great.

Exolymph: Do you resent the amount of curious attention that your body mods get? Some of it is pretty abusive, from what I’ve read in various Reddit threads, and then there’s a lot of ambiguous attention that could be interpreted positively or negatively. For example, I probably wouldn’t know about you if it weren’t for your body and style of dress, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other 3D printing hobbyists who I theoretically could be interviewing, but they don’t intrigue me like you do because the way you present yourself is perceived as provocative by Americans. You’ve said that you like attention and that you like being aesthetically unique, but I wonder if it ever feels like a burden, or just plain gets annoying.

SexyCyborg: Well, resent like, “My eyes are up here!”? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. But as with tattoos, piercings, scarification, etc, there’s a line between, “Huh, not really my thing, but okay,” or even, “OMG you look so freaky!” and forming a circle around someone and screaming abuse.

If someone says, “Sooo, you know in the West we associate this style with sex workers, right?” I know they are not deliberately trying to get a rise out of me or be hurtful. If it’s more like, “Fuck you, whore, you should be ashamed of yourself,” as is very common, there’s no real discussion or curiosity. It’s about, “What can I say to hurt this person?”

Lots of comment threads for my projects or pictures start to look like what hackers call fuzzing, almost random combinations of epithets, references to sex work, to promiscuity, to rape, to my parents, to my culture — to see when something or some combination of things has an effect. I have a better firewall than most people, though. None of it is in my mother tongue, so it does not really run on bare metal, as it were.

I still feel I need to respond because if I don’t their narrative of “oh she dresses this way and then complains about attention” gets repeated elsewhere as if it were truth. So it’s more a question of using up bandwidth that could better be devoted to talking about the project, having a laugh about the silliness of it all, or working on more interesting things.

So yeah, it’s annoying, but what you guys consider “the internet” is just “the English internet” to me. The Chinese one is almost as large and they like me just fine. If a bunch of people in, say… Japan hated you, after a certain point it’s pretty easy to just not visit Japanese websites.

So when the “oh that’s fun” to “die in a fire, whore” ratio gets too unfavorable, I just stop posting. That’s what I did last year and I’m sure I’ll do the same again at some point. That’s just me, though. Obviously online harassment is a really complicated discussion in the West and not one that I can really comment on.

Exolymph: Do you have any new body mods planned? In a theoretical world where any tech was possible, what would you change / augment?

SexyCyborg: Cosmetically I’d love a butt, of course, but the implants look terrible to me and I don’t have anywhere near enough body fat to graft, which is how the best butt jobs are normally done. Injectable fillers are generally unsafe or at least poorly tested. I’d love longer legs but again — poor track record for safety and not looking to spend a year in recovery. So no cosmetic plans for a while.

As far as functional, I know someone with an NFC implant. It’s fun, but it seems pretty silly to poke holes in myself for under 1kb when I have 1600cc of empty space just sitting there. Enough for 1000 terabytes or so, assuming 128gb micro SD density. Maybe if they increase the NFC implant memory size a bit, or deal with the battery and charging problems of powered implants. Maybe something for audio in the mastoid bone with an SDR? Seems pretty far off.

Good magnetic implants would be awesome for fashion and wearables. Safe coated magnets should be a done deal by now. I have no idea why we have not solved this or what the hold-up is. I could keep thigh-high socks in place without clips or needing to pull them up; pubic and tailbone magnets would mean stringless bikini designs. Maybe something near the collar bone for a top or magnetic pasties. Polymagnets would deal with a lot of the issues around power. Rotate to release or hold at a fixed distance without compressing the skin. But we can’t get any of that without safe, well-tested, and durable coatings for the magnets.

Exolymph: Have you always been interested in technology and transhumanism?

SexyCyborg: Not really. Like most Chinese, I led a pretty sheltered life until I was eighteen or so. Fortunately my English is okay and I had access to VPNs, so I was able to learn more about the world than most, although I have never been to the West so I’m certainly not worldly or anything. But coming from both a very homogenous culture and a very high-tech region, the desire to be different from the ten million people around me and to use science to achieve some of that difference both had a big appeal as I matured.

