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Wednesday, 31 May 2006

The Postmodern Challenge

Today I was challenged to define postmodernism in ten words or less. I offered, proudly and tautologically, “Postmodernism is what comes after Modernism.” Pride and tautologies aside, a succinct definition of postmodernity is something I was reluctant to provide the graduate courses on postmodernism I taught in Winter 2005 and Winter 2006. My reluctance is lifting.

Postmodernism is a broad social and cultural movement beginning in the middle part of the twentieth century (1955 is an early date) with distinct manifestations in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, philosophy, and literature.  Postmodernism is often associated with fragmentation, decentering/decentralization, non-linearity, and relativism. Another important aspect of postmodernism, especially literary and philosophical postmodernism, is a crisis in representation and the destabilization of identity. Regarding a crisis of representation as a hallmark of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard has gone so far as to “define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv).

Postmodernism is also associated with the globalization of politics and economic production. After the 1950s and the second World War, nuclear capability so dominated political discourse that the terms “first world,” “second world,” and “third world,” became synonymous with global economic ranking. In the era of the postmodern, industrial production became less a determinant of economic power while the production and organization of information became more of one. Multinational corporations also exerted massive economic and political influence by creating workforces in different regions of the world for specialized roles in a global system of production and distribution. This global system of production and its social, economic, and political effects comprise postmodernism's historical background. Indeed, much of postmodern culture can be understood as an effect of this stratified global economic system.

These are the broad strokes of an outline of postmodernism. The fine detail is left as an exercise to the reader. end of article

Work Cited

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1979.

Monday, 29 May 2006

Net Neutrality and You

Internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, and Verizon have been conducting an intense lobbying effort to end Internet neutrality. Without outlining the history of these industry incumbents and their relationships to the Internet as providers, I will attempt to explain briefly why ISPs do not like net neutrality. My aim in doing so is to provide a basis for you to understand what net neutrality means both to ISPs and to users of the Internet and why you, as an individual who may be interested in protecting the current openness of communication we enjoy using the Internet today, should support net neutrality.

Currently, the computers which run the Internet do not discriminate between different kinds of Internet traffic. For example, if you send an email to someone and then use a web browser to get the news, the computers which run the Internet do not concern themselves with whether your email should go slower or faster than the data from the news site. ISPs currently are neutral with regard to the priority of the traffic that crosses their systems.

On 25 May 2006, the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee approved the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 (aka “the net neutrality bill”) by 20-12. The bill has two thrusts. The first regards preserving current Internet communication. This bill would make it a crime to “block impair, discriminate or interfere with anyone’s services or applications or content.” So far, so good. The second more thorny issue regards the enhancement or development of new types of Internet communication. This bill would also require, in the event that ISPs develop improved Internet services, that they offer those improved services to competitors.

Breaking things down, the net neutrality bill would 1) make it a crime for ISPs to deliberately impair existing kinds of Internet communication and 2) require ISPs to offer broad access to new kinds of Internet communication as they are developed. ISPs swear up and down they would never hamper existing kinds of Internet communication. However, they claim that to develop better kinds of communication they need to discriminate between data types. This is the problem: discrimination between data types conflicts with the promise not to hamper existing types of communication.

If ISPs offered access to a faster kind of Internet communication, say high-resolution video, by definition the speed of that communication would be greater than what existed before. However, ISPs want to reserve these speed increases for particular types of communication (e.g. high-resolution video), so the ISPs’ computers would have to discriminate between different kinds of data. Instead of remaining neutral between email and high-resolution video, the computers that run the Internet would say, “Here is some data that is high-resolution video” and would put that data in the fast lane. Simultaneously, these computers would also say, “Here is some data that is email” and would put that data in the slow lane. This seems reasonable until you consider that the ISPs are self-interested as any good business should be.

