Sunday, December 22, 2002

Merry Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice - the shortest day of the year. Scientifically, the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky and your hemisphere is leaning its farthest away from the sun. Culturally, it marks rebirth and the return of the sun. The solstices and equinoxes have been celebrated for at least 50,000 years - intimately linking these celestial events to seasonal passages in the lives of people, animals and plants. Many of these rituals are tied to light (as life) - to creating and sustaining light/life. Each day after the Winter Solstice edges us closer to the full light of the Summer Solstice, and we must take care not to let the light burn out under threat of darkness.

From the intimate rituals of nomadic tribes to the spectacles of imperial celebrations, the solstices have figured prominently in our collective histories. They mark the nomad with her fragility and the emperor with his absolute power over the universe. Songs to the heavens and delicate candle celebrations with kin gave way to monumental architecture and imperial parades. The collective grew and religion gave way to the state. We no longer celebrate the solstice.

And so before next week's onslaught of consumption - I wish you a very Merry Solstice.

May you recapture some of the intimacy of earlier times and sustain your light. See you in the new year.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Halfway across the world

Fabio Sergio has my mind going a thousand miles an hour these days, not least because of his damn fine imagery:

They just want to let others know they are, indeed, here. And bored.
Right by your side, a thousand miles away.
In Connectedland.

After all, there is no reason not to live poetically.

On Securing Cyberspace and the Role of Researchers

From the NY Times: The Bush administration is planning to propose requiring Internet service providers to help build a centralized system to enable broad monitoring of the Internet and, potentially, surveillance of its users.

A corporate lawyer said that "Internet service providers are concerned about the privacy implications of this as well as liability, since providing access to live feeds of network activity could be interpreted as a wiretap or as the 'pen register' and 'trap and trace' systems used on phones without a judicial order." And a government spokesperson said "the need for a large-scale operations center is real because Internet service providers and security companies and other online companies only have a view of the part of the Internet that is under their control. We don't have anybody that is able to look at the entire picture. When something is happening, we don't know it's happening until it's too late."

I am solidly behind decentralisation and proposals like this violate my political values and dreams for cyberspace. But I take comfort in our inability to delineate the "entire picture" - at best we can abstract a stable whole from the flow of its parts, and that can never be "true". Of course, that usually doesn't stop people from legislating it as though it were...

One official compared the system to Carnivore: "Am I analogizing this to Carnivore? Absolutely. But in fact, it's 10 times worse. Carnivore was working on much smaller feeds and could not scale. This is looking at the whole Internet."

Forgive my ignorance - but is this actually possible? I would have thought the decentralised nature of the Internet would effectively prevent this... And if so, there's still hope.

But this makes me think of something else: the desire and ability to "secure" cyberspace. In the past, anthropologists have learned the hard way how their research could be (mis)used to promote government agendas. During the second world war, Nazi archaeologists planted artefacts as a means of claiming cultural continuity in geographical space - which they used to justify their "territorial expansion". Incidentally, this methodology (minus the planting of artefacts!) is currently used in Native land claims. Cultural provenance and continuity is established archaeologically and accepted as legal justification for "ownership" of the land. Sort of along the lines of "home" being where you bury your dead, and not just where your people are born. Anyway, ethnographies have also been used many times to understand cultural differences in order to "aid" the war-time internment of particular peoples, like the Japanese. There are many more examples, but my concern here is that in times of political strife (war-like conditions) governments turn to their "best" researchers to better understand the "enemy".

In the so-called War on Terrorism, the enemy is not only located in physical space(s) but is also understood to occupy virtual space(s). As such, in our individual and collective politics, ethnographies and other social accounts of cyberspace become as relevant as do more traditional "real-world" cultural accounts. And social and cultural researchers cannot afford to be apolitical in their work - any claim for objectivity should be dissuaded! Our work has never been value-free and it's time for cyberspace researchers to take responsibility for their work and understand its possible implications. Each account of the virtual that we produce can be used by others (with different intentions) to justify their actions. In "securing" cyberspace, there will be a need to define precisely "what cyberspace is" and researchers will be instrumental in providing the information that influences international policy decisions.

We should be holistic in our approach, and be able to imagine our work after it leaves our hands. We should be critical and humane in our analyses and ensure that the welfare of all people is considered. We should engage the larger public as much as possible because this is not the time to claim elitist knowledge. We should be clear on our values and ethics and not exclude them from formal papers. And we should choose our words carefully.

I'm up for the challenge. How about you?

Friday, December 20, 2002

"I burn energy, and accumulate material possessions, and am totally wired, therefore I am."

Tom Sherman's Always Nice to be Recognized takes a look at the future of privacy and individual autonomy.

"Privacy is important because it allows us to pretend we are something, anything, we are not. It gives us the space we need to practice things we would like to be good at someday. Privacy makes us secure by letting us know we are very different than people think we are. We need privacy because it is the extra space we need to grow new 'parts,' as we are being used up and mangled everyday in the brutal, real world. We need a space where we can be true to ourselves, no matter what the consequences outside. There is so much compromise required outside."

