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My Mother from My Life Without Me
Where was I when it all started? In the hospital, some fifty years ago, but not in the delivery ward, where most children get their umbilical cords cut. No, I was in the cancer ward, where my mother worked. She was a cancer ward pediatrician, and that night, the 7th of March, after a long game of cards with her friends, she went to work on her night shift.
You must understand that my late Mom was a historical communist, one of those who risked her life when she was seventeen for ideals of justice and truth. An activist pediatrician she chose to work at the toughest places, with dying children alone in the ward without their own parents. My mother was all they had, and she loved them more than herself.
She even loved them more than my own little self, who, in her eyes, lacked the stark appeal of a dying creature whom she could save. On the contrary, I was big, healthy and plump. She called me spoiled, and furthermore, denounced the rest of her rich family as “kulaks.” The original kulak was my grandfather, a gentleman father of six who, as an ignorant first-generation capitalist, invested his money in the first bank founded in Serbia. The bank failed immediately because the owner ran off to London with the loot (an evergreen characteristic of Serbian banking system).
Then my mother, the failed banker’s youngest daughter, set fire to her library as a political act. Luckily the rest of the house stayed intact, remaining the family’s last grand possession after decades of depredation by Serbian swindlers, German occupiers, Russian liberators and the communist regime.
My pretty little mother, convinced of her ideological merits, implemented them in radical deeds. She married her husband, my father, the moment she set eyes on him. He was a Communist, clean and hard working: dating and love was for sissies.
The ambitious young couple had no time to waste. My mother was obliged to complete her medical studies, so her husband used to heave both her and her medical textbooks on top of a cupboard, a towering structure where she could not climb down alone. He was ahead of her in his studies, which was why he got to freely pace the floor of their small student dorm. She always admired him for this decisive act.
My mother, small and dainty and dressed in her worker’s clothes, was hugely pregnant as she passed her last exams. The professor quizzed her on infanticide. She didn’t blink, she answered with her usual precision and melodic absolute pitch. He bowed at her in admiration, offering her his hand as a sign of respect. But when she stood he blushed in deep embarrassment:
– My comrade colleague, but you are pregnant!
– My comrade professor, my mother answered promptly, the fact that I am a woman does not make me less a colleague.
She worked throughout her pregnancy. From her first months she vomited incessantly, finally dosing herself with American imperialist pills to stop the nausea. I still wonder if those hazardous pills made me the way I am: the dissident traitor writing this book.
She may have miscounted the weeks and months, for, after the night’s card game, she felt a sudden and violent pain in her uterus.
She screamed for help, and the comrade-colleagues diagnosed her.
– The delivery is underway…
– No way, she started scolding them, no way, it is too early…
They examined her.
– Your baby is indeed on her way and she is arriving upside down, ready to jump on her feet.
At that news my mother lost control and every facade of comrade bravery. She started screaming that she would not survive the shame and pain, and demanded a caesarean delivery. Too late: the wrong headed baby was kicking her way out. In order to calm her down, the comrades doctors lied to her (another common method between comrades), telling her that they were preparing the room for her operation. In the meantime I managed to abandon her body. They took me from the cancer ward and put me two flights upstairs in the delivery ward.
The next day my mother returned to her senses. Small as she was, my mother had huge milky breasts. I can still remember pumping them and playing with them, but I had to earn a right to them, and that was not simple.
In those days in that country, newborns were densely swaddled, much like nuns and bread loaves. My mom received her identical white loaf, she examined the wrapping professionally and the bacterial aspect of the cotton… She then glanced at the baby and looked severely at the nurse:
-Comrade nurse, this baby is not mine.
The comrade nurse glared back at her even more severely. Maternity ward nurses in communist regimes were emergency workers, like firemen. They called all women “Mothers”, screaming, scolding and barking orders at them so that the women never had a moment to relax and experience postpartum depression.
– Comrade doctor, said the nurse, this is the baby you’ve got and you are going to feed it.
My mother stubbornly snatched the baby and unwrapped her little hand to check the bracelet around her wrist. The bracelet was there, it had her own name on it…
– There you go, triumphantly and defiantly said the comrade nurse.