Because ISPs are self-interested, AT&T's computers might say, “This data is ABC's high-resolution video. ABC has partnered with us so their data goes in the fast lane.” Simultaneously, AT&T's computers would say, “This data belongs to Google's high-defintion video. Google is our competitor so their data goes in the slow lane.” The result is that you, the Internet user, would have a crummy experience with Google's high-resolution video and a better experience with ABC's high-resolution video if your Internet access was provided by an AT&T that was allowed to discriminate against certain types of Internet traffic in favor of others.1

The ISP solution to this problem, of course, is a fee that the ISP might charge a client/competitor to ensure that the client's data is also placed in a fast lane (a fast lane probably different than the fast lane available to the ISP's partners). Such a fee would likely stifle innovation, hinder competition, and increase prices, while benefitting the business interests of ISPs and ISPs only. Furthermore, such fees, in the final analysis, would likely be borne by Internet users themselves as companies forced to pay such fees would pass the cost of those fees to their customers and so on down the chain.

The above scenario does not even mention what would happen to web sites like this one or any of the hundreds of thousands of small independent web operators who today enjoy what is the most effective implementation of the principle of free speech the world has ever seen. Adam Cohen of the New York Times believes that the “[. . .] Democratic Ethic of the World Wide Web May Be About to End” unless net neutrality is preserved. Cohen understands that

A tiered Internet poses a threat at many levels. Service providers could, for example, shut out Web sites whose politics they dislike. Even if they did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer Web sites.

I am liberal in my views, so the question that the president of the Christian Coalition asks

What if a cable company with a pro-choice board of directors decides that it doesn't like a pro-life organization using its high-speed network to encourage pro-life activities? (qtd in Cohen)

speaks to me. Because I believe deeply in the value of free speech to a just and democratic society, I do not like the idea that pro-life opinions might be silenced by pro-choice entrepreneurs or the reverse silencing of pro-choice activists by pro-life boards of directors.

The commercial interests which oppose net neutrality are crafty, powerful and engaged in “a misleading campaign, with the slogan 'hands off the Internet,' that tries to look like a grass-roots effort to protect the Internet in its current form” (Cohen).

The future of free speech on the Internet is in jeopardy and the fate of the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 is uncertain. While the 20-12 vote by the House Judiciary Committee is reason to be cautiously optimistic, the groundswell of support for net neutrality needs all the help it can get. I hope you will do your part.  end of article

Further Reading

Non-partisan, non-profit coalition to preserve Internet neutrality, Save the Internet.com.

Analysis by technology news website, arstechnica.com.

Wild & woolly (moderated) discussion about the passage of the net neutrality bill by geek-types.

Industry-sponsored opposition to Internet Neutrality, Hands Off the Internet.org.


1 Perhaps as much as seventy percent or higher of the Internet traffic in the United States passes through AT&T's computers because AT&T owns most of the fiber-optic backbone through which most North American Internet traffic passes.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Instant Karma!

On 10 April of this year in “Cure application crashes,” the first installment of a series titled “OS X First Aid,” Landau suggests that badly behaved applications can sometimes be rehabilitated if you

3. Restart Your Mac Select the Restart command from the Apple menu. It’s amazing how often this simple act resolves a problem. If the crash is so bad that you can’t get Restart to work, press and hold your Mac’s power button until the machine shuts off. As a last resort, turn off your Mac by unplugging the power cord.

In the comments to Landau's article, I replied, in part

Restart your Mac? I really can't take this seriously.

Very rarely, an application might freeze the WindowServer and leave your Mac seemingly unresponsive. (In many cases, one can still remotely log in and set things right.) [. . . .]

So, while I agree some applications might lock up your computer (or create conditions which look like a lock up but can be solved by remotely logging in), I cannot think of a single Mac application that benefits from having the machine rebooted. Can you provide an example?

I should have known that if Landau or anyone else could not provide examples that the Pneuma of the Machine would intervene and supply me with some.