(Adam - here's your "safe harbours of slow time" and "moments of amnesty".)

And I love this line about not being able to get away: "Because I know that people are listening to my inner voice, I cannot afford to feel the way I once did."

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Blogging the (American) City

Radical Manhattanism at Gawker. Neat-o. (via Anil Dash)

Following up on adaptation and design

The other day I meant to follow up on Fabio's comments. And let me start by saying that I love when other people sum up what I wrote and it makes more sense to me! An experience both amusing and humbling.

I like Fabio's initial characterisation of (shall we call it) flow: "In typical emergent fashion, the [ideas] started to make not more, but different sense." This is a fine place to start as it also conjures the differences between complication and complexity. And his discussion of designers as "humble enablers" is stimulating. Take Naoto Fukasawa: "Good design means not leaving traces of the designer and not overworking the design. If you overdo the design it will touch the beholder's consciousness. I think that when people and things are within the boundaries of consciousness they are at their farthest from heaven." A poetic call, for sure, but as Fabio reminds me the designer is still "a catalyzer of the habits, needs and desires of the user." But I'm not sure what he means here: "That's to say, a design might dissolve in behavior, not necessarily its designer."

It strikes me that designers should indeed hold on to the notion of letting go - of relinquishing absolute (and elitist) control over both the design process and product. I'm a big believer in the power of many (different) voices, but, to me, that doesn't mean rendering the designer invisible. If anything, the designer should be the one who (visibly and actively) follows the entire process from "beginning to end" (we would need to define this, I think, at the macro-scale) and yet remains only one of many voices shaping the whole experience.

Fabio asks: "Could it be that digital technologies and the increasing levels of personalization they have enabled over formerly mass-produced, industrialized products have been silently pushing history back to the early days of friction between art(s & crafts) and (industrial) design?" Yes. And no. First, I think this was a false friction in the sense that "we have never been modern" and such easy dichotomies have never actually been practiced. The key is to illuminate the aspects of these so-called opposing fields that can be put to good use in (re)articulating the creative process and the act of building. Here, we could weave in notions of emergence and adaptation - and of manipulation in the sense of working with one's hands, and of having a hand in one's work.

Fabio continues: "But, I find myself asking, what if customers had been really enabled to change the very principles that help define the product's intimate characteristics and not only its shallowest shell? What if they had been collectively given control over the underlying rules and not just their manifestations? In other words: what if adaptation was just as an emergent quality of personalization?" Yes! And I've got to do some thinking about the ties between this and notions of the visible and invisible, interiority/exteriority, us/other. Slippery.

But I have to admit that I don't understand his comments on systems, parts and wholes... and the connection to adaptation.

Fabio also says there are "potentially dangerous outcomes related to allowing too much freedom either to users themselves or to the system, especially when thinking about physical artifacts. [And] are people ready or willing to take on the increased level of responsibility these changes could bring?" Yes, of course, there may be danger involved - for designers and users. And all of us need to take responsibility for the good and bad. (Force the decision to act.) So what does this have to do with possibility and limits? Fabio puts it in practical terms, but I want to push it a bit.

Is the space of possibility without limits? Who dreams the possibilities? Who creates, sustains and destroys the limits? What is the time of these spaces? Where do we draw the line between use and abuse? Is the beauty of the machine in its breaking-down?

Thanks Fabio.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Hack this!

"A landmark trial of a teenager in Norway accused of video piracy has ended with prosecutors calling for his computers to be confiscated. But they stopped short of seeking jail time, recommending that the teenager, Jon Johansen, get a 90-day suspended sentence instead. Mr Johansen is accused of creating and distributing a computer program that breaks the copy protection on DVDs. In the five-day hearing, the teenager said that the software he created was necessary to enable him to watch movies on his Linux computer."

If I remember correctly, the laws in Norway are such that Johansen actually had to be charged with hacking his own computer. His defense attorney argued that "The thief who breaks into his own flat is not committing any crime." Apparently the powers-that-be disagree.


"US researchers have turned to reality TV to find out what people really do with their gadgets. They have produced a fly-on-the-wall documentary about how families across the world get to grips with communication technologies like mobiles and e-mail. We wanted to hear how the families experienced these technologies and bring these stories back to the people who design new products, said Dr Jay Melican, who led the year-long project."

This brings to mind classroom discussions around the viability of documentaries and biographies as ethnographic data. Writing culture is a tricky process.

Controlling new technology

I've always been fascinated with our attempts to control or regulate things we can't see... like radio waves/frequencies.

