Close to the Machine

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture has an amazingly pointed criticism of modern technocracy (my word) following what is an amazing outline of both Countercultural/Communal philosophy and modern cyberculture.

One book mentioned in this conclusion is Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine:

(page 258, paragraph breaks and emphasis mine)

[Ullman’s life is] flexible and mobile and it demands that she build small tribes around a shared mission and link them together with information and information technologies. To the extent that Ullman tries to change the world, she does so as Buckminster Fuller might suggest she should: by designing new technologies for the management of information and the transformation of society’s resources into knowledge on which others can act.

Yet Ullman’s turn toward technologies of consciousness and toward social and economic networks has hardly brought her into the community she seeks… Cut off from… membership in permanent corporate and civic communities… her power derives primarily from what knowledge of technological systems she can carry with her and secondarily from her networks of professional friends. Her personal links to her colleagues are tenuous and brief. She is lonely. And the situation is not likely to change anytime soon.

As Ullman’s example suggests, coupling one’s life to the technologies of consciousness does not necessarily amplify one’s intellectual or emotional abilities or help one create a more whole self. On the contrary, it may require individuals to deny their own bodies, the rhythms of the life cycle, and, to the extent that their jobs require them to collaborate with far-away colleagues, even the rhythms of day and night..

It may in fact result in every bit as thorough an integration of the individual into the economic machine as the one threatened by the military-industrial-academic bureaucracy forty years earlier.

And the pointed critique (page 260):

The rhetoric of peer-to-peer informationalism, however, much like the rhetoric of consciousness out of which it grew, actively obscures the material and technical infrastructure on which both the Internet and the lives of the digital generation depend. Behind the fantasy of unimpeded information flow lies the reality of millions of plastic keyboards, silicon wafers, glass-faced monitors and endless miles of cable. All of these technologies depend on manual laborers, first to build them and later to tear them apart.

This is followed by a brief description of both environmental impact and that this physical burden falls upon those who lack social and financial resources.

Like the communards of the 1960s, the techno-utopians of the 1990s denied their dependency on any but themselves. At the same time, they developed a way of thinking and talking about digital technologies from which it was almost impossible to challenge their own elite status…. Even as they conjured up visions of a disembodied, peer-to-peer utopia, and even as they suggested that such a world would in fact represent a return to a more natural, more intimate state of being, writers such as Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, and John Perry Barlow deprived their many readers of a language with which to think a bout the complex ways in which embodiment shapes all of human life, about the natural and social infrastructures on which that life depends, and about the effects that digital technologies and the network mode of production might have on life and its essential infrastructures.

Biology cliche

Okay. You’ve got nature—neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there’s nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction. And somehow, that truism rarely sticks. Instead, somebody’s got to go, and when a new gene is trotted out then when “firing off”, “determines” behavior, environmental influences are inevitably seen as something irrelevant that have to go.

From Robert Sapolsky’s article “A Gene for Nothing” in the book Monkeyluv.

The author also notes that the genome is called “code of codes” and the “holy grail” by un-sciency journalists.


My preferred method for eating has a name–maybe misapplied–but is also culturally debasing: eating with only a fork and using the side to cut/smash-through your food before spearing it. A survey calls that a “knork”, though it is in fact an actual product. I’m going to call my method “knorking”.

This week’s World Wide Words is on the Knork.

Cold Reading

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse – the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess – all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

From Malcolm Gladwell via Bruce Schnier

Criticism of Civic Literacy

I’ve been reading up on Civic Literacy and so far I’m kind’ve disappointed with what I’m seeing and my own involvement in it as well:

Civic Literacy seems to be geared towards government and politics, as opposed to broad participation in communities and society—especially NGOs or other social groups. They seem to be based on what is an arguably outdated concept of American government providing broad social services. Apparently the Reagan and Gingrich revolution haven’t made it into the curriculum yet.

Also, it appears to be based a lot more around how the government works, as opposed to how to participate within government (and resultantly alter its operation) but that is a standard pedagogical issue.

Some links:

Creating Models

I’m taking Mathematical Models in Biology and we had an interesting problem in our last class. We were broken up into groups and asked to create a model around malaria infection. We received some information on mosquito behavior and lifecycles, infection rates and patterns, and effects. That was it.

The primary tenet of mathematical modeling is simplification. We quickly realized that when trying to simplify the process, we needed to know what information we wanted to gain from the model. The standard (and incredibly simple) SIR model, for example, answers the question “how many people will be infected at any one time?”, not necessarily, “how many will recover or die?”.

To put it into mathematical terms, if we’re going to reduce the number of dimensions (by simplifying), we want to make sure that the information we’re left with has useful meaning for the situation.

Which also leads me to thinking about reductionism and holism.


While it is undeniable that people who watch lots of vampire movies have nightmares with vampires, it is also true that people who work at UPS have nightmares about boxes (according to a former anthro teacher of mine who also once worked at UPS). From Wired’s Geekdad Blog

Chill Units

If you grow peaches for a living, you know all about chill units. They measure how much cold a plant experiences during a winter. And chill units are essential to a good crop of peaches. When plants go dormant at the end of summer, many of them have to experience a certain amount of time in cold weather before they can grow on schedule in the spring. If a peach tree doesn’t get enough chill units, it can’t respond promptly to the warmth of spring. It is still in a zombie-like dormancy, and it can only rouse itself after the spring gets even warmer.

From a Wired article on greenups , or when plants begin growing in Spring.

The John Hancock Building

The JHB was known as the “Plywood Skyscraper” after having faulty glass windows that would pop out during it’s construction in the 1970s.

Police were left closing off surrounding streets whenever winds reached 45 mph

Also interesting description of two 300-ton weights that sit on the 58th floor to damp swaying motions.

via wikipedia. Researched due to an article today about MIT suing Frank Gehry over the Stata Center.