The first example came the very next day (11 April) in the form of baby's refusal (baby is the computer which hosts organ-machine among others) to mount a particular remote volume (named “gort”) on its desktop though gort could be seen from the command line (/Volumes/gort/). Attempts to force gort to show on the desktop using commands like “open /Volumes/gort/” yielded a cryptic error whose number, I think, had a negative sign. I logged out and in, mounted and unmounted, but nothing helped. So, I rebooted baby after which gort obligingly appeared.

The second example is part of the aftermath of “The Supermoves of a Stupendous Bozo.” After fixing the mail server, I notified my users that everything should be back to normal and to notify me of any problems. The next day (Monday, 22 April), the author of mandyowen.net alerted me that Squirrelmail was complaining “ERROR: Connection dropped by IMAP server.”

As is often the case with Open Source Software (OSS), several dozens of people have encountered the same message but nowhere is there a procedure to diagnose the problem, let alone a solution to the problem. I even narrowed my search to the point where Google returned results containing the error in /var/log/mail.log, “SSL23_GET_CLIENT_HELLO:unknown protocol,” but none of the sites I visited contained anything that smelled like help.

I decided that I would restore the last backup I had made of the server's operating system and suffer redoing the changes I'd made since then (the last day of April), but before doing so I'd try, you know, rebooting.

You can guess the rest. end of article

Sunday, 21 May 2006

Email Blackout: The Supermoves of a Stupendous Bozo

To anyone who may have tried to contact me by email on Sunday, 21 May between 1:00 pm and 9:30 pm EST: your email may have been irretrievably lost. I made changes to the postfix servers on my two Internet-facing machines and, stupidly, did not test things to make sure everything was operating smoothly.

As a result of that stroke of genius, email sent to the following domains (among others) may have been lost to the bit bucket in the sky:


I think I've fixed the problem but I can't fully test things without resetting passwords and/or peering into my users' email files. If you think your email has been lost (recipients and senders) you should be able to notify me at mistersquid.com or at mistersquid at gmail dot com.

I apologize for being such a stupendous bozo. end of article

Sunday, 14 May 2006

Poetry and Poiēsis: The Question Concerning Technē

The day before yesterday (Friday, 12 May) was the last day of the Literary Festival. It was the 21st annual festival and I had come across a number of “21”s in the couple of days previous. I enjoyed the events I attended, with only one reading leaving me dissatisfied and puzzled. That reading was Susan Stewart's reading of a piece of autobiographical nonfiction about her 1976 journey to Ireland with a lover. I'm conflating the narrative details of the story Francine Prose read the next night (Friday night), the title of which is escaping me, though I do recall a cat named Hecuba, a narrator named Polly, a husband named (I believe) Matt, and the mother (of an old girlfriend) named Lucia . The ex-girlfriend's name started with an A, I think, or a “Ch.” (UPDATE: One of my colleagues, Paul Jones, reminded me that Prose’s story is titled “Hansel & Gretel” and the ex-girlfriend's name is Marianna. Thanks, Paul.)

Though Stewart's non-fiction narrative left me slightly confused--I had followed the narrative attentively but was unable to establish a stake in what happened, perhaps because the narrator, a textual representation of an earlier version of Stewart herself, was only a stranger to me--I was dazzled by Stewart's Friday afternoon lecture wherein, among other things, she spoke of “the feel[ing] of not to feel it” (Keats) and the impossible sanctuary offered by such a place since all one could ever know is the feel of feeling it. Though she did not emphasize this aspect and she likely would not have phrased it this way, for Stewart, desire (renewal) in the realm of the human (or the sensate) cannot be ignored even for lack of experience. Keats's speaker avers

The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it,
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never versed in rhyme.

Thus, art cannot provide insensate shelter, this last my own ham-handed linguistic concoction. Paradoxically, poiēsis is compensatory precisely because it opens on to experience.

