Monthly Archives: December 2011

Only its mother could love it

Still chewing at the bones of this Poststructuralist carcass, and this morning I’m trying to puzzle through just why the stuff is so hard to read. It’s passages like this that stick in the craw:

Foucault sought to understand the discontinuities within Western European history by highlighting the differences between distinct contingently constituted epistemological situations. In studies influenced by Foucault, history is mapped in order to trace the borders of discursive formations for discontinuities of meaning… Foucault imagined differences in terms of discontinuities internal to a given culture’s history and as marking the interior structure of the subjectivities formed within that culture. (Peter Jackson “Mapping Poststructuralism’s Borders: The Case for Poststructural Area Studies” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 18:1 2003:49)

The bolded fragments must be meant to mean something, but I have to read them about six times before what that something might be starts to percolate through to my thinking brain, and even then I’m awash in alternate readings. How does anybody ever learn to read this stuff?

It is deconstruction’s positing of a single field of meaning upon which opposed dominant and marginalized binary categories are mutually defined that permits this approach to become linked with universalisms despite a professed interest in particularity. (Jackson 2003:54)

The mind quails, rebels, withers, and declares itself too goddam old and inflexible to get it.

Linking four texts

Cory Doctorow is one of those who gets (and puts) it so clearly:

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

And general purpose computers can cause harm — whether it’s printing out AR15 components, causing mid-air collisions, or snarling traffic. So the number of parties with legitimate grievances against computers are going to continue to multiply, as will the cries to regulate PCs.

The primary regulatory impulse is to use combinations of code-signing and other “trust” mechanisms to create computers that run programs that users can’t inspect or terminate, that run without users’ consent or knowledge, and that run even when users don’t want them to.

The upshot: a world of ubiquitous malware, where everything we do to make things better only makes it worse, where the tools of liberation become tools of oppression.

Our duty and challenge is to devise systems for mitigating the harm of general purpose computing without recourse to spyware, first to keep ourselves safe, and second to keep computers safe from the regulatory impulse.

(summary of his keynote at 28th Chaos Communication Congress)

The comments open various other cans, and are interesting to scan through to appreciate the great variety of geek perspectives.

Cory’s presentation shares time’n’space with some other recent reading, and it’s occurring to me that there are some potent interrelations, though they’re a bit on the latent side, and not immediately obvious.

I had occasion to try to read an article on GIS and postmodernism (Agnieszka Leszczynski’s “Poststructuralism and GIS: is there a ‘disconnect'”, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:581-602 [2009]), which I found as impenetrable as most writing that references (privileges?) the Poststructural. As a part of my attempt to wrestle with its vocabulary, I converted the pdf to text, did some word counts, and produced a word cloud which does at least exemplify the problematic: words like ontic, epistemology and ontological make me squirm. Thus,

…theorists problematize the disembodiment of the conventional deployment of GIS… opposition to (empirical) ontological commitments is raised on the basis that the effects and objects of mapping and encoding practices ensconced within the technology are enabled by a contemptible epistemology systematically implicated in the networks of control that rationalize daily life…

gives me the jimjams. So I tried a Google Ngram for some of the most vexatious terms, and another for problematiz/se. These probably demonstrate little more than my age and remoteness from the academic fray.

A few days ago I was reconnected with a friend of 50+ years ago via a pointer to Matt Cartmill’s 1991 review of a book by Donna Haraway (see Miguel Centellas’ posting and Maggie Koerth-Baker’s too –Matt was a year ahead of me in high school, and one of those ‘smartest-person-I-ever-met’ people). I retrieved the whole review and read it gleefully, then sent it to a friend who read it not-gleefully, and so it goes…

So here I am, wondering if ‘ontic’ really ought to mean something to me, wondering if it’s even possible for me to grasp what the problem is that Leszczynski is writing about. So I somewhat idly try Google for ‘ontic’ and it’s bloody Wikipedia that gives me a way in:

“Ontic” describes what is there, as opposed to the nature or properties of that being.

…that is, as opposed to the linguistic acts that produce interpretations, readings, characterizations of “what is there”. OK, a good start.

Co-incidentally, I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five windows on the season, with on-and-off pleasure and this morning was brought up short by this passage, which seemed directly apposite to my wrangling with ‘ontic’:

I sometimes stop and wonder at the reality of the geological and biological world, that the things we see, though certainly existing, have none of the intense sequence, the personifications, the character we give them; without us they would just fall back into the world of nothing. I have a hard time expressing this, though it is one of the strongest emotions I know: this sense that somehow the entirety of the universe could have been made –was made– without purpose, that it is cold, spinning, unconscious, neither kind nor cruel, just following laws that are in the end not even laws, just regularities produced by the cycling of chances. A vast, empty room, with no one home…

I recall once when I got word that my best friend was dying and I happened to pass a paint store where all the shades of yellow were laid out and named, quite cleverly and precisely –lemon zest and buttercup and canary, each shade given a personality– and I thought, This is all a lie. The spectrum of light is as indifferent as the rest of the universe. “Buttercup” and “lemon zest” were not labels but just lies, hopeful names given to arbitrary swatches in a physical phenomenon of light, which is not only indifferent to our existence but without any kind of neat internal structure at all, with no more charm or colour than the indifferent hum of a radio on the wrong station. (pp.209-210)

And what is it that ties these disparate bits of text into a bouquet? I’m thinking that all of them operate in the realm of onomastics: they’re about the utterly (entirely, exclusively) human exercise of naming what surrounds us, so that the various things can be woven into the stories we tell. Good old Homo narrans, at it incessantly.


