Earlier this week as part of Swiftly’s LGBTQ+ group’s Pride month activities I did an hour long presentation for the company on trans issues and my journey and transition. It’s up on YouTube now if you’d like to watch it.
A note: I mention at the end that I don’t think that all 1/3rd of the young people who identify as non-binary, gender-nonconforming or transgender will still identify that way into adulthood. I could 10,000% be wrong! From my experience it doesn’t seem like a third of people are wrestling with their gender identity and would be something other than cis if they felt safe to, but the world would be a lot more fun if that turns out to be true.
I posted my transition announcement on Twitter on July 24th, 2020, which means I’ve been out for 9 months. A lot of things have happened since my coming out post in October, and my feelings about transition and life before have changed a bit, so now seems like a good time to post an update and share how I’m doing.
There are two audiences for this post. First, the folks who know me, care about me, and want to know how my first 9 months have gone. Second, other trans women who may be thinking about transitioning or are earlier in it than I am. My answers are a little different for both, so I’m breaking this into two parts. Feel free to read one, the other, or both.
For the world: I’m Fine
I’m fine, I’m fine! Transitioning is a thing that, most days, feels like something in the past. I can’t remember the last time I had to present as a boy and can’t imagine a scenario where I would ever need to again. I haven’t been misgendered on the phone or on a drive-thru speaker in months. All the people in my life seem to be trying to get my name and pronouns right, and the moments of being accidentally mis-gendered seem to be dropping.
All of my daily identity documents have been corrected except my Passport, which I have all the stuff to update but just haven’t made time. Yesterday a very nice lady in the neighborhood came over and helped us file paperwork to get the deed for our house changed over, and our mortgage company finally updated their files. The health insurance portal helpfully reminds me about maternity options. Unless they’ve gone looking, the folks at my new job (more on that in a moment) have never even seen my deadname.
Most days I just… exist as myself. I get up, throw something on (a dress or skirt and top if I don’t have workout, workout clothes if I do), get the kids ready for school, and drop them off. Maybe I workout with Haley, in which case then I put on real clothes after. Hopefully I moisturize, do as good a job of a lip as I can, try to find some bangles to match my outfit, and then sit down for work. Maybe Irma and I get lunch, then more work. Irma or I pick up the kids, and I figure out dinner. We do whatever it is that families do in a pandemic until bedtime. I read the kids a story and let them nod off a bit. Then it’s time with Irma and hopefully sleep. Oh, and some days I do laundry. Rinse, repeat. I’m a suburban housewife and mom, and thousands of moms in my neighborhood have the same day I do.
Sometimes I put on music, which I can dance to now. It was weird and awkward before, and I’m still terrible, but at least I think I get it now. I wish my voice was better and I could sing more songs, but I feel more free. I know I don’t move quite right. Like this comic says, I’m too big and too broad. Too many years with the wrong endocrine system. I’m grateful for what I have, though, which is a body that’s finally mine, and a life full of people who love me.
Change has happened really slowly and most days feels imperceptible until I look at old pictures. Then all of a sudden 3 months ago seems like forever and I have a hard time recognizing myself.
Here’s an example, the first picture was taken last September when my friend Maddy inspired me to wear a different dress every day for a month. The girl on the left has been out for 2 months and is still very much getting her feet under her. She hasn’t figured out makeup or that an Apple Watch isn’t really her style. Me lately, on the right, is more comfortable in her skin, has gotten over her giant fear of makeup, and has 7 months more estrogen in her.
You might think that trans women wouldn’t be transphobic, but we’re all a bit transphobic, and those of us who were in the closet for decades can have heaps of it, deeply internalized.
I’ve hated makeup for as long as I can remember. I had the excuse of having ADHD and being sensitive to textures and smells, but what it may have been, really is something else. The garishly painted face of a macho guy in drag in a college party movie, perhaps, or a painful memory I’ve buried so deep I don’t even know it’s shape.
I knew it was something I would have to get over. Something that would make me happier and my life easier once I could do it. So many of my trans friends had mastered it, or so I felt, and here I was, paralyzed. Internalized transphobia made me incredibly fearful of judgement. I couldn’t actually try makeup until the house was empty, which during a pandemic isn’t very often.
This was my first attempt, back on January 12th. I took 57 selfies. The color is Pioneer in Maybelline Super Stay Matte Ink, which is the only product I’ve tried, though now my everyday color is Savant.
Last fall, after many months of lusting after them, I started picking up bangles from Splendette. Most bangles and bracelets won’t fit over my hands, but Splendette has a Duchess size that fits perfectly. I’m a vintagey girl, bangles are a vintagey look, and having something I could collect was wonderful. I’ve spent more on them than I care to admit, but being able to accessorize has been really fun, and helps me feel more put together. They have matching necklaces, which I wear regularly, and earrings, which I haven’t quite gotten to.
Splendette has a Facebook group, which is a really welcoming, inclusive place. I’ve been able to post my selfies and get wonderful, affirming feedback on them. I’ve made friends I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to be an out and visible vintage-enjoying trans woman, of which there aren’t many.
I’m also in the Pinup Couture Facebook group, which is similarly inclusive. I posted my pink, blue, and white Transgender Day of Visibility outfit there and ended up with over 800 reactions and 65 comments. That was pretty lovely, but made me realize that the volume of feedback isn’t nearly as important to me as the nature of it. A single comment from another trans or queer woman is worth more than all the other likes put together.
This was the first Transgender Day of Visibility where I was out, and it was great posting on social media and liking other trans people’s posts. I probably should have taken the day off of work. It was hard to switch back and forth and try to get things done.
Trans day of visibility was the day I came out at my job, or rather, my new job. Vox was wonderful and supportive and I’m not sure if I would have transitioned if I hadn’t been there, but I’d been there for nearly 6 years, and it was starting to feel like I needed something new. I’d gotten both of my corporate jobs by nepotism, or as we say in the tech industry, through my network. I’d never applied at a place I didn’t know anyone. I hadn’t gone through an interview loop to show that I was a person worth bringing in. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, to be honest, or as a trans woman, if anyone would even want to talk to me. If you have someone on your team who doesn’t want a trans woman managing them, it’s easy to come up with reasons why I wouldn’t be a good hire. Heck, most of the time I don’t think I would be a good hire.
I decided to only apply at places where I could learn about something interesting and/or do something good. My short list of areas was fashion, transit/transport, women’s health, or public service. The second job I applied for was at Swiftly, a company that generates fixed route arrival and departure predictions (buses, trains, ferries) and insights for transit agencies. Their core mission is to help cities move better, and their work improves people’s lives on a daily basis. I wrote a cover letter in a flash, sent in my resume and crossed my fingers. They called me back, I had some good interviews, felt I really connected with their Head of Engineering, made and presented a slide deck, and even though I was sure up to the very end they wouldn’t, they gave me an offer. It’s a company of 80 people, and it’s been great being in a place where I can make things better and have a bigger, hopefully positive, influence.
Getting out of the Vox bubble I’m also realizing I’m sometimes the first trans person that people have ever knowingly interacted with, which brings me to the downer part of this update.
I’m an out trans woman in the world, and my style is middle-aged-soccer-mom femme, which is possibly the least uncomfortable trans woman presentation for cis folks to deal with. If I pass (which is a whole other topic) people I interact with may have no idea I’m trans. I generally blend and am non-threatening. If I were Black or Hispanic or Asian, or my style more androgynous, aggressive or otherwise not societally conforming, I’m sure the reaction would be different, and that things would be much, much harder. So since I have the privilege, I feel like I have to be visible.
Being visible is important, because it isn’t a great time to be trans. Not that it has ever been a good time to be trans, but last year’s massive anti-trans pushes in the UK have moved to the US and a deluge of anti-trans bills have been filed in legislatures across the country. Trans people are the GOP’s newest minority target of choice. There are bills here in Texas that would ban trans girls from playing on girls teams in school and bills that would make it legal for doctors to deny trans people any care (even critical, life-saving care) if they felt it was against their beliefs to be trans. There’s a bill proposing changing the definition of child abuse to include providing or enabling a minor to get the gender affirming care that is broadly accepted in the medical community. Imagine having a 12 year old trans child, not being able to get them care, not having the means to move out of state, and having your child take their own life. More than half of trans kids consider suicide, a number that drops by half if even just their pronouns are respected by the people around them. They are literally going to kill trans kids with these bills.
There have been regular hearings at the state house on them, with trans Texans and their allies across the state traveling to Austin in the midst of a pandemic and waiting for hours to testify. It feels like my responsibility to not look away, but it’s heartbreaking to read the testimony by those of us who are opposed, and incredibly emotionally painful to read people’s arguments in favor. People who would rather that trans people just not exist, and are happy to inflict great injury on us because they are afraid and have power.
This is a new thing for me, and I honestly am having a hard time handling it. Before last year I moved through society as a cis, white male, and in the last decade, one with a job that made things very comfortable. I experienced a level of undeserved societal privilege and comfort that is the exact thing Republicans are fighting to maintain. Now I’m part of a small minority that they’re trying to extinguish by brute legislative force. I don’t feel like I can ignore what’s going on, but it hurts so much to watch.
Someone I know was recently lamenting that trans Twitter, a normally joyful, geekish, occasionally catty place had turned mournful and distressed. What alternative is there when you see your siblings suffer at the hands of the government? What hope can we have, when we think about the fact that there will likely be a Republican-dominated US House in two years, and two years after that, who maybe the presidency? State bills could become national bills. They could outlaw trans healthcare completely. Trans people might have to flee the country for their own safety. Anything could happen.
So what can we do, but keep fighting, and be as visible as we can? The Governor of Arkansas vetoed their bill (which the legislature overrode, but it’s a start) after he met with some trans women, including the state’s only openly trans elected official. They don’t know us, so it’s easy to hate us. The most hopeful I’ve been, reading the testimony against these bills, is when I read about the lifelong Republicans and grandparents who are out there, taking their legislators to task for putting their trans children and grandchildren at risk.
It is, in the end, a race. Just like with the fight for gay rights before it the more trans people someone personally knows, the harder it is to support a bigoted position against us. When they know us it’s harder to see us as an abstract concept, and easier to see us as caring, feeling human beings who deserve the same protections and respect as they do. We are fortunate a majority of Americans don’t support anti-trans legislation, but we aren’t yet to the point where enough see it as the bigoted attack on a vulnerable, tiny minority that it is and are willing to speak out against it. To that end, I try to be visible, I try to not offend, and I try to exist.
I’m fortunate, because I’m not popular on Twitter or Instagram, I don’t get a torrent of hateful and bigoted reactions when I post a picture or story, but a lot of my friends are not as lucky. I don’t know how they keep going when so much hatred is spewed at them all the time. Like most trans women, all I get are the chasers.
So I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine…
For the Trans Girls: The 28 Day Monster
Hey girl, I hope you’re doing ok. I’m going to presume that you’re somewhere behind me on the timeline. To do a time check, I’m about 14 months into HRT. I was at 200mg/day of Spiro and 8mg a day of oral Estradiol for most of that time. I started 100mg Progesterone around last November, so I guess I’m about 6 months into that. I’ve tried both methods with P, and I felt the more effective one gave me worse cramps, so I’ve stopped. You should probably experiment and track.