Stewart finished her lecture with a discussion of her poems “Dark the Star” and “Cinder,” the second of which has been set to music by James Primosch.1 Stewart played two versions of Primosch's composition, the first version was written for piano and sung by soprano Dawn Upshaw. This piece was sparer and more melancholy than the second which was sung by soprano Susan Narucki.2 The poem itself is about a paradox which is represented in the first three lines by the fact that “We needed fire to make / the tongs and tongs to hold / us from the flame; [. . .]”

In these lines, Stewart's speaker illustrates the paradox of poiēsis (and of perception) as a paradox of technē. Heidegger addresses this problem in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” at one point explaining that “[t]hrough bringing-forth the growing things of nature as well as whatever is completed through the crafts and the arts come at any time to their appearance” (317). Heidegger clarifies that “bringing-forth” is the movement from concealment to unconcealment which he equates with revealing and, ultimately, the emergence of truth.

From an instrumental point of view, nature takes its shape from the activity of humans, but for Heidegger this is to misunderstand that ordering nature according to human scientific categories (establishing “standing-reserve”) presupposes that the investigator

has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges [one] to approach nature as an object of research,until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.

Modern technology, as a revealing that orders, is thus no mere human doing. (324)

Implicit in such a scenario is a “challenging-forth” to allow nature to reveal itself fully and truthfully or, as Heidegger later puts it,

the challenging-forth into the ordering of the actual as standing-reserve remains a destining that starts man upon a way of revealing. As this destining, the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which, of himself, he can neither invent nor in any way make. (337)

In this way Stewart's “Cinder” can be partly read as the poetic posing of “The Question Concerning Technology.” Stewart's speaker considers the relationship between tool and material revealing the generation of each from the other, a kind of reciprocal genesis between instrument and substance. Stewart's poem, however, goes in a different direction than Heidegger's essay. As philosopher, Heidegger takes pains to warn that truth may be obscured by too narrow a focus on human agency in the domain of science. Stewart's poem has no such didactic function, avoiding irresolvable arguments about how to evaluate truth.

Instead, “Cinder” raises its levels of observation from the terrestrial (“fire” and “ash”) to the heavenly (“stars” and “light”) to the metaphysical (“death” and “time”), establishing through relationships the revelatory nature of poiēsis. The poem's final lines rhetorically dramatize this interrelationship of genesis and generation by enframing the interrogative within an imperative, challenging “Tell me, ravaged singer, / how the cinder bears the seed” while simultaneously placing the reader in the position of the speaker.

Multiples reside within the one. end of article


1 According to Stewart, Primosch is presently working on an arrangement for “Dark Star,” the last two lines of which present a problem for song since, unlike prose, song cannot say much.

2 The first version features the pianist Gilbert Kalish while the second features the 20th Centuury consort of Washington D.C.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins, 1977: 307-341.

Keats, John. from “Stanzas” in The Complete Works of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (1900)

Stewart, Susan. “Cinder.” The Forest. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1995.

Saturday, 06 May 2006

I'm just sayin'

Sometimes, someone realizes my initials spell a word and tell me that's neat. I might nod or smile, even though I am very not stoked that my initials form an acronym. I mean, JAW, how clumsy is that? If my initials spelled something cool like, I don't know, SEX, YES, or NASCAR, I'd thank my parents for their hipster sensibilities. But even neglecting the nifty, there's a pragmatic reason my initials don't thrill me, and that reason has to do with the idea that more is less.

There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Of them all, only one letter has a name with more than one syllable: W. And as if to rub the noses of its playmates in the fact that they are merely monosyllabic, W has to venture into the territory of polysyllabicity not with two, but with three syllables. 1 In oral communication, “www” takes three times as much time to say as “world wide web.” Part of the problem is that what was meant to be a time-saver in the context of typing is a time-waster in the context of speech. The other part of the problem is that “www” adds no distinguishing information for people surfing the web. How many webservers provide different information for WWW.somedomain.tld as opposed to just somedomain.tld?

