Archive for the ‘Work in progress’ Category

Freeing the net in Vancouver

Friday, October 5th, 2007

The other night I went to a Free the Net meeting at Bryght in Gastown. I hadn’t been there since two BarCamps ago, when they’d barely moved in and everything was primer white. They’ve pimped their space fo’ sho’…. Flourescent apple green walls, obnoxious red chairs and sticky notes offering moustache rides, $1. It’s a cool space, despite its efforts; across the plexiglass divide is another Drupal shop, Raincity Studios. I’m guessing it’s a fun place to work.

Anyhoo. About 15 peeps, including usual suspects (and hosts) kk+, Boris and Roland, plus a variety of geeks about town. SFU was in tha house, with Richard Smith, Jéan Hébert (see his post about the event here) and yours truly representin’. I did my usual gender check: 12 nerdy boys to 3 geeky girls. The more things change the more they stay the same etc. etc…

So what is this business about freeing the net? Isn’t it free already, sorta? Well there’s this idea of mesh that’s going to blow things apart, sorta. It evolved out of MIT’s roofnet project, which developed the protocols for mesh networking on PCs. According to Wikipedia, mesh networking “is a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by ‘hopping’ from node to node until the destination is reached.” There is no longer a need for base stations; instead an arrangement of short p2p connections evolves as more users join the network.

Basically mesh routing technology increases range and network capacity, enabling one internet connection to go a long way, perhaps unwiring an entire neighbourhood. The more nodes that connect up, the broader the reach. The coolest part is that people hopping on to the mesh network don’t need to have an Internet connex; they basically share the host’s bandwidth.

At this meeting, I bought a Meraki Mini, a small wireless mesh repeater. I’m just like that. It has plug ‘n play setup and configuration (thank goddess) so when I eventually take it out of the box I’ll become the host node for my ‘hood’s meshwork – no fuss no muss. The idea is to hook up to other nearby nodes to extend and strengthen Vancouver’s emergent wifi system. According to Meraki, its hosted back-end system automatically configures every router as part of each individual network; the company’s web-based centralized management shows how things are working through an allegedly simple, intuitive interface (I’ll let you know) that can be securely used from anywhere in the world.

Boris wrote about community wireless a year ago. He wasn’t sure about Meraki then but the other day he was the guy handing out the nifty gadgets for $60 a pop. The big deal is this: Meraki’s mesh networks supposedly cover significantly more geographic area and users than earlier wireless networks.

This is how the company explains it: “Instead of relying on a single large antenna to cover every user, each radio in a Meraki network cooperates to find the best path to carry a user’s traffic to the Internet. As they operate, every network re-evaluates thousands of routing paths every minute, resulting in amazing reliability and network capacity. Meraki’s intelligent mesh routing means every repeater you add extends the reach of the network and makes the mesh more reliable by adding additional links.” So intelligent traffic queuing and packet prioritization plus the capacity to add unlimited network gateways enables demand-based growth of the network.

This works well for unwiring a low-income housing project, or an entire city. Again, supposedly, hundreds of neighbours can share a robust and reliable network supplied by only a few broadband connections. One Mini has a range of between 30-50 metres. Because it’s relatively cheap and apparently idiot-proof, networks can be built with a high density of repeaters; obviously this leads to better coverage and a more robust mesh.

According to MIT’s Technology Review, Meraki “is using San Francisco as a testing ground to see if a user-driven mesh network can connect a large urban area.” Where Google and Earthlink have thus far failed to install a free city-wide wifi system in SanFran, Meraki has had some early success, with 6000 users able to access the Internet thanks to their “Free the Net” program. The company has plans to expand its initial giveaway of 200 routers by a few thousand. The system will be built from the rooftops, balconies, and windows of anyone who wants to participate.