Exolymph: What do you think of the breathless coverage of Shenzhen as a tech manufacturing mecca in American media? Does that reflect the reality of living there at all?

SexyCyborg: It’s nice if not entirely accurate. The whole “Maker City” thing is odd since we don’t have any. Wikipedia says, “Maker culture emphasizes informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfillment.” In Shenzhen, making is either product development if you are an adult, or a structured curriculum if you are a child. There are almost no Chinese makers in Shenzhen doing it purely as a hobby. I’m pretty active in the community and I have not met them.

Our makerspaces — the few real ones we have — are primarily for educational purposes. We have a couple of places with laser cutters or a small 3D printer for the kids to learn on, but there’s no place you can go swipe a card and use real machine tools in the middle of the night like lots of other major cities have.

Because of this, Chinese spend rather a lot of time online speculating on how I am monetizing my adventures and what company is “actually” behind me. Even a year later, when it’s pretty clear that I would be the worst stealth marketing campaign ever, it still drives them nuts trying to figure out my “angle”.

As far as most Chinese people’s thinking, hobbies are for old people. If you have seen newspaper articles about actual Chinese makers — who have made homemade robots, dialysis machines, submarines, prosthetic arms — they are nearly all older or retirees. Young people in China just don’t have the time or freedom usually.

When you are young there is a huge amount of pressure from your parents to have children, which means getting married, which means buying a house, which in Shenzhen means making a lot of money. So most Chinese feel they really don’t have time for the “play” which really is the essence of making.

On the other hand, if you are working on a hardware startup or just want to get stuff made, then sure, I think Shenzhen is pretty unbeatable.

It was a pleasure to read SexyCyborg’s expanded thoughts. Go upvote her on Reddit.

Archival links, since social media pages are prone to disappearing:

AgriCULTURE: “Who doesn’t want to save the world?”

I interviewed agricultural researcher Tom Geiger via chat. We talked about the technological struggles of sustainable farming and the grim future-present. This Q&A is heavily edited to be more readable, but Geiger had a chance to review the edits and make sure his meaning was preserved. He works at a university on a Caribbean island.

Okra photographed by Rebecca Wilson.

Okra photographed by Rebecca Wilson.

Tom Geiger: My current project has two parts: vegetable variety trial and irrigation equipment evaluation. The variety trial part is comparing three different okra varieties to see which one is the best for our local conditions. The okra is being irrigated with four different kinds of plastic drip irrigation lines, with emitters spaced every foot. We are comparing pressure-compensating and non-pressure-compensating drip lines. [There is an expanded explanation available if you’re interested.]

We have no rivers or streams on the island. All fresh water comes from wells, harvested rainwater, or desalination. Water conservation is especially important here and in island communities in general. One goal of this project is to encourage local farmers to increase their irrigation efficiency by switching to pressure-compensating drip tapes.

This current project isn’t automated, but I am working on another project using sensors to control irrigation in hydroponic cucumbers. Sensor-based irrigation is increasingly popular, especially with larger farms and greenhouses.

Vegetable irrigation trial. Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Exolymph: So how did you get into doing this work personally? Is it what you studied?

Tom Geiger: I started out as an engineering student but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be. During my sophomore year I attended a lecture on world food issues, which really opened my eyes to the problems and possibilities of agriculture. I switched my major to horticulture and started working as a researcher here in the Caribbean after graduation. I had planned on working for commercial growers but research has been a nice experience.

Exolymph: Do you find that most of your colleagues have similar motivations?

Tom Geiger: I think people get into agriculture for a lot of different reasons, but yeah, there are many people who choose this field for idealistic or ideological reasons. Who doesn’t want to save the world? Agriculture can be improved at local, regional, and global levels. You have people with all sorts of different perspectives and all of them are important.

Exolymph: Do the commercials farmers you talk to feel similarly?

Tom Geiger: Yes, it’s common. Or at least people here feel like they are doing a good thing for the island. Local agriculture definitely makes sense on an island. People need to eat every day. It’s easy to feel good about contributing to that.