I enjoy the playfulness of linguists much more than that of, say, economists or quantum physicists, perhaps because it seems accessible and directly relevant to things I might do, hear, or be. Today’s Geoffrey Pullum posting at Language Log (A wee conventional implicature) relays his observation of Scottish English and “its much more inscrutable sister language, Scots, which in general I cannot even understand” and has all the charm of the aforementioned linguistical playfulness, and so is worth quoting at length (though you’ll doubtless want to go and read the whole thing):

…When you check in at the desk for a dental or medical or optician’s appointment they will mark you down as having arrived and then say, “If ye’d just have a wee seat over there, we’ll call ye in a minute or two.” The seats indicated are not liliputian but of standard size, with a sitting surface about as 1.3 times the width of an average butt.
Usages of this sort are actually the majority of instances of wee that I hear. And what this usage seems to be doing is to impart some kind of friendly and encouraging attitude about this event not being a significant setback…the wait for the doctor won’t be too long and they’ll call you quite soon… That’s the sort of thing people seem to be implying by popping a wee wee in there.
I have a hypothesis about the meaning. I think wee is developing into something rather like damn, only positive. Let me explain.
Damn has the syntax of an attributive adjective but the semantics of a scowl. When you say Somebody stole my damn guitar, you aren’t describing the guitar as damned. It might be a much-treasured full-bodied Martin acoustic from the 1960s with genuine mother of pearl fretboard inlays and you might love it dearly. The irritation is at the whole event, the theft and everything surrounding it. Damn can be inserted as a modifer of any suitable noun phrase in the sentence (and I agree that “suitable” there needs some detailed explication), but its semantic contribution is always one of speaker attitude toward the whole situation…
It seems to me that wee has a similar syntactic privilege of occurrence — you can just pick a salient noun at random and stick wee on that — but the semantic contribution is just an optimistic and comforting attitudinal overtone: rather than the vague impression that the speaker is pissed at the situation, which is what damn conveys, wee supplies a vague impression that the speaker is being helpful and optimistic and that things are going to be just fine. But there is no necessary entailment that anything is little.
I’ll keep an eye open for further examples of this, and perhaps post them here as updates.

[Ye shouldnae hold yer breath for me tae open comments, even if ye’re a Scot, but if ye’ve got a wee example for me tae consider, I wouldnae object tae a wee email. Try mail2languagelog at; but keep in mind that we’ve no staff at all here at Language Log Plaza, and we’ve no got the time tae read all the email that comes in as it is.]

See? A stem-to-stern treasure

The pipeline so desired by congresscritters

It’s ALWAYS been easy enough to find examples of Big Lies and Shell Games and Emperor’s Transparent Raiments in the stream of foolishness that passes for “news” in American mass media, but the last few years has been an especially fruitful epoch. Today’s OMG OMG OMG (at least so far, and it’s not yet 7:30) is from Anthony Swift at National Resources Defense Council, and won’t take long to read: Keystone XL is a tar sands pipeline to export oil out of the United States. A bit to whet the whistle:

Keystone XL would be Canada’s first step in diversifying its energy market. The pipeline would divert large volumes of Canadian oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, where it would be available for the first time to buyers on the world market. To sweeten the deal, many of the refineries on the Gulf Coast happen to be located in foreign trade zones, where they can export Canadian oil to the world market without paying U.S. taxes. Oil Change International investigated this issue in a report that found the Keystone XL pipeline was part of a larger strategy to sell increasing volumes of Canadian crude on the international diesel market… Simply stated, Keystone XL is a way to get Canadian oil out of the United States, not into it.

Getting the attention of congresscritters

Hafta say, Clay Johnson is righter than I wish he was (Dear Internet: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works). A few bits, yanked from their contextual underpinnings, to get your attention:

Right now, if you want effective legislation around your industry, then you need to pay the right lobbyists, make the right campaign contributions, and write the right legislation at the right time in order to get it out of Washington. If you had to objectively pick the winning team in Washington, pick the team with deep pockets and great lobbyists, not the team with community organizers and signed petitions. It’s a gross system that needs change. It’s a cancer on our democracy.