Also from the NY Times: "The Defense Department, arguing that an increasingly popular form of wireless Internet access could interfere with military radar, is seeking new limits on the technology. WiFi use is increasingly heavy in major American metropolitan areas, and similar systems are becoming popular in Europe and Asia. As the technology is installed in millions of portable computers and in antennas in many areas, industry executives acknowledge that high-speed wireless Internet access will soon crowd the radio frequencies used by the military. But industry executives say new types of frequency spectrum sharing techniques could keep civilian users from interfering with radar systems. The debate, which involves low-power radio emissions that the Defense Department says may jam as many as 10 types of radar systems in use by United States military forces, presents a thorny policy issue for the Bush administration."

This raises interesting ontological and epistemological questions around the visible and invisible. As more and more technologies become "invisible" (i.e. pervasive and ubiquitous) we will require different (more flexible?) means to understand notions of interface and to locate accountability in the design and use of new technologies.

Reducing academic publication time

NY Times article: "A group of prominent scientists is mounting an electronic challenge to the leading scientific journals, accusing them of holding back the progress of science by restricting online access to their articles so they can reap higher profits. Supported by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the scientists say that this week they will announce the creation of two peer-reviewed online journals on biology and medicine, with the goal of cornering the best scientific papers and immediately depositing them in the public domain. The two journals are the first of what they envision as a vast electronic library in which no one has to pay dues or seek permission to read, copy or use the collective product of the world's academic research."

Cool. Given the scientific attachment to notions of progress, it should come as no surprise that these folks are eager to disseminate their research as quickly as possible. Another example: Physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists have been using to distribute pre-print research, and I've been told that if you're "in the know" that's where you look for cutting-edge work.

The exciting part is finally seeing academic knowledge removed from the Ivory Tower. Without wanting to sound too crass, this goes a long way towards discouraging intellectual masturbation. And I'm all for letting "others" (the whole peer review process is based on getting "us" to evaluate each other) have a voice in the production of academic knowledge. I claim no monopoly on the truth - and my friends shouldn't be able to either!

Now, if only the disciplines I work with could share this vision. After all, timely social research and cultural criticism shouldn't have to be hung up for the 1-2 years academic publication cycle. By the time these papers are published, they are no longer timely...

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Adaptation, personalization. Possibility, limits.

Fabio Sergio on adaptation and design.

Comida ecuatoriana

Today calls for comfort food from Ecuador. Tonight's dinner:

Locro (highland potato soup)

Saute in butter one finely chopped onion, paprika (or achiote if you can find it) and cayenne. Add enough water to boil potatoes, then add potatoes. Cook the potatoes until they start to fall apart, and then add a small container of light cream. Bring to a boil and add small pieces of queso fresco (unripened cheese). Done. Serve with avocado slices on top.

Ensalada de palmitos (heart of palm salad)

Hearts of palm come in a can and are usually found in stores by the artichoke hearts. Drain them and slice them. Add a bunch of finely sliced red onion and cilantro. Drizzle olive oil over everything and add juice of one lemon and one lime. Stir together and marinate in fridge for 4-5 hours. Serve with fresh pepper.

Adaptive design

Interesting comments by Dan Hill on adaptive machines, including links to other interesting comments. Also online is his recent presentation on adaptive design.

keywords for rhetorical analysis on new technologies & design:

interoperable / social / adaptive / smart mobs / emergence / self-organising / suboptimal / ecology / simple / systems / flexible / linked / universal machine / connected


Good morning

Lust in Orbit: Adultery, Intrigue and a Peeping Tom

At Saturday's party Jane & Jay gave me a super sweet book of pulp fiction covers and this is my favourite.

After three straight days of fun and play, it's hard to get working again ;)

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Entrances to Hell

If I'd known that all those weird looking doors led to Hell, I wouldn't have...

And next time you're tempted, just remember the safety rules:

Rule 1: It may be an obvious thing to say but NEVER try to go inside an Entrance to Hell.
Rule 2: Always approach an entrance on your stomach.
Rule 3: Don't shout at the devil (not even with good news).
Rule 4: Wear rubber gloves for 3 or 4 days after your visit.

(via mefi)

Software and psychogeography

Great stuff from blackbeltjones.

And I love this imagery: "There are times all of us want to get from A to B, and sometimes we want to get from A to Beowulf: to get lost in the sagas of the city."

Friday, December 13, 2002

This reminds me of when I change my hair colour

Dan Dixon's digitaldust. A soothing adaptation of my design. I like it very much.


Movie posters that talk back

NY Times article: "Movie posters - paper-and-ink enticements that can be traced to the days of nickelodeons - have over the decades become so commonplace in theater lobbies that they have practically faded into the wallpaper for millions of American moviegoers. Noticed, maybe, yet never really seen. But what if those posters could talk? What if Leonardo DiCaprio could stare out from a wall and wink at passers-by? What if, rather than being frozen on a poster for the latest James Bond movie, Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry could leap in a full-motion, fist-flying fury to a stereo soundtrack? And what if these posters could interact with film patrons, recognizing their tastes and quickly matching their interests with trailers and show times for movies that they most likely want to see? For the last five years Stephan Fitch and his company, Thinking Pictures, have been quietly working to recast movie posters with precisely those capabilities and more."