But wow, once the hand was unwrapped the rest of the swaddling went.
– Comrade nurse…this infant is a boy…I was told I had a girl.
The nurse wrapped the baby back in a businesslike manner, not much upset, and said,
– Couldn’t you feed it anyway while I find yours?
At that moment, the search for myself conclusively began. I have never had any certainty that I am who they claim I am. No one has ever done a blood test or DNA test, and in those days the locals went physically searching, seeking clues like detectives: who worked the shift last night, who carried the baby, where? Finally they found the personage that is now writing, being breast-fed by a gypsy woman who had delivered her fourth child the same night my mother gave birth.
The comrade nurse said to the woman:
– Woman, this baby is not yours.
The gypsy mother angrily replied:
– I love all my children and even if I am poor nobody will take them from me!
The nurse undid the baby wrap and there I was, nude as only a girl can be.
– You had a son, you silly woman, said the nurse. The gypsy mother backed down with some sadness and yet relief… girls are far harder to bring up.
– Let me feed her first, look how hungry she is.
And she did it. My first milk was a milk from a gypsy whose name I never knew and which was not meant for me but for her son, my milk brother.
Many times I have asked myself, is he dead or alive? A gypsy’s life is often brief. Did he ever go to school? — gypsies in Belgrade at the time scarcely allowed their children to go. Was he handsome, was he miserable, did he have children of his own? Did he beg in the streets as a child and collect rubbish as a man, beautiful as only gypsies can be in orange dashing suits of the garbage men? Am I risking incest?
Today as I walk the streets of Belgrade I look at the men of my age who could be gypsies, and I think of him. I am an only child, so, thanks to that first meal of my life, he was my only relative. It seems I enjoyed it so much that even the comrade nurse didn’t complain. Although my mother never admitted it to me, my gypsy milk brother sucked my mother’s sweet odorous milk. It was some kind of rape, she confessed to her best friend. The nurse made her do it.
I fantasized about my milk brother. In school I always sat beside a gypsy boy during classes. When I grew up to be a young woman, I started dancing with the gypsies, singing in those mysterious and segregated places where only gypsies were admitted. Though I was blonde, they would let me in (besides, where my mother comes from, the gypsies were all blonde). One of them said: if only you were not so blonde I would marry you, since you sure can dance and sing and make money. (Maybe he was my milk brother!).
Who is Ada?Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is no longer who she once was, 200 years ago. Time changes all famous people, especially cult personalities. Ada has become a modern icon for the digitizing world of science and literature.For women, so commonly invisible in their daily lives, the path to fame is, as a rule, transgressing rules. Whenever visible, they are mostly notorious. In reading history we can scarcely see what famous women actually did with their lives. It is their misdeed, or some failure to perform, that we can generally see.This applies especially to heroines and celebrities: women placed on a pedestal have a hard time climbing off it to relate their actual experience. Invisibility is a woman’s permanent condition, a method of survival, a gender’s way of life: like in the Purloined Letter story by Edgar Allan Poe, a hidden message is concealed by its very display.Ada is our heritage souvenir, 200 years after her birthday. She is heavier than a gold medal, more mysterious than Nefertiti, a thought experimenter whose fantasy calculations have transformed the world like the work of Einstein. General computation is a stark reality, a revolutionary insight which took its own time to arrive after its conception by a woman.Who else would think up such an unlikely thing, other than Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron? It’s the proper work of a poet to give names to the unseen things in the world. And yet, living as a woman of science is not so easy as conceiving, thinking, writing, calculating, publishing. In those 200 years — or 36 years less, since Ada died young — the role of women in science has become more complex, not simpler.In Ada’s day, women, when rarely accepted into the narrow circles of scientific societies, were accepted as popularizers, as teachers, as sympathetic advocates. Women of science were legitimated in that sociable way, intuitive, visionary and romantic, but were still superfluous in the serious male work of science and progress. A female propagandist can only be a source of wary respect when she becomes dangerous politically.In our own time, I see Adas every day, in my life in technology art. I have outlived Ada, so I see what professional life is like for women who live in, or are placed on the fringes of, technology. Talented, geeky, bright, yet held back by the structures of a boys’ camaraderie when it comes to technological products: boys and their toys.These talented women, as geekettes, as crazed women, as eccentric females, prefer to stay back, to conceal