A month ago I switched to injections, so now I stab myself every Sunday and push .25ml of Estradiol Valerate into one of my thighs. I think that injections have smoothed out my swings a lot. I no longer feel out of sorts at the end of the day, and doing every 1 week instead of every 2 has meant that I haven’t generally felt like I’m having awful days before an injection, though Saturdays and Sunday mornings can sometimes be rough.
I do have awful days, though. 2 days out of every 28 to be exact (the ones 2 months ago was so bad that Irma told me to start logging them), and on those days I’m a freaking monster. Like, life would be better if I was isolated from all interactions with other people. I haven’t managed to track down other changes, but there are definitely periods of the month where my voice is just garbage for days on end, and I can’t get it together. I’m still figuring out my cycle, but one of my friends Jocelyn has a great post about hers on her blog. If you’re on HRT you might want to start tracking mood and period symptoms. I ran the numbers and the next time I’m going to be a disaster is Mother’s day and after that my mom’s birthday. At least now I can prepare. Maybe buy some chocolate.
We’ve been driving to Dallas every 6 weeks recently for full face electrolysis. 16-ish sessions of laser got most of the blonde hairs on my face, but not the dark ones, so it’s zapping and plucking if I want to get rid of them. At Electrology 3000 they inject Lidocane all over to numb your face (which is super, super-awful especially around the mouth and upper lip), but it still swells up a ton afterwards. You can’t shave for a few days before, which sucks for dysphoria, and then you look like you gained 20 lbs of water weight all in your face afterwards. I seem to bruise, as well, and those take a week and a half to two weeks to go away. It isn’t fun, and it’s expensive, but hopefully I’ll only have to do it a few more times and then I can start going to someone local. Hair grows in cycles, and you can only kill the hair that’s currently in a growth cycle. In summary, testosterone puberty is dumb and I hate it, but you knew that already.
When I’m not dealing with hair, one of the weirdest things I’ve run into is that a year in, I can’t really remember what the dysphoria was like. It was obviously awful, if I was willing to upend my entire life, and I’m still super happy to be living as myself, but the little nagging thought of ‘you know, it wasn’t that bad’ pops up more now. It’s a freaking liar, though, and I’m not going back to staring at the wall trying to shove my emotions down while I plod through life like a zombie.
Community is critical. I don’t know what I would do without my trans friends slack. I wish everyone could have it, and there was a way I could make that happen, but I don’t know how. I don’t think I have the emotional space to try and start or manage a community, but it is so, so helpful to find a non-toxic group of other trans women who can listen to your gripes and sadness and give you support when you’re down, and it’s just as important to be able to do the same in return.
I’ve tried to take more part in outreach things like Transformation Tuesday, to try being visible for other people who may be considering transitioning. I can kinda handle seeing my old self when my cuter, new self is next to it. I think. Maybe? The side effect of seeing so many transition timelines is that if I ever see a guy and girl picture side by side I just automatically assume they’re trans and it’s a glow-up.
My deadname’s become something that my brain mostly skims off of and doesn’t touch. A friend of mine told me that’s a trauma response, that you don’t allow yourself to think about it. I haven’t been able to eradicate it from my day to day entirely. It is, tragically enough, wedged somewhere inside my therapists patient billing system. I see it after every time I see her. So it still surprises me, and that hits me, but it doesn’t usually take me down entirely. That person is a stranger, now. Or maybe that person is a trauma.
We’ve started taking professional family pictures. Having something I can look at and not mentally avoid is really nice, and so worth the money. I know it’s hard in a pandemic, but if you can, find someone who knows how to make you look good and take some pictures that aren’t selfies.
It isn’t everyones goal, but if I can get a family photo where I just look like a girl and I’m not towering over everyone else or being obviously trans, that would be great. I’m hopefully getting closer. The first session ones, over there on the left, were from before I’d figured out makeup. Hopefully I’ll get better with makeup and style, estrogen will do more of its work, and we’ll figure out a way to pose so I don’t look like a giant.
But I mean, look at these bluebonnet pictures we took a month or so ago. It just kinda looks like a two moms who love each other and their kids, right? That’s amazing! It definitely doesn’t work out this way for everyone, and so many trans women have to rebuild their lives completely after transition, but you can do it, and life can be good.
Figuring out if I’m passing hasn’t gotten easier. It isn’t everyone’s goal, and shouldn’t be society’s expectation, but it’s really important to me. There’s some evidence I’m passing, obviously, because I call people on the phone and they say “yes ma’am” before I have a chance to introduce myself. When they ask me how I’m related to the deadname I’m trying to get them to change there’s a long pause after I say “I used to be that person.” People say “excuse me ma’am” when I’m standing in their way in the grocery store’s floral department, deep in thought about whether I need to bring a little plant friend home. But again, my style is super femme. The only pants I wear are workout leggings. People who know I’m trans can’t tell me if I’m passing, because they already have too much information. It’s like Schrödinger’s Gender Presentation, you never really know if you’re passing unless you know for sure that you aren’t. It’s a huge pain to be so uncertain about something so fundamental.
Oh right, so I have plants now. And a bird feeder outside my window. I’m allowing myself some nice, simple things. They don’t feel like elements of an identity I’m trying to fake anymore, they just feel like nice things that make me happy.
So that’s it. 14 months on hormones, 9 months out, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. It is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the best thing I ever did for myself. If this sounds intriguing and you haven’t started, you should try it. You’ll know pretty quick if it isn’t for you. If you’re early in the process, keep your chin up, girl, it gets easier. If you’re ahead of me, thank you. Thank you for blazing the trail and showing the way. I’ll try and do you proud.
Thanks for reading my 9 month update. As a parting gift, here’s a picture of me, my orchid, and my weirdly, hilariously horny cactus.
In the last few years a new tool appeared in the gender dysphoria toolbox. Trans women early in their transition, or ones just discovering that, ‘oh hey, I might be a girl’, can use technology to get a glimpse at their other selves. First there were Snapchat’s Gender Swap filters and a little later, FaceApp. FaceApp, aside from being a possibly Russian spy vector, has dozens of machine learning models for changing your face to a more generically feminine one, adding longer hair, trying on makeup, aging you, de-aging you, etc.
You can, from the comfort and safety of your own phone, imagine what life would be like if you didn’t go through the wrong puberty. If your cheeks were a little bit fuller, your skin a little smoother, and your lashes a little longer. It can be kind of frightening. I remember Irma showing me a Snapchat gender swap filter a few years ago when she was playing with them with the kids, and while the words that came out of my mouth were “I’d take that”, inside it was like a wound.
Sometimes trans women share these FaceApped pictures, or post only the FaceApped selfies to social media. The world is cruel and unforgiving and our self-images are painful, tender things. In the trans circles I’m in, sharing a FaceApped picture often results in someone giving the loving encouragement of “You’ll look better than that.” Let the hormones do their work for a few years. You’ll be you, but you’ll be better than that machine learning model can imagine. There will be light in those eyes.
For me, after transition started I didn’t want to look at those pictures anymore. A few months into hormones I no longer saw a guy in the mirror. I saw a girl who needed more time on HRT. FaceApp wasn’t going to tell me anything useful, it would just make me feel bad about not having started sooner, or it would do its machine learning analysis on my selfie, decide I was still a boy, and present me with boy options, which wasn’t good for my mental health.
The Past is Already There, it Just Isn’t Evenly Distributed Yet
In the last few weeks some trans friends of mine have started FaceApping their old photos, to see what they might have looked like back then. I have no idea who started it. I may have seen it first in Magdalene Visaggio’s thread FaceApping the presidents to look modern, but June Joplin went with it, and then Mae Dean posted one of her old pictures, and soon enough I was downloading FaceApp after swearing for years I wouldn’t.
Trans women, like many foster kids, don’t have pictures of themselves when they were younger, really. If you do a team building exercise and ask everyone to share a picture of themselves when they were a kid, or a teenager, well… just please don’t. There’s a hole there, a gap in memory, a category of artifacts which don’t exist.
My friends were posting pictures of themselves, pictures of them when they were 20, or 9, or 15, and they all looked… right. It was them, but younger, and less weary. Them as young girls and young women, caught in the moment, wild and free. 20 year old girls ready to take on the world, enjoying their dumb crap, being goofy. Teenage girls awkwardly posing for yearbook photos.
Suddenly these hard to look at pictures became approachable. They become ours. Memory starts to unwind a bit. You get a glimpse of a past that might have happened, of happiness that might have been yours.
So here are some of mine.
A Past and Future Jennifer
Here’s early 20’s cyberpunk Jennifer. She’s really into WIRED Magazine, as you can tell. She’s living in San Marcos, having finally moved away from her parents. She lives in a bright teal and pink house with big windows, which she loves for the natural light. Being on her own is really freeing, but she’s still absolutely a mess who doesn’t know how to get what she wants from her life.
When I saw this photo, it was like another timeline snapped into focus. That is, obviously, me. Even Google Photos face detection algorithms think it’s me. But it isn’t. I was her back then, but I wasn’t.
Pretty soon Jennifer got an opportunity to go to Japan with her girlfriend, Irma. Her birth mom was stationed in Japan when she was pregnant with her, and she lived there with her parents when she was little, so going back is a big deal. They stay in a Ryokan in a little mountain town and have amazingly delicious food.
This photo makes me really happy. The thought of being myself and being young and exploring the world is delightful, and somehow isn’t as sad as you might think. I am happy for this Jennifer, and excited for her adventures.
Here’s Jennifer with her parents, who’ve come to visit her colorful little house in San Marcos. Some how Jennifer got the tall genes from her birth parents.
When I did this photo is was like someone had dug their thumb into a tender spot I didn’t realize I had. I just hurts to look at. When you do a gender swap in FaceApp on a photo it does something subtle to the smile. I look at this picture, and that girl looks happy to me. Her parents are happy to be standing next to her. She’s a mess, but she’s trying.
Here’s Jennifer standing outside the Christian elementary school she went to for 6th grade. She didn’t have a great time there. She tested into an advanced math class, and then got moved to a lower one after a month. She bought a typewriter at a rummage sale, thinking that she should be the kind of girl who should own a typewriter, but it was old and didn’t work well. Even at 24, she hasn’t had enough time to really grasp how weird it was to move schools so often. She also still hasn’t figured out that she has ADHD.
The next year Jennifer goes to Mexico to visit Irma’s family. Here she is, in full adventurer regalia, standing at the bottom of a waterfall. There will only be enough horses for everyone else to ride, so Jennifer volunteers to walk back up, even though she’s as athletic as you’d expect for someone who sits at a computer all day. At the top she ends up throwing up in the middle of the road because she’s exerted herself too much. But it’s a good trip, and she gets to meet a lot of lovely people.
