Cities, transportation, and representations of space

black-and-white-freeway2I’ve posted my thoughts on urban life and the micropolitics of getting around on my parenting blog, but for various reasons, I didn’t explain how philosophies of space and technology (in particular, Lefevbre and Peter-Paul Verbeek) inform my ideas on the subject. since this blog is more dissertation-oriented, I thought I’d drop a brief overview of these philosophies here.

If you’ve read my rant on my other blog, and if you’ve encountered either of these thinkers at all (most parents and transit users I talk to haven’t), you might appreciate where I’m making points that echo their ideas.

Building on Lefevbre, I’m giving attention to processes of social homogenization (or ordering according to the logic of capitalism) that stem from top-down urban planning processes, or what he calls “representations of space” (institutional or bureaucratic space). Using this concept, I declare an “ethos of overconsumption and ecological violence” that seems to dominate contemporary urban planning processes in Vancouver.

More relevant to the work of Verbeek, I’m echoing the Latourian-influenced proposal that technological artefacts have ethical content, in that networks of human and nonhuman actors (in which we are also enrolled as actors) set us up with constrained choices. Sometimes these networks help us make ethical choices (speedbumps, door grooms, etc… his most recent book speaks of this in more depth), but sometimes (as I argue in the case of family transportation networks), they set us up to make choices that go against our ethical predispositions, coercively. The network of transportational artefacts, then – including ramps and kneeling buses, transit authority policies about what constitutes a “mobility aid”, the physical location of schools, the manner in which rules about cross-catchment student enrolment are enforced, cheap car loans – in many ways prefigures our set of options with which we can make choices about how to get around. Parents of young families end up driving cars around because the network of actants (and I’ve only included a partial list here) is tending in that direction, regardless of whether or not those with power to re-design that network have the ethical constitution and political will to do the work of re-designing it.

Voltage v Does: Copyright Trolls of the World Unite…


Looks like Voltage may obtain subscriber info in Canada from Teksavvy, but not without court oversight and privacy protections for people accused of infringement. Still, this was just a motion. The demand letters may roll out soon, but this litigation might prove to be unprofitable, given the tone and language of the judgement.

This could play out in many different ways. I’ve long suspected that this case is merely a demo tape for a sweep of a much larger number of suspected infringing IP addresses assigned to the major ISPs. Time will tell if Canada proves at all to be a jurisdiction within which copyright trolling is a profitable enterprise, but at this point the court looks like it wants to prevent that.

We shouldn’t rule out entirely, though, that copyright trolling might ensue here. Given the well-publicized precedent of secret surveillance by the Canadian government, along with the growing awareness that our data is not our own but potentially everyone’s now, I am hopeful that the time is right for people to mobilize on all of these related problems of digital life: protecting our privacy in ways that reinvigorate digital media with our values and interests (and not just the values of an increasingly out-of-touch, increasingly surveillant near-authoritarian state, or the values of copyright trolls), protecting our access to culture and participation in its reproduction, and protecting our freedom to connect without corporate and government meddling.


Survived an important mental test. Since I’ve been teaching pretty much 3/4 time to full time* over the past 1.5 years, the dissertation gets sporadically updated and reconsidered. Well, there is a time limit on these things, and I’m currently at a half time teaching load. Despite how unpleasant I find this precarity (and there’s reason to suspect it might carry on beyond my graduation later this year), and without getting into the anguish of detail on this count, I’m looking on the bright side, which is that right now my time is freed up a bit for writing.

This is the context behind the “test” I referred to at the outset here. What was it? It was this: I sat down to figure out where I left off, got bored searching for the most recent outline & introductory chapter, and then proceeded to re-write the outline and half the intro. An hour later, I found the former outline & intro, and they were identical in structure and tone as the new text. The temporal distance between these drafts was a full three months, but my ambitions and direction are unmoved.

I take this as a strong indication that I’m ready to finish this thing. Feels good.



*full time at my institution is 4/4 time… I guess 3/4 time is like a waltz then?