themselves, if they cannot perform in their own way, to their own ends. They do not know how to bargain with their creativity in the mainstreams of science or art. Their ideas are still intuitive and visionary, as Ada’s ideas were, when compared to the engineering plans of her colleague Charles Babbage.Babbage was her good friend and they had a successful collaboration. They complemented each other and yet today, his work holds little mystery, while hers still does. Because there are yardsticks for measuring his scientific output — he tried to build a costly machine for a government, and he failed — but no yardstick for hers. She is in the domain of courtly fantasy for male authors, and a matter of hope and trust for women scientists.Feminists analyze Ada’s famously absent father and her strongly biased mother, her constrained and yet peaceful private life as wife and mother. Her sexual life which ended in uterine fatal sickness: so feminine, so incurable, even today. Her uterus exploded from too much mathematics! Her contemporary misogynist doctor allegedly claimed that of her illness, and certainly it was common enough at that time to think that scientific knowledge was too much for female frailty to bear.She bled to her death at the same age as her father, Lord Byron, who was bled to his death by incompetent doctors while struck with fever in Greece. Only, Lord Byron was courting his own death by fighting a foolish war, as an aggressive proud bossy male, while obedient Ada bore her children while diligently doing her calculus.How did Ada escape her father’s shadow, his scandalous absence from her life, her mother’s clutching, overbearing presence? Through rigid lessons of hard science and flights of creative fantasy. Through computation: an endless perspective of thinking, creating, coding! A programmable machine that weaves numbers, with an intelligence that was artificial because it was a woman’s intelligence.People like to indulge themselves in quarreling over the proper division of intellectual spoils between Lovelace, Babbage, Menabrea and others. The truth is that the Difference Engine was an abject failure, the Analytical Engine could not succeed even though Ada bravely offered to finance the machine. So her great idea of general-purpose computation remained dormant for many decades. Many women enter science only to find frustration. “A serious injustice and a scandalous waste of talent,” as Máire Geoghagan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, recently said about the stifled role of European women in science, innovation and research.If Ada had never existed, we would have had to invent her, but she did exist, and it’s her modern myth as a digital heroine that we have invented. Certainly she was never “digital” even for a moment, but we are still standing on the shoulders of this attractively gowned and vivacious Victorian society hostess.If Ada were alive today, I would certainly invite her to visit our “Internet of Women Things” group. IoWomenT is a recent attempt related to Casa Jasmina, a smart home of the future in Turin. I’m sure that the Countess of Lovelace would be quite helpful to an open-source effort, since she always was a friend to scientific enlightenment, and never one to rudely quarrel over worldly reputation or commercial advantage.One of our goals is to create at least one connected smart IoT “Thing” from a woman’s point of view. Some thing that has never existed, something that women need, dream about and yet have never managed to technically manufacture. The open source Maker movement should certainly be capable of this: An Ada IoT object.But what is it, what could it be? A sentimental memento? 3 d printed sculpture of her brain (Babbage’s brain was pickled, and is still available)? A analog brass computer-generated piece of music, because Ada doted on music? How could we, as modern women, act in her spirit, and not as the myth would have it?Many things impress me about the mysterious Countess of Lovelace (who probably wouldn’t much like our impertinence in always calling her “Ada”). Her father, George Gordon, Lord Byron, I love in my own way (because I had a father story too). Also her feminist struggle with her authoritarian, invasive mother (same here again). People dwell on her arranged marriage and her supposed lovers (I don’t trust the gossip). Almost every woman can relate some similar problems and that’s fine, nobody is perfect, not even an aristocratic woman scientist.What excites me about Ada is her lateral way of thinking, deducing, calculating. Because that imaginative freedom, the cognitive leaps to a good conclusion, are obvious from her surviving letters and notes. This is just what society still needs today from women. We never have enough of it: female genius rising from the cradle of constraint.So I would invite her ladyship, the countess and scientist, to our IoWT workshop. Dressed contemporarily, to the extent she could manage (after all she is 143 years older than us, and given to corsets) she could participate in our open source CasaJasmina brainstorming, where we honk like geese in the fog. Listening politely, till she stands up screaming in her ladylike manner: I’ve got it! I know what we need to do!Then she tells us her vision… And we just make it!
