Pluralistic: 09 Jun 2021

Today's links

The cover of the new edition of Prisoners' Inventions, featuring a white-on-black list of the inventions contained therein.

Prisoners' Inventions (permalink)

2003's PRISONERS INVENTIONS is an underground classic, a high-stakes precursor to MAKE Magazine, combining ingenuity, adversarial interoperability, and user-centered design. After 13 years out of print, Half Letter Press published a new, expanded edition.

Spread from 2020 edition of Prisoners' Inventions, depicting three different ways of arranging a prison bunk as a drafting environment.

Prisoners' Inventions was created by Angelo, a pseudonymous, long-serving incarcerated American who entered into a collaboration with the Temporary Services collective, who both published Angelo's work and staged multiple gallery showings of his work.

Floorplan of a prison cell.

For these shows, museum workers followed Angelo's finely drafted, detailed drawings and notes to recreate the inventions he'd documented, recreating his cell from the floorplans and elevations he'd supplied.

A museum reproduction of Angelo's cell, produced from his floorplans.

The new edition documents these showings, and the absurd ways that Angelo experienced them – for example, when a guard discovered a postcard with a recreation of Angelo's cell, he was convinced that this was evidence that someone had smuggled a digital camera into the prison.

So realistic was the reproduction – so precise and faithful were Angelo's plans – that the warden took extensive persuading to be convinced that the digital camera theory was a paranoid guard's fantasy.

Prison coat-hanger

The anaecdote illustrates the core attraction of PRISONERS' INVENTIONS: not just that Angelo has a fine, expressive draftsman's hand, nor that his accompanying text makes for an economical, shrewdly observed ethnography of the tools and their users.

Spread from 2020 edition of Prisoners' Inventions, depicting a suite of dining-related inventions and an 'Extra Finger' invention that holds down the hot-water actuator in a cell's sink.

But rather that this ingenuity is an act of survival and resistance, created under harsh conditions where each inventor must create the tools to fashion the tools – under adversarial conditions where all-powerful enemies can smash everything and set the makers back to zero.

D-Cell battery cigarette lighter

In some regards, it's like a for-real version of those neo-neolithic Youtubers who show how to bootstrap advanced tooling from raw materials. In others, it's a physical version of the beloved first-person accounts of daring feats recounted in the pages of 2600.

Spread from 2020 edition of Prisoners' Inventions, depicting a property locker grill and a toilet-paper cooking 'bomb.'

This is true adversarial interoperability – treating the environment as a puzzle and a challenge, to be deconstructed and reconfigured by toolsmiths for their users' benefit, overcoming both user-hostile designs and policing by the original designers' armed enforcers.

Prison cigarette lighter made from a modified hotpot

Reading Angelo's accounts of his fellow toolsmiths' ingenuity, I was forcibly reminded of the thrill and dread I experience every time I re-read James Clavell's debut novel, KING RAT, a fictionalized account of his incarceration in the infamous Changi death-camp.

Spread from 2020 edition of Prisoners' Inventions, depicting two variations on the 'stinger' immersion heater.

I always lingered over Clavell's description of the POWs' ingenuity, from the contraband radio inside hidden water-bottle compartments that had to be clipped together when the conspirators gathered to tune into war news, or how tailors practiced their trade behind the wire.

The original cover of Abbie Hoffman's STEAL THIS BOOK.

This is the true hacker mindset, the combination of playfulness, lateral thinking, user-centered design, and pitting your wits against brutal authority. It's part of a lineage that includes classics like STEAL THIS BOOK.

Tire-sandal illustration from Steal This Book.

The illustrations in Steal This Book are strikingly similar to those in Prisoners' Inventions, though Angelo's prose is sharper and less self-indulgent.

A page from MEND AND MAKE DO describing how to make an apron from a worn-out men's shirt.

Equally, Prisoners' Inventions recalls wartime pamphlets like the famous MEND AND MAKE DO, with their emphasis on thrift and finding creature comforts under conditions of indefinite hardship and privation.

Many of the inventions Angelo catalogues are about creating space for comfort out of miserable conditions. The prisoners who make greeting-card pigments by scraping ink off magazine ads and mixing it with body-lotion embrace the Mend and Make Do ethos as much as anyone.

The cover of Gustavo Alvarez's 'Prison Ramen.'

Prisoners' Inventions deserves a spot on your shelf between your MAKE Magazines and your copy of PRISON RAMEN, a bridge between those two world.

The cover of 'Concentration Camp Dachau, 1933-1945.'

I long treasured my 2003 copy of the original. Last year, my office flooded and I lost my whole bottom shelf of books. I salvaged just two: that 2003 edition and the illustrated history of Dachau my parents gave me when we visited the camp when I was 12.

Both books recorded prisoners' resistance, the humanity of caged people in inhumane circumstances – and both do so from the perspective of the incarcerated, just as King Rat does. These are powerful stories that shaped my view of the world and are never far from my mind.

As the new edition's introduction notes, Angelo died in Dec 2016 in LA, three years after his release from more than two decades of incarceration. He was days away from his 73rd birthday.

He spent his brief years of freedom watching and cataloging films he sourced from thrift stores and other secondary sources, living a quiet and mostly solitary life.

The new edition is a tribute to Angelo. America continues to incarcerate more people than any nation in human history.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Coupland’s JPod: the Anti-Microserfs

#15ysago EFF co-founder Barlow debates MPAA prez Glickman

#10yrsago Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places: Grimm fairytale in California vibrates with believable unreality

#10yrsago American right upset at report that Thatcher won’t meet Palin

#10yrsago AT&T lobbies Wisconsin GOP to nuke Wisconsin’s best-of-breed co-op ISP for educational institutions

#5yrsago UK Parliament votes in Snoopers Charter, now it goes to the House of Lords

#5yrsago How we will keep the Decentralized Web decentralized: my talk from the Decentralized Web Summit

#5yrsago Internet elders and upstarts gather to redecentralize the Internet

#5yrsago Banks confront negative interest rates with plans to store titanic bundles of money on-site

#5yrsago New York Attorney General to Time Warner: your Internet is “abysmal” and “troubling”

#5yrsago Hard times for judge who sued dry-cleaner for $65M over missing pants

#1yrago Auditing Omniballot, a terrible e-voting system

#1yrago Police budgets are out of control

#1yrago Paramount's Unproduced Screenplays

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Boing Boing (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 264 words (4715 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)
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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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