Writing Letters

Dear Sir or Madam,


I’m writing to ask for the Free Software Foundation remove Richard Stallman from your board.


You’re undoubtedly aware of the Medium article making the rounds, which provides excerpts of emails where RMS appears to minimise sexual assault against a minor. Alas, this is not a one-off. For example, on his blog in 2016, he defended the “right” of men to make rape threats online ( https://stallman.org/notes/2016-jul-oct.html#3_August_2016_(How_Facebook_troll_came_undone ). Obviously, this was after Gamer Gate.


Free Software is a great idea, but RMS’s public comments have become embarrassing to the organisation and the idea. I’ve advocated for Free Software for decades. If we’re going to succeed, we can’t immediately alienate 51% of the population. RMS has done great work in the past, but it’s time for him to step down.


Thank you for your time and consideration.

If you would like to also email the Free Software Foundation, their email is on their ‘contact us‘ page. “RMS” is Richard Stallman, their founder and president.

His influence is tremendous but his public comments are gross.

But What About the Men?

A response to the most recent Contrapoints video.

The Crisis of White Masculinity

There’s a joke among historians that masculinity is constantly in crisis. Indeed, this has certainly been true my entire adult life. This has been attributed during that time to changing gender roles, changing economic models, automation, the emergence of digital, gaming and lately it’s the fault of trans people. The crisis doesn’t change, and, on some underlying level, neither do the causes – it’s always caused by change and gains in power from people who aren’t men. When Hildegard of Bingen wrote about the crisis of masculinity in the twelveth century, she bemoaned that her time had become “womanish” (1178), effectively blaming shifting gender roles. Fortunately, in seeking to correct this, she chose not to lead by example.

While I wish to affirm that masculinity does have aspects that are valuable, there are many ways in which it works as an expression of power. These facets of masculinity resemble a much newer idea – whiteness, which it also interacts with. Whiteness (and race in general), was a necessary by-product of slavery and colonial expansion. If some people were marked from birth to be slaves, this necessitated the creation of distinct classes of people – those who could be subject to property confiscation and ceaseless violence and those who were authorised to inflict violence. If slaves were black, then their brutalisers must be something else, which could not be simply thought of as non-black. The enslavers were the ones doing the othering, so needed their own identity to other against. Thus whiteness was born.

Some aspects of masculinity also rely on a constant process of othering and a continual assertion of power. Any changing circumstance has the risk of reducing that assertion of power. However, change is inescapable. Therefore masculinity is constantly in crisis. Specifically, the supremacist aspects of masculinity are in crisis. A masculinity that is not seeking to dominate is much less fragile and much less toxic to the person who chooses to embody it.

Alienation and Right Wing Recruitment

The right wing has found fertile recruiting ground among young men who are hurt and alienated by the toxic masculinity that permeates our culture. Aimless young men, searching for meaning, have been radicalised. While this is largely the fault of social media corporations broadcasting far right recruiting points, the left has sometimes lacked an accessible and equally compelling counter-narrative.

An anonymous writer in The Washingtonian described how her thirteen year old son joined the alt-right. He had been into meme culture and had mentioned an edgy meme to a friend at school. A girl who overheard him reported him for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the school chose an entirely punitive response to this. He was socially isolated, alienated and depressed. He found the alt-right online. They told him he was ok and hadn’t done anything wrong. They treated him as if his ideas were worthwhile and they offered him leadership opportunities. What de-radicalised him in the end was meeting them in person at a right wing rally, in which he also saw a counter-protesting man, who his mother praised as brave. (Anon 2019) Thus a positive model of masculinity, which included real-life action in the face of risk, was able to supplant months of indoctrination into the far right.

Masculinity is often defined through struggle. Liberalism does not offer this, but instead has only capitalist alienation. Fascism, by contrast, offers an avenue to be constantly heroic. (Eco 1995) The left offers a better world for everyone, but is less immediately clear on what the role of these young men would be. While it identifies toxic masculinity as problematic, there is sometimes a lack of a positive counter example. What does positive masculinity look like? Who are good roll models? Mass media keeps making stories about toxic men who become only more toxic, making compelling anti-heroes. Stories about redemption have fallen out of fashion, but these are what we seem to need. Star Trek: Discovery, for example, does offer these character arcs for Ash Taylor and Spock (Fuller, 2017-), but this also relies on them belonging to a pseudo-military as a means of finding fellowship and working for the greater good. Crucially, these characters struggle against themselves as a necessary part of their struggle on behalf of their comrades.

Positive Masculinity and the Left

The heroism of fascism is ultimately empty. It is not based on achievement or self-improvement, but rather on othering. One can be a hero not because one has accomplished anything, but because of accidents of birth. This is papers over alienation, but does not fill the void. De-radicalising those in the far right is therefore possible and necessary, but it requires the left to offer something fulfilling to cis white young men. This is tactical and must never replace the goal of liberation for all, but it cannot be neglected.

Some on the far left have been successful in recruiting disaffected young men, from those who are alienated and previously apolitical and also sometimes those who have previously been members of the far right. This is valuable, but without a means to de-alienation, the strategy is risky. Some of those recruits are not ideologically grounded. People who are attracted to what they perceive as extremism are often searching for a means to be heroic. Umberto Eco identifies heroism as a key feature of Ur-Fascism (1995). Those seeking a heroism as an end unto itself will tend to eventually (re)join the far right. Historical fascist figures, such as Mosley, have veered wildly from right to left before settling on the far right (Wikipedia 2019) as the more self-glorifying path. Leftist groups must be aware of these risks and take steps to counter them, by grounding new members ideologically and offering them positive ways to enact and embody inescapable aspects of their identities. It’s not enough to offer them membership and fellowship in an organisation. There needs to be included a path to self-improvement and some positive access to struggle against oneself instead of only against an other. Solidarity is key. Reading and discussion groups can help provide this grounding.

