Return to Philadelphia

We’re wrapping up another whirlwind work tour of Philadelphia. I couldn’t have been more delighted that WordCamp US was held in the same city for two years running. Even though I have stellar bosses who are dedicated to providing time and financing for enriching experiences and incredible food, there’s only so much that can be seen in the time available around soaking in the professional development stuff that’s actually our real reason for coming down here. Last year, I was left wanting more. This year, I got to hit several of the places we ran out of time for last year.

The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.
The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.

WordCamp Itself

I’ve got a lot of work and personal action points coming out of WordCamp, but the crossover relevance with my blog audience is probably a bit limited, so I won’t get into the weeds here. I do, however, want to point you to the resource page for Dennis Hong’s talk “The Dark Side of Democratization.” He has a very functional perspective on the challenges of misinformation and communication outside of our own belief bubbles, and he put together a reading list and set of tools that is well worth a deep read and deep think for every single human being.

The Food

If you’re never going to travel to Philly, you may as well skip down this section and head right to The Sights. If you’re planning a trip that involves staying near city center, two notes: (1) Getting good, non-chain coffee before 7am is pretty much impossible. (2) Walking into a restaurant with less than a 30 minute wait is not likely to happen.

Jamonera – Tapas bar. Papa fritas were superb. They put floaty herbal bits in my cocktail that kept coming up the straw, which wasn’t my favorite. Solid tapas, but not amazing.

Old City Coffee – Small batch hand-roasted coffee in Reading Terminal Market. Best decaf I have found pretty much anywhere to date.

Beiler’s Donuts – Fresh made donuts in Reading Terminal Market. Especially good if you catch them warm. If you buy less than half a dozen, you will end up waiting in line a second time.

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House  – Awesome noodles in Chinatown. Slippery chopsticks and massive noodle piles make this a tricky thing to eat tidily, but well worth the mess.

The Happy Rooster – Accidental find that we ate at because it was literally the first place we found with a free table. Top-notch Brussels sprouts, and generally good bar menu.

Foods on First Diner – Freshest breakfast sandwich I’ve had in a while. Super friendly service, more spacious than average, good decaf. Good sausage. Homefries were a weird hashbrown/homefries mutant.

El Vez – Rumor has it the bathrooms are worth a visit, but we forgot to follow up on that rumor. the Mexcal margarita was awesome. Guacamole, mole enchilada, and mahi mahi taco were outstanding.

Good Dog Bar – Adorable dog photos everywhere. Their signature burger (with a cheese pocket) is supposed to be really good, but we didn’t try it. The spicy tofu was our general favorite.

Art at Elixr
Art at Elixr

Elixr – So hipster it would be painful if the coffee (pourover) wasn’t phenomenal. The door is flush with the wall in what’s barely more than an alley, so don’t give up if you think your directions are wrong. Great wifi.

White Dog Cafe – Very diverse dog art, including some crazy detailed dogs in human military uniform paintings. One of the oldest farm-to-table restaurants. Brunch was generally stellar, but the Bloody Marys were the standout.

Barbuzzo – We managed to get a reservation for this, and it turned out to be a great final dinner. Great Mediterranean food. The ricotta, the gnocchi, and the budino were the highlights.

Federal Donuts – This came highly recommended: the cake donuts are made fresh in small batches. I tried the Strawberry Lavender. Best cake donut I’ve ever had, but being a raised donut person, I’ll stick to Beiler’s.

The Sights

Night at the Museum

WordCamp rented out the Academy of Natural Sciences for the after party this year, and while it wasn’t easily possible to study many of the explanations of exhibits around all the networking and free food and booze stations ;), it was still incredible. My favorite section was far and away the animatronic dinosaurs. You could say the display approach is a bit goofy or kitschy, but it’s also fascinating to look at how the display creators thought through join articulation, musculature, skin texture, and choices of hair and feathers. Maybe I shouldn’t, as an adult, be quite so wonderstruck by being roared at by big plastic dinosaurs, but the whole thing just tickled me pink. I mean, look at the custom-knit gloves on this Doctor-scarf-sporting dapper gent: how can you not respect the attention to detail that goes into this stuff?

A Morning in Prison

Parapet at Eastern State Penitentiary
The arrow slits in the wall surrounding the facility are just to create the impression of a fortress. They don’t actually go all the way through the wall.

Last year, we hadn’t managed to make our way over to the Eastern State Penitentiary. This is the world’s first penitentiary and served as the model for hundreds of prisons around the world, representing a shift from temporarily jailing people in appalling conditions while awaiting trial and sentences of various corporal punishments to a model of jailing people in solitary confinement as punishment, to supposedly give them the gift of silence and solitude to rediscover their better selves.

The tour is brilliantly curated to take you through the evolution of the prison system, pointing out the problems they were trying to solve and noting the ones the solutions created. Looking at the prison population in the U.S. and, in particular, the spike in that population since the 1970s, the educational experience presented by this museum is incredibly relevant. We were there for several hours and I still only scraped the surface of the stories being told–this one is worth multiple visits. If you can’t make it to the museum, it’s worth reading up on.

Medicine and Monstrosity

The tagline "Disturbingly Informative" fits this place perfectly.
The tagline “Disturbingly Informative” fits this place perfectly.