Some important points about mesh networking that came out of the meeting:

1. It provides low cost access based on a business model.
2. It is user driven (no bureaucratic/political red tape etc.)
3. It enables a community to connect to itself
4. It can facilitate critical mass through mobile on demand wireless for events
5. It reduces the digital divide within “developed” nations

Some community wireless projects:
1. BC Wireless
2. Montreal’s Ile Sans Fil
3. Wireless Toronto

Some mesh projects:
4. Wireless Nomad
5. NetEquality

Richard Smith summed up the importance of mesh networking: “People who own and operate a mesh node contribute to the overall health and vitality of the network.” On the one hand, this seems an unlikely form of community activism; on the other hand, maybe that’s just what being in a community is about.

Learning to love Latour

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Bruno Latour is a funny guy. At least in his very cheeky essay, “Where are the missing masses”. Now he may be (along with Michel Callon and John Law) the innovator of Actor Network Theory and a very famous French sociologist of science. But this is also a dude who insults his own colleagues and profession, not to mention myriad others – engineers, technologists, feminists, believers, novelists, the French. He lies, berates, misleads, tricks and teases throughout, yet still comes off as someone you’d like to have a beer with.

Calling himself a “mere philosopher”, Latour reserves most of his feigned disdain for sociologists, who have too long ignored the role of “non-human” actors in social life. When I first read Latour, I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, and a more considered reading (including Science in Action) of him has me reconsidering. I think, in fact, he might have gone crazy, but I haven’t touched his later works. At any rate, Latour insists that to “balance our accounts of society” we must pay some attention to non-humans, the “hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality.” I love it.

As quirky and irreverent as this sounds, Latour is really saying something rather simple. The social world has a material foundation with which humans necessarily interact. It is sensible, then, to consider how these material artifacts, techniques, devices interact with their human users, non? We must consider the fonction (Latour has no qualms about leaving French words untranslated in his English writings) of these non-human artifacts beyond the performance of their obvious, immediate task.

One of the major concepts in this essay is translation. In his case study of the automatic door-closer or “groom”, he defines translation as the transformation of a major effort into a minor one. It is this reversal of forces (the type of David and Goliath tale of which the moralists, er, sociologists are enamoured) that the sociologists should examine to understand the social construction of artifacts, “and not a hypothetical social context they are not equipped to grasp” (ouch!).

Other classic ANT concepts discussed here are delegation and prescription. Humans (engineers, mechanics) delegate to non-humans certain tasks that translate a major (human) effort into a minor (technical) exertion. In many instances, an unskilled non-human (door w/powerful spring mechanism) presupposes a skilled human user (knows how to get through the door w/out receiving a bloody nose). This, says Latour, is an example of prescription – the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. We have been able to delegate to non-humans not only force (closing the door) but values, duties, ethics.

Latour anticipates the cries and charges of anthropomorphism by admitting it and throwing the question back at his accusers: “Are they not our brethren?” he says of non-human actors? He gives 3 reasons why the groom is, indeed, anthropomorphic: 1. It is human-made (constructed); 2. It substitutes for actions of people (it is a delegate that permanently replaces humans; 3. It shapes human action by prescribing certain actions (e.g. what sort of people should pass through the door … the hydraulic door closer discriminates against the weak: children, the elderly etc.)

Instead of differentiating b/w humans and inhumans (as the sociologists say), Latour sees only actors – some human, some non-human, some skilled, some not – that exchange their properties. The divide b/w human/non-human actors is “untenable”, he says, with what I imagine to be a flourish.