In URLs (Uniform Resource Locators), “www” stands for “world wide web.” But that's brain-dead since clients which request information using HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) assume such requests are bound for a webserver. This combined with the fact that other protocols like FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and gopher are either unused or unambiguous means “WWW” is as redundant and useful as saying “PIN number” or “HIV virus.”

So because when speaking the URL http://WWW.google.com/ I find myself stumbling over the triple w and because I believe “www” is a completely useless subdomain, I've decided to implement URL rewriting using .htaccess as described in the Daring Fireball article “Using .htaccess Redirection to Standardize Web Server Addresses.” 2 I suppose, though, that I may be going in the wrong direction since even Google routes users who ask for just google.com to www.google.com. 3

Maybe it's a marketing thing. If so, it's a good thing I have nothing to sell. end of article


1 Unless, of course, your regional dialect prompts you to pronounce W as “dubya.” In that case, I promise I will still respect you in the morning.

2 Color me dumb, but I cannot make rewrite rules for multiple virtual hosts work properly within Apache's httpd.conf.

3 Predictably enough, a Google search for the terms “redirect,” “domain,” and “www” yields results that are dominated by instructions for redirecting traffic from http://somedomain.com/ to http://WWW.somedomain.com. I'm definitely bucking the trend.

Friday, 05 May 2006

This is the End

I can't believe it took thirteen years for me to finish. If you don't mind skipping, you can jump to the endend of article

Thursday, 04 May 2006

It's 2006. Do you know where your passwords are?

Today I met with one of my M.A. students. She is developing an interpretive model that complicates the gender dynamics Clover details in “Her Body, Himself,” with an aim to offset Clover's emphasis on masochistic and sadistic spectator positions for men who watch horror films. My student also has identified at least two distinct subgenres of horror films that current critical approaches cannot fully explicate.

Doing my own research on zombie films, I am more than slightly curious about what motivates me now—and what motivated me when I was thirteen—to watch movies that once gave me nightmares for three years. Perhaps masochism is a means of mastering trauma.

During our meeting, pipsqueak captured packets from Donkey's WiFi network using Ethereal. I'd logged packets prior to today just as an experiment. I inspected the capture files but did not analyze the packets in any systematic way. Until today, my curiosity has taken the form of voyeuristic possibility. However, possibility becomes inevitability given enough time and boredom. First, I want to establish I have no intention of mining the information I've obtained for purposes that are unethical or illegal.

The data that traverses a computer connected to an unswitched and populated network are massive in aggregate. Forty minutes yielded nearly 100 MB of data, much of which was unencrypted. Inspecting packets reveals what websites people are visiting, the email they are reading and sending, and the chats they are having. I focused on the first instant message exchange I found, culling from the capture file messages sent to and from one particular IP address.

With virtually no experience mining capture files, it took me an hour to extract the data I wanted and another hour to format it in human-readable form. Should I get the mind to do so again, the process would take between ten and twenty minutes, tops. What follows is a brief excerpt of a conversation between two people. 1 I've changed their screen names and have omitted any identifying information.

odma: burgers tonight

essi: yeah?

odma: you decide about this weekend yet?

essi: i dunno what i'm doing tonight

essi: yeah

essi: i

odma: lol

essi: m coming home friday night

odma: cool cool

odma: going to the wedding shower with [. . .] ?

essi: then driving uyp to the lake on sat and spending the night

odma: oh

odma: ok

essi: what wedding shower?

essi: so no

odma: [. . .]

essi: ew no

essi: hahaha

odma: im sure as shit not going

essi: i hate wedding showers

essi: hahha

odma: i hate weddings

odma: and showers

odma: lol

odma: makes it sound like I am a dirty hippy

What strikes me about this conversation is how personal it is though it is not particularly revealing. Both participants likely have no idea that their typed conversation is as “audible” as a conversation between people seated in front of each other. This is a serious problem, especially in an age of increasingly casual and ubiquitous computing. It took only another five minutes for me to find the real names of both participants, which would not have been possible except for the fact that one of them used her real name as the basis for her online identity.