The far right allows struggle in physical terms (bro, do you lift?), but their neglect of the intellect seems unfulfilling. We must be careful not to replicate this lack. The good news is that left groups ultimately offer more to alienated people. Anti-fascism allows physical heroism and real-life social bonds, but is also tied to an opportunity for intellectual improvement, solidarity, direction and leadership for all alienated people. The role of cis white men in these spaces should not be centralised, but also it should be clear that all comrades are welcome on an equal footing. Recruitment aimed at alienated cis white men, unfortunately, does require some extra work as they have been heavily indoctrinated against solidarity – it is up to white men to do this work.

Works Cited

Anonymous, 2019. What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. The Washingtonian [Online] https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/05/05/what-happened-after-my-13-year-old-son-joined-the-alt-right/ [Accessed 5 September 2019]

Bingen, H to the prelates of Mainz. 1178. in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1 tr. J.L Baird, R.K. Ehrmann (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) [Online] http://www.ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts2/1170_hildegard/05_hild-lets.htm [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]

Eco, U., 1995. Ur-fascism. The New York Review of Books, 42(11), pp.12-15. [Online] http://pegc.us/archive/Articles/eco_ur-fascism.pdf [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]

Fuller, B., (Executive Producer). 2017-. Star Trek: Discovery [Television Series] New York, USA: CBS All-Access.

Wikipedia contributors, 2019. Oswald Mosley. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oswald_Mosley&oldid=913995576 [Accessed 5 Sep. 2019.]

Masculinity

What is masculinity actually meant to be though? I think we have done some good work (which must continue!,) to gain understanding of what it should NOT be… but what SHOULD it be? Any opinions? (preferably from men/masc people, non-men welcome too). Asking As A Men.

Restioson

My answer for this necessarily rests primarily on my own lived experience,as I’ve done little reading about masculinity. However, my experience has been unusual and instructive.

Binary Oppositions

The problem with looking for positives about masculinity is that exists within a power structure designed to promote it and men and the expense of femininity and women. This makes the question immediately fraught and difficult. Furthermore, cis hetero patriarchy is prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) and imposes a very simple model of masculinity and gender. In the most basic form of this model, masculinity and femininity are a binary opposition inherently tied to physical sex. Hélène Cixous writes that all binary oppositions map on to this binary opposition – good vs bad, sun vs moon and so forth. Power, strength and goodness map on to the male half. Evil and weakness map on to the female half. (1997)

Some more progressive notions of gender attempt to detoxify this model by decoupling sex and gender and expanding it from a binary opposition to a one dimensional spectrum. However, this expanded model still has a notion of binary opposition embedded within it – if something is closer to the masculine end of the spectrum, it’s further from the feminine end. Thus any positives about masculinity are inherently sexist, as they imply deficits of femininity. Some take this to mean that gender itself is toxic and should be abolished.

Where do we go from here?

Firstly, we can say that eliminating gender is not a good or reasonable goal. It’s not a coincidence that this goal has been weaponised against trans people as we are those who most conspicuously align ourselves with gender categories. This aside, gender is a human universal. The specific expression of gender vary widely by culture, but there are no cultures I know that have no concept of gender. People, cis and trans, seem to seek out gender expression and perform it. Most people like having gender. What they don’t like is oppression.

It does show that talking about cis people illuminates very little about gender – they don’t know much about it and their experience is too limited and inappropriately universalised to draw conclusions from. By looking at trans and gender nonconforming people, we can learn much more about what gender is and isn’t.

People do not transition with the goal of shifting within a power hierarchy. Some people experience dysphoria related to social aspects of gender. Both these things show that gender is extremely important to people and that it has meaning outside of power relationships. Given this, how do we talk about masculinity decoupled from that power relationship?

Gender is not a binary

Non-binary gender identities show that the one dimensional model is too simplistic. While it might be tempting to say that they’re simply between masculine and feminine poles, this does not seem to reflect their experience or presentation. Some people have a lot of gender – masculine and feminine, for example bearded ladies in frilly dresses. Some people seem to have much less gender, for example people who identify as agender. Instead of seeing masculine and feminine as opposite poles, one can see them as distinct but related concepts. A two dimensional graph with a masculine axis and a feminine axis would be a somewhat less inaccurate model.

Therefore, masculinity is not the absence of femininity (or vice versa). But if it is not this and it is not (just) a power relationship, what is it? Looking for a universal answer immediately runs into the stumbling block of extremely divergent cultural encodings, which also vary over time. The current dominant mode of masculinity in the west posits masculinity as inherent authentic, unadorned and related to labour. But one only needs to look at portraits of French kings to see that the very opposite was once true. In those portraits, fills, leggings and leisure were signifiers of masculinity.

Embodiment

We’ve previously rejected embodiment as the basis of masculinity as this would seem to exclude trans and gender non-conforming people. But one of the examples I chose contained embodiment in terms of a beard. To pick apart this further – the decoupling of gender and sex is a relatively recent development, which has lead to extremely unhelpful educational aids like the ‘genderbread person’. (Gonzáles, Prell, Schwartz n.d.) (Killermann 2015) Treating sex and gender as entirely distinct is widely understood to be a form of allyship with trans people, but the problem is that it tends to lead to discussion of trans genitals. Rather than fall into this trap while trying to deconstruct it, I’ll just quote a trans woman on twitter who posted “sex is just gender with a doctor’s note.” (Anon n.d.)

While trans people certainly know a lot more about gender than cis people, the systems were created by and for cis people, so some talk about cis embodiment may be necessary. Which is to say that masculinity is not cock and balls, but is related to them.

In penetrative sex, a person with a penis enters triumphant, but exits deflated. A certain amount of identity seems to surround one’s cock, but one has almost no control over it.

Cis hetero masculinity is a struggle towards inevitable defeat.

Struggle

A defining notion of masculinity in my culture is struggle. One struggles against oneself, against society and against other men for social rank. This last one is generally toxic, but the others need not be. Furthermore, defeat is inevitable. One is never fully in control of anything, least of all oneself. Where masculinity becomes toxic or good I think may partially lie in how it copes with both defeat and victory.