Things get a bit tricky when Latour describes the attribution of the roles and actions of human and non-human as a choice. So far, I have not understood this idea. He talks about how builders and users are inscribed in a mechanism; how a mechanism prescribes certain behaviours and qualities. In other words, technologies both prepare their users for a certain interaction, and at the same time anticipate this interaction. Think of a traffic light. The red signal prepares the driver (or walker) to stop, but it also expects that she will, indeed, stop. However, there is nothing to stop her from not stopping. Chances are, not wanting to get into an accident, she will stop. “There might,” Latour concedes, “be an enormous gap b/w the prescribed user and the user-in-the-flesh…”

Latour goes on to explain the problem here: sociologists (damn them!) confuse the human-nonhuman divide with the differentiation b/w figurative and non-figurative actors. In a text, the choice of granting actors figurativity is up to the author; a character is more or less personal, depending on how framed. It is the same for techniques, where engineers are the authors. The label “inhuman” applied to techniques overlooks translation mechanisms (e.g. door-closer to groom) and the many choices that exist for figuring/defiguring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors.
It follows that the “enunciator” (the author of a text/engineer of a mechanism) is free to place (or not) a representation of herself in the script (texts/machines)

At the end of his mirthful narrative, where he recounts self-deprecating stories (I like the one about him screaming to his toddler who, unrestrained, would not stay seated in the back of the car: “If I brake too hard you’re dead.”) and heaps scorn upon all who’ve come in contact (however peripherally) with his topic, he concludes.

Technical translation, delegation, shifting out is the claiming of a once-human competence. In this way (says Latour) what we define as our social relations is silently prescribed back to us by non-humans. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability, is not a property of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations w/out non-humans is impossible.”

And there you have it: Latour in a half a nutshell. Corrections and comments are most welcome.

Comps and RoCoCo or Dialectics of the doctorate

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Things are happening. I have a date for my first comprehensive exam. Or a near date. Sometime in the first two weeks of May. How it breaks down is this:

First you compile a reading list in a particular area of interest – 30-35 texts or so (by “text” you are to understand: books, book chapters, journal articles). Seems simple, only if A. you’re not entirely sure of what area, exactly, you want to investigate or B. that area is not self evident (e.g. really reflects your interests and is thus not out of the CMNS 101 playbook) then you’ve got a challenge ahead of you.

Next, you “define the field”. I love this phrase: it seems so clear, so straightforward. Just say what it is that you will be studying. But if you haven’t read everything on your list (which you haven’t) then how on earth can you define the field or subfield that it comprises?

Third, you read till your eyes are bleeding out of your head and your brain is mush, its container (your skull) permeable, with information and thoughts – from the mundane to the sublime – slipping easily in and out and mostly elusive.

This is where I am right now.

Then, you write the exam. In my case, 2 (or is it 4?) questions over 2 days.

Ted Hamilton gave me a euphoric description of this process yesterday, and he literally said it was the time of his life. But, clearly, his comps have that afterglow memory tends to acquire – especially traumatic ones (childbirth, for example). What Ted was describing in elated yet reverant tone was giving me a panic attack (writing for 16 hours a day? I don’t think I’m capable). I’m not kidding: my chest started to tighten; my heart, to thump. I wanted to catch his excitement, perhaps even build some anticipation (rather than dread) for this inevitable moment, this rite of passage. But it was all I could do to keep the wobble of a smile affixed to my face and not pass out. Ted offered to lend me his notes – 1700 pages, bound, if that helps. I nodded yes, but what I really thought was that their weight would carry me to the ocean floor when I flung myself off something into the watery depths.

It is a fuck of a lot of work.

I thought I had a handle on it, but thanks to Ted’s enthusiastic account of his heady comps-writing days, I feel I am sunk. And I know that wasn’t his intention. And I have a sneaky suspicion that on that glorious day where my own exams are relegated to memory, I will be extolling their virtues to another poor, floundering doctoral student.

In more fun news, I’m going to RoCoCo Montreal, also known as Recent Changes Camp, or just plain old BarCamp, as we say around these parts. I think it will be supercool (I can’t wait to see how they achieve the “wikification” of the city!). I hope to present, but mostly this will be developing contacts and hopefully doing some field work for that crazy disseration I’m supposed to write one of these days. I’m totally geeked but I am also apprehensive about the whole French thing (even though I’ve advanced to Elemantaire Deux in French for Parents). As the unconference comes right after the oral comprehensive exam (which I forgot to mention) it will be a well deserved “vacance”.