Technology and culture

Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics is a major traveling exhibition that showcases powerful new artwork created in direct response to recent developments in human genomics. (via nsop) One of my committee members, Philip Thurtle, has an article there: The Genomic Book of the Dead: A Manual for More Conscious Death in the Post-Genomic Era. It's really good, as are many of the other essays. Oh yeah, and the art! Also via nsop: hugh's ominous valve works. The title alone is sweet, but there's all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff there.

Via boingboing - Total Information Awareness (TIA) System - scientia est potentia. And the AgoraPhone.

I wish all book reviews were as nice as this one: A Review of The Emerging Cyberculture: Literacy, Paradigm, and Paradox.

Magnus Torstensson, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea and Erik Sandelin, Interaction Design, K3, Malmö University: A Taste for Bitters. "Through the design of a series of portable, personal devices, we will investigate how the narrative potential and the psychological and behavioural dimensions of interactive, electronic objects can be taken advantage of in this interchange of costly signals. What new means of expression could these digital artefacts give rise to?"

Computers as Persuasive Technologies: macrosuasion and microsuasion.

Jason Tester. "Exploring and designing socially-beneficial interactive technologies: products and services that engage people in environmental, health, community-building, social, and self-improvement domains."

Another Interaction Ivrea student, Karmen Franinovic and her projects amni(0)ptic surface and mute-plateau_lab. Very cool.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

TV viewing

Tonight on The Learning Channel, Hackers: Outlaws and Angels. With a title like that, how can I resist?! And for more propaganda, check out the rest of TLC's content on hackers.

I record all of these shows for my ongoing research into hacker culture. I haven't updated my little site in a very long time, but I think I'll use this as an excuse to play with the text analysis tools I will use for my thesis and add some new content.

Conferences as love fests

The organisers of Doors 7 asked participants "What part of your life would you say Doors influenced most?" Eight per cent answered: "my love life".

Heh heh.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Shameless promotion of my friends & colleagues

Tomoye Corporation: Arm the People!

Agency, anthropomorphism or next-gen magic?

Jakob Nielsen: "We're about to experience a world where spirit inhabits formerly inanimate objects. Much of the Harry Potter books' charm comes from the quirky magic objects that surround Harry and his friends. Rather than being solid and static, these objects embody initiative and activity. This is precisely the shift we'll experience as computational power moves beyond the desktop into everyday objects... I'm not so nerdy as to suggest that you read Harry Potter as an idea manual for next-generation product development. But the books are filled with examples of products that we'll soon be able to build, and they do provide some idea of what it might mean to embody awareness in the physical world."

When spirits inhabit inanimate objects, they cease being inanimate. More appropriately, in animism, these objects have never been "inanimate" - they are always already "possessed". That's why early anthropologists called it magic - animism is confusing to people deeply attached to the separation of object and subject. If an "object" takes on, or is granted, human characteristics, we have anthropomorphism. And we still have objects and subjects - they're just metonymically switching out with each other. Similarly, if an object can "embody," the object still remains a container separate from its contents. What we're talking about then is also myth and metaphor. More magic.

I want machines with agency. And surely agency requires more than (de)coding symbols, or even embodied interaction. This is more need for critical theory.

Information has a location - and it's Australia

Australia's high court has ruled that the financial publishers Dow Jones can be sued in the Australian state of Victoria over an article that appeared on their website. The defamation case was brought by Melbourne mining magnate Joseph Gutnik, who argued that the article could be read on the internet by people who knew him in Melbourne.

So, law is being made according to rules of transmission and reception. In other words, despite the ability of information to be nowhere and everywhere, it can do damage somewhere. Localised accountability. Interesting.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002


Man. I am so outta groove today. I keep thinking about being 21. And believing that I miss it.

But I wouldn't go back and do it again for anything. Ok. Maybe if I could go back as I am now. But that's not the same thing.

At 21 I had, what I considered at the time, *total* freedom of movement. In retrospect, that only meant being able to get together with someone just because I liked them and enough time and money to see/hear a lot of hardcore bands, read books and drink beer.

My ideas about what constitutes my freedom of movement have changed. But, today, I would really love to play like I used to.

Getting old sucks.

I was going to quit smoking today

But f*** that. I feel like kicking the shit out of something this morning - so better to have a smoke and listen to PIL's "Rise" - ANGER IS AN ENERGY.

Monday, December 9, 2002

"If mobility transcends all critique, then criticism must be anti-mobile: slow down; localise!"

Mobility, Justification, and the City by Niels Albertsen & Bülent Diken. Interesting article on mobility and critique, and tensions between mobility and exploitation in the "connectionist" network society.