One can have grace and humility or one can have terrified bravado. Good masculinity seeks self-improvement. (Recall that we’ve taken away the binary opposition and presences in masculinity are not absences in femininity.) Toxic masculinity seems to stem from fear of being unworthy. This leads to futile attempts to suppress parts of oneself and to inflate one’s perceived rank through unearned means, such as systemic power relationships.

Embedding masculinity within struggle tends to be compelling to people seeking direction. While I find this satisfying, it’s possible I’ve overly universalised my own experience. Masculinity has been a struggle for me, in that I’m not cis. It’s been a long challenge to be able to claim this space. I therefore believe that this was a worthwhile thing to do. Not just because it was hard, but because I felt compelled to do it. The result is that I’m a happier, kinder and more productive member of society. Therefore, from my own experience, I feel there must be something positive here. I fought for this, so it must be worth having.

The rise of fascism

Alas, the spectre of binary opposition always looms over discussions of gender, making them potentially harmful towards women and feminine people, however, it’s important to continue to have these discussions, while simultaneously rejecting the notion of prescriptive binary. If there are no positive discussions of masculinity, there will be only negative ones. There are a lot of young men searching for meaning and we can’t leave the conversation to Jordan Peterson.

Masculinity itself is morally neutral, but easy to weaponise. It’s important to speak about the positive factors and potential within masculinity without a binary opposition and without denigrating femininity. Genders are socially constructed, but, unlike other constructions, like, say, money, we can’t point at a time before they existed. Indeed, efforts to get rid of gender have not been emancipatory, but have been attacks on people with less gender privilege. With this in mind, discussing theoretical and practical aspects of masculinity in a public way is a necessity. It’s trite to say that young men need role models, but it’s nevertheless true. If we try to tell them that masculinity is shameful, this is a disservice to both young men and trans men.

Narratives about anti-heroes are extremely popular right now. These characters are made sympathetic in the telling, to make them compelling characters. Unfortunately, some take this to mean they should also be role models. If examples of toxic masculinity are ubiquitous and positive masculinity is taboo on the left, we are at a dangerous disadvantage.

Works Cited

Anon. (n.d.) I tried to find this but couldn’t.

Cixous, H. (1997). Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays. DOI:10.1007/978-1-349-25621-1_8

Gonzáles, C; Prell, V; Schwartz, J. (n.d.) The genderbread person. [Referenced by https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/the-genderbread-person/ ] [Accessed 3 September 2019]

Killermann, S. (2015). The genderbread person v3. It’s pronounced metrosexual. [Web] https://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/ [Accessed 3 December 2019] This content is plagiarised, but the original is not easily available.

Protesting Porogation in Brighton

As I was in Brighton on a short holiday, but it’s a constitutional crisis, I took some time out of loafing to go to the protest.

the Brighton protest against prorogation

I showed up and it was a few hundred people and the PA was broken. However, they repaired it and the protest continued to grow for it’s entire duration.

There was already a protest scheduled for this time and date, about Climate Change and it’s links with imperialism and colonialism. This had been organised by QueerAF, a Queer and Trans activist group that engages specifically with the rights of migrants and people of colour. They felt that the emergency of an anti-democratic (and possibly pre-fascist) PM was very strongly related to the event already planned and so the protests were combined.

These are the notes I took during the speeches:

The PA is fixed. The speaker is making the point that we are responding to an attack on democracy and not (just) Brexit. We are in solidarity with all who want to protect democracy.

The next speaker calls for unity. “We are in a pre-fascist situation.” Everyone concerned about this must work together.

Queer AF speaking about the importance of being inclusive to trans people and BAME. Johnson is a threat to all marginalised people. A hard Brexit is a threat to the LGBTQ community. Parliament cannot raise these issues of its suspended. The queer comity is dependent on European civil rights laws and courts.
#QueerAF is asking for allies. The crowd is enthusiastic.

Caroline Lucas is enormously popular. She calls the current government “No deal, Trump-first.”
She pledges that parliament will meet in the house of commons or elsewhere. “This viscous form of brexit was never on the ballot. Johnson has no mandate for it.”
She pledges solidarity with EU migrants.
“We will use every peaceful easy we can to oppose that culture capitalism.” Of US companies asset stripping post-Brexit. (The PA dropped out on “peaceful”)

Lucas calls further for a written constitution and a people’s vote

A union organiser says this is no longer about leave or remain, but about democracy and the rights of workers. Unions must strike to protect workers. We must be on the streets. This cannot be soon from above, but from the grassroots. We must say to our colleagues and neighbours, “I don’t care how you voted in the referendum.” I want to protect us from neoliberalism. Unions have power to act.

Feminists Against Fascism says the government is white upper class men who don’t represent us and don’t care about democracy. It is fine now for us to stand up and be counted. England has been a great democracy and is at risk of losing that. We must take to the streets.

Extinction Rebellion says this is an attack on our last chance to act on climate change. We are at risk of fascism, which will cause climate chaos, floods, does and droughts. Our freedom will enable us to defend the planet. We need to act now. We need to defend democracy and the climate. Extinction Rebellion shows that protest works. They can help train people in effective protest. Rebel Rising is a set of upcoming training events.

On The 20th, they’re will be a big event. Protecting democracy and protecting the planet are the same fight. We are together.
A child next to me has become alarmed and is crying.

A small child is speaking from the stage. Boris Johnson is very annoying and must be stopped. Parliament has not actually been porogued yet. There’s still time

A council member says the EU had prevented war for 75 years.
An unelected PM has used royal prerogative to undermine democracy and attack the post war consensus.
He calls upon MPs to occupy parliament. They must injunction the PM.
A general strike is called for. The ruling government loves history, so let’s telling them of Charles I.

QueerAF is also doing a demo right now about climate change and the Amazon. Climate change is happening everywhere. Capitalism is harming people everywhere. We colonised the world and trashed things for everyone. Democracy is needed everywhere.
They’ve got bust cards. This card tells you what to do when cops try to interact with you or arrest you.

Now somebody is saying cops are great.

A representative of the elderly is saying that Brexit is sexist. She says she thought this was going to be settled when she marched in the 70s.
This is a nationwide demonstration and a national issue. Our democracy is under threat. Donald Trump loves Johnson. England is not for sale.
The new MP this area is a remainder.

