Monthly Archives: February 2005

A blog about what?

I’m having some difficulties figuring out exactly what kind of stuff I should be posting on this blog. Originally, I was inspired by blogs where anthropologists doing research on computer culture were posting some of their research findings mixed with various other stuff that they find interesting.

These are blogs like Alex Golub’s Golublog and Gabriella Coleman’s Sato Roams. Golub has done fieldwork in Papua New Guina, but has recently turned his attention to online roleplaying games. Coleman is currently writing her Ph.d dissertation on the Open Source movement, based on a fieldwork at the Electronic Frontier Foundation – an digital civil rights organisation currently very concerned with intellectual property management.

In some strange future I hope to put research ponderings of my own in this blog. I’ll be trying to post small bits of academia (it sounds like a nut, doesn’t it?) to test the mettle of my communicative skills (and maybe somebody might find it interesting, too). But for now, I’ll mostly write about my doings in Manchester, hopefully with lots of pictures and excitement.

So: A blog about me with lots of pictures and excitement … right!

We have visual…

At last, after various difficulties, the pictures are uploaded and will more or less speak for themselves…

Scenic Manchester
Scenic Manchester

University of Manchester
University of Manchester

The Curry Mile
Wilmslow Road
The Curry Mile
also known as the Curry Mile
The Curry Mile

The McDonald’s of Manchester kebab shops. You have to eat there at least once.

City of Manchester Stadium
City of Manchester Stadium – the home ground of Manchester City FC – for those with good connections, I shot a small film to better give a feel of the stadium, though there’s no guarantee that it’ll actually work.

I hope all this can lift the rather bookish feel that this site has had so far. I’ll be sure to post more light-minded sillyness along the way..

That ever-elusive Techno-Mojo

I am currently left in a state of technical impotency. This, of course, is partly my own fault as I did choose to solely use Linux on my laptop. Linux is the computer equivalent of Doing It Yourself, even though the various distributions do try to make it a lot easier on the user, and it helps having an online forum where people are helpful with suggestions on how to solve your problems. Still, Linux fosters frustration like a little kitten (rather than Windows which relates to frustration like Sisyphos to his rock). And though the kitten can be nice at times, it tends to be infuriatingly cat-like (as in sprawling across the part of the newspaper that your trying to read, purring in the most relaxed self-satisfied way).

In this case, the kitten won’t allow me to upload my digital photo-documentation of my doings in Manchester for all the world to see.

The reason is that the network security here at the university is so tight. I can bring my laptop to the wireless hotspot and log on, but only to use the http protocols that web browsers use. I can not (for instance) log on to remote computers, download mail to my email client (I hate the clunky feel of a stuffed webmail account) or use Instant Messaging.

After several fruitless attempts to increase my internet privileges through the (totally unsupported) university secure connection, I am now dejectedly left in a state well-recognized among all but the most expert computer users (though all the real experts wouldn’t call themselves ‘users’ – more like ‘administrators’, ‘programmers’ or ‘hackers’):

It just doesn’t work

Generally, we want things to “just work”, if they don’t, we lose our technical potency, our techno-mojo, so to speak. Regaining this mojo usually involves a steep learning curve, testing different options, playing around with stuff, switching settings and being patient.
Most people don’t want to patiently try stuff, which is why I could get a job as a computer supporter: I didn’t need much specialised knowledge, I just needed a basic understanding of how users usually use computers, how computers usually respond, and how programs usually are designed. I’m no Microsoft or Apple-certified guru, I’m more of a computer pedagogue.

I may not know all about computers, but in most cases, I know enough to know what I don’t know. And then, it’s possible to find an answer.

I recently read a book called “Close to the Machine“, written by a longtime computer programmer. It describes the life of a pre-IT-bubble-burst software engineer and the thoughts and situations of her (yes, really! A girl!) working life. It is quite fascinating for me, as a non-programmer to read, especially as you get insight in some of the more mysterious dealings of computer lore.