Fast forward to 2004, and Jennifer is on a train in the Netherlands, possibly haunted by the specter of a different life. She’s traveling with Irma again, but this time there’s an engagement ring nestled in her bag, and she’s going to ask Irma to marry her when they get to Paris. She’s nervous, but not as nervous as she was when she stood next to Irma’s dad’s pickup truck in the parking lot at his job and asked for his permission to propose.
This photo is the pretty surreal. I’ll kinda leave it at that.
Fortunately, when Jennifer proposed in Paris, Irma said yes. Here’s Jennifer in Oxford, at the Turf Tavern, having the first drink of her life at 27. That’s what being raised evangelical will do. She still doesn’t drink much, and she still doesn’t like the taste of beer, but she isn’t worried that she’s going to be the kind of drunk who goes too far and tells people her deepest secrets, like that thing about being a girl.
A year of planning later, and it’s time for Jennifer and Irma’s wedding. (In this alternate universe gay marriage was legal in Texas in 2005, just go with it.) Her birth mom, Mary, her brother Don, and her sister Lisa come down for it. Here they all are at the reception location the day before the wedding during setup. Jennifer’s tall genes must have come from her birth father, who exists somewhere out of time and space.
Several years later, and Jennifer’s birth mom, Mary comes down to visit. She has cancer, and this is the last time she’ll visit Jennifer at home. She stays with her for a while. In the alternate universe, Jennifer and her birth mom get to have mother/daughter time, and have lots of deep, meaningful conversations about life and children and growing up and the choices we make and the pain we hold.
Looking at this photo makes me cry. I guess it’s pretty obvious why.
FaceApp has given me some scenes of a life that alternate reality Jennifer might have had. A glimpse into another universe. But this isn’t a universe that I live in. They’re fake memories, but memories which make me hope and smile more than the real ones. Somehow, to me, they feel more true.
I haven’t FaceApped any photos of myself with Irma or our kids. Those artifacts of memory belong to them, too, and changing them for myself this way, without acknowledging the change, feels wrong. We still have photos of our family on the fridge from before I transitioned. I was fine with it for a long time, but a few days ago I strategically put magnets over my face. Having photos around of myself is fine, I think, but I look at the refrigerator every day, multiple times a day, and it’s just too much, especially on the days I don’t feel good. But if I ridded my house of photos of me with my family, then what would I have? What artifacts of memory would exist for everyone else, or me? It’s so sad to think about.
I’m not going to print out these FaceApped pictures and put them up. At least I don’t think I will. I’ve had the train photo up in a window on my computer for a few days, and I think it’s something I need to close. She’s there, happy, living her life, and me getting a glimpse of that is enough.
Long ago in the early 2000s when I was helping run the boutique (read: small and bad at sales) web consultancy I cofounded, we had a contract web developer named David. David worked on Drupal apps for us, and at the time the most notable thing about him to me, aside from the fact that apparently he’d infected one of my other co-founders girlfriends with chickenpox back in elementary school, is that David wanted to build dancing robots.
PHP community organizing apps (this was the era of CivicSpace) and dancing robots aren’t a super common crossover. At the time I didn’t really see how you could go from one to the other. When there’s so much web stuff to learn and new technologies constantly appear, it can feel like something like robotic art is just a distraction. I remember feeling that way when David and our office manager organized Austin’s first Maker Faire. I couldn’t really see how all this work could lead to selling any PHP or Rails web projects.
David didn’t see it that way. He did web development, but he also worked on his robots. I’m sure he passed up a lot of opportunities to make easy web dev money at a standard 9 to 5 job, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Eventually, with an amazing amount of talent and persistence, he ended up at the MIT Media Lab, where he got to make dancing robots. Fast forward to today, and many years later, he’s the Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum. He kinda gets to do both. He also has a really great newsletter you should subscribe to.
Dancing robots was never my dream. I have a big weak spot for systems that run and grow and evolve by themselves, like Conway’s Game of Life, and I also really like the idea of personal robots that you can develop a connection to, like Kuri, but the ramifications of a VC funded company developing and owning a member of your family are pretty dire. But for most of my time in tech I’ve stayed in my lane, which has been back end web development, hosting, and more recently data. I may have read an Arduino tutorial or watched a projection mapping video but I didn’t really commit myself to anything. At least, until dadageek.
In 2016 some organizers of the Austin Interactive Art meetup got together to create a school for creative coding called dadageek. They were 7-ish week classes, one class a week, around a specific tech art topic. I can’t remember how it caught my eye, but one of the three debut classes was called Create Generative Sculptures with Everyday Objects Using Processing. Finally, here was a structured, instructor-led class with a fixed start and end. Something I could commit to, with people who would be disappointed if I didn’t show up. It was outside of my lane, but safely.
I went a bit off the rails with that class. Jerome Martinez, who taught it, wanted to make it useful for all skill levels, so he started with the basics of algorithms, but at the end of the class, I’d made a game. It’s called Attackle of the Grackles, and your goal is to lead a flock of grackles around the screen to pick up tacos while you avoid getting them run over by a taco truck.
You can probably play it in your browser (warning: music). For the exhibition, which dadageek has after every set of classes, we set it up on an Android touchscreen computer and let people play it.
I also made a processing sketch of a cat in a sunbeam, and an interesting undulating lines sketch, both of which you can see in the interview video around 1:29 in.
I didn’t necessarily learn a ton about coding from the processing class, but I broke out of my lane. I made pretty things for the sake of them being pretty. I built my first visual game, and people played it.
The next spring I talked Irma into taking the classes with me. We booked our babysitter for extra hours, and signed up for not one, but two classes: Intro to Analog Audio Electronics by Mickey Delp of Delptronics and Intro to Arduino for Artists by John-Mike Reed of Bleep Labs.
In the 7 weeks of Intro to Analog Audio Electronics we learned the basics of soldering, capacitors, resistors, oscillators, power and ground, pitch. For our final project I built a seven note polyphonic analog synthesizer with a variable tempo drum machine, and Irma built a multi-oscillator buzz generator.
For Intro to Arduino for Artists we learned about making sound generators in Arduino, writing interactive code, controlling LEDs, and reading data from input sources. Irma made a beautiful ambient noise generator and LED light object. I went off the rails again, and made another game.
It’s kind of like a space war or missile command game, things drop from the top and you have to move the knob back and forth and press the fire button to shoot them. There’s a soundtrack that goes with it, and sound effects, I think. The trick may be to hold down the fire button and just sweep the knob back and forth. But it’s a physical object, and it’s a game, and all you need to play it is a USB power source, and I learned how to make it and made it in 7 weeks, and that’s kind of incredible.
In the spring of 2018 we were back, taking Matt Steinke’s Intro to Robotic Art class. The framework of that class is using a Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton to pass MIDI commands to an Arduino that’s connected to servos, motors, and solenoids, thus making an object move in controllable, scriptable ways.
For this project Irma made a gorgeous cherry tree in a metal cage, with LEDs, fans that blew the petals around, and birds that moved their heads. You can see it at 42 seconds into the video below.
Here’s a closer look at Irma’s project. She later ported the control script to Python so that it could respond to the beat in any music, took it to Baltimore, and showed it off at a conference for work.
And after all that, in the end, for my robotic art project… I made a dancing robot. Well, a dancing robotic octopus DJ. Behold, the Triptopus.
The Triptopus has 6 servos, a solenoid, 3 motors, and 2 LEDs. And an artistically untalented web development girl made it, by finding a way to get out of her lane.
To put a bow on this story, several months after I built Triptopus a friend of mine (who I’d told about my robotic art project, and whose girlfriend-now-wife had been the one to get chickenpox) pinged me about helping a startup he was working with. They needed someone to create a system to deliver precisely timed auditory stimulation during sleep in response to EEG data, for the purpose of improving memory.
There was a low cost open source Arduino EEG board we could use for the EEG bit. They needed someone to integrate that board into a physical device, write a user interface and control application for it, figure out how to play the sounds at precise times, and package it all together. It sounded like fun, and after all those dadageek classes, I wasn’t as terrified as I probably should have been.
I got my day job boss’s boss’s blessing and started working on it. After a lot of trial and error, I’m happy to say it works. The hardware and software I created using the same Arduino boards and coding approach as my robotic art project (with some wonderfully smart python from an actual, you know, brain scientist) actually seems to make people remember things better.
So, if I had any advice, I’d say find ways to get out of your lane. Find good distractions. Find smart, kind, interesting people who are willing to teach you what they know, pay them for it, and see what happens.
There have been some changes around here, so I feel that I should reintroduce myself. Hi, I’m Jennifer. I’m a 43 year old married, trans, queer mother of two, with ADHD. Three of those things are new since my last blog post. Or rather, they’re newly recognized, and this post covers the first two, being a queer trans woman. So let’s go back to the beginning.
I’m not sure when I first realized I should have been a girl, but I think I remember when I realized I wasn’t allowed to be. I grew up in Spain away from American media. The only movies I remember us having were Star Wars and The Adventures of Robin Hood. I was probably in first grade when I played Star Wars with the other kids who came with their parents to our house. I wanted to be Princess Leia, she was pretty and everyone cared about her. It is strongly imprinted on me that this wasn’t ok, even though I can’t remember how I knew.
For a few years in Spain my best friend was a girl a little older than me. One time I went to a sleepover at her house. We went to the convenience store, bought some frosting, and ate it straight out of the tub. Sometimes things you think are rules are just society’s expectations. That night I woke up and got a drink from the faucet, but they were doing water main work in her neighborhood. I got sick from it and threw up. Sometimes things you think should just work don’t. A few years later we visited her in the US. We played a game where you laid down interconnecting rooms and she told me about Dr. Who. She’d grown into herself. I was still lost.
I remember sitting on the swings outside of the elementary school I went to after school one day. A boy I knew a few years older than me walked up wearing a black leather skirt. I was dumbfounded. He told me it was gender swap day. That moment is seared in my brain. There were situations where this was a thing you could just do.
We eventually came back to the US. I was fascinated with girls stuff. Whatever that was a strictly gendered expression of femininity, be it clothes, or My Little Pony. Then I started to be exposed to more media, and it became even more obvious that pretending you were a girl was wrong. People who tried, even insincerely, were the joke, and those jokes were all over TV shows and movies. It became a shameful secret.
The Middle Ages
When I hit puberty I got boobs, which didn’t seem like much of a blessing at the time. I remember my parents taking me to the doctor and instead of the correct diagnosis (gynecomastia) he told them it was just baby fat, and that he had another patient who had real developing breasts. Like that was obviously a horrible, horrible thing. It didn’t seem horrible to me. I don’t remember feeling bad for them, it was just remarkable. My parents didn’t do anything about my boobs, I just wore a coat all the time for the next 6 years and receded into myself. I can’t imagine how I would feel now if they had.
In high school I tried to be normal, had a best friend who was a guy, though we didn’t hang out much outside of school. Most of my friends were girls. I had some severe crushes which were probably manifestations of me finding someone who I really wanted to be like. I ended up at girls sleepovers a few times. They gave me scrunchies. I grew my hair really long but didn’t know how to take care of it, so it ended up a giant knotted mess.