But looking for a specific innovation to try and change the way Washington works by the time Congress votes on SOPA is about as foolish as Steve Jobs trying to diet his way out of having pancreatic cancer. With billions of dollars in the bank, and not a lot of time left, isn’t it worth going for the sure bet? Just spend the money. Then, after you’re sure you beat cancer, worry about disrupting the system that caused it…

Right now, Congress uses a tool called “Intranet Quorum” to effectively listen to constituents. It’s a tool built by Lockheed Martin, built in the 1990s, and built without any real social media… Unfortunately, the world of government is a world of locked-up vendor contracts and displacing Intranet Quorum isn’t as simple as just building a better product, offering it at a lower cost. It’s entrenched, and there are all kinds of rules and regulations around what kinds of software members can use in an official capacity… Both chambers have the same problem, really: in order to provide software to members offices, that software must be hosted inside the data centers of each chamber, using the hardware that each chamber provides, using only the languages and software available on that hardware…

It’s no longer acceptable for us to not take responsibility for our Congress anymore. If we want it to be better then throwing bums out, and replacing them with new bums doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. Let’s work instead to educate whomever is in Congress, and the professional class around them. Let’s do more of the stuff that works, and less of the stuff that doesn’t.

Doc’s at it again

Thanks to Doc Searls’ Weblog posting, I read How Luther Went Viral in The Economist, and then Doc’s very provocative Comment on the article. The triplet of writings casts more generally useful light upon the grand Events of 2011 (Arab Spring, Occupy this’n’that) than anything else I’ve encountered. It won’t take you 15 minutes to read those things, but I predict you’ll be thinking about their implications for the next few days… and perhaps bending the ears of others. And maybe you’ll be provoked to take a[nother] look at The Cluetrain Manifesto too. Thanks for all the fish, Doc!

Right on

The closing paragraphs of today’s Tom Dispatch:

It’s clear enough — or should be by now — that the electoral process has been occupied by the 1%; which means that what you hear in this “campaign” is largely refracted versions of their praise, their condemnation, their slurs, their views, their needs, their fears, and their wishes. They are making money off, and electing a president via, you. Which means that you — that all of us — are occupied, too.

So stop calling this an “election.” Whatever it is, we need a new name for it.

And this just in via Juan Cole:

Iran has US Surrounded, All Right

The Parenthesis

Here’s Dave Weinberger liveblogging Jeff Jarvis at the Berkman Center:

We’re going through a huge transition, he says. He refers to the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Before Gutenberg, knowledge was passed around, person to person. It was meant to honor and preserve ancient knowledge. After Gutenberg, knowledge became linear. There are beginnings and ends and boxes around things. It’s about product. There’s a clear sense of ownership. It honors current knowledge and its authors. Then you get to the other side of the parenthesis, and there are similarities. More passing it around, more remixing, less sense of ownership. The knowledge we revere starts to become the network itself. Our cognition of the world changes. The CTO of the Veterans Admin calls the Internet the Eighth Continent. “I used to think of the Internet as a medium,” but now he thinks of it more as a place, although there are problems with the place metaphor. (“All metaphors are wrong,” interjects Doc Searls. “That’s why they work.”) It was a hard transition into the parenthesis, and it’ll be hard coming out of it. It took 50 years after Gutenberg for books to come into their own, and 100 years to recognize the impact of books. We’re still looking at the Net using our the past as our analog.

Sure is a lot to chew on in that paragraph.

In praise of Gardner

I’m ALWAYS interested in what Gardner Campbell has to say, even when it’s in a realm of which I’m largely ignorant (e.g., Miltonics) or one where I have a different and possibly complementary take on the subject (viz musics). Gardner has a way of putting things that piques and niggles and provokes hmmmmmm, and my chief regret is that my responses don’t see the light of blogging day more often. Today’s case in point is his post on the origins and prospective utility of the RFC. Vintage Gardner, riffing like the bass player he [also] is:

  • begin with a pointer to something one might could have already known about but, well, didn’t (in this case, John Naughton’s A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime),
  • extract an essential nubbin of metastuff (here it’s the tale of the origin of the Request For Comment, an essential integral to the evolution of ARPANET, instantiated by Steve Crocker) and labelling it memorably (“a new genre of professional writing”),
  • summarize the intellectual linkages and broader significance in a few trenchant phrases (“a praxis of intellectual discourse”) and offer cogent linkages to familiar domains

    You can see the similarity to blogging right away. At least two primary Network Working Groups are involved: that of all the other people in the world (let’s call that civilization), and that of the network that constitutes one’s own cognition and the resulting “strange loop,” to use Douglas Hofstadter’s language…

  • and then challenge, in the nicest way possible, all of us to rethink what we do and how we’re doing it:

    Why would we not want to produce such a record within the academy and share it with the public? Or are we content with the ordinary, forgotten, and non-riveting so long as the business model holds up?

  • and then close with a rumination on self:

    I yearn for documentation conventions that will produce an extraordinary record of thought in action, with the production shared by all who work within a community of learning. And I wonder if I’m capable of Crocker’s humility or wisdom, and answerable to his invitation. I want to be.

My admiration for Gardner’s Way is unbounded and perpetually renewed with each post at Gardner Writes. AND the bookshelves chez my splendid otium are incremented when the Brown Trucks roll to bring me the volume he’s mentioned…