An Irish person says we are Europe. This is an infrastructure to create peace, to bring people together. Brexit will trash the Good Friday Agreement. We worked for peace in Northern Ireland and we cannot allow it to be trashed.

We are all EU nationals! The next speaker is an EU migrant. She represents CASE, which helps EU migrants with their legal rights. They aid people getting settled status, but old, retired migrants have failed in their applications. They have no where to go. Even settled migrants are having their rights reduced.
EU laws defend the rights of British workers. All of us are at risk.

An Amazon protestor from QueerAF is also from Paraguay. The Brazilian fires have reached Paraguay. The leader of Brazil has not been fighting fires and is on record of wanting to genocide indigenous people. Colonisation is ongoing. Indigenous people are at the forefront of fighting climate change. They are fighting for their lives. We must stand with them. Europe is profiting from South American deforestation. We must become sustainable.


We must fight for democracy everywhere. Let’s not forget that the Amazon is not just an ecosystem or a source of oxygen, but also people’s homes.
Standing for our own democracy must also mean standing against colonialism. 900k people’s lives are at risk in the Amazon.

A queer tabs sex workers co-op is showing quietly about colonialism and borders. We don’t know or history. There were hundreds of slave owners in Sussex. 70 million people are refugees in the world. We are safe to demonstrate here, but most refugees cannot. We must be on solidarity.
Brexit is racist against people of colour. The Windrush scandal is not confidence. We must stand in solidarity.

Goths against Bojo says the upcoming shortage of medicine will kill her. 75 © of medicines cone from the EU. The government has been stocking up on body bags because they know sick prior will die.

The march is starting and the MC fucking loves the police

But first, a poem!
It is about the need for solidarity. It is urgent and good.
People fought for democracy. We must carry on.

https://mastodon.social/@celesteh/102711325103566468

We then lined up in a march which was big enough that it took quite a while to get out of the park.

Start of the March Setting off towards the march

We marched down to the Brighton Pier and then turned left. The MC was keen that people play instruments if they had them. There was one very nice trio who did have instruments.

Boris Johnson's Got to Go

I would estimate that there were a couple of thousand people marching? I was very near the back and could not see the front.

anti-porogation march

Shortly after we reached the pier, I peeled off to go join my friends and to get some of the holiday I’d come down for.

Trying to Cycle to Brighton

For the second time in my life, I’ve tried to cycle from London to Brighton. The first time was a decade ago and my girlfriend at the time sprained her ankle in Lewisham. She was determined, but in Croydon, she was forced to admit defeat and we turned back. I kept the map, though.

map of national cycle routes 20 and 21

There’s a few changes. The route no longer starts at Cutty Sark.

bicycle route marker

It’s a wee bit north of there now and you can’t see the start sign from following the extension of (21).

Route 21 Start

It still winds through Greenwich, obviously, but the area has changed dramatically. When I first went along the route, the area was slightly alarming. There were neglected estates with burned sofas in front of their houses and cops knocking on doors. Now there’s a lot of construction displacing a really cool looking arts sector which likely displaced the residents there previously.

I found both times that taking route 21 to Croydon is a lovely relaxed ride that manages to wend through parks and offroad or low traffic paths until it gets to Addington, which is where I stopped for lunch.

Blue Ribbon

There were a lot of blue ribbons tied to things, which I don’t know anything about.

Shortly after that the route got more rural and there were unpaved sections, which, because this is England, were lined with brambles and stinging nettles.

the edge of the countryside
Pub on Cycle Route 21
on the edge of Surrey
I’m smiling because I don’t realise what’s in store for my legs and tyres.

As I got into Surrey, the offroad paths got less and less well maintained. They were made up mostly of loose gravel. A lot of them has deep gulleys running through the middle, where water had drained down them. They looked like they hadn’t been maintained in quite some time. I don’t think they’re at all appropriate for touring.

The views were nice, though.

a field near Croydon a nice view

My original plan for this trip was to take my dog in a trailer and spend two days. I was persuaded instead, though to leave the dog behind and try to do it in one day.

I like to think of myself as an experienced touring cyclist, but it turns out that going slowly with a dog is quite different than going slowly without a dog. For instance, I don’t really have a good reason for my extremely glacial pace. The other is that if one is towing a dog trailer down a steep incline covered with loose rocks, there are a lot of things to worry about, but the bicycle flipping up over the handlebars is not one of them. I very nearly flipped my bicycle at least once and nearly bit it a few times.

A hole in the ground from hard breaking
A somewhat visible hole from trying to stop and not fall off.
I couldn't ride down this

It felt like I did a lot of time walking. Also, Gravelly Hill is very well-named.

a lovely view

As I got to the M25, the paths improved tremendously and the views were still very nice.

me at the M25
I look disturbed because it’s been a long trip to only reach the M25.

I got to Red Hill, which was where I had been planning to sleep and it was already kind of late in the afternoon. I switched from the 21 to the 20 to get to Brighton. The shadows got longer. I looked at my map and saw that I had 25 miles to go and two hours until dark. The smart thing to do would have been to give up, but I pressed on until I got to a place called Hand Cross. My legs were trembling from exhaustion and twilight was falling. There’s no train station there and the infrequent buses were only going north, where I could get a train back south.

A cabbie pulled out of his driveway just a few meters away and I flagged him down to get a ride the rest of the way into Brighton. It was 40 minutes just by car.

Route 20 had been mostly been on extremely fast moving frontage roads next to the motorway. As I looked out the cab windows, I could see it continue, right in the pollution next to the road and I swear I thought I saw some section of it where it was actually on the margin of the motorway!

I went about 50 miles in all, which I’m very disappointed by. I could go the same distance normally with a dog. But, I did get almost all of the uphill and a lot less of the downhill and did get stuck walking a fair amount. The last part that I missed out on did not look like it was fun.

Indeed, I’m not sure how much any of it was fun. The on-road parts had aggressive cars coming much too close, especially around Croydon. The offroad parts were even more dangerous. I thought about who I could report the problems to, but as the UK is about to embark on economic self-destruction, there’s not much hope they’ll ever get fixed.

