The Flat Earth

I just read through/viewed this wonderfully animated piece by VEC/Centre for Digital Media students about the False Creek Flats, and it got me rummaging around. Of late I’ve also been examining the standard planning propaganda* (I use that term here in its modern, non-pejorative sense**) about the future of the Flats in Vancouver.

Looking at the public record, there appears to be great uncertainty yet about where the Flats are headed, from a city planning perspective. Despite the seemingly good intentions of many of the companies and institutions that have relocated (and property developers that have installed condominiums) in this neighbourhood with much fanfare, there is considerable administrative inertia on the fate of the flats, due to legal entanglements, multiple (regional and civic) planning agendas***, transportation planning (which depends on Provincial approval, and a referendum on a subway line, among other transit priorities), and the position of the overall redevelopment of the flats within the panoply of hot button issues that haunt Vancouver’s overall political climate.

flats
The Flats

I live (almost) and work (sometimes) in the Flats. I recently created a photo essay of my walk to work, in which I observed (among other things – please read the comments under each image for the full autobiographical story) that many of the new businesses along Terminal Avenue within the past two years are automobile dealerships. This seems broadly and deeply inconsistent with the themes of sustainability and environmental consciousness that inhabit most of the planning literature and discourse in Vancouver. I’m not being cynical; I’m simply pointing out an obvious contradiction. Companies that promote automobile and fossil fuel consumption are fundamentally at odds with community or state planned initiatives to reduce the effects of global warming. If our planning is to be sustainable in the Metro Vancouver region, why is the intensified promotion of luxury (and other) cars included as part of the way forward?

Speaking of climate, False Creek Flats might be under water in a short while if administrative and political inertia permit the status quo patterns of development to continue on for too much longer. An interesting – though perhaps trivial in the grand scheme of things – aside is that Emily Carr University is relocating from one flood zone (originally a sandbar) to another.

Not my image. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic (www.flickr.com/photos/colink/)
Not my image. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic (www.flickr.com/photos/colink/)

The Flats themselves are a product of regional transportation planning history. Originally a swampy body of water, maps that show the history of Vancouver’s inner shoreline like the one above (source: City of Vancouver Community Services)  hint at the dramatic transformation of this area which began in 1917, as Canadian railway companies were granted permission to fill in the area with regional commercial transportation infrastructure (mainly servicing commercial cargo traffic to the Port). Did you know that the Port of Vancouver is on its way to becoming the largest coal exporting site in North America?

I want Vancouver to be the Greenest City in the world. Strike that: I want every city in the world to be the greenest city in the world. However, I am puzzled as to why the action on this contradicts the talk.

Moreover, you can learn a thing or two about political realities (as opposed to fictions) by simply walking around, taking pictures with a smartphone.

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*Noting that civic plans for the False Creek Flats have been institutionally made into an integral part of other, more controversial civic planning initiatives such as the removal of the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaducts.

**Meaning, in my own words, government publications that promote the  activities of government or a particular kind of action, belief [often ideological in nature] – reserving judgement on whether or not said materials are designed to misinform.

***Including the ambitious envisioning of the area as, in the words of one Metro Vancouver planning overseer, the “refrigerator, storeroom, and repair room of the downtown”.

Etymology is Everything

From Wikipedia:

culture: the capacity to classify and encode human experiences symbolically, and to communicate symbolically encoded experiences socially

This traditional definition of “culture” – not the only currently operative one, but one still prevalent in much discourse on practices in everyday life – is obviously problematic where the inclusion of nonhuman subjects (and human subjects incapable of sending messages or indicating their understanding of them) is presumed, or even merely contemplated. If one cannot signify, one might argue, one therefore cannot be included in culture. For some this seems to merit exclusion from human moral consideration as well (given that ethical systems cannot exist without culture existing first). This is can be dismissed easily as an unsustainable position on simple pragmatic grounds, because many human cultures recognize the intrinsic value of non-signifying human subjects (people who are in various stages of conscious awareness, for instance), and thus to exclude nonhuman subjects for this reason is nothing more than speciesism.