Web Hosting at Home on a Raspberry Pi

It has been a learning experience moving my 8 domains (including this one) from a ~$10/month hosting service* to a home server built on the Raspberry Pi. Not counting the small amount of time in labour (possibly 8 hours of learning/testing/configuring things, as I am a novice Apache tinkerer**), I will see savings before 2014 is up. The annual cost of virtual hosting with a hosting company, with a decent Linux server, software installation, full on access to mod-rewrite, unlimited MySQL, etc is ~$135. The Raspberry Pi ($47 CDN) can’t do it out-of-the-box (you need to buy a power supply and 2-4 GB SD card to get the Pi going, plus an 8+ GB USB stick to run it as an effective web server), but the costs were just shy of $100 (all figures in Canadian dollars, taxes in). Pi_boxed_up_2014-01-10 Pi_Parts_2014-01-10 Isa_assembling_Pi_2014-01-10 Feelin' N00BY Pi_online_2014-01-10 Isa_configs_Raspbian_2014-01-10 PI_MOUNTED_USB_FINALLY_2014-01-11The next step was to do research on software dependencies and configuration, exploring the accounts of others who had successfully used the Pi as a home web server (I’ve included most of the resources I consulted at the bottom of this post). But what started out as simple research led to a confusing mess for a while. Why? Well there are many assumptions among those who are working in particular system configurations (diff flavours of Linux, or in Mac OS) that get overlooked when these authors try to explain and document their processes. I’ll probably be guilty of the same. Perhaps more importantly than this, though, is that in the process of trial and error with following different sets of instructions, it dawned on me that I lacked some fundamental knowledge about (1) how disks behave when they are mounted vs unmounted and (2) how IP addresses and name servers operate, details I only required an abstract understanding of when working with websites hosted with a paid service. Once in the trenches of Apache on Raspbian, I found myself grasping at straws at times. Eventually I found my way, though. Here are the most essential links I collected as I went along, organized by class of challenge:

1. RASPBERRY PI CONFIGURATION You need to use a USB disk drive to store your websites where the public will access them. SD cards don’t have a very long life when they get constantly written and read over and over again, so the consensus goes. You also have to look at your sites to figure out how much space you’ll need (I only really need about 1GB for mine, all wordpress save one, and minimal media serving), as well as anticipate near future changes (do I want to run a home media server? torrents?, etc.). Then you should be able to figure out what size of USB stick to get. Prices and quality vary much more than you might think. I settled on a 16 GB Lexar S23 USB flash drive, which cost me 10 bucks. It’s compact and gets very good reviews for speed and reliability, and there is no point in stepping up to a high grade USB 3.0 drive (the Lexar P10 for instance), because the Pi USB ports are only USB 2.0. Time will tell if I made the correct choices here, but for now, everything’s working all snappy-like. You need to get Raspbian from the RPi community and install it to the SD card, using a computer (mine is a PC with Ubuntustudio 13, so I used a tool called GParted to manage the formatting of drives and partitioning. It really helps here if your computer/laptop has an SD card slot, as mine does. I used N00Bs to install Raspbian to the SD card, and then moved the SD card to the Pi SD card slot, where we did configuration using an Apple keyboard and mouse plus our Samsung TV (the only thing in the house that takes HDMI input – the Pi has no VGA out, of course). Working from my laptop on the same network via SSH (and occasionally swapping the SD card back and forth between the Ubuntu machine and the Pi to correct stupid mistakes) I was able to do some basic configurations on the Pi, such as the ALL TOO IMPORTANT step of instructing it to ALWAYS mount the USB flash drive on startup, among other important steps. Then, you need to configure the RPi so that it uses the SD card as a BOOT volume, but then automatically boots into the OS installed on the USB stick. This involves copying Raspbian to the USB drive, and then editing a couple of files in the SD card’s BOOT directory, along with partition-filling and error checking – lots of command lines. It all makes perfect sense in retrospect, but I admit it’s easy to get lost and discouraged at this stage. Links for the above steps:

2. APACHE WEB SERVER CONFIGURATION This was nowhere near as complex and challenging as configuring the Pi to use disks like it should, but this one had its difficulties, as well. As a general guide toward getting all of WordPress’ dependencies set up I followed Dingleberry Pi’s great set of instructions (though these are Mac OS-oriented). Other useful links are below, relevant to configuring virtual hosting in your Apache server, and understanding that different Linux distros have the Apache config file in different places.

3. FINALLY, DNS CONFIGURATION I actually set this up ahead of time. You have to grab an account at first, and then use that account to set up free DNS hosting at More specific instructions here. Relevant links below: The last steps involved configuring one virtual host, installing WordPress in its directory, enabling port forwarding on my router to the Pi machine, and then resetting my DNS pointers on one domain as a test site. Then I waited a day to see if the domain resolved to a fresh WP install rather than the old blog. Once that happened I was on to straight-ahead WordPress imports, which can all be done within WordPress, then rinse and repeat for the six other blogs. I plan to tinker some more with a mail server, server monitoring tools and much else using the Pi in the next few months. In the meantime, drop me a line if this website seems slow, acts strange, or goes offline.

Notes: *I was with, and they are an outstanding service, especially considering the competitive rates – highly recommended!) **I am a n00b with Apache, and moderately challenged in unix commands. I shouldn’t say that. I’ve come back to and gone away from code over the past decade and a half, but never committing myself to more than the odd Yahoo Pipes trickery, Twitter API hack, or intentional hijacking of a Worpress plugin. Which isn’t really much, but it’s sufficient to really get out of n00bspace. I digress…

Moving Home: Raspberry Pi

I’m moving this and my other blogs to a home web server hosted on a Raspberry Pi. I’ve been at it for a day now, just getting the hang of the setup options (installing, reinstalling, and configuring the Raspbian OS in various ways just to make sure I’m not doing it wrong), and I think I’m almost there. I want to send props to this blogger for clear, cogent instructions on how to move the OS to a USB drive (using Raspbian OS). Highly recommended.