This is probably the last time I’m going to even bother trying to follow a national cycle route in the south east. Maybe they’re better in other parts of England or in Scotland, but the ones that set off from London seem to go to absolute shit once I get out of the sprawl.

Becoming British in a Troubled Time

What a time to become a subject!

Recently, I swore allegiance to the queen at a mandatory ceremony.

Citizenship ceremony

I’m now a citizen of the UK and of the European Union, although one of these citizenships is about to be stripped away. Alas. But I did have a fun party.

Dancing at my citizenship party

Almost immediately upon gaining full rights in my country, it was plunged into a constitutional crisis by a prime minister who has absolutely no mandate. He was selected by 75k members of his party: angry white extremely conservative middle class men from the home counties. They want the UK to leave Europe with no deal, however, parliament is not on board with this plan.

There has been a general election since the referendum, so parliament, unlike Johnson, does have a mandate to act on Brexit. However, using a clever move preferred by King Charles I, Johnson can use royal prerogative to suspend parliament and act without them.

For my non-British readers, it’s important to note that while Britain claims to have a constitution and sometimes whips itself into a crisis surrounding this constitution, nobody can point out the paragraph that is in question. Nobody can point to any document at all. It’s an unwritten constitution. All they have is tradition and precedent. Of course, I’ve just mentioned some precedent in the previous paragraph, but there are some important things to keep in mind about Charles I.

First of all is that he ruled a very long time ago and was a king rather than a PM. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he was beheaded for this behaviour.

The day that it became clear Johnson was poroguing parliament, there were spontaneous protests around the country. I went to Westminster to find the bridge blocked by demonstrators. I posted about this experience to my mastodon account, but will also summarise it here.

Blocking The Bridge

As I got to the bridge, there seemed to be two competing chants, which morphed into a call-response of “save our democracy / stop the coup”. Despite the bridge being blocked to automotive traffic and a long line of stopped buses, there seemed to be very few cops around. Cyclists and pedestrians were still able to get through, although many seemed to be confused.

I was slightly disappointed to see EU flags. I left mine at home on purpose. I feel like an assault on democratic processes is a larger issue than Brexit and that people on all sides of that issue might be alarmed by the PM’s actions. I would want anyone who was concerned about democracy to feel welcome.

It was not a large crowd, at all, just many people milling around in the intersection, singing and chanting. Other chants included, “You shut down the parliament / we shut down the streets.” A child stood near me was delighted to hear his mother singing “Oh Boris, you wanker!”

There seemed to be a wide diversity of ages present, although nobody elderly and few disabled people. It seemed to be about 70-80% white.

Smoke flare

After a while, some fake-cops did arrive and began helping the buses get turned around. It was also starting to get dark and a lot of families left and people who had been out for hours started to go home. As the crowd thinned, the cops told people to disperse or be arrested. I chose to disperse and wandered down to parliament square where there were still many more people, also blocking traffic.

The anti-coup protest in parliament square

There were helicopters buzzing overhead and a much larger presence of regular police , who did a lot of marching around from one side of the square to the other. People in the road, like at the bridge were chanting and singing. A reporter from RT set up next to where I was standing. Some other protestors came up to him and joked, ‘So you guys are the ones who caused all of this!” But nobody was hostile to them, which I was slightly disappointed by, although unwilling to act alone.

Eventually, the crowd in the square decided to become a silent protest, which sucked a lot of energy out of things, although also it was getting late and people were leaving. Many of them sat down in the road and some speakers got up and gave Occupy-style “mic-check” speeches about what to do when they got arrested.

Large number of people sitting down at parliament Square

This advice included:

  1. The police are not your friends. Don’t talk to them. Just say ‘no comment.’
  2. Do not accept a caution. This benign sounding term is actually a criminal record.
  3. If arrested, do not use the ‘duty solicitor’, but one of the activist ones who specialise in protest arrests.
  4. If you are arrested, the only information that you are required to provide is your name, date of birth and address. You can wait until you appear in front of a judge to provide this, but there’s no advantage in waiting.
  5. If you have a mobile phone, set it so the only way to log in is via a PIN. If you use a biometric login, the police can browse through it. The best thing to is to give it to a friend who is not being arrested.

As the crowd shrank, and the police outnumbered us, but nobody was being arrested, I started to wonder when last call was at the pub over the road. It turned out to be 11:15. When I got out, everyone was gone and I don’t know what happened to the last stragglers.

As I spoke to straggling drunks, however, one especially intoxicated you man said, “fucking American!” to me and forcibly grabbed my jacket. The other guy to whom I was talking peeled him off and sent him on his way.

As a citizen, I have a clear right to protest. But as soon as I open my mouth, I’ll always be foreign. The xenophobia brewing in the anti-democratic moves by the PM give me serious cause for alarm.

Successful sealant

I printed a small, self-contained mould in PLA for testing purposes. This section has the proportions that will hopefully be used in the final design, however, it does not need to join to any other sections of tentacle. I coated the pieces in PLA sealant XTC-3D.

I had previously been warned away from this sealant both because it’s fairly toxic and because the person selling it warned it may have an inhibitive effect on the silicon. I used the facilities that the University of Kent makes available for people working in resin to limit my exposure to the toxicity. I also coated the sealed mould in jelly vaseline, both to provide a barrier against any effects of the XTC and to make release easier. This was entirely successful.

Air hood

The sealant did tend to pool and form drops which dried in place. This would reduce the thickness of the cast piece, so I adjusted the moulds to compensate for lost thickness. I also sanded off drops. Some of the sealant also created lumps that prevented the mould from shutting properly, so I chiselled those parts away.

Sealant removing

Another difficulty was that the silicon I bought is too thick to pour into the top of the mould all in one go. It does not reach the bottom. The store suggested that I paint the inside of the mould with silicon, close it, mix up a second batch, and pour more in the top. This did not work.

Test pour

The silicon pooled at the top and failed to fill the mould. This was partly because, the sealant had filled up all the small air channels that I’d left in the moulds, and thus air became trapped, leaving no room for the silicon to fill the mould. I then drilled out the holes, using a drill press due to a shortage of charged batteries.