But the definition still captivates many, due to its symbolicocentric mystique. I think I found a way out of this constraining, inconsistent, and morally unsatisfying definition of culture, and it involves thinking about culture and communication as being necessarily bound up with dense, cohabitational spaces – communes, farms, and cities. To get there (as if by magic!), it helps to examine the etymology of the word “culture”. Culture, as students of communication, anthropology, and cultural studies know well, has many competing definitions in both everyday and academic discourse. These have a history – from Matthew Arnold, to Franz Boas, to Raymond Williams, to Clifford Geertz and beyond. Consider, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

culture (n.) mid-15c., “the tilling of land,” from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura “a cultivating, agriculture,” figuratively “care, culture, an honoring,” from past participle stem of colere “tend, guard, cultivate, till” (see colony). The figurative sense of “cultivation through education” is first attested c.1500. Meaning “the intellectual side of civilization” is from 1805; that of “collective customs and achievements of a people” is from 1867.

Here’s how I interpret this complex term: with agri-culture comes sedentarism and a being-together-in-the-world and cooperation with strangers – the genesis of city life. A “cultivated” mind is essentially urban (or at least agricultural); modeling itself on the “care” of the land required to ensure survival, we came to understand how to care for our fellow urban residents – both human and nonhuman – whether or not we had a window into their inner mental lives. Contemporary urban life enables access to intellectual life, “worldliness”, and an ethic of care.

There are already tremendous discourses on the inclusion of Artificially Intelligent subjects in our moral community, and some of these are premised on the problem that we cannot know when robots are really sentient or autonomous. With nonhuman animals, however, we are already there in terms of knowing about their sentience.

Culture also includes these unwitting (some, like crows, are perhaps a bit more “witting” than unwitting) nonhuman participants (companion animals, animals used as resources, and urban wildlife, possibly conceived of as NPCs, or “non-player characters”, in RPG parlance – not that this is ideal). Urban systems are full of nonhuman participants. Any moral system we develop in this proximal, settled, grain-eating milieu must include them (animals).

To my mind, the challenge this presents for cultural studies, communication, and anthropology is this: how do we revise our working definition of “culture” so that non-signifying participants (otherwise sentient) are afforded ethical consideration and inclusion? I propose that if we revisit the history of the word “culture”, we might see a clear way forward. That is to say: culture=cultivation/(plant)agriculture/dense urban cohabitation/ethic of care.

Also, consider this: Cadmus decided where to build Thebes by following a cow until it lay down in exhaustion. Cadmus also (mythically, of course) was credited with introducing the portable alphabet to Greece. So cities, writing, and nonhuman animals share a place in very old thinking about language, communication, and settlement. It is the animal who writes the city, asks us to settle down, and implores us to find a way to keep consistent records.

Is this making sense yet?

Cities, transportation, and representations of space

Derek Buckner, Freeway 2.
Derek Buckner, Freeway 2.
I’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.

Dissertating

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.

 

Notes:

*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: http://raspberrywebserver.com/serveradmin/connect-your-raspberry-pi-to-a-USB-hard-disk.html http://magnatecha.com/using-a-usb-drive-as-os-root-on-a-raspberry-pi/ http://c-mobberley.com/wordpress/index.php/2013/04/13/moving-raspberry-pi-root-folders-from-sd-card-to-usb-hdd/

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. http://httpd.apache.org/docs/2.2/vhosts/examples.html http://wiki.apache.org/httpd/DistrosDefaultLayout

3. FINALLY, DNS CONFIGURATION I actually set this up ahead of time. You have to grab an account at dlinkdns.com first, and then use that account to set up free DNS hosting at dyn.com. More specific instructions here. Relevant links below: http://dyn.com http://dlinkdns.com/ 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 canadianwebhosting.com, 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

I’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!