I will post again once this blog is hosted on the Raspberry Pi. Stay tuned!

Updates on Method

I’ve been following the work of Jason Farman for a while, and am now enjoying his book Mobile Interface Theory (excerpt here). It’s really good, but in the process of being good also points out many gaps in our contemporary thinking about mobile (it’s not just phones) and phenomenology (it’s not mutually exclusive of poststructuralism; it’s not outmoded). Needless to say, this is yet another new work among many that relates well to my dissertation in process.

It feels a little uneasy bringing (as Farman does) the concept of embodiment (via Katherine Hayles) to a constructivist interpretation of technology, but in some ways, it makes sense and feels right. Why the uneasiness? Well, I recall trying to do so in my comprehensive exams and getting cautioned not to do so by one of my supervisors. I cannot recall the precise reason why I was so cautioned (though it seemed like a good reason at the time, and under the pressure of the oral exam, I chose to backpedal away from my more adventurous ideas rather than fight for them), but it had something to with this:

I was trying to make the point that Hayles’ notion of embodiment as a process involving mutual constitution of biology and mind (Farman brilliantly extends this to bodies and space) is resonant with Latourian concepts of hybridity. That is, acknowledging the mutual constitution of biology and mind is identical to acknowledging the hybrid of politics and science. Somehow the literary dimensions of Hayles’ work didn’t sit well with Latour for that member of my committee.

Am I nuts? Naive? Reading vandalized books? Hep me, I want to resolve this.

Recruiting Android users for mobile app research, March 31-April 14

подаръциикона за подаръкI’m looking for study participants (Metro Vancouver area only) for empirical research I’m doing about mobile apps and location awareness. And, you can win an iPod Touch if you participate.

What will participants do? They will beta test a sustainability challenge application for two weeks (March 31-April 14), comment about the experience, and complete two online surveys (one at the start, and one at the end). Some participants will use the Facebook version of the app, while some will use an Android version they will install to their Android smartphone. Android users will also agree to have their location tracked for the two week period (Android users’ personal location data are not exposed to Facebook nor made public. Location data are anonymized for the purposes of analysis and any future publication of the research). All data is stored on Canadian servers.

All participants must have a Facebook account (we use it to authenticate users in both versions of the app). None of your data in the app is shared with Facebook – you have the choice to have all of your participation in the app viewable by “Only Me”.

I need to recruit Facebook and Android users in roughly equal numbers. After 50 Facebook users have signed up, I will only be recruiting Android users, until their number also reaches 50. Then I will open the study up to more Facebook users.

Those who complete the full cycle of required app testing and complete two online surveys get entered into a draw for an iPod Touch. There will also be runner-up prizes of lesser value.

This study is part of the empirical research I’m doing for my PhD dissertation. It’s also part of a multi-university project called Greenest City Conversations.

If you are interested in participating, please email me (jeanhebert at sfu dot ca) with the following information:

(1) “Mobile GCCP app” should appear in the subject line;
(2) your name;
(3) the email address you use for Facebook; and
(4) whether you have an Android device (by indicating this you put yourself in the Android group).

Once you’ve indicated your interest, I’ll add you to my list of potential participants and send you more detailed information about what the study involves. Once I’ve reached a critical mass of potential participants (I expect sometime early next week), I’ll send you all a link to the informed consent and entrance survey (which must be completed by March 31st, and must be done before you can install the app).

Thanks for your attention!

ubitasking. Taylorism. The horror…

иконографияПравославни икони

Visualization of over 16,000 Mechanical Turk workers in the United States. Click on the image for the original (much bigger).

I’m always trying to think of silly new buzzwords (“ubitasking”), and I’m also always trying to avoid the hackneyed ones (“crowdsourcing”). Mechanical Turk (ach! 41% of it is SPAM) -type platforms are brushing up against place-sensitive applications, and the results are intriguing, particularly in the coordination of humanitarian aid. In one case, Crowdflower participated in Haitian earthquake relief efforts, in conjunction with the well-known Ushahidi platform and a ‘Turk-like ‘form called Samasource. This is interesting (and relevant to my research) for two reasons:

Firstly, the work sourced through Samasource involved translation of text messages so that aid workers could read them and respond – which is an important general consideration when envisioning the localization of any ICTs to particular cities (and neighborhoods within cities). Vancouver is made up of a number of linguistic communities; reaching out broadly to ensure they are all included requires an awareness of such tactics and a readiness to deploy them in the rollout of any mobile application(s). So, for instance – should the design team prescribe something with a similar “task orientation” (like ubitasking notifications to the City about sick trees or potholes) – translation services can be similarly sourced and organized here. The elderly Korean woman who has a community garden plot next to ours (who is constantly giving us gardening advice, in Korean, as she speaks no English whatsoever) inspires me to demand a community babelfish…