In February of 1994 I logged in to an internet text based multiplayer role playing game called Ghostwheel and created a character named ShadowFox. She was me, the me I couldn’t be in the real world. Emotional, outgoing, caring, a mess. She lasted till November, when I told everyone I wasn’t actually a her and switched to a boy name. We were starting to have in person meetups, and the fiction wasn’t going to last.
Towards the end of high school I stumbled into getting a girlfriend. We watched The X-Files together, and I was terrified I was going to do something bad to her because everything I’d been taught told me that boys were hormonally driven monsters who’d just as soon rape you than look at you. After a few months summer came and I stopped calling. Later she got another boyfriend and we became friends again. I was better at that. By then I’d looked up surgical transition online and came to the conclusion that while it was possible, it wasn’t possible for me. If I couldn’t do something right, what was the point? I was 5’10”, stout, and puberty had done its work. I was never going to be like my girl friends.
After high school I kept finding girls who I wanted something from that I couldn’t define. Somehow they could tell that I was lost. I met an older bi poly girl and we dated for a while, which worked till it didn’t. There were too many expectations, too many hang ups, I was still growing up, and I wasn’t being honest with myself. We ended up as complicated friends.
I started hanging out with a group of friends after high school a lot, people who’d graduated after I had, but were around the same age as me. We played role playing games. I had a lot of girl characters. Same in video games. RPG? Always a girl. Femshep all the way.
Eventually, having totally failed at relationships and having moved out of my parents house for a little place of my own, I tried poking around an online dating site. I found a girls profile who seemed cool, tracked down her homepage, and sent her an email. She replied, and we started emailing. She was working after having a bad college experience. I invited her over and made dinner, badly. She was smart and funny and made me feel good, but my hang ups were still there. I didn’t know how to be in a relationship except the kind I’d seen in Disney movies. We tried being friends. She kept coming over. I figured out a little more. I’m not sure how my weird gender issues came out, but they did.
The stubborn girl didn’t give up on me, and I eventually realized we were meant for each other. I asked her, she said yes, and so Irma and I got married. She knew my secret, didn’t judge me for it, and loved me anyway. We always thought it was just going to be that, a secret.
Over the years my role playing game friend group grew and morphed and added people, and seemingly all of a sudden the group of people we hung out with was half queer and mostly girls. This suited me fine. Boys were a mystery to me. I didn’t feel like I understood most of them. It was obviously better to be a girl, but they all seemed content to be boys. We did things like a game night where all the girls tried on corsets, and I stood in the kitchen and smiled and tried not to collapse in on myself.
I didn’t like my body. I wore baggy t-shirts and jeans or cargo pants. I hated dressing up and tried to never do it. I hated having tight or even well fitting boy clothes on. The face in the mirror was weird to look at. Every time I saw a successful guy, I would try and figure out how they did it, what they had that I obviously didn’t, and what was wrong with me that I couldn’t. I got pretty good at pretending to be a guy, but I wasn’t happy.
A few years later Irma and I decided to have kids. I was terrified at the prospect of having a boy, because I didn’t know how to be one, and how was I going to show him. In the end we lost our first, and it broke us, but a year later we had a beautiful little baby girl. She was amazing. Around the same time Irma’s parents had adopted a kid inside the family, who a few years later came out to us as trans. I wish I’d been more supportive, but he wasn’t our child, and it was easy to not engage. If he’d been a trans woman, would I have felt differently? Probably. But he was a boy, and wanted to be something that I didn’t get.
Through some friends we got introduced to a trans hair stylist, and she cut my hair a few times. She was brave, I wasn’t, but she transitioned from presenting as a gay man to a straight woman, which wasn’t me. I knew I didn’t like boys. She came to one of my wife’s relative’s wedding receptions. There were jokes from people whose opinions I cared about. I stuffed my feelings down.
I went to tech conferences and started to see more trans women there. They were so brave, but seemed so lonely, or so I assumed. I complimented Ina Fried on her cute cardigan via a tweet at SXSW. I was the photographer at an AlterConf and was really proud when one of the trans woman presenters said my picture was the best one of her speaking anyone had ever taken. I joined Vox Media and worked with a trans woman while onboarding. We ended up in an elevator at a company all hands a month later with a bunch of sweaty old guys who wanted to chat. She held her composure. I was terrified for her. I was just a very understanding ally.
We were doing well, or so it seemed. We’d bought a bigger house, and had another kid, this time a little boy. I’d let myself go, and I was getting older. I got into fitness, one of my friends wanted a video-chat workout partner, so I started exercising four days a week. I lost weight, I got stronger. I was doing what I was supposed to as a guy.
Eventually the kids went to school, and I ended up on the playground during morning dropoff, five days a week sitting there watching other moms chat and be fashionable in their cute dresses or exhausted and comfortable in their athleisure. I wanted to be one of them more than anything. But I couldn’t be, I was just the very shy, loving dad. That went on for four years. I crammed everything down inside the best I could. I was blank and numb a lot of the time.
At home I started to take on the mom role more. I couldn’t help it. I loved it. I loved making the kids lunches and drawing little notes for them. I loved dropping them off at school, and putting them to bed at night. I loved making food for everyone, and seeing people sit down and enjoy it. I even sometimes liked doing the laundry. But it wasn’t enough.
Wanting to be a girl was still a shameful thing, and shameful things end up popping up in fantasy and when I was alone. It couldn’t go beyond that. The trans women I knew at work were brave and strong and lived in New York or San Francisco and were way different than me. I was just a guy who wanted to be a girl their whole life, and that was different, right? The fact that when the kids slipped up and called me mom it made super happy? Let’s not talk about that.
I had a temper that didn’t feel like mine. I’d tried testosterone injections for a while, but that hadn’t fixed me. I couldn’t really imagine the future, except through hazy visions from aspirational TV shows. I looked at older men and despaired of what I might turn into. I’d let my career be driven first by an ADHD driven distrust of authority, and then by attempting to impress my parents. It had made us comfortable but hadn’t made me really happy. Being able to put together families at work made me happy, especially as I was able to add more women to the teams I ran, but at the end of the day being a mom to some other grownups wasn’t enough. I needed to be something more.
In May of 2019 we packed up the family and went to PyCon in Cleveland. The python community, as a general rule, is nice to trans folks. I reluctantly put a ‘he/him’ sticker on my badge. But there were trans women there. Cute trans women with friends, who were accepted and celebrated, walking around in their cute dresses being cute and happy. Something inside of me cracked. I was miserable.
A month later Emily VanDerWerff came out as trans in a review of the Handmaid’s Tale. I’d loved Emily’s writing since she was reviewing Community at The A.V. Club. I’d seen myself in her writing about being adopted. She wasn’t a 20 year old, she was just a few years younger than me. She had a career. She had decided she couldn’t keep her secret anymore, and was happier for it.
I started reading experiences of more trans women. So many of them clicked. They’d experienced the same thing, had the same thoughts. They said that if you wanted to be a girl you could just be a girl. They said that it had saved their lives. In the end it turned out that it wasn’t about what I was allowed to do, or how pretty or passing I would be, or what society would approve of. It was about what I had to do for me so I could live.
A few months later I sobbingly confessed to Irma that I was a girl and I couldn’t not be. She was supportive, she didn’t try to convince me otherwise, but in that moment our whole relationship changed. The plans we had for our future suddenly evaporated, and we were back at square one.
We spent a lot of months trying to figure out what it meant. I started dressing more femme and pushing presentation boundaries. I made a lot more bad style choices. I’d been growing my hair out for a year, and Irma helped me find a trans friendly stylist who would give me a girly cut. We went on a bunch of trips that all felt like the last. I formed strong opinions about rose gold Disneyland Mouse ears. We went to Europe and I got a lot of second glances in airport bathrooms. Security folks were confused, pointing me back and forth between the boy and girl screeners, and I hadn’t even really started transitioning yet. Irma found me a place to start doing laser hair removal, trying to get rid of the beard that in nearly 30 years I’d never once grown out.
I realized if I was going to transition at work, I didn’t want to do it while I managed anyone. Forcing someone else to accept my transition seemed like too much. I left my team, and ended up floating. Vox was the most trans-friendly place I could imagine to transition, and I’d been avoiding thoughts of other directions my career could take for years because of it.
In February I came out to Emily VanDerWerff, and she invited me to a slack of hers with a bunch of other trans women. It was like coming home. Everyone had so many shared experiences, fears, hopes. I learned a ton, and had a caring group of people to vomit my fears onto who were going through or had gone through the same thing. I met straight and bi trans women who were attracted to men. I thought about it and came to a satisfactory conclusion that no, thanks, they could keep them. I even met a girl really into vintage fashion who I can share outfits and tips with.
I found a trans friendly therapist. Irma and I found an informed consent clinic where I could go and get a hormone replacement therapy prescription without jumping through too many hoops like presenting as a woman in public for a year. Irma went with me. I was so nervous when they took my blood pressure the doctor joked about how high it was. I asked the doctor how many people she’d prescribed hormones to, and how many people had stopped. She said she’d treated hundreds, and only two had stopped. One was a teen and probably hadn’t really figured things out, and the other had family pressure to not transition. That seemed like really good odds.
On Leap Day, in the airport in Dallas on our way to Japan I took my first dose of Spironolactone, a testosterone suppressant and Estradiol, to increase estrogen. Thankfully we were heading into a pandemic, and the next few weeks of traveling around Asia didn’t give me a lot of time to think about whether anything was happening. We got back, and got used to life in quarantine. Irma’s 16 year old trans brother moved in with us. We made sure to use the right name and pronouns. I didn’t have anger triggers like I did before. I could feel emotions more. Things that had been pushed down for so long were breaking loose. Animal Crossing came out and I setup my Nintendo Online account as Jennifer. It was just out there for all of my friends to see.
I got the opportunity to take a security role at Vox working for one of our only women Directors, the kind of savvy New Yorker who I was both in awe of and kind of terrified of. A few months later I told her, and asked her to look into what it would take to transition at work. She was nice and supportive and everything I needed.
Being extremely online since the mid 90’s, I’d gotten my first or full name as my username at a lot of places, something that came back to bite me. I wrote some python code tried cramming unique words together to find something that was broadly available. I landed on objectfox, throwing it all the way back to that text based role playing game 25 years before. I started changing usernames and switching account names to ‘J. Kramer’.
Irma and I created a spreadsheet of people we needed to tell. This person before that. Kids before parents. Parents before family. Family before work. Work before Twitter. We tried to figure out what to do with Facebook. In the end I mothballed it and started fresh.
I told the kids on June 12th. They took it well. My daughter was on board immediately. A little while later we were able to get our ears pierced together, which was a great mother/daughter bonding experience. My son took a little longer till he was there. He’d seen a lot of transphobic jokes and imagery in TV. It made him uncomfortable. Having a trans kid in the house already helped a little with the concept, but not so much with the execution. There weren’t as many jokes about trans men. But he came around, and he’s excited to have two moms.
