Friday, December 27, 2002

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

T.S. Eliot "Massinger", in The Sacred Wood, via Euan Semple and Dave Winer.
It's interesting how this blog is being a discussion amongst the authors -- blogs usually play to the audience (whoever that is) a little more.

I kind of like it.

Open Source: another, less-confusing name for Free Software (where "free" means freedom, not zero-cost). Basically, the idea is that if you give people the source code for a program when you distribute it, as well as the compiled version, you'll get users who change the software to be better. It's stone soup, and you get a much richer outcome than if you kept the source code all to yourself (which is how commercial software usually works). And because its users love it and care for it, it's usually of superlative, if idiosyncratic, quality. A great book about this is In the Beginning was the Command Line. Available to read online, but I've also purchased a physical copy.

Programmers have obviously shared code for a long time, but Richard Stallman made it a movement by creating the GNU Public License. This is a piece of copyright jujitsu which deals with the problem of greedy recipients of open source code who take, but don't share. Basically, the GPL says you can have this code, but the copyright provisions that go along with it specify that if you give away a compiled version of the program, the recipient must also be able to receive the source code.

Linux is perhaps the most well-known open source project, but there are many others, and a great deal of the infrastructure of the Internet depends on open source programs.

Network effect: when the operation of something depends on a transaction between people (say, sending a fax), instead of depending on just a single person (say, writing a diary entry), it's more efficient if the transaction works the same way between all the pairs of people. So a fax machine that works with Jennifer's fax machine and Alfred's fax machine is much better than if Jennifer's machine and Alfred's machine worked differently, and I had to have one of each kind to send a document.

Even better, if we can convince Greg to buy another one of the same kind, each one of us -- Jennifer, Alfred and Peter -- gets the added benefit of another potential participant in our little fax network.

And so on and so forth. Network effects pop up all over; you can imagine operating systems (Windows vs. Mac) or word processing (MS Word vs. WordPerfect), fax machines, etc.

Kevin Kelly has a great book about network effects, and how to get along in what he calls the "New Economy": New Rules for the New Economy. There is a free online version, but I highly recommend purchase of the physical book. As sort of an advanced topic, I've written some observations about how big successful businesses in a network economy must be commodity providers, which is an anathema to many current financial mavens, who look for proprietary advantages to build super-winners.

David Reed has a wonderful observation about network effects that include transactions based on groups, not just between individuals, noting that the network effect scales much faster in "Group-Forming Networks".

Last but not least, a good guide to geek (formerly called "hacker", which used to be laudatory, not perjorative, and also a very much narrower slice of society) lingo like "open source" is the Jargon File, aka in print The New Hacker's Dictionary (another good book purchase). It's a sociological guide, as well as a lexicon.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

I see what you mean about the Samuel Pepys blog. I would have chosen the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, but the principle is the same. I also like the idea of someone who is "far from an expert" taking on the task. It might be interesting to do the same with a translation, either a serial translation of a long work (I dibs Schlegel"s Lucinde) or daily translations of short poems (Paul Celan, for example). That might be an interesting direction for me to take as I continue entering my ideas into my strange public journal. People could comment on the translations, and I (and others -- yikes) could see my mastery of German and of, say, German Romantic philosophical discourse, progress.
I, too, am new to blogs and am just beginning to understand how to use them. It is helpful, at least for me, to think of a blog as more for my own edification and as a tool for browsing the Internet than as a way to publish thoughts to others to read.

"Blogrolling" is the term used for tracking other blogs that are of interest. The blogroll generally appears as a along side the blog. Blogrolls help locate the blogger within the blogosphere. But treating a blog as a tool for the blogger, blogrolling is a convenient bookmarking method for the author to keep up with his or her favorite bloggers. In using my blog roll of Ben Hammersley (click and I was there!), I discovered his discovery of diaries of Samuel Pepys as a blog being undertaken by Phil Gyford.
    This site is a presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the renowned 17th century diarist who lived in London, England (read more about him). A new entry written by Pepys will be published each day, with the first appearing on 1st January 2003. This site is run by Phil Gyford (who is far from an expert) and questions and comments are more than welcome at phil@gyford.com.