Drilling Airholes into mould

I tried again using three separate pours and the result was much better, but still inadequate.

Test pour

PlatSil Gel 00 is simply too thick to use in this kind of mould. The bottom of the mould (top of the picture) looks mostly alright, but there are still large airholes where air became trapped. Thinner silicon may solve this problem, or it may be necessary to put a third air channel at the apex of the arches in the mould.

I have lost access to the University of Kent’s workshop due to the School of Music and Fine Arts closing, so I’m hoping that just drilling through the existing moulds will be sufficient.

The flat piece of the design works extremely well with both this silicon and release agent, so the silicon I purchased will work for part of the final application.

Flat part

Due to the aforementioned closing of the workshop and my loss of affiliation with Kent, I rushed to print and coat an entire three-part mould, despite not having time to test if my join design will work.

To reduce the need for chiselling, I tried using masking tape to cover all the parts where the moulds touch each other and seal. This did not work, however, it’s possible I just needed to remove the tape sooner.

Masking tape

The last picture shows a translucent white PLA. My previous batch of grey PLA was rescued from an incinerator by refil. By the time I ran out of it, they’d sold out, so I’ve switched to their normal supply of PLA, made out of recycled vegware – the alledgedly biodegradable cutlery and coffee cup lid plastic. As far as I know, this is not generally recycled in the UK, and it’s always better to use non-disposable items in cafes.

Next Steps

In my previous post, I had confessed to feeling discouraged, but I do think the latest efforts have turned a corner. Although I have lost access to my workshop, silicon is not at all toxic to handle and requires no special precautions, so I should be able to try pouring with more appropriate material at home.

My moulds may require more air channels, but I’m hoping this will not require reprinting them. Printed holes are contained by walls, whereas ones drilled through a print will open directly to the supporting grid of the print. 3d prints are not solid, but have a largely hollow matrix supporting the outside walls. Keeping a drilled hole clear may prove to be problematic, but even if this is the case, getting only a single good cast will prove that the concept is sound.

More tentacle attempts

After a failed print, I decided to rationalise my moulds. These are created via a parametric tentacle design program in OpenSCAD. Obviously, changing the mould requires program changes, but this time my goals were both to ensure that it can create a mould across a wide range of parameters for users who want unusual sizes and to include an optimal ratio of parameters based on actuator research.

My program does not cope with tiny sizes. It’s expected that tentacles designed with it will be nearly as long as the print bed of a Ultimaker or longer. However, it seems likely that optimal ratios will be constant across actuator sizes. I adopted the ratios given by K Ogura et al, developed for tiny actuators. (2009)

As their actuators are squared and mine still have rounded edges, it may be that these are not optimal, however, I do feel that the new, narrow mould has higher aesthetic appeal.

Narrower Tentacle

Silicon

Before trying to cast this, I went to the 4d Model Shop to discuss the difficulties I had with my last silicon cast. The person working around the casting section of the store is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She suggested that what I needed was a lower viscosity silicone, but as I still have a quite a lot of the high viscosity left, she suggested I paint the mould with a small amount of it, close the mould, mix up a second small batch and pour that in the top. She suggested that may allow the silicon to flow through the entire mould before it sets. Unfortunately, the shop does not sell retarder.

She also told me that although silicon does not adhere to PLA, the porousness of a 3d printed PLA mould creates a lot of surface irregularity that silicon will flow into, making the two part mould extremely difficult to separate. The mould must first be sealed.

Epoxy sealant is toxic and may contain elements that prevent silicon from curing, so she suggested I experiment with a high gloss polyurethane sealant and then paint liquid Vaseline over that as a release agent.

I painted a single coat of sealant on one mould section, followed by the vaseline. I then mixed up a tiny batch of silicon. During this process, the scale turned itself off, so I was forced to estimate ratios of the two part compound. I therefore used two mould sections, one as a control group in case the haphazard ratio has curing problems.

The experimental section had a thicker piece of silicon and was made slippery by the Vaseline, which may be why it was more difficult to remove that the section that had no treatments.

My next steps will be to:

  • try a different sealant
  • try using more coats of the existing sealant
  • try using non-liquid vaseline to better cover over cracks in the mould
  • try using other household materials such as sunflower oil or sudo cream

Bioplastic

I’ve currently got a small batch of corn plastic drying, which is taking more than a week. The volume is decreasing significantly and I’m not sure it will be enough to make a test cast once it dried enough for me to melt it.

I’ve found some very promising research about using food waste to make bioplastic. The experiment was done using a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid – so dilute that vinegar is more acidic. I wish to see if vinegar would also produce this result, but it requires a food dehydrator and the ability to stir a solution at 40C for more than day – so a magnetic stirrer hotplate.

There is also research about citrus peels, specifically. This is perhaps the most interesting avenue. Pectins are stretchy like gelatin, which has been tested in actuators. It’s also easily available in my area. The processing is very much like other food waste processing, so the same equipment is required.

Feelings

This is all taking much much much longer than I thought it would and I have to say, I’m starting to feel extremely discouraged. While the 3d programming has turned out to be a lot easier for me than I anticipated, virtually everything else has been vastly more difficult. I was hoping to have some kind of prototype by autumn, but this looks less and less likely. My workshop access has been through my primary employer, the University of Kent. However, the department I teach in is closing and thus I’m becoming redundant over the summer. It’s still unclear whether the arts workshop is also closing at this time.

Cooking bioplastics in the kitchen is extremely unpopular with my spouse and I don’t really have space for a food dehydrator. I hope the London Hackspace may be able to help with this, however, they’ve moved rather a long way from the old neighbourhood.