Secondly, and troublingly, all this “task orientation” (should be “tsk. orientation…”) smacks of Taylorism writ even more granular than ever before. If you doubt me, just read Crowdflower’s FAQ page for things such as “By saving the correct answers to a small set of Units prior to running a job, we track the quality of a worker’s performance and reject a worker once his or her accuracy drops below a defined threshold. When no Gold Units are inserted, the quality of work plummets…”. Yep, that’s your name alright, Taylorism. Routinizing work; building human powered Difference Engines; monitoring space and time with cool algorithms. Not your Lefebvre‘s city. More like yr Le Corbusier‘s…

I’m not dis(mis)sing Crowdflower, though, as they clearly have a charitable and progressive ethos going on, by all accounts. Just picking on the FAQ language, noting the exacting character of software, and pointing out where I’ve seen it all before.

So yes, pluses and minuses so far in the prelims, as expected. I’m looking at a few more technical options, and I’m prescribing nothing.

Image credit: sethoscope ( (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Games Go Home

After reading up about the riots last night (and there’s so much to read – here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters…) I went and devoted some in-transit iPhone note-taking to reflection on the ‘festivities’, specifically in light of issues related to my research into urban life and pervasive media/computing. On my mind here are the tensions presented by digital media, ‘live sites’, the structure of the built environment, and the structure of commercial sport spectacle. I’m not an expert in the sociology of spectator sports, though I’m familiar with social psychological concepts that are relevant to the space. Mainly, my concern is with building better cities, and I don’t have any answers at this point. I do, however, have a lingering fascination for prehistoric spectator sports, and whenever sports fans lose their shit I can’t help but imagine what the fans would be like if the players kicked around a severed captive warrior’s head instead of a ball.

Here are my unfiltered (but link-enhanced) notes:

So with riots then we observe a cathartic collision of public (mis)behaviour, nationalism, and local/regional solidarity with the built environment. The targets of rage consist of whatever’s available – beating up other fans, overturning parked cars, the omnipresent police and smashing in the windows of corporate retailers & service shops. Screens were also targeted – it was also that old SCTV gesture- thousands throwing their TVs out of windows because they don’t like the images they see there – indeed those images oppress. They’re at minimum very unsatisfying. This dissatisfaction, in the euphoria of a run on the Stanley Cup, is suspended; the dream is alive. The pinch is strongest, the awakening to the hangover most dramatic, when they lose in Game 7. In their home city. Self destructive impulses (repressed desires) explode upon the most convenient and/or symbolically valuable targets. Mob mentality is merely an accelerant to the conflagration.

The structuring of experience in the built environment – filled with signs of our wasteland of promotional culture & disciplined consumerism – invites precisely this sort of meleĆ©. Such commercially coaxed fandom – wrapped in the same symbolic assemblage as the downtown core – is destined to implode or explode when the dream dies & the myth is revealed as a colossal con. & they can’t take it out on the team, or the corporations who run it – that too is taboo, and invisible among all available possibilities for action. It’s quite depressing, the hockey fan’s lot.

If the public built environment were more saturated with interactive media (ports not screens), perhaps, we might be able to mitigate such behaviour. Clearly the urban camera panopticon isn’t enough to fulfill Jeremy Bentham’s (1785) prediction of self regulating, self disciplining individuals. What is called for is the same thing that helps us behave ourselves in Facebook & Amazon – abundant opportunities via pervasive, interactive media to contribute to & belong (Humphreys 2006) in an urban space – if we are to prefer this sort of coordinated life.

The problem I have with this, of course, is that such projects so easily slip into projects of bureaucracy & micromanagement (Hern 2010). What is warranted is not a new regime of mediated bylaws & planning, but a distributed, basic platform that amplifies broadly beneficial diversions, modularity & granularity of development – again, a ‘local’ web of ‘locants’ (actants localized in space?) that can leverage all the benefits of global digital connections and can locally interpret or mediate/mitigate these for local benefit.

What this could do is infuse crowds with responsibility for their everyday interactions while maintaining the (desirably) unpredictable character of urban life. Really, could it? But how?

Well, what stops fistfights? What stops riots?


Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy (1785) Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.

Hern, M (2010) Common Ground In A Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Oakland: AK Press.

Humphreys, A. (2006) The Consumer as Foucauldian ”Object of Knowledge’. Social Science Computer Review 24: 296. (link to SAGE abstract)

Ballcourt image from SanGatiche reproduced under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Musings about music, technology, mobility, and culture, by Jean Hebert.