She has this wonderful description of the ever-changing, furiously tumultuous world of computer technology, and how she (and everybody else) has to do their utmost to keep up. Her conclusion is worth repeating here:

The corollary of constant change is ignorance. This is not often talked about: we computer experts barely know what we’re doing. We’re good at fussing and figuring out. We function well in a sea of unknowns. Our experience has only prepared us to deal with confusion. A programmer who denies this is probably lying, or else densely unaware of himself.

The awareness of my own ignorance came to me eight years into my career. I was still working for the company that built the [database] software we were configuring at the AIDS project. I was having trouble getting a particular monitor to work with our software. I called the manufacturer of the monitor. I called the supplier of the keyboard. I called the compnay that wrote the device driver software, that built the mouse, that wrote the operating system. I received many answers, all contradictory. Somewhere through my fourth round of phone calls came to thoughts in horrifying succession. The first thought was: I suppose I know the answer better than anybody else in the world. The second was: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Over the years, the horrifying knowledge of ignorant expertise became normal, a kind of background level of anxiety that only occasionally blossomed into outright fear. Still, the fear was a great motivator. The desire to avoid humiliation was a strong concentrator of the attention. I even came to rely upon it. When I interviewed Danny, the dektop programmer, to work on the AIDS project, I knew he had less experience than he was letting on. I knew he was taking this job out of sheer will. But I hired him anyway. I did it because I saw fear in his eyes.

I told Mark, “The new guy is afraid.”

“Oh, good,” said Mark, “then he’ll work out nicely. If you’re not terrified in this profession, you really don’t know what you’re doing.”

I don’t have to be terrified, since nothing hangs in a thread whether I get these pictures online or not, but consider writing software for airlines, banks or credit card companies..

Learning to learn

I’ve just attended a guest lecture with Gayatri Spivak, an Indian scholar of some repute. It was very much in the spirit of “Lettre Internationale”: Cosmopolitical intellectualism, working for the common good in ways that ordinary people cannot comprehend. A true and dedicated intellectual, she has mastered being intellectually funny in such a way that a whole lecture theatre can be left unsure of when to laugh. She constantly refers to her professor and author colleagues in such sentences as “as I discussed recently with my friend Jim Clifford in Santa Cruz” or “I touched upon this very issue with dr. Mukherjee last week”. It’s very relaxed and worldly knowledgable, but you have to be on your toes to follow it.

I was (obviously) not on my toes, when she began her talk, and I spent the first 10 minutes of the lecture wondering just what “saboltant” meant, because she used that word again and again, even though the title of her talk was “Learning to learn” which was what had interested me in the first place. It wasn’t until I had sneaked a peek at the notes of the diligent student next to me that I realised that the word was in fact subaltern.

By then, Spivak had been trying to define the term between the use in both Gramsci’s and Marx’ terminologies. In the end, she settled for saying that “Subalternity is the contentless nonrecognition of agency” – meaning that you’re a subaltern if you’re not recognised as anything else. She then went on to argue that it is a sign of power and social maneuverability to be able to dismiss parts of your identity, leave your differences behind. She cited Derrida for saying “I am sometimes European”, and I suspect most europeans feel the same way: Sometimes we would like to dismiss our western outlook and try for another perspective. Spivak’s point is that this is not possible for the subalterns of the world. As she put it: “Our religion is convenience” – if we took notice of the subalterns, they wouldn’t be subaltern anymore.

By now, you are most likely thinking as I were: Who the hell are these subalterns, anyway?
Well, Spivak refused to give up the term to describe specific groups, claiming that different groups of subalterns have nothing in common and thus subalternity cannot carry any inherent meaning of its own (except, of course, the very general one she gave above). The group of subalterns that she has identified is apparently somewhere in India where she’s teaching them. Hoping that they can learn to learn. Exactly what it is that she’s teaching she was rather loathe to discuss, but she did put own position as a teacher into a catchy phrase:

“A teacher: something like a servant, rearranging desires (both in the elite and the subaltern)”

Her hope was that through her teaching them, these nameless unwashed masses of India one day would ask her: “Why are you here?” thus leaving the subaltern mindset and thinking for themselves.