Gender inequity in the academy and the “mommy” track

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I know, I know, it’s shocking that gender inequality would still be a topic for discussion… Not. People, especially young women and men believe (in the same way kids believe in Santa Claus) that there is no such thing as gender-based inequality or discrimintation – at least not in Western society. They assume that feminism is redundant, if not offensive, and that any woman daring to suggest all is not well on the gender parity front is simply a whiner, a man-hater or an attention seeker.

But as this Canadian Press article shows, gender inequality is alive and well in the hallowed halls of the academy, that bastion of patriarchy and hierarchy. Women profs receive less pay than their male colleagues (of the same rank) – or $6000 less for full professor. They also achieve full professorship – the highest rank – much less frequently, making up a mere 19% of Canada’s full professors.

While the Statistics Canada report on which the article is based shows “improvement” for women profs, this must not be taken as a job well done. It is utterly pathetic that since 1990, the percentage of women appointed to full professor (e.g. new appointments) has risen two percent. Two percent!! From 12 to 14. Pathetic.

The article notes that women account for the majority of students at the post-secondary level (undergrad and grad) – have done so since 1988. So why the disconnect between learning and teaching, between the classroom and the professoriate? If universities are graduating more women, it might be logical to think that they end up on the other side of the lectern, if not in equal numbers to men (gender-based discrimination and inequality being systemic and all), then at least in greaters numbers than currently.

One main reason for this, I’d hazard to suggest, is mothering. The article only touches upon this: “Climbing the academic ladder is supposed to be merit-driven, generally based on an evaluation of factors such as a candidate’s track record of research, publication and teaching.”

But, it continues, many women step off the tenure track for the “mommy track”. Funny, I don’t see this phenomenon affecting male profs. Yet their prospects for bearing progeny don’t seem to be affected. Hmmm! Men can have long successful academic careers, research, write and publish their way to a tenured position, and still have families!! Amazing! How is that possible?

It’s possible because women step aside, step down and forsake that career success to have the children. And the academy makes little to no accomodation for this handicap. And I say handicap in the best of ways – I have children. They’re amazing, lovely creatures with no equal in my heart. But they don’t factor in to the academy’s calculus for success. And that isn’t right. Not when the male profs are benefitting from this unequal situation.

This is why feminism can’t be dead.

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Telling like it is

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

I met with Feenberg today to discuss my revised chapter for the ACT book, working title, (Re)Inventing the Internet. I knew his edit was going to be heavy – he’d already told me there were problems with my academic writing style. Today, he was unambiguous: I am sloppy. Or my writing is, anyway (I, in fact, border on neat freakishness). So he did a tonne of editing and bascially cleaned the thing up for publication. I couldn’t help smiling as he was offering up his criticisms of my work. I just thought it was funny to hear such harsh criticism delivered in so amicable a fashion. It’s funny to sit there and have someone tell you what’s wrong with something about you, as if they were discussing the lovely autumn day outside. Anyway, the chapter reads better than anything I could come up with on my own (yet) and I’m extremely grateful for the time (not insubstantiale) he took with my work.

On another note, I went to my first French For Parents Workshop today at Educacentre. These are for anglophone parents whose kids attend French immersion schools. When you register by phone, they ask you four questions at the basic level, and keep going till they determine what level you are at, say Elementary 2 or Intermediate 1. Based on my quick interview, I was placed in Beginner 1. It says, right here on the sheet, that this is for “students without previous training.” Indeed, most of the parents there tonight are not originally from Canada (Iran, Guatemala, Philippines, Japan, China, Russia – quite a United Nations), and so did not have mandatory French class from K-10. Now, I took French all the way through high school, including 2 courses in Grade 13 (which they don’t have here in BC, and not anymore in Ontario)! As if that weren’t enough to show my dedication to our country’s other language, I took a French course in first year university and got a B (anyone remember that old Cheech and Chong ditty with the verse: “Mexican Americans love education, so they go to night school and take Spanish and get a B”?). And I get placed into Beginner 1??? With people never before exposed to French, who, in fact, are pursuing a third, not second, language?!