For those of us who once lived in the former Yugoslavia, The Hague is the symbol for international tribunals. Our bloodstained nation is just a myth nowadays, but this court, a congelation of nations, still exists in a building in the Netherlands, processing our historical war crimes.I stood next to the Dutch brass plate with the name of Yugoslavia engraved on it: once it used to be the name on my national passport , nowadays it is a court. Good thing that such a court exists in the world, I always thought, but after many years of its work, I realized that it could do much better.The rule of law is not sufficient to create justice, just as democracy is not enough to create equality. Women activists from former Yugoslavia have created tribunals to examine the crimes committed in our names. The scope of rape in wartime was one of many things revealed by these women activists with their initiatives, and for the first time in history rape was criminalized by The Hague court. Women’s courts cannot issue sentences, but can shed light on neglected aspects of wartime suffering, or the postwar transition to nowhere, that the world’s legal systems overlook. Such is the law of Antigone or Cassandra, or of Simone Weil, who claims that in dark times of confusion and shattered legal systems , only emotions, moral conviction can determine what’s right and what’ s wrong.Nowadays we have a similar need for a parallel court in the case of Edward Snowden: his coming out as a NSA spy who refuses to do his job because he considers it unethical and wrong resembles the act of Antigone. The coming out of a crazy woman, her refusal to collaborate, becomes a standard for the new justice. Of course there is no ruler’s law or court created for those who rebel from their own ruling class: they are offered only silence or death. In the case of the ancient heroines death is the minimum the myth will give them, in the case of modern ones, silence and neglect, the civil death is in order.Peter Sunde is an internet activist who suffered a sentence in prison for virtual copyright crimes committed by his Pirate Bay, which existed outside the local national laws of various intellectual property owners. His internet crimes were not even identified as such, far from being properly regulated, but after much determined struggle they found a way to jail him anyway. Speaking from experience, Sunde assured me that Snowden would never get a fair trial anywhere, and probably no trial at all, ever. So the Internet’s rule of law is golden: those who have the gold tend to make the rules.But what about the ethical, moral, and other standards of the people, of the Internet users, of the citizens, of those who are involved against their will in the grand global game of being spied upon or spying. Do they have any formal say? Not really. Do they have an opinion? Too many! Contradictory, honest and eager opinions. Not only trolls, though they are loudest. But no single place on Earth in which to state them, to discuss them, to legally argue.During the “Crossing Borders” conference in The Hague, Peter Sunde and Addie Wagenknecht presented an idea. During the conference, they would stage a people’s virtual tribunal for the Snowden case. This brief work of political art would probably be the first and only public trial Edward Snowden would ever get .The three members of the improvised jury were happy to stage this entertaining event (Ancilla Tilia, Joerg Blumtritt, Jasmina Tesanovic). It was certainly international in flavor, since it was done in The Netherlands, by citizens of three nations with radically different national law systems. We three could debate about the meaning of NSA spying, agreeing or disagreeing about how it should be revealed, or not. And we did: we debated to reach a recommendation and two entirely different sentences. The sentences were hand-written on a piece of paper which will eventually be delivered to Edward Snowden.There is no international court for the likes of Edward Snowden. How would it ever collect evidence from the billions of people spied upon, or weigh the injustice inflicted on them? Many witnesses gave precious testimony at the women’s court, but the organizers refused to hand that over to The Hague tribunal. The Hague tribunal already discarded and destroyed material evidence which the survivors collected for the genocide of Srebrenica: personal testimonies, precious souvenirs of the dead were seen as bulky and useless to the global justice process. The genocide was declared as real by the court, and yet the guilty parties were never singled out: a global war crime without local criminals.History is not written usually by single human beings acting alone, but in this case it will be. Snowden’s coming out resembles that of many invisible victims of obscure wars. Snowden needs to tell the truth the whole truth for the sake of his own country and colleagues around the world. This is only the beginning. Truth is not a comfortable burden for him or anyone else: it takes courage and risk as well as huge sacrifice to carry that burden of conveying the silently obvious to a world that would prefer not to know. But someone must do it. It might as well be him, for the sake of a wor
Maker Faire Rome, in its third year and already a tradition, had a hundred thousand visitors. Students were the protagonists this year: the huge fair was held all over the wide campus of the Sapienza University of Rome.