The republication of a diary in the form of a blog presented in gradual "real-time" is a stunning undertaking. The pedagogical opportunities can't be overlooked. To be unable (in a sense) to skip ahead; to watch the events unfold over time and to get a sense of the passage of time that exists in a diary. (The passage of time is one aspect of life which I think youths, including college age youths, experience very differently than their elders. Accordingly, the aspects of literature and observations that are tied to time are over looked when we are young.) I'm certainly going to try and follow it along. I think we all should.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

It's called revoltandresignation, and already has a rather brilliant insight about structural linguistics on it.
Jennifer, what is your new blog called? The tool we are using, blogger.com, does not support comments at the current time. There are other tools that you can used to capture comments. To do so requires manipulating your blog's template. I can help you with that.
By the way, now that I've created my own blog just for hoots, how do I make it possible for random folks to sign in and post comments? Remember that I don't know jack about HTML and such, though I'm a quick study. I did make it a public blog. Also, how do I add links? I tried going to my webpage and right-clicking, but that quickly devolved into a nightmarish series of screens interrogating me about "debugging."
Certainly every writer aspires to be quotable.

A couple of notes about your post, Greg. I'm going to begin with what I don't entirely understand, and move on to what is, for me, firmer territory.

1. What the heck is "open source"? I'm beginning to get a sense from the context, but as I tell my students, the meaning you derive "from the context" is often simply a reflection of your own prejudices.

2. Your point about the network generating value is an excellent one, though I didn't quite catch the rape reference. Are you referring to the fact that capitalism seeks to appropriate all value to itself and inevitably fails? Or to something else entirely?

3. The distinction you draw between the history of mankind and the history of the world is possibly a valuable one, although most likely our Young Hegelian friends would not have made it, given their devotion to the idea of history as science (M&E often compare themselves to Darwin, and believe that economic and political processes are, in that sense, natural and of the world if not identical with it -- not to mention the fact that G.W.F. Hegel would merge the two entirely under the heading of the Spirit). Could you explain it further? What history would you place outside of the history of humanity?

4. As for your contention that M&E were bound to "a particular conception of 'economic production,'" I disagree. In fact, they explicitly argue throughout the Manifesto that modes of economic production change as property relations change. Thus on p. 67, they write (perhaps with something less than perfect clarity, though the German may have a precision of noun and preposition that the translation lacks), "For many decades now the history of industry and commerce has been but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule." In fact, it might make sense to argue that the very phenomena that you invoke to refute M&E fit rather nicely with their theory that capitalism, like all economic systems, tends to create the very modes of production that must and will destroy it.

5. After I finally got analog last night and settled back in with my yellowed copy of the Manifesto, I found the following, which I think pretty much says it all in terms of the revolutionary potential of communication via the web and other developing technologies. Here Marx and Engels explain how communication technologies transform localized, blind resistence to exploitation into a conclusive confrontation between classes: "From time to time the workers are victorious [in localized struggles], but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years" (73). Substitute "internet" for "railways," and think about the dramatic shift in time frame from crisis to crisis in late capitalism. To return to my revolutionary cry from last night, The Man built cubicle walls to imprison us hoping that we wouldn't use them to tap out our own code.

To those of you who eagerly devour these extended quotes, I regret to report that my copy of Capital is in my office, and I won't be able to bludgeon you with Karl's more technical analyses of the workings of capital until tomorrow at the very earliest. However, I can promise selections from Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity, which seems likely to make up today's reading (when I'm not reciting the Liturgy of the Hours and watching the NBA holiday triple-header). Of course, it's always possible that something from St. Augustine will strike me as particularly apropos.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Your effort is fearless, Jennifer, and your writing quotable: "Finally, if it’s true that 94% of everything is shit, then that’s an argument for more cultural production, not less." Wonderful. How much coal is required for a single diamond? How much decaying plant (and time) to make oil? I shall keep that gem ever ready.

On a logistical note, I often do a quick "select all, copy all" (CTL+A; CTL+C) when writing in a form like this as to keep a copy in my computer's clipboard, maybe even paste elsewhere just in case of a sudden crash.

Now on to M&E, which when read with one's eyes squinted looks very much like the logo of a media monopoly...

I took case with Huxley's view of the men of letters being tied to his particular conceptionalization of a book. I feel compelled to take a similar tact with Marx and Engel. They argue for an understanding of historic epoch based based upon a particular conception of "economic production." To their credit, they acknowledge that one can only address "prevailing modes" and not economic production and exchange overall. For what is interesting in economic theories and constructions are those costs that are left out of the accounting system. Maybe the history of mankind is the history of class struggle, but the history of the world is not and the story of the world impinges in real ways on the history of mankind.