Works cited

Bátori, V et al (2017). Production of Pectin-Cellulose Biofilms: A New Approach for Citrus Waste Recycling. International Journal of Polymer Science [Online] , vol. 2017, Article ID 9732329, 9 pages, 2017. Available at: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijps/2017/9732329/cta/ DOI: 10.1155/2017/9732329 [Accessed May 2019]

Keiko Ogura et al (2009). Micro pneumatic curling actuator – Nematode actuator. 2008 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Biomimetics. [Online] Available at: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/4913047 DOI: 10.1109/ROBIO.2009.4913047 [Accessed May 2019]

Perotto, G et al (2018). Bioplastics from vegetable waste via an eco-friendly water-based process. Green Chemistry, [online] 20, pp. 894-902. Available at: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2018/gc/c7gc03368k/unauth#!divAbstract DOI: 10.1039/C7GC03368K [Accessed May 2019]

Edible Octopod?

Mould Revisions following a Pour Attempt

As reported in my previous post, I created some moulds out of PLA for silicon casting. The second version of the mould fit together well. It had a single pour hole in the larger outside block.

When pouring silicon into this hole, there was no route for air to escape the mould and the silicon was slow moving within the mould. The silicon began to harden before even a fraction of the pour was complete.

Despite the small amount of silicon that got into the mould, it was extremely difficult to open, showing that the use of a release agent is necessary. Also, the slowness of the pour shows that a retarder is required.

I’ve made two versions of an updated mould. The larger mould piece has additional channels for which silicon to flow in and small air channels for air to flow out. There are now two identical pour holes and two smaller air holes. The airholes are connected to a narrow channel running for the length of the mould, which connects to the topmost part of the internal cavities. This should allow air to escape and if some silicon gets into the channels, it should not cause a problem.

Dual pour hole, small air vents

The other half of the mould has two new designs. The aesthetically superior one cuts out a round channel for silicon flow. This channel is the same diameter as the cut-outs of the other part of the mould, which should give it a unified look. However, this creates an overhang. As the tentacle will be cast in a soft material, it should hopefully be possible to peel the tentacle from the mould without doing it damage.

Because the overhang may fail, I’ve also created a version of that half of the mould that has narrower protrusions. This should also allow better pouring channels for silicon, but will cause the walls of the finished tentacle to be much thicker on the outside edge.

Notches for better flow

Bioplastic

In the mean time, I’ve been experimenting with bioplastic and food waste. PLA is sort of biodegradable and recyclable, but silicon is not.

Banana Peel Plastic

My first attempt at bioplastic was overly ambitious. Banana peels contain starch, so I used those. I used a lime peel as an acidic element to get free ions. I added coffee grounds as well. For preservative, I added a mixture of sage and tea tree essential oils. And used glycerol as the plasticiser.

Ingredients

  • 1 lime (post juicing for another recipie)
  • 3 banana peels
  • 1 moka pot’s worth of spent coffee grounds
  • 0.5 tsp tea tree oil
  • 1 tsp sage oil
  • 0.5 tsp vinegar
  • 2 tsp glycerol

Procedure

  • boil the limes and insufficient amount amount of time. save the water.
  • boil the banana peels 30 minutes
  • dry the banana peels 30 minues
  • blend the fruit and coffee with enough lime water to make a paste.
  • cook until thickens
  • Apply to final shape
  • Bake at a low oven temperature to dry

Results

The shape I attempted to make was a flower pot, moulded over an empty jar. While the material did mostly bond together, it took more than a week to fully dry and has had some cracking.

Some of this may be due to how ripe the peels were- presumably this caused some of the starches to convert to sugars. Also, I failed to remove any parts of any peels, so fibres and stems got into the final product. While these were unintentional, they have probably aided the stability of the structure.

Bioplastic Plant Pot

Corn Flour Plastic

My second attempt used corn flour (also known as corn starch), vinegar, salt, glycerol and coffee grounds.

For this, I used slightly more corn flour than I’d use for gravy, as much liquid as I would use for custard, a teaspoon of glycerol, a teaspoon of vinegar and a few pinches of rock salt.

I cooked all of the ingredients together until they started to thicken like custard. I then transferred the mixture to a takeway container and added a teaspoons of sage essential oil as a preservative. I applied the mixture to paper maché animal horns, and put it in the oven at a low heat.

These took a day to dry, but the plastic has come out successfully. While I don’t have any good measurements for ingredient ratios, it seems I used a large amount of glycerol relative to the corn starch. This created a very flexible rubbery plastic, not altogether unlike silicon in consistency.

Paper mâché Horns

Bioplastic Actuators

Previous research into bioplastic soft robotics is available. The paper, Soft Pneumatic Gelatin Actuator for Edible Robotics [DOI: 10.1109/IROS.2017.8206525], especially caught my fancy. While a theatrical robot falls outside of their potential applications (which charmingly suggests “food transportation where the robot does not require additional payload because the robot is the food.” (Shintake, et al., 2017, p 6221)), an edible robot is a biodegradable robot.

Using food for non food applications also has ethical issues, however. Part of my goal with bioplastics is to utilise food waste and as such, I will be investigating the possibility of highly flexible banana peel actuators. Although the starch in these peels is edible, it’s usually discarded. Using this for plastic thus reduces food waste and potentially may help highlight the culturally-based waste of edible items.

Finally, I can make this kind of plastic in my kitchen and don’t need to access a workshop.

First Tentacle Attempt

My first bioplastic tentacle section used an unmeasured corn flour plastic similar to the plastic above. It contained no vinegar but instead copious amounts of sea salt, as this also frees up ions and may help preserve the plastic. For additional acidity, I scavenged a lime that had not been juiced to the fullest possible extent and squeezed the remainder into the plastic. The preservative was 1 tsp tea tree oil. As I did not strain the lime, some pulp got in, probably rendering moot the various preservative attempts.

I brushed the inside of the mould with sunflower oil. Corn flour bioplastic starts to set even more quickly than silicon and there are really only a few seconds to decant it into the mould. As such, I did not use the pours holes, but instead spooned the plastic into the mould and struck the lid with my hand to force it down. Excess plastic leaked from the top and pour holes.

The drying process for starch bioplastic seems to rely on access to air, so it was still completely uncured after several days and was damaged by opening the mould to check on it.