[excerpts below]

"In this connectionist world, the most important value is to connect to others. In order to do that one needs the ability to trust others, to know how to communicate, to freely discuss and also how to adapt to others and to new situations. One should be “physically and intellectually mobile”, and be able to answer the call of “a moving world”. Rather than sticking to your own stable skills, you should be flexible and polyvalent, and you should do this on your own responsibility, autonomously. That is, the risk of connecting is yours.

The new grandeur is being at ease everywhere, while at the same time knowing how to be local. The “connectionist man” knows how to be present and personal in differing contexts and how to judge the emotional states of others.

In this reticular world, a stable habitus (Bourdieu) is not desirable. Rather, the grand person is the one who is able to link different domains and fields to one another, and to distance oneself from one’s own environment and immediate circle of relations.

All these competencies can of course be used individually or egoistically. However, this is not justified in the project regime. You should be acting in search of the “common good”, that is, in order to engage with others, inspire confidence, be tolerant, respect differences and pass information to others, so that everyone can increase her/his “employability”.

There is, then, an ethical scheme of evaluation that pertains to the project regime as well. Face-to-face relations, responsibility, trust, confidence, common experiences, mutual aid, keeping your words, co-operation and partnering are the key-words in this context.

But you don’t gain anything without sacrifice in the regimes of justification, which also applies to the project regime. Within the project regime, one has to sacrifice everything that can be a barrier to one’s disposability for another project. “The grand person is mobile. Nothing must disturb his displacements. He is a ‘nomad’”, say Boltanski and Chiapello. This demand for lightness means renunciation of stability, roots, local attachments, pre-established links. One should not distinguish between relations of friendship and professional relations. Neither should one be burdened by one’s own passions and values, nor by attachment to a heritage or property.

So, there seems to be a regime of justification that matches the networks of liquid capitalism. You may travel light in this connectionist world, but you can do it for your own sake or for the common good of the connected in a temporary network. This is not a de-personalised, abstract world; on the contrary, it is, or rather it can be, a mobile world full of relations of trust, friendship and confidence.

What is needed, therefore, seems to be a concept of critique adequate for liquid capitalism. An immanent critique of liquid capitalism. In face of this, Boltanski & Chiapello focus on the concept of exploitation, which is ignored by theorists of the “connectionist” network society.

Interestingly, in their view, exploitation is directly related to mobility. Those “who are exploited in a connectionist world [...] are the immobile, sedentary individuals, who thereby contribute to stabilizing the world in which others move swiftly. They also increase the mobility of their employers to the point of ubiquity by fulfilling the function of ‘stand-ins’ ... who ensure the maintenance of network connections.

Where does this leave us with a mobile critique of mobility? In the tension between travelling light for the common good and light-travelling as control. And regarding this tension, there may still be a Deleuzian line of flight – speed as deviation, exile as “spiritual rather than physical mobility."

Developing new course

Some of you may remember my dismay a few months ago when I learned that I am one course-credit short for my degree (I still can't believe it took so long for someone to notice this). So - in January I have to start developing a new course, and I must defend the syllabus, bibliography and teaching units. I've been given the title and course-description and now I'm on my own.

Social Studies of Information, Technology and Knowledge
The social contexts, networks and local embeddedness of knowledge and information over time and in relation to global data flows. The cultural contexts of information, its difference from knowledge, how information is articulated with humans in organisations, and a critical perspective on information as power.

I'd like to post each teaching unit as I develop it, and ask for feedback.

My advisor for this project is Philip Thurtle. He teaches some great courses and has done some really interesting research.

That's Sexploitation!

Been reading That's Sexploitation!: The Forbidden World of Adult Cinema. What a sweet little book, and it has lots of great pictures!

At age 14, I started collecting 50s pin-up art. My "sexploitation" collection peaked sometime during my mid-20s, at which point I had 100s of pictures, magazines and films. In my first-year Women's Studies class, I wrote a paper on how feminism killed the pin-up and opened the door for high-porn beaver shots. I got an F.

But I love this stuff - burlesque, cheesecake, Irving Claw films, sex education and hygiene movies... And the book is full of little gems. Like Marriage Forbidden from the 1930s, a movie that told a tale of weakness and punishment: An upper-class young man and woman - George and Henrietta - are about to be married. At his bachelor party, George has sex with the dancer and contracts VD. When Henrietta's father learns of George's "condition" he forbids the marriage. But George's mother takes full blame for not telling her son of "life's greatest pitfall" and begs Henrietta to still marry her son. In the end, Henrietta and George's first baby is born a "weakling" because its blood was "tainted with the result of George's final bachelor night of love." LOL.

The movies from this era were particularly moralising - "shocking" medical footage of vaginal and cesarean births, and close-ups of VD-ravaged genitalia, were combined with footage of girls in bras and half-slips (perhaps prostitutes and always fallen women) and some super-sleazy guy, and then wrapped up as tales of perversion and consequence. And there was always the element of spectacle, if not in the film itself, then in the showing - first in carnival sideshows or grindhouses. And I'm fascinated by the early connections between Mondo-style film ("real" violence) and sex.