It is interesting to see how each of use moves the conversation to the territory and ideas that are most interesting to our respective selves and expertise. (Mustn't that fact alone somehow figure into the history of mankind?) And in that spirit, I am forced to bring up the existence of both non-profits and open source ethics within or capitalist system. My main point would be to say that capitalism does not exist without a great deal of socialist style participation by many players. (And indeed large corporations tend to resemble more the socialist and even Soviet-style centrally planned society in their functioning than the free market or capital society.) The current movement in open source is some times described as socialist in its approach because it leads toward communal intellectual property. However, open source is also very free market in that it everyone has access to participate. I was going to say that Open source -- where the source code is exposed and available to all to take and change -- puts its own slant on exchange model about from each according to ability to each according to need, but then I realized that open source is more like "whatever" with from and to increasingly indistinguishable. If I solve a problem for myself, I solve it for others. If I use a solution from another for myself, I am rewarding the creator by making her solution more valuable. (Oh goodness. Big idea alert. Have you ever heard of the network effect? I just realized that the network effect adds value into the "thing" in question in a manner that is not accountable within the system. I'm just babbling now trying to get this idea out. But the thought has something to do with re-analysis of rape as a dialog, even if lopsided. Don't know if I can put it into words, but I want to try. The network effect is essentially the value of network increases logarithmically to the nodes on the network. Microsoft profits from the network effect of everyone using their software. The software is perceived as valuable. But the fact is, that value is being generating BY THE NETWORK, not by the software. But that input of value from the network doesn't show up on any balance sheet (perhaps because the market itself doesn't have any tangible bottom line). Instead, what shows up is that what Microsoft as the seller can record: the sell of the product. The style of the market and exchange -- tracking dollars -- fails to account for at least one layer of value exchange deriving from the people using it. So Microsoft appears to making billions, only because the creation of value appears one sided when in fact it is not. Or something like that. But I guess I'm trying to reach for the "less visible reply" in the dialogue which exists but is ignored.)
What frustration. I typed a brilliant post, only to be thrown off Earthlink and lose the whole thing. I’ll try to reproduce it, however, because I grudge no effort.

I was reading The Communist Manifesto, and as it happens Marx & Engels have something to contribute to this debate. In his 1888 preface, Engels summarizes the argument of the Manifesto as follows: “[I]n every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch … [and] consequently the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited .. [and] these class struggles form a series of evolutions” (50-1). In their joint preface of 1872, M&E write, “The practical application of the principles [of communism] will depend … everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions existing at the time” (52).

Why is she telling us this?

Well, a few things seem clear to me. Good post-Hegelians that they are, M&E are pointing out that while each age has its economic structure, and thus its “social organization,” both “political and intellectual,” each structure also necessarily contains the seeds of its own destruction. History is the history of the exploited appraising the “historical conditions” – the political and intellectual resources available, the discourses, modes and media – and turning them against the exploiters. That’s the nature of the dialectic, and that’s one way of understanding what keeps hegemony from being total.

Now, blogging may not lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat; indeed, I hope it doesn’t, since I wear glasses. However, it may well drive educated, white-collar workers with access to technology to fact-check the hell out of the media monopolies that formed during the infamous Reagan-Bush years of deregulation. As such, it’s potentially a great political tool. And if you find yourself saying, “Yeah, but that’s just white-collar folks – what about people who are really oppressed," remember Marx’s own words, written in 1847: “The bourgeoisie has ... converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers” (62). In other words, we are part of the peripheral, expendable wage-labor class that has grown explosively under late capitalism (or, if you prefer to use David Harvey’s term, The Condition of Postmodernity).

Think of Eric’s Vision of Veal. We’re working in small, dark boxes for the profit of others. Let’s at least tap on the walls, hmm?

Finally, if it’s true that 94% of everything is shit, then that’s an argument for more cultural production, not less.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Of Books, Men, and Utterances
I'll buy that for a dollar: most stuff written or otherwise is crap. Or crap as far as I'm concerned. Shit, most of the stuff that's published isn't even English -- how useful is that?

Before taking on Huxley's point more seriously, let me continue to stay up way to late by first point ought the below little gem I found on the Internet (while reading blogs) and before I read the Grumbling Allosaurus:

End of books
During my navel gazing and ego surfing, I was also enlightened to 1895 French author and writer, Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, well known in their day, but unknown to American readers today:

"Writing and drawing in 1894, Uzanne and Robida give us predictions of a post-literate society. Music and speech are everywhere! Newspapers are forgotten, and news presenters are valued for their emotional tone instead of the accuracy of their reporting. Recordings combined with cinema present costumed drama and humor in the home. (This is 1894, remember; Edison had truly just begun to produce his films.)"