I told Haley, my personal trainer a few days after the kids. She’d seen me go from paint splattered gym shorts to mauve leggings over two years, and even a pink unicorn onesie that one Halloween, and was one of the people I talked to most. I was anxious to tell her, because like every friendship, I treasured it and didn’t want to lose it, and like almost everyone I told from then on, she was super happy for me. Once I was out to the kids and out to Haley it was easier to go full time at home. Irma did my nails, something I’d never done before. I started ‘borrowing’ clothes I thought were cute from her side of the closet. The kids started calling me mum.
I told my parents on July 1st, and Irma told hers the next day. After months of presenting more femme before the pandemic, my parents weren’t surprised. They may have memories of me pushing the gender boundary that even I’ve forgotten, but they haven’t shared them yet. It took them a while to come around, but they eventually did. They compliment me on my cute dresses and tell me how much happier I seem.
A week after we told our parents I came out to our friends in Slack. Everyone was nice. I was scheduled to come out at work a week after that, but ended up having to push it a week at the last minute. That hurt, but Irma had arranged for a surprise drive by coming out party with our friends, which was beautiful and amazing. A week later when I came out at work everyone was nice. People I’d never even talked to wished me well. Two days later I posted a tweet to Twitter, and a few days after that a story on Instagram, and I was out. I was Jennifer. From beginning to end it took 2 months.
Transitioning in the pandemic has been a mixed blessing. I was able to basically go full time only 4 months into hormones, because my style is super femme and I wear a mask whenever I’m out. On the other hand, I was only able to come out in person to Nadia, my friend and editor of Eater Austin, and I haven’t been able to give people hugs I’ve been dying to give for years. I also can’t hang out with the other moms at school, because dropoff is a quick, contactless affair in a time of COVID. But those things will happen in time, and they’ll be just as sweet when they do.
My voice is still awful. Hormones don’t do anything for that, and after 3 attempts I’m still without a voice therapist. I need to do something about the blonde hair on my face that laser didn’t get, but we’re looking into options for that. Hormones can make your feet and hands shrink and can make you shorter, as the fat redistributes and the cartilage changes. I may have lost half a shoe size, but I’m still 5’10” and wide shouldered. Fortunately fat is moving around other places, which is nice, and when I look in the mirror I can kinda see something that I like. I have no idea how well I pass, which isn’t something all trans women want, but is something that’s important to me. I still have a long way to go, but those first big steps have been taken, and I love who I am.
I try not to think about transitioning earlier. I have friends who’ve transitioned at 23, and some who’ve transitioned at 53, and we’re all kind of jealous of the kids who transition at 13. We have the same fears, some of us just have more mileage. We all try to have hope for the future.
Our future is still hazy, and transitioning has cut off a lot of options. I’m glad we went to Africa before I transitioned. There’s a lot of anxiety about even visiting Mexico. But there are nice things, too. I love being me and being accepted in women’s spaces I was a stranger to before. I love being able to have honest conversations with my girl friends as myself. I love swapping hair and makeup tips with the waitstaff when I pick up to go dinner. I love that Irma and I merged our closet together. I love putting time into doing my hair and knowing it looks good, and I love not wanting to bother and throwing it into a hairclip. I love being more emotionally honest. I love people who haven’t come out yet reaching out and letting me know that I encouraged them. And now I can look at older women and go ‘hmm, yea, that seems nice, I could be her and be happy’.
October 2020 Note: I wrote this blog post back in 2015, in the wake of Oberfell v. Hodges when a lot of my friends were getting their rights. Back then I hadn’t admitted how important these thoughts and feelings were, and it would be another 4 years before I finally acted on them. A lot of things in this post are ignorant and wrong, and having gone through some of it I know better now, but we all start somewhere.
[Spoilers for The Rapture of the Nerds follow, as well as triggers for: Fashion, anime, gender identity, religion, politics, Star Wars and the singularity.]
In the book The Rapture of the Nerds, half way through the narrative the main character is turned from a male into a female by a swarm of cyborg ants who are using the character as a conduit to communicate with a solar-system wide post-singularity society. It’s that kind of book. For reasons which will eventually become clear, this plot twist has led me to some thoughts about gender, computers, what normal really means, and what the technological future holds.
Trope, Trope, Trope…
It speaks to what gender is turning into that The Rapture of the Nerds is a book where the main character switches gender, and the main character’s love interest is gender fluid, and it isn’t a book about that. The switch between genders takes up at most a page, and then it’s just done. Things are different, but also the same. Different viewpoint, people treat you a little different, but you’re still you.
Gender fluidity is a powerful plot device because it’s so far from our accepted understanding of how the world works. We see people get taller (though not often shorter), we see hair change color after a trip to the salon, and weight goes up (generally) and down (rarely). All of these things effect their perspective on the world, too, but nothing has quite the bite gender has. Neil Gaiman plays around with it in the world of magic in Stardust, turning Bernard the goat herder into the Witch Queen’s pretend daughter. In the movie it goes about like you’d expect. I’d forgotten that Charles Stross had played with the trope before in Glasshouse, where people switch gender as a component of reinventing themselves, since they can live essentially forever.
There are gobs more of these references on TV Tropes. One I’d forgotten before I started writing this post was Ranma 1/2, where the whole show is based around the character switching genders when doused with cold or hot water. In that show it’s a magical spring, and after getting used to the gender switch ability, Ranma starts to use it to his/her benefit (when it isn’t being used for hilarious comedic effect).
Nature vs Nurture
Gender is on a long list of things that some people don’t feel correct about. I have friends who are really tall who probably hate it, friends who are really short who hate that, friends whose genetics (aided by our national food production system and our society’s cavalier approach to work/life balance) leaves them way bigger than they want to be.
I bet quite a few people who are 4′ 2″ would say they don’t feel short on the inside. 6′ 5″ people probably don’t always relish their tall-ness. We watch TV and movies and all see the world from the same viewpoint, but once you look around in person, suddenly you’re towering over or being towered over. My wife and I just started playing the two most height-contrasting characters in the video game Borderlands 2. Zer0 is tall, my wife playing him is 5′ 2″. I’m playing Salvador, who’s super-short, and I’m 5′ 10″. The weirdness in perspective comes up in our conversations a lot.
Spend much time with kids, and you start to notice nascent gender identity dissonance. Boys who want to play with purses or wear tutus. Girls who only want to wear jeans and t-shirts. We have a couple of these in our extended family, and they’re interesting to watch, because at that age they aren’t savvy enough about the world to hide what they want. They don’t know what they’re going to turn into, they’re just bewildered little proto-people, dealing with things they don’t have words for yet.
Some people would say that kids just grow out of these kind of issues, and some do. It’s entirely possible that they tend to one gender identity or the other for a while due to an emotionally impactful circumstance or a strong authority figure, but there are more than a few kids whose bodies and mental models just don’t add up.
As you get older, puberty hits, the whole world is a confusing maelstrom of wants and needs and desires and eventually in your 20s you get spit out the other side. By this time I’d guess that most of the people whose brains and bodies don’t match have gotten really good at not mentioning it, because once you get past elementary school, it starts to be less cute and more cognitively dissonant for a large portion of society.
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to make a whole bunch of gay and lesbian friends. They’re making huge strides towards general societal acceptance, and that’s awesome. Those whose disconnect isn’t with society’s assumptions but with physical manifestations still have a ways to go. Some people at the top have their back, but it’s probably going to take another generational shift for full acceptance.
The True Hero of Star Wars
When I was a kid I lived in Spain, and while we didn’t have TV, we did have two movies that I can remember. One was Star Wars (A New Hope) and the other was 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. Kids repurpose roles they identify with, and I wanted to be Princess Leia.
I’m going to digress a little here and make an argument that Leia is by far the most heroic of the Star Wars cast. Which character in Star Wars actually confronts the bad guy face to face (and survives)? Which one has the fortitude of spirit to not break under torture? Which one takes charge when the mission goes awry? Which one is resourceful enough to pull the Jedi Knight who was just bumming around back into action at the appropriate time? Princess Leia, of course. While the other characters are wandering around, frozen in carbonite or throwing rocks at big monsters in a pit, she kills a bad guy single handedly. While wearing a bikini. She’s so totally obviously the hero! Anyway.
I also wanted to be Maid Marian. I don’t have a really good argument on that one. Olivia de Havilland is the bomb, though. Olivia won two Oscars, to Errol’s none. She was knighted in France in 2010, and still bums around Paris today, at 96, showing up at Cannes or getting National Medals of Arts from US Presidents. Errol died from a heart attack at 50 and had a thing for jailbait. Which one would you want to be?
The crazy thing about gender identity is how distinct desire can be from identity and physical manifestation. There are boys who are born male who like girls, there are girls who are born female who like boys, but there’s also every other varying combination, and even varying degrees.
Some more conservative minded might view this as a bad thing, but in the context of a rapidly accelerating civilization, this mix is an awesome feature of our crazy genetics. Diversity of views and opinions gives you the East Village and the Internet. Homogenous, hierarchical group-think gives you Jonestown or Hitler. As a society that’s more and more interconnected we continue to create bigger and bigger problems, and problems that can only be solved by a diversity of thought. As a society we can’t go down into the fallout shelter and play Pleasantville, that’s just not feasible. We have to go forward.
Dealing With It
I’m lucky in so far that I like girls. If I didn’t, my life would be a lot harder. My gay friends go through a lot, and they go through it every day. What do you do when the hospital tells you that you can’t be with your husband/wife when they’re ill, or get their survivor benefits when you’ve been the homemaker for fifty years and your partner dies? That’s messed up. Other folks on the spectrum bear an even bigger burden, people don’t want to accept that everyone isn’t born the way they feel they are inside. Just go read this MetaFilter post and linked McSweeny’s column and tell me it’s easy and that it isn’t heartbreaking to be so awkward and weird in your body. Go on, I’ll wait.
Societies evolve to deal with gender dissonance issues in different ways. India has the Hijra, biological males who take on a female gender identity. In the Balkans you have the burrnesha, women who take a vow of chastity and live as men. Native American tribes had Two-Spirit People, who manifest both masculine and feminine aspects. Thailand has its share of gender identities. This isn’t a new thing.
Your physical gender, just like your height, the size of your feet or your weight is something you just have to deal with. Human beings are really, really good at just dealing with situations they’re in. It isn’t optimal, but we can put up with a lot, and desensitize to a lot. I think that’s what people are referring to when they say that a kid will grow out of it. They learn to blend, because it’s easier. Life’s hard enough. You make friends, you get a job, you start a family, and suddenly there are obligations that steer you towards the normal you didn’t have before. There are probably still bits of that identity floating around, though. It isn’t something that just disappears.
Gender as Metadata
So, back to the Technium. Technology likes to solve problems, and gender dissonance and figuring out who you are and what you want is definitely an addressable problem. It isn’t a surprise that people play with gender presentation a lot online. You can’t tell who’s behind the keyboard, and for a lot of people playing a video game or logging into an online game or chat is the perfect environment to try and get a better handle on gender identity.