Uncured bioplastic

Shintake et al, mentioned above, used gelatin-based bioplastic, which may be better suited to this application. This is also often a food-waste product, however, it’s made via an industrial process using waste from the meat industry (Etxabide, et al., 2017) and is not something I could really make at home. I’ll be looking at whether I can extract pectin from fruit peels and use it for plastic.

Unresolved Issues

As all the tentacles need to be identical, proper measurements and consistency will become extremely important.

My moulds are designed to create the tentacle in two parts which must be joined together with an airtight seal. While this seems straightforward in silicon, I don’t yet know how difficult it will be with bioplastic. Perhaps a hybrid silicon/bioplastic tentacle is the answer, as I do not actually want my robot to be eaten.

The durability of this material is also unknown. One design studio on YouTube says that essential oils act as preservatives, but it’s unclear how long this prevents decay.

References

Bilgin, E. (2013). Banana peel plastic – Science DIY. [online] Sites.google.com. Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/scidiy/diy-plastic/banana-peel-plastic [Accessed 7 May 2019].

Borroni, L. (2018). DIY bioplastics from orange peels and ground coffee – YouTube. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/embed/PrUjjzznwEE [Accessed 7 May 2019].

Etxabide, A., Uranga, J., Guerrero, P. and de la Caba, K. (2017). Development of active gelatin films by means of valorisation of food processing waste: A review. Food Hydrocolloids, [online] 68, pp.192-198. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0268005X16303605 [Accessed 7 May 2019].

Shintake, J., Sonar, H., Piskarev, E., Paik, J. and Floreano, D. (2017). Soft pneumatic gelatin actuator for edible robotics. 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS).

wikiHow Staff Editor (2019). How to Make Bioplastic. [online] wikiHow. Available at: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Bioplastic [Accessed 7 May 2019].

Octopod

I’ve been working for several months on a soft robotics project, on which I’m making very slow progress. The goal is to create a soft robotic octopod (or hexapod) – basically an octopus with inflatable tentacles that can walk around.

I’ve been working on the tentacle design thus far. They’re to be trefoil tentacles. Here’s a video of the tentacles which gave me the idea:

My tentacles are hopefully going to be much longer and won’t look like that, probably. I’ve gone though several design revisions. Most of the early versions were hand-built in clay.

Life-like

Still-life Tentacles

I started by making something that looked like an actual tentacle. The idea was that I would make a cast of it in vinamold. I made clay models of spines, also cast in vinamold, that I was going to use to make wax spines. The spines would be dangled down inside the mould of the outer tentacle and silicon poured around them. Then, they’d be melted back out. The voids they left behind could be pressurised with air to make the tentacle move.

First Tentacle Design

The problems with this design became quickly apparent, but the most major was the asymmetry of the exterior shape was going to make it difficult to calculate the angle of the tentacle. If all sides are equal, the pressure of the interior spaces correlates directly with the angle, but having varying thicknesses around the outside makes that much harder to compute.

Tentacle air pockets

Symmetric in Vinamold

The next version uses a single model for all three sides of the tentacle. The curved part faces the outside, and the flat parts are joined in the middle to make a triangular tube down the centre of the tentacle.

I made the spine out of wood (not pictured) and then sculpted around it with clay to create the outer skin layer. I cast both parts in vinamold.

(Failed) Clay Tentacle

The previous version had a vertical mould, but this one was horizontal. I suspended the wax spines in the mould by casting them around a thick wire, which I embedded into the mould for the outer skin.

Floating wax

However, the wax floated in the silicon and the horizontal pour caused lamination (peel-y, layers of silicon rather than a uniform solid). When I melted the wax out, the tentacle was not air tight. It was much thicker on the rounded side than the flat side.

Failed Tentacle

Vacuum Moulded

I realised I could repair the troubled tentacle by casting just a flat side for the inside layer and gluing it and the outside layer together. The best way to do this would be to do the outside layer and the inside layers separately. I also wanted the layers to be thinner overall.

Once again, I made a model in clay, but this time was very careful to keep only a tin layer around the spine. I made a vacuum mould of the spine and then added a thin skin to that spine and took a second vacuum mould. With some help from the workshop staff, I built a holder for the pair of them, with a little funnel in the top.

Vacuum Plastic Mould

I could make a vertical pour of the silicon, which would be much more likely to hold. However, the plastics didn’t align perfectly around the edges and when I did a test pour with a cornstarch solution roughly as thick as the liquid silicon, it leaked out.

3d Printed prototype

Almost every write up of soft robotics I’ve found uses 3d printing rather than hand sculpting. I decided to switch to this more conventional approach. Using OpenScad, I wrote a little program to create a parametric mould for a tentacle.

I have terrible luck with the 3d printer owned by Kent’s School of Music and Fine Arts and the first print glitched.

Failed Print

This was intended to be a short, self-contained third of a tentacle. The flat part on the left is the inside edge. The middle box is shows the outer edge. The part on the right provides the hollow sections for the void.

In addition to the print glitching, Cura silently resized it to fit into the printer, which would have made the walls too narrow. To prevent future glitches and to keep things at the correct size, I’m now printing every component separately.

Printing at Home

Almost all of the work up to this point was done in the worskshop of Kent’s School of Music and Fine Arts. I received extensive help and support from George Morris and Georgia Wright.

As the workshop was closing for Easter and I had bad luck with prints, a few people suggested I get my own printer. I got an Ultimaker 3, but was too impatient to do a self-contained, short full tentacle again.

To make a longer tentacle, it would need to be broken into sections. The first section is the length closest to the robot’s body. One end had no input or output of air. The other end has an output. The middle section has an input at one end and an output at the other. (This section can be repeated to create a much longer tentacle.) The end section has an input but no output.

I started with the first section. The end closest to the robot is at the top of this photo and then end that joins up with the subsequent section is at the bottom.

Tentacle mould

My first print did not fit together correctly, so I’ve changed the program and am trying again. The most recent version is the one pictured.

This is taking longer than I anticipated. However, over the course of things, I’ve learned to sculpt, to make rubber moulds, and to do vacuum moulding as well as other workshop-related skills.

I’m hoping to get an inflatable tentacle within the next few weeks.