Exolymph: Does academic agriculture have its own culture separate from production agriculture or do they intermingle a lot?

Tom Geiger: Well, it is academia. We go to conferences and publish in journals. But I don’t think ag researchers are as much in the ivory tower as other academic types. I know a lot of commercial farmers personally. Small farms because it’s an island. We work with the farmers, and you’ll find that a lot of universities have agriculture extension services.

Exolymph: What are some good first steps for people looking to incorporate higher tech into their gardening? Does it make sense for laypeople to do that at all?

Tom Geiger: Knowing when and how much to irrigate is the hardest part besides pest control. Scalable, automated irrigation systems could make gardening accessible to more people, whether they have a plot of land or only a potted tomato plant on the patio. Decentralization is cool, but I’m not against large farms.

I would like to see more gardens and less lawns. That would be a great way to decentralize and localize production in places where people have a yard. The hard part is for people to find the time to take care of their gardens. I’d like to see some kind of decentralized gardening service, like Uber for gardens, that would connect people who have small plots of land with people who have the skills to grow produce.

Exolymph: Are some people opposed to large farms no matter what?

Tom Geiger: I’d say that small and local is popular right now, but it needs to be done right. Imagine ten small farms with ten tractors, ten small walk-in coolers to store the produce, ten minivans to transport it to the co-op… Versus one farm ten times as big which only needs one of each of those things.

It’s hard to wrap your head around everything that goes into running a vegetable farm. There’s a lot to consider, like economies of scale and the carbon footprints of the farm, transportation, and storage. We need more research to find a balance between efficiency and sustainability.

Even defining local food is hard. What is local? Ten miles, fifty, 100? Half the global population lives in cities. It might be possible for a city like Los Angeles to source all of its food locally by some definition but probably not efficiently or sustainably.

Exolymph: Why do you think people prefer small farms?

Tom Geiger: It’s mostly political. Wendell Berry and all that. People want food sovereignty. They want to know where their food comes from, to feel a connection to it, to strengthen the community and keep food dollars in the local economy. They want to support small farmers who they know and can relate to, rather than faceless corporations which often seem more interested in the wellbeing of their shareholders than the people and the environment. All of those are good and noble reasons to support local food.

Exolymph: Do you think people who don’t work closely with agriculture have a realistic view of “how things ought to be”?

Tom Geiger: I totally agree that small and local is ideal sometime in the future, especially once we have more data on what you get at different levels of small and local. We have seven billion people on the planet — like I said, half of them live in cities.

When it comes to feeding the urban population it’s hard to define “small” and “local” in a way that’s still meaningful. “Large” and “distant” agriculture is the reality for many people and it will be that way for a long time despite our best efforts. I think the kind of people who demand everything small and local don’t really understand how big of a challenge it is.

Irrigation control gadget. Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Photo courtesy of Tom Geiger.

Exolymph: How does technology play into this? Is the use of the type of irrigation gadgets that you’re researching well understood but needs to be adjusted for specific microclimates, or is it greenfield? (Excuse the pun.)

Tom Geiger: Like William Gibson said about the future not being evenly distributed, the technology is here — it just needs to be used. For example, you can irrigate based on evapotranspiration data from weather stations or satellites, but not everyone is using it so they are likely over- or under-irrigating. The moisture sensors are better for greenhouse crops. I don’t see any reason not to use evapotranspiration for field crops, and it has been researched since the 1960s. Add in self-driving tractors, drones, and automated harvesting. But then what do all those people do that are replaced?

Exolymph: Oof, yeah. Technological unemployment has already hit agriculture really hard. Do you have any prospective answers?

Tom Geiger: I have no idea. Basic income. And then what?

Exolymph: You mentioned earlier, “One goal of this project is to encourage local farmers to increase their irrigation efficiency by switching to pressure-compensating drip tapes.” How is that goal progressing? What’s the reason for farmers not to switch — just inertia, or the up-front expense, or…?