When I logged in to my first online game I created a female character. It was a safe place where no one knew me and I could be whatever I wanted, and what I wanted to do was play with the experience of gender. We do the same thing with paper Role Playing Games, when we watch a movie or TV show told from the opposite gender’s viewpoint, or when we play pretend as kids. It’s the process of pulling that identity out, playing with parts of it, and seeing how it feels. After a year with that character (and a couple teary emotional breakdowns that would have been a lot worse at school) I switched to a male character, not coincidently around the same time the game started having real-life meetups. Nobody really cared, it was what the game was for.
Some video games take a stab at addressing that gender dissonance, possibly inadvertently but probably not. When you create a game where players can be either gender, have relationships with either gender, and wear a bunch of different kinds of clothes, people will naturally play around with it. I’ve known a couple of people who ride that gender identity boundary, and some of them make livings designing games. It’s a safe place to play, and it’s fun to enable.
I’ve written a blog post about Weavrs, little social software bots with personality that you wind up and let go to live their virtual lives. I have a Weavr named Keiko. She lives in Yokosuka, Japan, where I lived for a little while when I was tiny. In a way, she’s a really, really simple virtual manifestation of the dimorphism of gender, sprung from my id. I created her, there’s part of me in her interests and location, but she’s a she, and I’m not. That plays with the concept a little, and it’s an interesting place to start.
Having a female WoW character or a female Commander Shepard is nice, but it doesn’t encompass the entire female experience. (That is possibly the biggest understatement of the year.) Change to enable a full experience is hard, but that may be the next great frontier in the application of gender technology.
Ray Kurzweil thinks we’re heading for the techno-fication of biology. Nanomachines, personally-tailored genetic re-writers, that sort of assumption-breaking technology. We’re probably not looking at a world like Neil Gaiman’s Changes, where a pill turns you from boy to girl or back overnight, but it isn’t inconceivable to think that our grandkids could be living in a world where their friends take a couple month vacation and come back as Mr instead of Miss, or Miss instead of Mr. Once that starts to happen, or even starts to poke its head over the horizon, society’s going to have to deal with it, and a sizable silent population might suddenly appear and say “Hey, that’s us.”
What the baby steps toward that future look like, I don’t know. Right now gender reassignment takes a lot of drugs and knives, and is terrifying. I’m amazed anyone is that brave. In fifteen or twenty years, you might get an injection of nano-machines with RNA-rewriting protein engines that do all the work with none of the fuss. In that future your gender might just be a temporary tag, just like your other physical attributes, like how old you look or what race you present as. At that point does it matter what you were born? If you can be short or tall, skinny or curvy, boy or girl, will making those changes be as common as dying your hair?
Far into the future, once the singularity hits and we all upload our brains into machines, we can pretty much do whatever we want. Flip a virtual switch and change your simulated meatware, like Second Life but hyper-real. Multi-hued dragon one day, Siamese cat the next.
I imagine there will be a lot of Ryan Goslings and Scarlett Johanssons (or whoever the equivalents might be in 2070) wandering around. But not me. If I’m still kicking it then, when I’m not a Falcon or Harrison Ford, I’m totally going to be Olivia de Havilland.
Half way through the interview loop I realized that things had changed. Sometime in my 20 years of web development, I’d become the seasoned hand. The voice of experience. The old guy.
The startup whose conference room I was sitting in was young. Established, but still maturing. Three of their junior developers sat across the table from me. We’d run out of questions early. What do you ask someone who’s been developing for the web since before Netscape 1.0, and who’s about to leave a great gig at a top technology company? The only question that seemed relevant was the obvious one, asked after the formalities had run their course: “So, why do you want to come here?”
Time for a Change
Let’s wind the clock back to April, when I was a Tech Lead on the Big Data team at HP Helion, their enterprise cloud product. Before I joined HP I’d never considered myself a big company person. I figured that there were people who went to school and got CS degrees and did corporate development, and there were the rest of us who scraped up knowledge where we could and built the web. But at the end of 2010, thanks to some friends I’d made building said web, I found myself at HP, doing DevOps work on their Cloud offering. Over the next four and a half years I had the opportunity to learn Python, build a PaaS from scratch, file patents, speak at conferences, and finally, build and lead a team shipping a major tentpole feature on a major product. I even got to create a weekly engineering newsletter. It was a great run, and I was very lucky to have it.
Four and a half years is a long time, though, and the industry landscape has changed significantly. The Nest thermostat, Raspberry Pi, Minecraft, AR/VR resurgence, mobile as a serious platform, IoT, AI. All of them have exploded since I joined HP. While working on the cloud was interesting, you can only build ‘give me some servers with some software on them’ so many times. So this spring, after shipping Helion Development Platform 1.0 and handing off my team, I started looking for the next thing.
My criteria for the next gig were:
Somewhere I could learn something totally new (not a cloud hosting service or product).
An exciting industry or a space experiencing a big transformation.
A smart team and smart founders.
An office in south/central Austin so I could see people face to face.
A flexible work-from-home policy since the kids are small.
A progressive company with a social conscience.
Make enough to pay the mortgage and keep the kids in school, but not so much that I’d feel obligated to work every waking moment.
Unfortunately, aside from sending feelers out to my network, I didn’t have a good idea of where to find this gig. Most of the folks I’d worked with at HP had moved on to similar cloud projects, or were working on service mechanics. After four and a half years of working primarily for people outside of Austin (and having kids, which makes meetups hard), I’d lost touch with what was going on here in town. So how would I find the companies looking for talent in Austin who’d be interested in me? I didn’t know, and to make things more complicated, I had a really short time window. The project I was leading was about to start a serious development cycle, and I felt like my departure wouldn’t have as big a negative impact if I could give them notice before the planning really started. HP had been good to me, and I wanted to do the classy thing. In the end, my job hunt window was about three weeks.
One of my buddies is a Director of Engineering at a growing bay area software firm, which means he’s always on the lookout for talent. Whenever I started talking about the next thing, he would say, “You should check out HIRED.” HIRED is a curated tech placement matchmaking service, and I hadn’t payed them too much attention until this year, because they hadn’t been in Austin. But now they were, and by funny coincidence, they’d just sponsored the PyLadies Austin meetup that my wife helps organize. So at the beginning of April, I signed up.
The first step at HIRED is filling out a profile. They can import from LinkedIn, which is what I did. After a little text tweaking, you’re set for their staff to review you. The next day I had a phone chat with Amanda, their talent advocate here in Austin. You can think of Amanda as a tech yenta. She knows what companies in town are looking for, and she talks to candidates to figure out what they’re looking for, and she tries to make good matches.
After my chat with Amanda (which was short, because I’d lost my voice the day before), my profile was set to go into the weekly batch. HIRED releases their resumes on Monday mornings to the companies using them. Those companies get to look through the candidates, and pick who they want to send an interview request to.
By Monday afternoon I had three interview requests, two from Austin startups, and one from a distributed company headquartered in the bay area. None of them were companies I’d heard of before, and one of them was doing really interesting product development for humanitarian purposes. So far, exactly what I was hoping for.
Monday afternoon, after the most pro-active companies had checked the new candidates and sent their interview requests, Amanda looked through the system and sent me a half dozen ‘Would you be interested in…?’ emails. Of these companies, I’d heard of three before and had either had initial conversations with them or knew it wasn’t the right fit. The other two seemed promising, so I had Amanda contact them on my behalf.
I had initial phone conversations with the companies, some of which went really well, a few of which weren’t a great fit. After an interview you can rate it, and if it didn’t go well, HIRED can let them know you aren’t interested. It makes saying, ‘Thanks, but we’re not right for each other,’ really painless. Some front-runners were emerging. I started making pro and con lists. The most promising companies in town wanted to do face to face interviews, so we started figuring out times. I was speaking at ApacheCon, which ended up pushing them all to Friday.
Friday came and I ended up with two face to face interviews, both for Senior Rails Developer positions, both for companies doing an interesting blend of software platform and physical product. Which is how I found myself sitting across a conference room table from a trio of junior developers, amazed at how the time had flown since I was the junior kid sitting across the table.
A Wild Media Company Appears!
So where did I end up? I had three HIRED companies on my short list, but eventually, it came back to some advice I’d gotten from the friend who referred me to HIRED. “Figure out what you really want to do.” It’s easy to take that with a grain of salt, but if you’re serious about it, and figure out that one thing that you would drop everything for, suddenly everything can become clear. I want to work on the intersection of machines and stories. I think interacting with a software bot or agent is going to be a super-prevalent paradigm in the next few years. I did a whole presentation about it at SXSW 2013, and another one this year.
One of the feelers I’d sent out before I joined HIRED was to Trei Brundrett and Skip Baney of Vox Media. I’d worked with Skip at Polycot in the mid 2000’s, and Trei had referred some of our best clients to us. We had lunch during ApacheCon, started talking about narrative software, and Trei said, “Hey, you should come join us and make cool stories.” So now I’m at Vox Media, making VR experiences and hacking on a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have been able to at a company that’s more diverse in people and expertise than anywhere else I was looking.
The experience of using HIRED was great, though, and I’d recommend it to anyone (and have). Amanda was awesome. If you’re in a position where you’ve either gotten out of touch with your local tech community, or you’ve moved to a new city and you don’t have a feel for the local market, I’d definitely give them a shot. All total I talked to 7 companies, had 3 on my short list, and did one serious interview loop. Everyone I talked to was great, and while they were all doing cool work, the opportunity at Vox was just too good to pass up.
Your profile stays up on HIRED for 2 weeks, but you get the bulk of your requests in the first week. I had a mix of contacts, some from hiring managers, some from CTOs, and some from CEOs. Some of the conversations with CTOs and CEOs were so good, and the companies were doing such interesting work, I’ve referred other people to them. For the hiring companies that use the service to it’s full potential it’s a great way to get past the recruiter/hiring manager firewall. If you’re thinking about making a move, I heartily recommend them.
Spring break has come and gone in Austin, which means that we’re recovering from another amazing SXSW Interactive festival. This year for me was a year of narrative story technologies and Community. For the last several years I’ve been going to SXSW with my wife, Irma, and this year she had her own session. That meant she spent a lot of time in the women in tech tracks, and we didn’t see each other as much as usual. It’ll be interesting to read her write up, when she gets to it.
Friday – Al, Tim, BBQ, Old Friends, & 3D Printed Clothes
While we didn’t have time to get to the Life in the OASIS session, we had some time to burn till the session after, so Irma and I headed to Exhibit Hall 5, which is big and always has a lot of room to plop down and get your stuff sorted. SXSW is the kind of conference where you can be just looking for a place to get your bearings and end up listening to Al Gore talk about climate change, the Pope, and his newfound optimism, which is exactly what happened.
After Al we moved up front for a presentation from perennial SXSW personality Tim Ferriss, who had a 30 minute How To Rock SXSW in 4 Hours talk, followed by QA. It’s always weird for me to see Tim at SXSW. I was on the first row of his first SXSW talk on the tiny Day Stage promoting the about to be released 4 Hour Work Week, way back in 2007. To say our paths diverged would be an interesting understatement. The main points of Tim’s talk were: Don’t be a jerk and treat everyone like they could make your career (because they probably can),. He had some hangover cure suggestions (eat avocados before you go party), and reminded all the introverts to take the time to breathe.