Our last stop of the day was another one we ran out of time for last year: The Mutter Museum. There is a strict no photography policy in the exhibit out of respect for the dead displayed there. This is not a place for the weak of stomach. Lots of bones, weird deformed pieces of corpses, and various pickled organs. What stood out for me was the struggle between the human need to know more about the body in order to practice better medicine and the human taboo against screwing around with decomposing flesh. On the one hand, you’ve got people with crippling medical issues begging doctors to use their bodies to help find a cure for others. On the other hand, you’ve got the brain of Albert Einstein being taken from his body and dissected without the family’s permission. In between, you’ve got a doctor taking rare saponified corpses from a building site where they were unearthed under a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” pretense of being requested to deliver the bodies to their kin, who could not possibly be known. And somewhere on that scale, you’ve got writers of medical textbooks robbing graves and storing corpses in their own bedrooms for weeks at a time. (I’m looking at you, Vesalius. That’s pretty damn weird even if you did help democratize medical education.)

What has moral precedent: the gathering of information to inform the healing of countless future generations, or the squeamishness of a grieving family?

Christmas Fair at Dilworth Park

Reindeer in the maze gardenI don’t know what Philly is like the rest of the year, but at Christmas time, it is adorable and garlanded and sparkly. We’ve been staying right near City Hall, so we’ve been walking around this little craft fair, complete with a skating rink and a fascinating variety of buskers, all weekend. We finally puttered through the crowds today, and while there’s only so much Christmas shopping I’m willing to do given that I have to shove my bag onto a plane to get home, it’s a festive environment. I particularly liked the reindeer in the generously named America’s Capital Garden Maze, and I think this one captures my sentiment precisely.

Until next time, Philadelphia.


Field Notes for Space

My linguistics adviser in college had a thought-experiment she would set up to help us understand the fundamental difficulty of learning language without a point of reference. “Imagine,” she would say, “that an alien was sitting outside the window of our classroom in an invisible spaceship and watching us. What would they think?”

The point of exercise was primarily to teach a classroom full of word-loving freshman who were surprised to realize they had picked a science major how to see the limitations of what one can conclusively know given a particular data set. I got the point, eventually, but what really stuck with me (aside from the plethora of inexplicably disturbing sample sentences like “The cookie ate the girl”) was the image of an alien in an invisible spaceship watching me…all the time.

You know me, right? I’m the one whose black-and-white portrait is printed tidily in the margin s.v. “paranoid” in any dictionary printed after 2002. Being raised in the church, it wasn’t much of a stretch to talk myself into buying a fantasy that claimed that my every move was being observed and judged by an intellectually superior being whose presence could only be inferred by obscure clues, like the creak of the trees in the wind. Or the strangely reflected light from a passing vehicle. My personal alien doctoral candidate in “human studies” has been with me off and on for the last eight years, so I imagine she’s picked up a bit of the language and the customs, though less than you might think without the ability to trigger feedback, an sometimes I think about my life and wonder what her observation journal might look like.

Day 2741

> Subject and mate abandoned small fuzzy offspring. Prepared food and water quantities suggest trip length of perhaps a week? Articles of clothing suggest less.

> Subjects moved metal box north for several hours. Estimated energy intake exceeds normal rate. Perhaps such transportation consumes more energy than the sitting they seem to be doing?

> Purpose of visit seems to be moving some objects between dwelling and box. Some items were left at the dwelling, but subjects left with some of their original belongings as well as a larger quantity of items. Perhaps this is a trade relationship in which subjects have the upper hand?

> Eating seems to be an important part of these trade relationships–subjects consumed energy-rich food all but incessantly as they continued along their trade route. Subjects seem to have three major trade partners, all of whom seem to place an extremely high value on the commodities offered by subjects. In one case, subjects seemed to trade nothing but information for copious amounts of food and a glass jar.

> This type of trade route seems to coincide most often with an increase in the use of the word “holiday.” There seems to be some connection to religion for many of these events, although that seems to be contested. From what little I believe I have decoded from their “internet,” holidays are seen as either “holy days” (days with specific religious significance) or instances of a majority religion trying to sanctify an ancient tradition of consuming extra food-energy.

> The value of the increased consumption of food is unclear. Transportation along the trade route does not seem to require an increased output of energy. Subjects do not seem to be preparing for incubation of offspring either, as small fuzzy adopted offspring seem to meet any instinctive drive subjects might have to raise young. May need to collect subject for further tests to determine how the food energy is used.

An alien might have some difficulty interpreting the reason for the exhausting, food-soaked ritual of travel and visiting that constitutes a holiday weekend. I sometimes have a hard time understanding it, especially when I look back and ask myself why eating three homemade whoopie pies in one day really seemed like a good idea. No, wait, it didn’t seem like a good idea. As long as I had a bite of one of those in my mouth, more seemed like an awesome idea. And every minute with our siblings, parents, and nephews (step, in-laws, and blood all included) made every hour of the trip worth repeating again and again.

Fortunately, though I’m not sure my alien doctoral candidate has enough worked out to understand this yet, one of the items we acquired from one of our generous trading partners (current exchange rate: our time = their time + lots of goodies) was a diet book.