Category Archives: technology

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.

The morning’s harvest

…of provocative bits:

Meet your new landlord, the Big Tech “data rentier”:


By discoversociety January 08, 2020

Kean D Birch

…the increasing trend amongst tech companies towards innovation goals and strategies framed by the pursuit and creation of monopolies, market power, or regulatory capture – that is, of economic rents – as opposed to the creation of new goods, services, and markets… a key characteristic of Silicon Valley is the pursuit and entrenchment of a strong intellectual property (IP) regime.


Living the Stories of Astounding Futures

What science fiction makes you think about is the interaction between the relentless advance of technology and the equally relentless commitment to the status quo of groups and organizations. People are gonna people whether they travel by covered wagon or starship.

What science fiction encourages you to do is to think about how people will react in any kind of scenario. And, it gives you permission to imagine a much richer variety of possible scenarios beyond what history or contemporary society serve up.


Mapping how railroads built America: a superb 15-minute Financial Times MAPTASTIC video, with transcript of audio

A new look at antique US railroad maps reveals how cities grew over the past 200 years. The FT’s Alan Smith and Steven Bernard trace how cities, people and the economy spread from coast to coast

and see QGIS Uncovered, Steven Bernard’s video tutorials

and see Dataverse.Harvard.Edu, “a repository for research data”

State Street Bank, 1964-1965


One of my bottomless projects is the 2400+ negatives I made on the job site of the first high-rise building in Boston’s financial district. There’s a book in there somewhere, but in order to think about the images I need to be able to see them, sort them, decide on narrative directions and contents and so on. So I’m gradually building a Web locus for the project, intending to treat it as a workspace for trying out presentation ideas, generating supportive text, and basically sand-boxing. You’re welcome to watch:

State Street Bank, 1964-1965

using Zotero

I follow a lot of blogs, via my Feedly RSS feed. Mostly I skip through their subject lines quickly, reading only those that seem directly relevant to my interests (which do tend to sprawl) and sending on to various others the URLs that seem to me likely to be of interest to specific interwebs buddies.

For years now I’ve used Zotero to keep track of the blog postings that are especially fraught with meaning for myself, and there’s a link at the top of my blog that connects to

my LIFO Zotero list,

which sort of mirrors the day to day flux of engagements. Missing from this list (because I can’t discern any way to include) is the aboutness categories into which I place the links. I can capture the links to specific aboutnesses (e.g., Trumpery captures the links to postings on that subject; anthro tracks what strikes me as preservation-worthy in that realm; and lexicon for wordstuff… and so on). So I can keep track of my own interests, as reflected in the reverse order of stuff I send to Zotero, and I can figure out when I first encountered something via RSS, though I rarely do that sort of retrospective inquiry. But the whole thing is rather unwieldy.

Perhaps I’m missing or misunderstanding something of Zotero’s powers as an information management tool, but it seems to me there should be some way to hashtag Zotero captures, and thus potentially to incorporate them into discourse. Which is to say that I’m wrestling with how to capture the flow of important stuff and then expose it to wider audiences. An activity I’ve been engaged in forever, it seems.

Not My Circus; Not My Monkeys [but surely some nearby somebody’s]

I’m forever finding things that seem to apply to people and situations that aren’t precisely my own but do need rediffusing in some medium. Here’s one that just snuck up on me:

Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It’s bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it’s full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don’t understand what’s going on, are easy prey for smooth-talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money…

The analyst or programmer has to examine documents with an eye at once skeptical and alert, snatching and collating tiny fragments of truth along the way. His or her sources of information all have their own agendas, overtly or covertly pursued. He or she has handlers and superiors, many of whom don’t know what really goes on at the sharp end…

(from Ken MacLeod’s preface to Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives)

“Accessory to your own intentions”

I’ve had 3 days with the iPad now, and it’s been as exhilarating as other brushes with new technologies. I think of the first few days with the TI-Pro in 1984, HyperCard on the Mac in 1990, my first work with Web browsers and HTML in 1993, and the beginnings of podcasting in 2004: in each case, pennies dropped one after the other as I tried this and tried that and articulated and then found the answer to the next question… Doc Searls really nailed it with his summary of the iPad (for which read ANY new technology) as “an accessory to your own intentions”. It’s not the DEVICE we should be judging, but rather our engagement with it, and its effects upon our imagination. Often enough, what you EXPECTED as the outcome pales next to what actually happens, and it’s the unanticipated that’s the important consequence. Case in point: for several years Kate has been working on a map summarizing the Appalachian Trail adventure that occupied Betsy and me between 1992 and 2003. Here’s the topmost bit:

Kate's Appalachian Trail map

The whole map is more than 15 feet long when it’s printed out, and we’ve been wrestling with how to display it. It’s too big to hang on the wall, and clumsy to roll out onto the floor and crawl around on to read the details summarizing each segment hiked, but as a pdf on the iPad it’s absolutely perfect: you can pan and zoom and really explore, just by waving your fingers over the screen. And that experience leads one to thinking about map displays of many kinds, and other features that might go into map apps for iPad and successor devices. Not something we imagined when the iPad first arrived, and it was realized only after I’d figured out a clear path to move pdfs (via Google Documents) from computer to iPad.

A bit from Suarez at Long Now

I really recommend a listen to Daniel Suarez’ talk at the Long Now Foundation, which I missed when it was first posted. Here’s an eye-opening bit from the transcript:

Many of you have Bluetooth devices in your car but you may not know about the TPMS system; this is the tire pressure monitoring system. It was federally mandated by the 2001 TREAD Act. That’s right. You all remember voting for this, right? It says that any car manufactured up to 2007 has to have wireless nozzle pressure measurement devices that communicate with the computer onboard the car to see that your tires are safely inflated. Now, they have to have a unique I.D. so that the computer knows your tires from the car next to you and of course, it is an open standard and makes it very simple to track the unique identity of an automobile; but of course, to do that you would have to have devices scanning. Fortunately, such scanners have started to spring up at choke points throughout modern cities. These are privately owned scanners with the data being gathered and stored again because it’s cheap to store data, vast amounts of data. This data can be piled up along with your financial transactions and anything else and bots can go through it to find persons of interest or they just find patterns or even just to sell you stuff. I’ll give you an example of just a few such devices as a BlueSweep scanner and a BlueSweep scanner is a device that able to identify all bluetooth devices within its radius, identify what their capabilities are, and what exploits they might be vulnerable to. A BlueSniper can do this up to a kilometer away. Let’s go a little further down the wall. There’s the Bluesnarfer you were all expecting. Now Bluesnarfer can use an exploit and given to it by a Bluesweeper to steal your address book, your text messages, your calendar, your pictures of your kitties, and bluetooth car whisperer can push advertising into your car speakers through your car’s bluetooth system. Now more worrisome, it could also be used to hook into your car bluetooth phone system to eavesdrop on conversations in the car. Now, if you combine that with something like the TPMS system or any future open standard device, you could pretty much track a car and listen to its occupants as they move throughout the city at any point in the future or at the moment it’s happening. Now, so you’re walking through this gauntlet of scanning activity with all the wireless devices and again, I’m sure we were all aware of this, and then there’s of course financial transactions every time we buy stuff with a debit card or a credit card. Who, what, where, and when? Combine that with visual data and all of the other points that tell us who was there with you, where you were going can be used to tell some very interesting stories. So it’s a great constellation of information being gathered on us at all times and then of course privately owned devices Hoovering up all these information. So this is the world you live in right now. Who knows what it will be like 10 years from now?

Did Gertrude Stein invent the Web?

I’ve been reading the Marcus and Sollors A New Literary History of America article by article, and this morning came athwart Daniel Albright’s on Gertrude Stein (“1903: Gertrude Stein moves to Paris, and neither is ever the same again”), in which is quoted this bit from Stein’s Three Lives:

…there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present… I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one.

Hmmm, I thought, how very like the Web in which we live more than a century later.

Albright ends his article with this food for thought, quoting an unknown-to-me

peculiar piece from Jonathan Swift called A Compleat Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738), full of passages such as this:

Neverout. Miss, what spells b double uzzard?
Miss. Buzzard in your teeth, Mr. Neverout.
Lady Smart. Now you are up, Mr. Neverout, will you do the the favour to do me the kindness to take off the tea-kettle?
Lord Sparkish. I wonder what makes these bells ring.

If Gertrude Stein had never been born, this would seem a freakish and incomprehensible text. It still seems freakish and incomprehensible, but as an anticipation of Stein it is made familiar, assimilated into a canon that she caused to exist.

Hmmm, I thought again, how very like the Web in which we live more than a century later…