Tom Geiger: Mostly inertia. Using your old drip tapes until they’re full of holes, not knowing what is available, not having good options because there are no local distributors, being broke. Agriculture is seriously underappreciated. I know many farmers that are just getting by. But we have to keep food prices low, because if people can’t afford to eat they will demand higher wages.

Fixing things is a tough question because even the answers people usually give like “buy local” are not silver bullets. Know your farmer, buy local, and buy fair trade if you can, but don’t get all elitist on the people who don’t or can’t. I mean, it’s great if your food comes from farms that do XYZ and maybe that’s the ideal situation, but we can’t fix agriculture overnight.

Exolymph: It’s rough. Especially when you look at proteins as well as produce — ethically raised meat is sooo expensive.

Tom Geiger: Yes, and in fact manure is extremely useful for sustainably managing soil nutrition. To get high yields you are using either synthetic fertilizers or animal byproducts. Some people who are against synthetic fertilizers are also against raising livestock but it’s really hard to have it both ways. I used to work on an organic farm that used fish emulsion, bat guano, and composted turkey litter. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of livestock on organic vegetable farms.

Exolymph: What do you think of the various ~omg future of food~ initiatives like Soylent and cricket flour and such?

Tom Geiger: They have their place, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see those things as a staple. If people stop reproducing so much we won’t have to worry about a future like that, but that’s not really my area of expertise.

Exolymph: “If people stop reproducing” is my wheelhouse in terms of ethical commitments, but I have no idea how to make people do that.

Tom Geiger: Right?

Optimism (or Lack Thereof) with Civilization Fiction

I interviewed the mysterious curator behind Civilization Fiction via Tumblr chat (that was a new one). Civilization Fiction is a collection of fascinating images of futuristic cityscapes. The blog’s sidebar admonishes, “The trick is not to mind that we’re all just still-warm worm food.” (Luckily that’s never bothered me.)

From the archive grid.

From the archive grid.

Here’s our Q&A, lightly edited and condensed for readability.

Exolymph: Is this an aesthetic you’ve always been interested in?

Civilization Fiction: I’ve been collecting photos and concept art of skylines and futuristic cities for five years now. When I discovered Tumblr it was a great source of pictures for me, and it was the right platform to share my collection as well. What I’m looking for is the mood and feeling of being slightly lost or lonely in the setting of a huge metropolis.

Exolymph: Your sidebar says, “The trick is not to mind that we’re all just still-warm worm food. Bring back optimistic sci-fi.” Do you view the images you collect as optimistic? What about the economic trend they represent?

Civilization Fiction: They are somewhat optimistic because they show progress, especially in technological and economic regards. I’m not much of a tech person, but I’m interested in new technologies, especially in terms of how people use them. That’s also why I called the blog Civilization Fiction — it’s stressing the life with new technologies.

Artwork by novaillusion, recently posted by Civilization Fiction.

Artwork by novaillusion, recently posted by Civilization Fiction.

Civilization Fiction (continued): The “we’re all just still-warm worm food” line is my way of accepting death as an inevitable consequence of life. It is optimistic in the sense that we’re supposed to live our lives as compassionately as we can, because it’s the only chance we have to be good and nice company for each other. It doesn’t really matter if a Star Trek-like utopia is scientifically plausible when it manages to inspire people to hope and work for a better world.

Exolymph: Do you feel optimistic about the state of the world in general?

Civilization Fiction: I’m afraid not. However, I try to be optimistic and still hope for a brighter future. After all, we only have this world and a single attempt at life, so it would be a shame to waste it and not try to make it a better place.

Exolymph: Can you elaborate on your worries?

Civilization Fiction: While I see a lot of potential in many technologies, I see them also wasted. The internet is a prime example: it can be (and is) used for worldwide communication and education, but as far as I’m aware, most of the data sent is selfies, pornography, and marketing campaigns.

And I expect that when AI technologies are achieved, they won’t first be applied to medical problems, solving world hunger or anything like that, but rather to make a profit at the stock market. That’s just my take on human nature and I really hope the future proves me wrong.

Exolymph: Me too… But I have similar worries.

If you frequent Tumblr, I recommend following Civilization Fiction, and the collection of images is worth perusing regardless.

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