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?

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!

ubitasking. Taylorism. The horror…

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.

Participatory Mobile Urban Experience Planning

… or, Streethacking with Ubiquitous Media, if you prefer. This is the thing toward which I’m now turning most of my academic affections and attention. Reading Henri Lefebvre, Matt Hern, Paul Dourish, and many others has led me to this increasingly (and appropriately) crowded (for instance, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for some rough coordinates…) space of inquiry. My research has been months in the planning phases, and has been a labour of love (among other things… a different story, for a different blog, with different privacy settings…). Now, however, begins the process of scheduling, recruiting, fine-tune budgeting, and nailing down the specific questions for the inquiry. There’s much to be queried about the topic. Oh, the topic?

I’m doing this research as part of something called the Greenest City Conversations Project, a collaborative effort of a number of researchers at UBC and SFU, based at UBC’s Centre for Sustainability. My research (on mobile and ubiquitous computing, the urban environment, and sustainability issues in Vancouver) involves a participatory design exercise, in which the team will be doing something of a ‘needs assessment’ and ‘visioning exercise’ for what the mobile/ubicomp sphere can do to improve or better facilitate public awareness, dialogue and participation in sustainability issues. Then, we’ll turn to designing an application (or a ‘connective tissue’ piece between existing platforms and/or applications) in conjunction with student interns and/or a local technology company. That’s the lightning pitch.

As the research proceeds, I will be providing regular updates on this, my longest-serving blogbot (since 2006 now! pat on the head there, little noseclicker, aw… we’ve been through so much!…). While much of my data will be sealed off from public scrutiny due to the exigencies of ethical codes safeguarding personal information of human research subjects, I will be posting what I can when I can, as a way of documenting my path toward completing it. Likely, this project will unfold over 6-8 months, culminating in a dissertation and public launch of … something … whatever the designers recommend, and whatever the developers can fashion.

This is your funky cup of tea

Heh. In a flourish of dog day afternoon catchup (smack between finishing up grading for one semester and course planning for the next one), and with the help of the 3 year old girl, I have here the long-delayed fourth installment of my audio archiving project. Today the world hears for the first time ever the most brilliant sketches to ever go absolutely nowhere, the work of one Yummibrayn.

It was four, then five people, Yummibrayn. We did appear on CFRO for an interview at some point, but never had any gigs. Yummibrayn’s provenance was somewhere between the initial List of Mrs. Arson forays and Pc.s, but in retrospect is far more sophisticated than both of those enterprises combined. It’s a pity that LOMA and Pc.s both had gigs and Yummibrayn did not. At any rate, keep on crunchin’ on that crunchy dolphin snack nose (you had to be there), as the later instantiations of LOMA revived much of Yummibrayn in spirit, to my mind.

Enclosed for your listening displeasure, credit mainly due to my brilliantly patient and critical daughter (despite tha fact that she had 100% of the tape inside this very cassette unspooled all over the living room laminate at one point – I had to fold the laundry at some point, no? – are two select tracks from the Yummibrayn nonalog.

First up, a spirited number entitled “Funky Junk“, which, according to my meticulous 16 year old liner notes was conceived, composed, recorded and never revisited on/since October 30, 1988. It is an unbelievable and dire mess of a hooky tune. What’s even better is that it was recorded over a mixtape, straddling the Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. Make of that what you like…

Second, a Yummibrayn track entitled “Thought For The Day“, a much more planned affair, with amazingly mature lyrics like “lo/hi/dot/or die” and instrumental interplay (mainly the guitar and synth) that very nicely blends Tones on Tail and Wire. But it’s recorded so badly, you likely didn’t notice.

Why the HST is a Labour Issue

I don’t usually post about taxation or provincial politics (do I?). But being one of a sizeable community of technology workers (and workers in many other industries) who are required by law to charge 12% tax instead of 5% tax to customers/clients as of today, I felt that it was really important to correct the deceptive claims about “benefits to small business” (Intuit guesses at some of these benefits here) that are said to result from Harmonization. For readers not privy to this issue due to your far-flungness from it, I offer apologies (it is Canada Day, after all), the official primer, and the word from some of the HST’s opponents).

I’m also teaching a class (sorry, it’s a PDF) about the history of labour and technology this term, and part of the course deals with the growing sector of “contract” workers (workers who are not legally defined as employees of a company). A related issue (for those who work in high technology industries, and especially for those who work for multiple employers/clients) is the fact that since 2002 some workers in B.C. also come under the legal definition of a “high technology professional“, which excludes them from the benefits of overtime and holiday pay provided under British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act (contract workers, who are of more central concern WRT the HST, are obviously outside this legislation entirely, but it’s still important to understand the various shades of “employee” in B.C. to better appreciate the context and options for workers).

The rhetoric about HST in the mainstream media has thus far pivoted mainly around two stories: (1) impact of the tax on consumer household costs (mindless media tropes debunked here) and (2) the businesses who will enjoy reduced administrative costs (this blog post casts some doubt on that assertion, recounting how the B.C. government is going through some restructuring – which can be costly – partly to avoid the increase in HST). I’m not dealing with these issues here, as they are receiving plenty of discussion elsewhere.

The claims about “small business” benefits (mostly touted by the BC Liberals) from harmonization, however, are misleading.

If a small business sells goods and/or services that are already subject to PST, there may be a small benefit in that the HST can now be offset by claiming Input Tax Credits [ITCs]. Currently a business collecting PST for the government can only claim a nominal commission for that collection as against the tax, while with GST (and as will be the case with HST) they can claim all the GST/HST they spend for business purposes as against that tax. No question, this, on the face of it, offers some benefit for some small businesses.

But consider the context. When we think about “small business” we think about the coffee shop on the corner, the plumber, or the freelance software designer. There are many other sorts of contract workers who are legally categorized as “small businesses” – call centre employees, video game beta testers, stock pushers, and so on. These services were not subject to PST under the former tax system. For these workers to now comply with Canada’s tax laws, they will have to charge higher rates to clients or customers in cases where previously PST didn’t apply. For the on-contract call centre worker or game beta tester making just over $30K (net) (the minimum threshold for collecting mandatory GST/HST in most cases), this means that to be in compliance with Revenue Canada, he/she would have to invoice their “client” 12% HST instead of 5% GST. What do you think their “client” would say to that?.

Likely, clients/customers in many industries will be attracted by the lure of non-taxing contractors in the underground economy, as this article in the Winnipeg Free Press asserts.

It’s simply bad for small business. And the smaller the “business”, the worse it gets, it seems. Let’s hope this HST gets reversed.

But more importantly, let’s try not to not forget what the HST pinch is now throwing into sharp relief – the ongoing erosion of our identities as workers and the recasting of us as businesses. This process is wonderful for government revenues, and even better for the bottom line for large businesses. But it’s bad for us down here on the flexibilised assembly line.

Dateline 8 May 2010

Fortunately there is much going on this weekend to keep my attention away from books and the start of the summer semester next week (& fortunately my prep is all done!). The Stone Soup Festival is happening today, the sun is out, and everyone’s in great spirits!

I had hoped to attend Northern Voice this year but tickets sold out far too fast. C’est dommage.