Sunday, December 8, 2002



Holiday Specials for Hackers You Love

The wonderful folks at 2600 have put together holiday gift packages: "In the spirit of Homeland Security, we've put together a collection of holiday packages specifically designed for you to feel more secure in your homeland. After all, an educated populace is a secure populace. But an educated populace is also a DANGEROUS populace, especially in this case."

Each package comes with a corresponding American Homeland Security risk label - low, guarded, elevated, high and severe - and suggestions on what to tell authorities when you are questioned. For example, if you go with the Guarded Risk package, "Upon interrogation, we suggest telling the authorities that you were drawn into the hacker world by all of the bright colors and high tech gadgetry and that you've learned your lesson." And on the Severe Risk package: "What can we say? By even reading this, you're demonstrating some dangerous tendencies. This is the mother of all packages, designed to scare children, turn friend against friend, and cause civil unrest in the streets. Once the mailman has delivered this to your door and jotted down your name, you will become part of a group of people who have an insatiable desire to learn about technology, share information, and ask a lot of questions. In other words, you will be doomed."

LOL. But can someone please tell me why certain packages are only available to Americans?

Machines of staggering beauty

"Ten years ago, Dutch scientist-turned-artist Theo Jansen had a vision: art that evolved. The evolution of his bizarre machines that walk when powered by gusts of wind took place on a computer. Trained as a physicist (he was a doctoral student but did not finish), Jansen designed a program that simulated pairs of legs of different lengths. He then created virtual creatures and raced them against each other to find the ones that moved most efficiently. These he built, and he hopes one day to find a way to let them evolve on their own. In the meantime, he is working on ways to keep them moving even after the wind dies down. Their legs are comprised of pistons inside a tube, connected to a crankshaft. Once a gust of wind gets the sculpture going (most have polystyrene windmill blades or sails to give them a boost) and the pistons start moving, the legs could function as pumps and store compressed air. The critter could then burn that stored energy to keep puttering along regardless of the weather. "It's like giving it muscles," says Jansen with delight." (via boingboing)

Saturday, December 7, 2002

Quote of the day

To define is to kill. To suggest is to create. (Stéphane Mallarmé)

Thanks Fabio!

On routine

I've been out and about most of this week, which is a bit of a departure from my normal routine. I never realise how much I value my routines until something disrupts them ;)

I am really anti-social for the first few hours of every day - my partner can attest to how much I despise being asked questions before I've been awake for a few hours ;) He leaves for work between 7:30 and 8:00 and I lay in bed until shortly after he leaves. Then I get up and drink whatever coffee is left, and debate whether or not I should make another pot. Then I sit down at my computer and check my lists to see what needs to be done and what can be avoided. As quickly as possible, I do what needs to be done. Usually this takes a couple of hours. By then I am pretty much awake and feeling more friendly - so I take a shower and get dressed. Then I read and write for a few hours, listening to really really loud music. A few times a week, I meet my friends (who have real jobs) for lunch. Then I usually come home and take a nap. And then I read and write for another several hours until J. gets home from work. While school is in session, I spend two afternoons a week on campus - teaching, meeting students and doing library research. And, of course, there's the daily physical exercise that allows me to remain pretty-much inactive the rest of the day without falling apart.

But contract work interferes with this routine. First, occasionally and inevitably, a client will schedule a morning meeting. I particularly dislike when that happens, and when I get to choose the time, it's always in the afternoon. My meetings this week were seriously agitating, and threw me off for the rest of each day. Don't get me wrong - I currently have some good clients and we're working on a great project. It's the relatively sudden re-immersion in work, and consequently, the elimination of my regular research routine that I'm disliking right now.

But I woke up today, and there was nothing that needed to be done. How glorious :-)

A bunch of disarticulated thoughts and links

Discussions around WiFi are fascinating me, mostly because this "phenomena" has not reached Canada. We have a national mandate to give everyone broadband access first. And wireless access, although available, is still cost-prohibitive. I checked into 600 min/month wireless plans, and they're running between $100-$200 a month! Add that to my cable, land lines, DSL and cell phone bills every month, and I wouldn't be able to afford my other vices ;) And this just reminds me that (dislocated) wireless still requires (located) hubs - an odd tension arises between everywhere and somewhere.

A few weeks ago I linked to this handy database of internet researchers, and didn't even notice that I was included in the list ;) And speaking of lists, I loved Fabio Sergio's post about this Userati list. I was *shocked* to see my name on it, and likewise assume it has something to do with Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Merholz. Thanks guys, but I somehow feel as though this is undeserved recognition ;) I am but a lowly researcher who likes to think out loud...