One anecdote he told on the treating everyone well point was from one of his early CESes. He spent most of his time in the bloggers lounge (a good place to meet people), and while everyone was trying to get the attention of Robert Scoble, he chatted up the lady checking people in. Eventually he made a comment about Robert, and she said, “Oh, you should totally talk to him. He’s my husband, let me give you a ring back in San Francisco and we’ll have lunch.” So yea, you never know who people are. I was standing in line at a session later in the conference and started talking to the lady next to me, who turned out to be the head of innovation at Intuit.
After Tim it was time for lunch, and we ended up at Ironworks BBQ. They have a $16.45 3 meat sampler plate (beef rib, sausage, and brisket), and well… a picture’s worth a thousand words…
Our buddy Matt Sanders (formerly a Polycot, then an HPer, and now at Librato) was in town from San Francisco for the conference, and joined us to indulge in smoked meat. We ended up eating at Ironworks at least 3 more times, which was kind of expensive, but fast and good.
After lunch Matt and I headed over to the new JW Marriott to a panel from Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen titled Ready to Wear? Body Informed 3D Printed Fashion. This session was a perfect example of what makes SXSW such a unique conference: It’s a subject that I’m curious about, but one I’d never go to a conference specifically to see. Pauline was wearing some of her tech-enabled fashions (a shirt with solar cells embedded in it), and talked about how fashion meets technology and how often in technology we design for the static (interlocking shapes), not the organic. She profiled two of her projects, one a sleeve that morphs based on the wearer’s movement, and the other a neck ruff that uses electrically contracting wire to ‘breathe’ while worn. The challenges she faced (48 hour print cycles, unpredictability of material behavior) and insights discovered were really interesting, and it was one of the panels I kept thinking about most over the next few days.
After this panel I wandered through the job fair for a bit, which has expanded significantly in the last year. It was interesting to see Target and Apple looking for candidates at SXSW.
Saturday – Storytelling Machines, Future Crime, New Parents in Tech
First thing Saturday morning was my session with Jon Lebkowsky: Machines That Tell Stories. We had a great turnout, and there are notes from the discussion at the link. Looking over the schedule, storytelling and storytelling systems were a very hot topic. I was talking to Deus Ex Machina (an interactive theater project) producer Robert Matney later that it felt like the story zeitgeist erupted out of nowhere, and the flood of sessions made for a very interesting conference. The discussion was really interesting, and it was gratifying to hear that there was a lot of cross-pollination between attendees. I even heard that people were still connecting at the airport on their way home.
Chris Hurd, one of my friends and the guy behind DVinfo.net, gave me a tip one time from his years working big trade shows like NAB: The best way to keep a spring in your step at a long conference is to change your socks in the middle of the day. So after leading our session, and stopping into the 3M booth, we went back to the car, dumped our stuff, and I changed my socks. We had a long day ahead of us, and it was definitely worth it.
Next I went to a session titled Future Crimes From the Digital Underworld by Marc Goodman. It’s always interesting to see the people who’ve given a talk a lot of times versus people who are presenting the material for the first time. Marc’s obviously really practiced at this talk, complete with jokes, audience-call-outs, and what have you. It’s a fun talk, but the net-net is that everything in security is terrible, and it’s just going to get worse with trillions of IoT devices. I didn’t need Marc to tell me that. I have TaylorSwift.
After that was Irma’s meetup: New Parents in Tech. She had an interesting turnout, with only one other woman (there was a lot of competition for the women technologist this year, with a strong moms in tech panel opposite), but a lot of dads. Two product guys from Fisher Price showed up, too, and I had an interesting discussion with them about Baby’s Musical Hands (Clara’s first app) and iPad cases (they don’t sell many anymore, possibly due to the kid market saturating with hand-me-downs). After a good discussion, it was on to…
Ok, I’ll admit it. Community is my biggest takeaway from SXSW. It’s my favorite TV show, the only thing I watch obsessively. I’ve seen every episode, most of them a half dozen times. I follow the actors (even the lesser-known ones) on twitter. Fanboy = Me.
Yahoo! Screen picked up Community last year after NBC didn’t renew it. The switch from broadcast to streaming distribution made it perfect SXSW fodder, especially after the Harmontown documentary premiered at SXSW Film last year. Yahoo! pulled out the big guns, though, and beyond just having Dan show up to talk about the switch, they brought the whole cast, and premiered the 1st episode of the new season a few days early for the fans. It was epic.
We had great seats for Harmontown, and were next to the stage when they brought out the cast and showed the season premier. When they showed the episode everybody sat down on the floor, and in one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been in the middle of, we all sang along kumbaya style to the theme song.
The episode was great, and we had a wonderful time.
The next morning, after a panel I’ll talk about in a second, was a SXSW panel with the Community cast. Everyone was there again, and there was a great discussion about the show. For my money, it was even more interesting than Community’s previous Paleyfest discussions, probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a real moderator, just Dan Harmon asking the cast questions. We had front row seats for that one, too.
Some notes for Community fans:
In the QA someone mentioned Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design as their favorite (it’s my favorite too, I was the weirdo in the audience who applauded at that), and Dan told a story about how they essentially threw out the last 1/3rd of the episode (the original ending involved the teachers creating the conspiracy) while they were shooting. The final scene didn’t get scripted until they were in the study room blocking it off. They had NBC Standards and Practices on the phone, because there’s a lot of gunplay, and they were describing it, and finally the person from Standards and Practices said ‘Is there any way you can make it about gun safety?’ And if you’ve seen the episode, that’s how the ending happened. Lots of Community episodes come together at the last minute.
The speech Ben Chang gives in Analysis of Cork-Based Networking (about the character being a real person, but just being portrayed as crazier and crazier) was lifted nearly verbatim from an email Ken Jeong wrote to Dan Harmon about the character. When Ken was performing it, he teared up (those are real tears) because he was so touched.
Alison Brie’s contract is up this season, we’ll see if she’s back if they make a movie or Season 7.
In discussing the longer episodes now that they aren’t constrained by NBC commercial breaks, Joel McHale noted that The Dick Van Dyke Show episodes were 29 minutes, which made me think that there’s an interesting comparison between The Dick Van Dyke Show as Community and I Love Lucy as The Big Bang Theory.
Before the morning Community panel was a session titled Worlds Without Boundaries: Books, Games, Films, with James Frey (author and media maker) and Jon Hanke (architect behind Google’s Ingress game). It was a fascinating discussion about media that crosses boundaries. James mentioned he was heavily inspired as a kid by the book Masquerade, which included puzzles and a treasure hunt in the real world. In his series, Endgame, there’s a puzzle pointing to keys that unlock a chest in the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas holding $.5, $1, and $1.5 million dollars in gold (per book, respectively). They’re doing an app with Niantic Labs (Google), and they’re planning films. It’s an interesting product development scheme: Have a stable of creatives come up with a world. Sell some of the rights (film, TV), partner to do some products (games), and do others in house (books, novellas).
After the Community panel I spent some time in the SXSW trade show. General themes this year were lots of Japanese hardware startups (on Kickstarter, natch), lots of countries, and almost no hosting or cloud booths (save for Softlayer). A lot more music, and a little ergonomic furniture. Overall a less interactive-heavy trade show than years gone by. I’m not entirely sure why that was, but there you go. Wordpress didn’t come with their great t-shirts this year, so I guess I’ll have to actually go to the store to buy my clothes. I did manage to pick up a new Olloclip, though, and even got to see it built in front of me.
In the afternoon I made it over to Automated Insights panel When Robots Write The News, What Will Humans Do?, moderated by James Kotecki, Automated Insights’ PR guy. This was an great discussion between Robbie Allen, the CEO of Automated Insights, and Lou Ferrara, a VP from Associated Press. Automated Insights’ software produces AP stories in sports and stock reporting from raw data, and it was interesting to hear their discussion about what will be automated and where human value really lies. Automated Insights thing is producing one billion pieces of content for one person each, which I think everyone can agree is where a large part of the content we consume is headed.
After the Automated Insights panel I headed over to SXSW Create, the free maker area of the conference. While I was there I got to try out Lumo, a new interactive projector for kids that’s about to hit Indiegogo. More on that later.
The Gaming Expo next door to Create was as crazy as ever, and really starting to outgrow the space they have for it. The only larger space downtown is the Convention Center, though, which puts them in kind of a bind. VR headsets were everywhere (almost always accompanied by lines of people waiting to use them), and it was good to see indie games like That Dragon, Cancer represented.
Monday – API Fails, Narrative Systems, Non-Linear Story Environments, Enchanted Objects, Home Projector Installations, & BBQ Science
Instead, Matt and I went to the MedTech expo, and saw an interesting startup doing a small wireless body temp monitor for babies (slap a bandage over it, battery’s good for a month), some interesting sleep trackers (lot of quantified self folks at SXSW) and of course Withings with their smart watch whose batteries work for 8 months.
Elena and Michael’s presentation was one of the most meaty of the sessions I attended, full of helpful, hard-won insights into interactive projects. Slides are available here, and audio is here.. They showcased three: Deja View, a project for Infinity where actors you see on screen talk to you through the phone (dynamic video branching and voice recognition), Hunted, an ARG-like that used some clever magic tricks to make users think they were being controlled, and a project for the From Dusk Till Dawn TV series, where players could call in and talk to the character Santanico Pandemonium and she would try to recruit them for her cult (branching narrative, voice recognition).
Some of my major takeaways from the presentation:
MaxMax: Elena talked about how while in games you program for MinMax (system constantly minimizes the players chances while maximizes the games chances, by attacking the player, moving enemies toward them, etc), in interactive story experiences you want to optimize for MaxMax, where you give the users as much of a chance of progressing as you can. They’re likely only going to experience it once (replay value not being high, except for people who want to understand how the system works), so work as hard as you can to make sure they succeed.
Embrace Genre: When you’re giving people a new and unfamiliar experience, ground them in tropes and genre conventions they already understand. That way they have something to hold on to.
3 Act Structure: Use the standard exposition, rising action, climax story structure. Everybody understands it, it works, if you’re re-inventing all the other wheels, don’t re-invent that one.
Magic!: There’s an interesting cross-over with the magic community. They worked with a magician to design some of their interactive tricks (powered, in the end, by people sitting in a call center). Fooling the brain is what they do, and is what delights our users.
Don’t Branch: Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure stories use a branching structure, which leads to some short experiences and some long ones. That’s a negative for experiences you want users to fully enjoy, so instead of branches, create a looping structure where each act breaks into sections, but they all come back at the end. Something like this: -=-=-=-
Test: When you’re testing an interactive narrative, write out only the main 80% line first, and test it on 5 people. This will validate your assumptions about how most people will view it, and won’t waste your time creating alternate paths if your base assumptions are broken. Once you’ve passed 5, write out the rest and test on 50 people (I think this was how it went, they should post the slides soon) to validate your overall script. Then run a production beta test on as many people as you can to get data for all the subtle things you wouldn’t expect.
