Some Pig

Tags: Amish computing, the Ralphies, Senator McCarthy and me.

I’m surprised and happy to report that I have recently won two flattering awards! First, Turk 182, a post I wrote here almost exactly one year ago, won a Cliopatria Award for “Best Post.”

Rob MacDougall’s ‘Turk 182’ brilliantly traversed time and genres to illuminate the abiding fascination with Automata. His use of varied sources, erudition and clear affection for the subject-matter highlights it as the best post of the year.

My sincere thanks to the judges, and to Sharon Howard, who nominated that post and who I believe instigated the awards in the first place. And my congratulations to the other winners. I am honored to be in their company–please check them out if you don’t already read them. (The Cliopatria Awards need their own familiar / diminutive name, like the Emmys, Oscars, etc., don’t you think? But the name “Clios” is taken, by awards for advertising. I suppose we could call them “the Patties,” but I’m inclined to believe we should honor Cliopatria’s indefatigable Ralph Luker by dubbing them “the Ralphies.”)

Just one year out of the job market, I cannot say I was sorry to miss this year’s AHA. I was extremely sorry, however, to miss the history blogging panel, where the Cliopatria Awards were announced, and where many brilliant and talented history bloggers converged in actual space.

That reminds me! History Carnival #23 will be here on this blog on January 15th. Please send me your suggestions or nominations asap. The history district of Blogtown is expanding so fast, and there is so much good writing out there. All you can hope to do is catch a bit of it as it flies by.

Also, General Mud, a 24-hour role-playing game I wrote in November (by which I mean to say, I wrote it in 24 hours, you don’t play it for 24 hours, heaven forbid) won a “Ronnie” award from Ron Edwards, game designer and co-moderator of the Forge, the epicenter of indie game design today. General Mud is a story-telling game based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Players take the role of barnyard animals and see if they can alter the course of Orwell’s grim fable. Discussion of the game over at the Forge veered rather quickly from its design (rudimentary) to its politics (apparently more reactionary than I’d intended, at least in the eyes of some). I was even accused, if obliquely, of “McCarthyist historiography.” Keep it in mind: fun and games are serious business!

Or are they? What pleases me most about these two awards, I think, is that both are for things I wrote without any thought of reward–things I did, in fact, without any good reason for doing them at all. After all, if you’re waiting for a sensible reason to write an 1800-word post about Enlightenment robots or a 24-hour role-playing game about Communist farm animals, then you probably aren’t going to write one. The process has to be the point.

My favorite blog posts to write are usually the ones where I tie in every random thing I’m enthused about at the moment: robots and Ben Franklin and Ricky Jay; or South Park, the Talmud, and media literacy; or Weezer lyrics, my wife’s birthday, and photography in 19th century Japan. It troubles me a little that all those examples are at least a year old. What’s happening a lot lately is that I’ve been thinking too hard about why I’m writing this blog, trying to come up with things that are “important” or “serious” enough for here or Cliopatria. And when I do that I usually produce something much stiffer or, worse, I don’t post anything at all.

Paul Ford had a guest post last October on the essential productivity blog 43 Folders, about good and bad distractions, “Amish computing,” and why one subscription to the New York Times beats a thousand RSS feeds. (I saw a sticker once that said, “You have been infected by the Amish computer virus. Since the Amish don’t use computers, we go by the honor system. Please go home and delete all your files.” Larf.) It was a great little essay that gave me a lot to chew on. The bad habits Ford sees in himself are absolutely things I’m trying to deal with too. He offers this conclusion:

I’m very paranoid about any metric of productivity. One person’s wasted time is another person’s productivity. For most of my life people saw me doing the things I liked to do and said, “you have too much free time on your hands.” I’ve decided that when you hear that, it means you’re doing something right. I hear it a lot less now that I’ve got a novel out and work at Harper’s Magazine, which is a job that carries some prestige. But that doesn’t make sense, because I’m doing the same things I did before anyone else took interest. External metrics are pretty useless. I like to think about Allen Ginsberg, when he confessed to his shrink that all he wanted to was write poetry, and his shrink said “well, why don’t you?” If you measured life by productivity, who would pick up a guitar? Besides, I’m happiest when I’m narrowly distracted–when I’m working on a task and I find it interesting enough that the rest of the world goes pale and I can really focus and explore.

Is it true? I don’t know. I don’t have a novel or a job at Harper’s, and I can’t quite say external metrics are useless. (Are any future tenure committee members reading this?) I can certainly imagine somebody reading “Turk 182” or General Mud and saying, “you have too much free time on your hands.” But mostly, people don’t say that. When you can give yourself up to enjoying the process, when you do something creative not because you have to or you ought to but because it doesn’t occur to you not to, that’s when the really good stuff happens.

Um, in case any future tenure committee members happen to read this far, I do do academic work too. I do plenty of work, in fact, and I don’t have too much free time on my hands. Let’s see. I just published a short piece in the business history journal Enterprise and Society that is the best summary of my research on telephony you’re going to find. Check it out if you want to know what I write about when I’m not writing about Ben Franklin versus robots. And I have a couple more articles that I hope will be out soon in journals near you. Including one on which the revisions are due Sunday. And so, adieu!


  1. Had you written this 50 years ago, I’d have had you strung up by something sensitive! Shedding the diminutive was a struggle. Only years later did I learn that “Ralph” was being used as a verb, so I’m thinking about re-affirming the diminutive.

  2. I think this is the second time I’ve triggered your issues about your own first name, Ralph. (The first was when I quoted the theme song to Greatest American Hero.) You’re going to have to work them out on your own. 🙂

    L & I are in high level talks about baby names right now, so I’m thinking a lot about names and their associations. To me the instant and inescapable association of the name Ralph is not to the verb, the Greatest American Hero, or Potsie’s red-headed chum, but Ralphie Wiggums on The Simpsons.

  3. You could also mention to any future tenure committee members reading this that you were working in your office until 7:00 last Saturday and later than that every night this week.

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