Jill Walker recently posted on users - which, following Brenda Laurel, is a word/description I've never really liked. Laurel argues that "user" conjures an unequal power relationship and Jill says that's exactly the point: "Part of the pleasure of being a user is precisely submitting to the machine. Why are we drivers of cars but users of drugs and computers? Computers are often presented as a substance that is easily abused." Hmm. Good points. I like to route around these types of distinctions by saying that we're not dealing with "computers" or "users" but rather the "computer/human". And there, Jill, in a nut-shell, is the notion of a non-human actor: no objects OR subjects, just collectives of humans and non-humans, reciprocally constituted and hybrid.

Via nosenseofplace: "A North East writer has been given a grant of £2,000 to use sheep to create random poems, which also utilise the deepest workings of the universe. The money has been provided by Northern Arts for Valerie Laws to create a new form of random literature. Each of the animals has a word from a poem written on their backs and as they wander about the words take a new poetic form each time they come to rest." I love it!

And last, but not least, Torill Mortensen graciously links to a dissenting position on her claim that "it's not logical to demand from games that they should tell stories." Let's get past criteria of "logic" and "demands" and just explore *how* a game might act in narrative fashion. Can we not explain interaction in terms of discourse, which also conjures narrative or story-telling? Maybe *games* don't necessarily tell stories, but in playing them, do we not create narratives? What do you think, Torill?

Friday, December 6, 2002

Tech warriors?

BBC News Online talks to women in Africa who have taken up a career in technology, a field normally dominated by men.

"An international education programme backed by the US tech giant Cisco Systems, brings together business, governments, international organisations and donors to promote technology skills in developing countries. The aim of the programme is to help people in developing countries learn and improve their information technology skills, with the hope of reducing the digital divide with industrialised countries. There are now more than 90 academies in 32 developing countries, with more than 2,500 students and nearly 500 graduates." And, like here, the tech world is male-dominated, and women are trying to find their place in it. And on the surface, that seems entirely reasonable...

Maybe I've become too cynical, but new technologies have historically failed to emancipate women - just think of the technological dream house of the 1950s luring women back into the home so that the men returned from war could resume "their" jobs. Now, more women in industrialised and developing nations are being trained to use new technologies - and I'm all for including people who have historically been excluded, and for doing something about the Digital Divide. But I dislike the insinuation that technology will "free" or "save" anyone. This gets back to the problem of viewing technologies as mere tools - somehow separate from the people who build or use them. How successful is any new technology going to be without the social and cultural "infrastructure" to support it? Surely these contexts evolve along with the introduction of new technologies - but more often than not, tech innovation moves way faster than we are able to socially adapt.

Thursday, December 5, 2002


I had an email conversation this morning. Why not use chat? First, it didn't present itself as an option - but if it had, I would have declined. I have a strong attraction to the staccato movement of the email conversation, caused by message lag-time. All that groping about, anticipating articulation, time to imagine... It gives me a sensual pleasure I have never felt while chatting in real-time (or in real-space for that matter). Maybe because it doesn't seek to imitate - it's not trying to be a "real" conversational space, just a different space.

Anyway, this conversation got me thinking about the value of an open mind. I'm fortunate - and unfortunate - enough to be surrounded by people that assume that an open mind is best. But I'm pretty sure none of us really give it much thought. So, I found this description:

"So what is good about having an open mind? First, having an open mind does not mean that one never comes to any convictions in life. It is perfectly possible to have an open mind and live a very principled life, without holding one's beliefs dogmatically. Having an open mind means being prepared to question even your most central beliefs if there is occasion to do so. It means being open, when the time comes, to having your mind changed by an argument better than one's own. It means being able to think both sides of an issue, both the side you think is true and the side you think is false. It also means being able to suspend your beliefs, to play devil's advocate, and to detach yourself somewhat from your own beliefs, actions and feelings. Only living with an open mind gives us a chance to grow and change, for change is inevitable, while growth, unfortunately, is not."

This mostly sounds good to me, but I think that the type of distance or detachment described is a bit off. It seems to me that in order to be able to change in the broadest sense - a central aspect of having an open mind - one must become quite intimate and involved. Raw, vulnerable and uncertain, if you will. And I don't know many people who like to spend much time in that space. A wise friend once told me that we should never entirely rule out the possibility - but in order for the possibility to exist, we have to be open to it and engage it.

If you could engage any possibility right now, what would it be?