My online avatars are easily connected to me and with five minutes of searching, I would be easy enough to find in meatspace. For the last eight months, I have been using encrypted communications for email and password exchange. I don't spend much time online in public places. Even so, I'm very worried about the ease with which sensitive data might be culled by ne'er do wells.

Here's a scenario: a “friend” who knows your paypal ID and knows what you look like is in a WiFi coffee shop with you. You both are using the free WiFi, while your friend's laptop is capturing the packets transmitted on that free WiFi network, your packets included. Your “friend” visits Paypal and uses the form to request forgotten passwords to request that your password be sent to you. If you are using Outlook, Eudora, Mulberry, or Apple's Mail (or another client, including web browsers) without encryption and you check your email while in the coffee shop, your “friend” is going to get a plain-text version of your login information.

Partly because the Internet was built by hard-core and trusting nerd types to facilitate communication, encrypted Internet communication is the exception when it should be the rule. Hard-core geeks know that Internet traffic is like a postcard: anyone who cares to look can read what's written. However, non-core normal types don't realize that their communications are not private, accessible to anyone with a mind to download the right software.

Even with encryption, one's Internet communications are not crack proof. Using the Internet without encryption is a security risk whose extent most people don't understand. Of course, defrauding people is much more profitable on a large scale, and obtaining the login information of dozens of people on a WiFi network is nothing compared to the logins of hundreds of users that a phishing scheme might yield. Still, the risk is real and given personal grudges, penny ante criminals, and heavily-trafficked public WiFi networks, someone will eventually be victimized as a result of using unencrypted communications on a public WiFi network.

Hopefully, this someone will not be you. end of article


1 If you are one of the participants in this conversation and would rather this conversation not be posted here, please contact me.

Now it Can Be Told


Tonight I finished Chan-wook Park's 2003 Oldboy, which I characterize as a Hankook traginoir with elements of surrealism (attributable to noir) and fantasy. The comments at imdb.com alternate between excoriating Park and the film's writers for “pointless violence” and exalting the production team for creating something “unexpected” and “different.”

I believe the film is a triumph of artistic expression, the fashioning of a revenge fantasy tinged with themes of youthful prodigality, incestuous desire, and voyeuristic panopticism. What appear to be flaws in the plot are better understood as cinematic expressions of the unconscious impulses which govern the domains of death and sex. In this way, the apparent age difference between Dae-su Oh and Woo-jin Lee can also be read as a sign both of Dae-su's prison-cultivated monstrousness as well as a hint of a father-son relationship between the film's primary agonists. This view also reveals that (in this film) narrative development is the direct result of the fabrication of an environment that leads to incest.

In other words, Woo-jin Lee is a metonym for Park whose own narrative begins in incest. The critical ambivalence toward Oldboy, then, is familiar for it reflects the ambivalence Sophocles's Oedipus Rex inspires. Similarly, Oedipus also metonymizes—in the figure of Oedipus—the playwright's narrative production through the consummation of incest. Some hint of this metadiegetic connection is present in the oxymoronic title Oldboy, a name that suggests infantile desire, unheeded lessons, and lamentable destiny.

The title to this entry is an admission of the guilty addiction that has possessed me since 1997. I stopped lurking on 3:11 pm EST on 11 September 2000. Over the years, I've learned much by being a part of that community, but now trips to Slashdot maroon me on a techno-informational island while numbing my passion for narrative art. I'm reminded of the oft-misconstrued quotation ars longa, vita brevis, which signals the urgency and impossibility of mastering any craft.

At what point does the cybernetic inhibit the means of its own propagation and is this point recursion, incest, or desiring-production? Or not? end of article

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