Real Italian revolutions have had smaller crowds than Maker Faire Rome did. The prestigious Sapienza campus, founded in 1303, was rented, gated and dedicated to the fair’s themes of innovation and new technological futures. Squads of flying drones and giant steel 3DPrinters are certainly a futuristic departure for an Eternal City so heavy with castles, churches and catacombs.
Microsoft, Google, Intel and IBM were much in attendance, while the Sapienza’s leftist students were miffed to find themselves locked outside their own campus gates and forced to pay for tickets to see the hundreds of exhibitors. Sapienza’s employees were also on involuntary holiday, and the joint student-worker protests brought in a further audience of armored Roman riot cops. Makers or not, this is still Italy where people protest, react, have their say in the streets.
Any Italian event with a hundred thousand people will bring out the radicals, and the Sapienza students, who were a small for effective and motivated group, confronted a heavy police presence for many hours. The protests climaxed in nightstick beatings and four student arrests.
This wasn’t really a conflict over Maker Faire, more a principled struggle between the dean and the students over the commercial use of the Sapienza campus. It’s rare to see any academy nowadays that prefers student democratic process to the allure of wealthy corporate sponsors.
This small but typically modern struggle took place in the Roman square symbolically named after Aldo Moro, the Italian premiere kidnapped and executed by the Red Brigades. Inside the Sapienza, the campus buildings bear the august names of scientists and writers such as Primo Levi and Italo Calvino.
Inside the fair, the drones were flying, good pasta was served, makers showed their home-manufactured wares to wandering Roman families. Chromed baby carriages jostled with android-style prosthetics and open-source home seismometers.
As usual at Maker Faires, there were a lot of weird disaster playgrounds and pre-visions of catastrophe, the powerful psychological emanations from lone inventors who feel that no one in authority is ever likely to help them. However, this year, the wares on display were dominated by everyday life tech inventions more or less intended for real people: smart wearables, light bulbs transmitting internet data, smart gardening, interactive home floors, open source foods and, of course, elaborate Italian coffee machines.
As social movements go, there are some oddities about the open source Maker Movement. Maker objects still look pretty much the same as commercial products of standard capitalism, but they are simpler to assemble, strangely impersonal, often uncomfortable and not necessities of life.
They are expressions of creative freedom, a kind of philosophical toy rather than an answer to life’s needs. But that is why homes of the future, such as our project Casa Jasmina, are becoming necessary. We need to refine our tools and skills, but also need courage to live in a different way.
Makers already have their own fashions: the checked shirts, rather ugly shoes (by Italian standards) oddly combined with fancy wearables and designer glasses. They seem more relaxed that average Italians, more global in their tastes. But they still would never give up their superb coffee and pasta.
Open source luxury is what country like Italy has to give to the world. “Connected homes” are connected to us, they should be our safe place, our toy but also our joy.
Here I am now as a wannabe European woman traveling alone. Because you see, women don’t travel alone; they travel with their men, families or friends. If they are alone, it means they are lost or dangerous. I always get those looks and check ups, even friendly offers.
I entered in the first comfortable train heading north… to even more United Europe.
Border officers were entering my train, checking us, and it all went well, until we managed to come across one small piece of one small country that once used to be called Yugoslavia, that once used to be my own country.
I didn’t have the proper papers, they claimed. Politely, they took me out off the train, and even more delicately, they locked me behind bars. A small prison hut, really, with two young officers watching me from outside with guns.
Then they went through my suitcase, then…
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