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Yesterday was full of hectic and depressing events, so I cut out early to watch a brilliant Canadian film, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Partly famous because it is the first Inuit language film, and simply stunning because it crosses language and cultural barriers - Atanarjuat tells a traditional Inuit story:

"Igloolik, 'place of houses,' in the eastern arctic wilderness at the dawn of the first millenium. Evil in the form of a mysterious, unknown shaman enters a small community of nomadic Inuit and upsets its balance and spirit of cooperation. The stranger leaves behind a lingering curse of bitterness and discord: after the camp leader Kumaglak is murdered, the new leader Sauri drives his old rival Tulimaq down through mistreatment and ridicule. Years pass. Power begins to change when the resentful Tulimaq has two sons - Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. As the camp's best hunters they provoke jealousy and rage in their rival, Oki, the leader's ill-tempered son. When Atanarjuat wins away Oki's promised wife-to-be, the beautiful Atuat, in a head punching competition, Oki vows to get even. Egged on by his intimidating father, Oki and his friends plot to murder both brothers while they sleep. Amaqjuaq is speared through their tent and killed, but Atanarjuat miraculously escapes, running naked for his life across the spring sea ice. Eluding his pursuers with supernatural help, Atanarjuat is hidden and nursed back to health by an old couple who themselves fled the evil camp years before. After an inner struggle to reclaim his spiritual path, and with the guidance of his elder advisor, Atanarjuat learns to face both natural and supernatural enemies, and heads home to rescue his family. Will he continue the bloody cycle of revenge, or restore harmony to the community?"

The scene where Atanarjuat runs naked across the ice comprises some of the most beautiful and powerful imagery I have ever seen. Both the web site and the DVD offer an interactive map - a Legend on the Land - that allows you to follow the narrative in (linear) space and time, as opposed to the more hypertextual style of Inuit narrative used in traditional story-telling and in the film.

There is also a beautiful scene where Atanarjuat's wives do some traditional Inuit throat singing - which is nothing short of astounding. If you've never heard throat-singing, you can listen to some short clips here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

The softer side of computing

Wired reports that wearable computers haven't succeeded in the marketplace because "their design was too freakish, often taking the form of awkward, bulky helmets that only Dr. Frankenstein could love."

At the Intimate Technologies Summit, there was some discussion about the current "unwearability" of wearable computers and I was most impressed by what women brought to the table. Smart fabrics were positioned as truly wearable, if for no other reason than we have always worn textiles. This, of course, raised questions of gender and technology - why are men building "hard" wearables and women building "soft" wearables?

I don't think it's so simple, but I was captivated by the questions that revolved around these different applications. For example, traditional wearables - of the Borg variety - raised questions of surveillance, whereas interactive textiles raised questions concerning the body, tactility, and practices of weaving. I do think issues of privacy are important but I find most discussions on surveillance have become very tired, and I was most grateful for the opportunity to discuss technology in terms of its fabrication. And I mean that in its broadest sense: these technologies inevitably conjure notions of weaving, or fabrication, and refocus our attention on all the material and social aspects we weave together in new technologies. I like that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Amsterdam Real Time

THIS is brilliant: "During two months (3 Oct to 1 Dec 2002) all of Amsterdam's citizens [were] invited to be equipped with a tracer-unit. This is a portable device developed by Waag Society which is equipped with GPS: Global Positioning System. Using satellite data the tracer calculates its geographical position. These tracers' data are sent in realtime to a central point. By visualizing this data against a black background traces, lines, appear. From these lines a (partial) map of Amsterdam constructs itself. This map does not register streets or blocks of houses, but consists of the sheer movements of real people." Check out these diaries in traces - or personal and cumulative maps of Amsterdam. (via boingboing)

THIS is social computing ;) What/Where/When/Who is Amsterdam? Amsterdam is the ever-changing - personal and collective - movements of the people. These movements are traced in real-time, and projected into the past and future. Add the ability for users to simultaneously create/witness/collect memories and myths - of the lived city - and we're good to go!

Back to research

The ever-insightful Matt Jones has posted a bunch of stuff of interest lately.

And whip-smart Matt Webb takes a look at metaphors for computers - including the notion that "the computer is a medium containing one or more social actors". And I will go against the "medium" metaphor and say that computers are "non-human actors". Come on, Matt, you know you wanna ask me what that means! And I'll try to do a better job of explaining it than I did with Merholz ;)

Also on the radar: I got a message today inviting me to apply for a graduate summer internship at PARC... Damn, that could be an interesting twelve weeks! Wish me luck in my application and I'll keep you posted ;)

Two things on my mind this Monday morning

First, I'd really like to play a few games of Pooh-Sticks with a faraway-friend before the waters freeze. When you play Pooh-Sticks you don't need to talk. You just be with each other and everything else melts away...

Second, I scored a bottle of absinthe yesterday. This won't be interesting to people who live in civilised parts of the world, but absinthe only recently became available in Canada after a hundred-year ban. So I now have a bottle, an absinthe spoon and some sugar cubes. And I'm recruiting friends to drink with me ;)

When I conjure the Green Fairy, I see Van Gogh hanging out with Rimbaud and Verlaine, drinking too much absinthe and lopping off his ear in a fit of lover's anguish and wormwood-induced dementia. And I see Degas', Manet's and Picasso's Absinthe Drinkers.

But it seems that this imagery does nothing to convince my friends that we should indulge! Where the hell is people's sense of adventure?!

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