I don’t think it will happen the way she envisions it. During the lecture I noted that words such as “Subaltern Studies“, “Subalternist” and “Subalternisation” were being thrown about in a quite casual manner. How can she ever teach people to think for themselves if she’s maintaining her knowing better to people who, as she says herself, cannot even disagree or represent themselves?

I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is clearly at her best talking to an academic audience, punning and referring to various high brow obscurities, can help any “subaltern”, whatever they may be, to a more meaningful position.

*Sigh* – maybe I underestimate her, but I just can’t take that cosmo-intellectual “let’s-write-a-paper-on-subalterns-to-make-things-better-and-to-earn-my-fat-salary-at-my-elitist-American-university” attitude. It’s just so.. bogus.

.. my brain hurts now.

The business with computer games

This saturday I met a couple of swedes who work at a computer game company in Birmingham. It was pretty cool to talk to some actual people involved in the business, though I guess they might have thought it a bit tiresome to talk about it, as they do that every day at work, and I don’t.

I haven’t played any computer games since I installed linux on my computer, and I don’t really regret that. After doing my BA project on the aesthetics of computer games, I realized that the computer games industry hasn’t really been moving forward that much by only developing games in the safe genres such as First-Person Shooters (known as FPS among people “in the know”, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG for short, no really) and various Sports games. Indeed, some people argue that Electronic Arts, the biggest computer game company, is cornering the market and killing creativity by forcing their employees to work overtime with no compensation.

Much like the Hollywood film industry, the (mostly American) computer game industry is putting their money and effort in surefire successes such as sequels to the popular genres. The bestselling games of the past few years all have an extra digit behind it – like Doom 3, Half-Life 2, WarCraft 3, Residential Evil 4, Final Fantasy X (that’s 10, no really!), The Sims 2, Grand Theft Auto 5 and various others.

Because of the incomparable development in computer speeds and graphics, these games look much better than their earlier incarnations (though they require equally more processing power), but generally, the game, the player involvement, the playful ideas are basically the same as they were 6 or 7 years ago. Not a lot of new game design has broken through since 1998 and most of it is japanese and thus not very popular in this part of the world. It is sad, when you realize just how much potential there is in the computer game medium.

Now, even the dedicated fans are getting restless. And luckily, there are alternatives out there. Coming up is the 6th Annual Independent Games festival, where independent game developers (ie. companies without marketing and publishing deals with with the big game publishers such as EA or Nintendo) can have their share of the limelight.

Most interesting films are the result of lots of hard work raising funds from various public sources, and I hope that soon, computer game developers will be able to do the same thing by dedicating themselves to making games that are not just the usual profitable run-of-the-mill, but something a bit more challenging. Already, various game design schools are cropping up, though my swedish friends didn’t think much of them. They argued, reasonably enough, that as long as the technology and behind the games – and thus the tools for making them – continues to develop at such an incredible rate, there’s no easy way to make a standardized education, as requirements will change faster than the curriculums can.

Computer aesthetics is still a vast and (mostly) unexplored field, and until more people realize this, I can manage just fine without computer games.

Various tidbits..

I’m still having trouble getting my laptop on the internet, so I can’t post pictures from yesterday’s big Manchester football game (notice the supremely silly headline). It was freezing cold, but the stadium and the game was suitably impressive.

oh, since it is Valentine’s Day today, I suppose I should treat all of you to a poem.

roses are #FF0000
violets are #0000FF
all my base
are belong to you

Now, this is not meant to be dirty, but I’d say that if you can identify the various references in this, you’d be geeky enough not to take note of it. For the rest of you, there are hints available.