How's that for synchronicity?

Back to Huxley, who wants to equate published pages with the output of men of letters. This treats the book, an object having heft, as the vessel of writing worth preserving where as the technology of rotary press is merely the technology of the rotary press. The act of speech is a free add on you get for the cost of maintaining the body. (Language development arguable costs something, but simple speech seems pretty much part of the standard feature of humans, regardless of the color you order.) As the cost of printing moves downward toward the cost of speech, the likelihood that that which was spoken becomes that which is printed increases. In many cases, the cost of the printed word is perceived to be less than the cost of the spoken word. A speaker can only address so many individuals at a time. A writer, however, can address many more, including persons in places that writer could never afford to go. As the cost of printing drops, the number of people availing themselves to the tool for their utterances increases. The printed page becomes the prime mechanism for conveyance and the book merely a familiar and useful trope(?). For the person who sees a book as a work of art, this is vulgarity. The photograph commoditized the illustration in much the same way. And then the brownie camera commoditized the photograph.

And, to echo a point my own mother made to me on the phone yesterday, technology changes who gets to write. In the days of the typewriter, most of the people who wrote were the people who wrote in the fewest number of drafts! Wisdom is not synonymous with literate, though wisdom preserved in literature is more readily available through time.

The question is not whether the Old Masters and Aesthetes have something to teach us, but what wisdom has been lost because it was not written down?

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Just for fun, here's a comical variation by Aldous Huxley on the old idea that 95 percent of everything is trash:

"Advances in technology have led...to vulgarity.... Process reproduction and the rotary press have made possible the indefinite multiplication of writing and pictures. Universal education and relatively high wages have created an enormous public who know how to read and can afford to buy reading and pictorial matter. A great industry has been called into existence in order to supply these commodities. Now, artistic talent is a very rare phenomenon; whence it follows...that, at every epoch and in all countries, most art has been bad. But the proportion of trash in the total artistic output is greater now than at any other period. That it must be so is a matter of simple arithmetic. The population of Western Europe has a little more than doubled during the last century. But the amount of reading -- and seeing -- matter has increased, I should imagine, at least 20 and possibly 50 or even 100 times. If there were n men of talent in the population of x millions, there will presumably be 2n men of talent among 2x millions. The situation may be summed up thus. For every page of print and pictures published a century ago, 20 or perhaps even 100 pages are published today. But for every man of talent then living there are now only two men of talent. It may be of course in fact, thanks to universal education, many potential talents which in the past would have been stillborn are now enabled to realize themselves. Let us assume, then, that there are now three or even four men of talent to every one of earlier times. It still remains true to say that the consumption of reading -- and seeing -- matter has far outstripped the natural production of gifted writers and draughtsmen. It is the same with hearing-matter. Prosperity, the gramophone and the radio have created an audience of hearers who consume an amount of hearing-matter that has increased out of all proportion to the increase of population and the consequent natural increase of talented musicians. It follows from all this that in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter."

Of this argument, Walter Benjamin, who quotes Huxley's comment in the notes to "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," writes, "This mode of observation is obviously not progressive." It's fair to ask where Huxley is getting his numbers, if not from his own crochety elitism. Still, I can't help asking whether, for all that, his grumbling against us moderns is also entirely untrue? I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's witticism that "In old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public; nowadays, books are written by the public and read by nobody." Benjamin, of course, writing his essay in 1936, with fascist blackshirts everywhere in Germany, allies aestheticism with the attempt to appropriate relatively new technological media (film and photography, mainly) for the worst possible reasons: the enslavement of the masses by channeling their "expression" into a form and medium that served the Nazi State's interests. He was uncanny in his prediction that such appropriation of the new media could only lead to war. But today, isn't it rather the case that the most immediate kind of televison and radio program out there is by no means "progressive" in its tendencies? Faced with shock-jock foolishness and corporatized cop-programs, I'd say the Old Masters and the Aesthetes, by comparison, are just chock-full of potential to transfigure people's sensibilities....I say these even though I know Leonardo helped Renaissance despots design engines of war, and Bach complained in a private letter that there weren't enough funerals to make writing dirges profitable. I can't help it....

Grumbling Allosaurus....