Now that I’m working at home, under contract with Medium (well worth a sub!), teaching journalism at Wallkill Correctional Facility, and picking up the occasional freelance assignment, I've come to see my many communications apps—Slack and Gchat and Twitter and sure, when you look at it from a certain angle, this newsletter—as the digital equivalent of a certain length of string that plays a small but pivotal role in the movie Cool Hand Luke.
This 1967 masterpiece has been my favorite film since I first saw it a long-ass time ago, back when the movie was aired seemingly every weekend on Cinemax or whatever premium channel my buddy’s family subscribed to. Over the years, I’ve watched it countless times, and I have a lot of the dialog committed to memory. But in recent years, the string has become the heart of it for me. Not “failure to communicate.” Not “I can eat 50 eggs.” Not “Hey, old man, you home tonight?” Not even Lucille washing the car. It’s all about the string.
You’ve seen it, I imagine, but to recap: Paul Newman at his most Paul Newmanish plays a decorated war veteran, Lucas Jackson, doing hard time in a Florida work camp for a drunken, probably PTSD-related escapade in which he wound up sawing a parking meter off its pole. Despite his incarceration, Luke remains a free spirit, wild, untameable, enduring whatever torment the system directs his way—and often cheerfully upping the ante. He does it for his fellow inmates as a reminder of human freedom, and because he can’t help it, and because the movie is a very on-the-nose Christian allegory and so his fate is essentially sealed.
Luke is what the trusty calls “a hard case.” He goes on the lam repeatedly, but the escape that really matters is the one with the bush. The chain gang is doing road work when Luke—now in a set of leg irons—asks for a bathroom break. The overseer agrees but warns him to “keep shaking that bush, so we know you're there.” That's where the string comes in: Luke’s fragile, attenuated tether, his last connection to that bush, to the chain gang, to the many demands society will put on a person, tugging at a branch even as he’s already halfway gone.
I feel halfway gone myself these days—in a good way, mostly!—but yes, I’m definitely still shaking it.
A couple recent stories you may have missed:
For Medium’s tech site, OneZero, I wrote about a New Zealand startup, Soul Machines, and it’s visionary founder, Mark Sagar, a former special FX wizard for Peter Jackson who has spent the last seven years trying to model the human brain and nervous system in code. Soul Machines’ “digital humans”—chatbots but more realistic—are increasingly being put to work in the customer service industry, including by a major collection agency (gulp). But Sagar’s real goal is to create an artificial intelligence that can learn and act autonomously, and many experts think he’s well on the way to pulling it off.
For GEN, Medium’s new site devoted to politics and culture, I took a deep dive into the world of anti-fascist researchers, everyday folks who spend their free time delving into the fetid storm drains and sewer pipes of online white nationalism in an effort to identify violent racists and expose them to public scrutiny. I was lucky to get one of the most celebrated, a forty-something “Ned Flanders” type who goes by the Twitter handle @AntiFashGordon, to introduce me to this highly secretive subculture, and I was privileged to observe as he trained the members of a radical Jewish group in the secrets of open-source intelligence gathering. Bonus: that keyboard animation is a Russell Gell original. (Wisely, the kid’s got me blocked on Instagram, but because I am now a trained expert in OSINT, I can tell you his company page is here, and I’m sure he’d welcome a follow, especially if you feel like hiring someone to animate illustrations or do 3-D modeling or both.)
And last week, I wrote an essay about how the Global Climate Strike and the planned storming of Area 51—“a desperate bid to preserve life on earth, and an impish stab at proving the existence of a galactic escape hatch”—are happening on the same day (this Friday, see you there!), and what it all means.
Finally, whenever possible, I try to get my students’ work published, and a great piece just went up on Medium’s Human Parts site. “Sweet Feed” is Harold Williams’ remarkable essay about his experience working on the horse farm at Wallkill, caring for retired thoroughbreds, while contending with his own mortality. It’s like Cool Hand Luke but with way more horses. Please give it a read. And congrats to Harold on his long overdue release next week.
By the way, sometimes I just go ahead and add someone to this newsletter subscriber list without asking permission, likely in violation of some critical piece of fine print I really should have read. I do that because like Lucas Jackson I don’t GAF. But if it feels like spam, by all means, unsubscribe. True, I only send it out a few times a year, but there’s an awful lot of email in the world. I get it. Not everyone wants to eat fifty eggs, and that’s okay!
For everyone else, thanks as ever for reading. I really do appreciate it.