Needless to say, the class was too easy and I should really advanced to at least Beginner 2 (for students with “a few basic notions in French”) or, dare I say, Elementary 1 – “for students who can have a short conversation in present tense.” Whatever, I’m staying put; I already marked up the activity book and can’t be bothered to switch nights. It’s only 5 or 6 more classes; I’ll chalk it up to review and move my way up, the old fashioned way – by just doing it.

Speaking of advancement, I was on the Bored Housewives Network today (My Friend now considers himself among those ranks – I linked to it through his blogroll) and there was a very interesting discussion about holding “younger” kids back – they’re talking kids born in September and earlier. I never thought of these kids as younger – only those born really late in the year, like November or December. And even then, it never seemed to be an issue. Monica Szucs and I never had any problem communicating over Barbies, and she’s a Late Autumn Baby. But that was the 70s; things sure seem to be different today, as the BHN discussion suggests (people in New York not putting their kids in Kindergarten till they’re 6?!). My kid is a December Baby, but I never thought much about it till after the first parent-teacher meeting of his little grade school career. It seems there are some warning signs: “Is French for him?” the mat-leave replacement asks. Oh, French is for him, alright. It’s for him till it very clearly isn’t, anyway. But it got me to thinking. The boy does get frustrated at not being physically adept where his 5 year-old classmates are (cutting and other fine motorish skills in art, agility and prowess on the play structure etc.). And he sure can be a little goof, socially. But his verbal and conceptual skills are advanced, he has a long attention span, and loves (and is learning) to read. So I feel confident he’ll be able to keep up academically. And if his mum can pass Beginner’s I French class, he’ll be laughing all the way to France, n’est ce pas?

One time, at BarCamp…

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

These are notes from my BarCamp Vancouver presentation, which was fun to do, and well attended (to my surprise). I don’t have upload functionality yet (some problem I need help to fix) so my captivating powerpoint presentation is still on my desktop.

Changing the world one line of code at a time

What is tech activism?

• Tech activism combines the free software ethos derived from geek culture with concerns for social justice on a planetary scale.
• Tech activists are the computer programmers who write, develop and deploy software for the online projects of activist groups. They also develop and maintain activist Websites and provide technical support, largely on a volunteer basis.
• The novelty of tech activism moves beyond the political alliance of social justice activists and computer geeks, however. Rather, it lies in the way tech activists incorporate the democratic goals of the GJM into the very technology used to pursue those goals.
• That is to say, tech activists recode software intended for use by activists in a way that anticipates the progressive social change they pursue. In this way, tech activists produce both an alternative version of the technology that is accessible, participatory, and non-hierarchical, and an alternate vision of society based on those same ideals.

Free Software

• Integral aspect of this activism (in addition to creating/maintaining digital infrastructure) – developing, appropriating and redeploying software in order to achieve social justice goals
• e.g. Active (CAT’s open publishing platform, used for Indymedia); IMC geeks’ hack of TWiki

Democratic rationalization

• In this process, the constitution of the Internet is altered; that is, by carving out space for non-commercial activities (e.g. social justice groups and organizations, which embody notions of participatory democracy, equality, freedom etc.), creating online communities and producing software with other motives than profit or social control, tech activists have changed not only the way people “do” activism, but the face of the Internet itself (www)
• This has profound implications for the deepening of democracy offline, through altering the way society is organized


• Digital divide: is this really an issue?
• Gender divide: what barriers do women face in the technical sphere?
• Is the global justice movement dead?

Whys and wherefores

• Why do these geeks do what they do: motivations?
• What do they do, actually: case study
• How do they define their role in the new global justice activism?
• What are the main issues facing digital struggles today