On the way to my next panel I walked by the SXSW bookstore, and noticed that David Rose whose book Enchanted Objects I’d done a double-take on a few days before was going to be signing it just about then. So I bought a copy and a few minutes later David showed up, and we had a great 10 minute long conversation about projection mapped interactive art objects. David teaches at the MIT media lab, in addition to a lot of other stuff, and his book has moved straight to the top of my to-read stack. It sounds exactly like a subject I’ve posted about here before, and something that feels like it’s moving from Bruce Sterling design fiction to real world product very quickly.
After talking to David I headed to the Storytelling Engines for Smart Environments panel, which had Meghan Athavale (aka Meg Rabbit) from Lumo Play on it. Meg’s been doing interactive projection installations in Museums for many years, and has had the question ‘Can I get this in my house?’ posed more than a few times. Recently component prices have been dropping, so she’s designed the Lumo Interactive Projector, a projector based toy for kids, and is about to run an Indiegogo for it. Meg’s the kind of entrepreneur you can’t help but root for. She came to SXSW by herself, set up a booth in Create, and is trying to drum up as much excitement as she can. I really hope her Indiegogo is a big hit.
After Storytelling Engines I headed over to the GE BBQ Research Center with Matt and Irma for some free BBQ. It was good, but Irma didn’t care for it. Research accomplished!
Tuesday – AR/VR, Moonshots, New Assets, Space Cleaners, & Happy Bruce
Tuesday morning I hit the Mixed Reality Habitats: The New Wired Frontier panel presented by IEEE. My biggest ‘wow’ takeaway, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what Microsoft’s up to with Hololens or those Magic Leap guys (light fields?) with their headset, was from Todd Richmond, Director at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, who said his group felt that most people would be wearing headsets (Google Glass-like or Hololens AR like, or Oculus Rift VR like) 8 hours a day for work in 5-10 years. When someone says something like that, I think it’s time to take notice. Consider the headsets of today as the original iPhone. Think about how far we’ve come in the 6 years since that was released.
After that I watched Astro Teller speak about Moonshots at Google [x]. His main point was that they always strive to fail quickly and get real-life feedback as fast as possible. He talked about a bunch of wild projects they’re working on like delivery drones, internet by high-altitude self-driving balloons, kite-based wind power, the self-driving car, and others. With each he emphasized how failure early lead to faster learning.
I hit a session entitled How to Rob a Bank: Vulnerabilities of New Money, with some fairly impressive speakers. Their main point seemed to be that your personal information is an emerging asset class that you should be concerned about. That just like your dollars in a bank, your purchase history and address and Facebook posts have value, and we don’t really know how to protect that yet.
On our way back through the trade show Irma and I ran into Astroscale, a company from Singapore started by some Japanese ex-finance guys (follow me, here). They’ve hired engineering resources to design a satellite that will de-orbit space debris. Imagine that your $150 million dollar satellite is going to be impacted by a bit of out-of-control space junk. You pay these guys $10 million, and then go find that space junk, attach their micro-satellite to it, and de-orbit it before it can crash into you. And they’re running a promotional time capsule project with Pocari Sweat and National Geographic to collect well wishes from kids and send them via a SpaceX launch to the moon. So yea, 30 years after Reagan’s Star Wars and Brilliant Pebbles, and here’s what we’ve got. I’m surprised it isn’t on Kickstarter.
The end of SXSW is always Bruce Sterling’s talk, and this year was no different. Bruce was kind of happy this year, and was almost channeling Temple Grandin in appearance, but happy Bruce isn’t always most interesting Bruce. If you’d like to give his talk a listen, it’s up on SoundCloud. Hopefully next year he’ll have some tales from Casa Jasmina to share.
So that was it, SXSW Interactive 2015. 5 days of old friends, new friends, stories, the future, BBQ, and space junk. I can’t wait to see you next year!
Last Saturday at SXSW InteractiveJon Lebkowsky and I curated a Core Conversation titled Machines That Tell Stories. I proposed the topic as a book project to Jon last year, and we put together this discussion as a stepping stone. Software storytellers are in the air. There were over a dozen sessions at SXSW this year on storytelling systems, and that kind of consensus usually heralds a new wave about to break. We’ve setup a twitter and tumblr for this project, if you want to follow along.
Our argument: Software is moving beyond raw data and into narrative. First it will help you weave the tales you want to spin, but soon it may be telling stories better than all but the best human storytellers.
The conversation was all over the place, and I don’t think anyone recorded it, but here are some notes and references that could be helpful…
Lisa Cron’sWired for Story: “A story is how what happens affects someone who’s trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how she changes as a result.”
Wired For Story Takeaway: Story is about mechanics, the trappings that you think of as important aren’t as critical as hitting the right beats that resonate with the human brain.
Games by Angelina – Procedurally generated videogames, played through brute-force to see if they’re solvable. Potentially compare play throughs to known-pleasing physical interactions (progressively more complex button presses and movements)
Mechanical Turk as a part of a story machine, using human filtering to produce more compelling procedural content
Turing in The Imitation Game: The question isn’t whether machines will think like humans, it’s whether machines will think like machines.
tmbotg – Random TMBG tweeting bot, sometimes interacted with by humans due to serendipity
Why limit to text? Is software that generates a song based on your day’s quantified self data creating a story?
Some thoughts on RPGs and God games that keep playing when you aren’t watching, and what new hardware platforms like the Raspberry Pi and cheap tablets might mean for them.
A few days ago a new iOS app called Dreeps landed in my news feed, heralded with headlines like Maybe The Laziest RPG You Could Ever Play and A Video Game That Plays Itself. Dreeps is an app where a little robot boy goes on an adventure, Japanese RPG style. You set an alarm to tell him to rest, and that’s it. When the alarm goes off, he gets up and gets on with his adventure, fighting monsters and meeting NPCs. There’s pixel art and chiptune audio. Dialog is word balloons with squiggly lines for text. It’s all very atmospheric. You just don’t do anything, really, but watch when you want and suggest he get up when he’s resting after a fight.
Dreeps is a lot like Godville, a game I talked about in a post about Pocket Worlds back in 2012. They’re games that (appear, depending on the implementation) to be running and progressing even when you’re not around. While Godville does its magic with text, Dreeps has neat graphics and sound. They’re essentially the same game, though. A singular hero you have slight control over goes on a quest. In Godville it’s for your glory (since you’re their god), in Dreeps it’s to destroy evil (I think).
Both Dreeps and Godville are passive entertainment experiences, they’re worlds that are all about you, but not really games you play. They’re games you experience, or perhaps we need a new word for this kind of thing. While books and TV shows and music (although not playlists, as we’ve seen with Pandora) are hard to create for just one person’s unique enjoyment, games are great at that. They can take feedback and craft an experience just for you, and as we built more complex technology and can access more external datasets, they can get even more unique.
Imagine a game like Dreeps where the other characters (or maybe even the enemies) are modeled algorithmically after your Facebook friends (or LinkedIn contacts). Take their names, mash them through a fantasy-name-izer, do face detection and hue detection to pick hair color and eye color, maybe figure out where they’re from (geolocated photos, profile hometowns or checkins) for region-appropriate clothing. Weather from where they are, or where your friends live, maybe playing on an appropriate map. You could even use street view and fancy algorithms to identify key regional architectural elements and generate game levels that ‘feel’ like the places they live. That starts to get pretty interestingly personalized, though much less predictable.
Mike Diver over at Vice posted an article about Dreeps titled I Am Quite OK With Video Games That Play Themselves, where his main point was that he’s figured out that he’s actually bad at games, and it’s nice to have something where you can enjoy the progression without working about your joystick skills. Maybe Mike should spent more time with Animal Crossing, a game series I think Dreeps shares a lot of DNA with. In Animal Crossing your character inhabits a town that progresses in real-time. You can go fishing and dig up treasure and pick fruit and talk to the other inhabitants in your little village, but the world keeps going when you’re not playing, so if you leave it alone for a long time, you come back to a game that’s progressed without you (with the game characters wondering where you’ve been). Dreeps is like that, but without the active user participation. It’s like a zen Farmville. Take out the gamification, add in some serenity.
It feels like Dreeps could be a really fantastic lock-screen-game, if that’s a thing. You nudge your phone awake, and see your guy trudging along. He’s always there, in a comforting, reassuring, living way. Maybe Samsung or someone with some great cross-vertical reach could implement lock-screen or sleep-screen as a platform across TVs, phones, tablets, fridges, etc. That’d be something.
I was talking to a friend of mine about these kind of games yesterday, pondering where this is headed, and I mentioned that the experience almost feels like an Ecosphere. Ecospheres are those totally enclosed ecosystems, where aside from providing a reasonable temperature and sunlight, you’re a completely passive observer. There’s something nice about walking by and peeking in on it every once in a while. Something comforting about knowing that even when you’re not watching it’s going on about its fantastically complex business without you. But there’s also a spiritual weight to it, because it’s a thing that could cease to exist. I could cover the Ecosphere with a sheet or leave it out in the cold, I could delete Godville or Dreeps from my phone, or have my phone stolen, unable to retrieve my little robotic adventurer.
It isn’t a huge weight now that we carry with these sorts of things. In fact, I stopped checking in on my Godville character a few months ago, after over a year of nearly daily care. Sometimes you just lose the thread. But these systems are going to become more complex, more compelling. They’re going to have more pieces of ourselves in them. How would I feel if a friend of mine was a major character in Dreeps, always showing up to help me out, and then he died in real life? What if Dreeps decides to shutter their app, or not release an upgrade for the new phone I get after that? Would I leave my device plugged in, forever stuck at iOS whatever, just so the experiences could keep going? The Weavrs I created for myself back in 2012 are gone, victims to this onward march of technology and unportability of complex cloud-based systems. I’m fortunate that I never got too attached. Droops is an app, but there’s still a lot there outside of my control.
I’m particularly interested in where this stuff intersects with physical objects. Tamagotchis are still out there, and we’re building hardware with enough smarts to be able to create interesting installations. There’s an Austin Interactive Installation meetup I keep meaning to go to that’s probably full of folks who would have great ideas about this. Imagine a pico-projector or LCD screen and a RaspberryPi running a game like Dreeps, but with the deep complexity and procedural generation systems of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe a god game like Populous, with limited interaction. You’d be like Bender in Godfellas, watching a civilization grow. Could that sit in your home, on your desk or by the bookshelf, running a little world with little adventurers for years and years? Text notifications on your phone when interesting things happened. A weekly email of news from their perspective? As it sat on your desk for longer, would it be harder and harder to let go of? When your kids grew up, would they want to fork a copy and take it with them?
4 years ago there were no low-power GPU sporting Raspberry Pis or globally interconnected Nest thermostats or dirt-cheap tablet-sized LCD screens or PROCJAM. Minecraft was still in alpha, the indie game scene hadn’t exploded, the App Store was still young, procedural content generation was a niche thing. Now all those pieces are there, just waiting to be plugged together. So who’s going to be the first one to do it?