Archives for category: Technology

Smokes found this 2008 TED Talk by Jill Bolte Taylor and pointed it out to me. I was hooked immediately. In her talk Taylor takes us through the dramatic self-analysis of a massive stroke she suffered in 1996 and shares insights about the nature of perception, personality and creativity. What makes this talk interesting to a general audience is that Taylor is a neuroanatomist — a brain scientist. The stroke provided her with an opportunity that few people come across — and perhaps even fewer would desire. Taylor has made the most of the opportunity, rejoining:

“How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I’ve gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career.”

What make this talk interesting to me as a specific audience are the similarities between her experiences with her stroke and my experiences with my own brain trauma. Four years ago nearly to the day I underwent a second brain surgery to clear a large blood clot and relieve fluid pressure on my left frontal lobe. It was an illuminating event for me that sparked my own slow return to something resembling normal. It also awakened a latent interest into brain function. This blog’s first major purpose was to chronicle my experience and recovery and from time to time I have gone back and re-read some of those rough initial posts from 2005 and sought out new insights into what transpired. I don’t mean to equate my trauma as identical to Taylor’s, but to draw a loose line of similarity between these life-changing events and underline the complexity of brain function and neuroscience with a personal perspective.

The chance for Taylor present her talk at TED is huge. I highly recommend the 2007 documentary The Future We Will Create for a look inside this annual conference and its mission to illuminate “ideas worth spreading”. The documentary is available as DVD and live streaming through Netflix.

She concludes her talk with a challenge to the preconceptions of personality and creativity. She challenges the audience to choose to live inside the creative power of our minds:

Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our world will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

I have begun down a path to dismantle one of my most interesting labs:

Almost four years ago I put phaedo together. I designed the server to accomplish a number of different tasks. Initially I wanted a server that would function as a fileserver for our home and a mailserver for Internet email. My ISP supports customers running servers on their end of consumer-grade DSL. I used the server as an experimental platform. I worked on projects involving CMS systems, SQL server, DHCP, perl, advanced sendmail and milter configurations and a number of other scenarios over the course of its life.

So in early January 2005 I got phaedo up and running and successfully installed at home. I was proud of my accomplishments. I had set up a blog under the CMS system and was searching for topics to write about. Two weeks later I found the subject that would consume me for over a year: my brain injury. The first posts I made on the system were me chronicling my injury and subsequent recovery. What I have not talked about is the curious development that the systems I was using to publish my thoughts– blog, email, chat server– were brand new constructions. I quite literally had completed the design and installation just a week or so before I went into a ten-day coma.

So phaedo’s second laboratory function came around as part of my recovery process. I had to relearn what I had designed. I had to dismantle parts and put them back together to reteach myself critical system administration tasks. This was painful and slow and filled with anxiety and distress. I desperately wanted to succeed. And brain trauma is a very effective way to complicate those sorts of broad plans– or any plans, for that matter.

Over three years later and the same server continues to putter along reliably in our loft. I have made improvements over the years and some minor changes, but at its core it is essentially the same system as the one I started to build in the week between Christmas 2004 and New Years 2005.

Technology has advanced, my work has changed. — Part of the original design was to set up a space that could function as a testbed for systems that I was working on in the office. But more important than either of those, my life has changed. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not want to be a full-time system administrator both at work and at home. I have other hobbies that I enjoy now. I want those hobbies to provide a relief from distress, not add to it.

All of this is my overly candid way of saying that this website will be changing. This will be the last post I make on phaedo. Stephanie and I plan to continue the weblog. Stephanie has already moved her falcon journal to its new home. I invite you, one of the countless legion of faithful readers, to our new homes:

The Erinyes Weblog
Peregrine Falcon Journal

I have begun a photography project: 100 Strangers. This is a first for me, to shoot pictures with a particular purpose in mind. The challenge is simple: take 100 portraits of 100 strangers. Candids are not allowed. The project’s creator, Teppo, asks:

Want to be a better street photographer? Want to develop as a photojournalist? In order to be one you often need to have the courage to go and talk with people you don’t know.

I think this is a noble goal. I also have to ask myself about the possible causes that would generate such a project in the first place and see so many people attracted to it. What sociological forces are at play that compel one to believe that talking to strangers is a dangerous thing? Is this another example of our growing culture of fear? Are cameras somehow tools of intimidation? Have I grown so used to the anonymizing powers of technology that real face-to-face communication with real people has become foreign? Or is this just group therapy for introverts?

My friend, Princess FixIT, makes some powerful observations on shifting cultural attitudes about strangers in the last two generations. She talks about her grandmother’s trait of striking up conversations with ease. At lunch the other day as we were discussing the project, Princess stated, “Are you kidding!? Grandma did ‘100 Strangers’ every day!” My own grandmother had a very similar approach to people she just met.

Like Princess, I do think that technology has the potential for doing a considerable disservice to the art of communication. Rather than bringing people closer together I find that many technology methods often achieve the opposite. Technology anonymizes conversations, emphasizes difference and distance between us, and inserts errors and confusion where a smile, a hug or a handshake would have soothed things over.

Do we compensate for this perceived– but unrealized– distance between ourselves with ever more obsessive, self-involved technologies? We stopped writing letters and invented email because email was faster. We stopped writing email and started blogging because then we did not have to personalize and repeat the message to everyone. Just post to the blog and the onus was on the audience to find out what we were doing or what we were thinking. Or we stopped writing email and started using instant messaging, because instant messaging was even faster. We have stopped writing multi-paragraph blog entries and are now adopting µblog services like Twitter and because blogs just have too many words. Your life is now represented in 140 characters or less. Archived forever. And we install all of these technologies in our mobile phones so they are always available.

Does all of this technological development really improve one’s quality of life? I do not think so. I think it contributes to a culture of self-obsessed introverts with chronic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Welcome to the anoniverse. Now if someone would just be so kind as to show me the way out, I’d like have a real conversation. With someone. Anyone.

I am motivated to participate in the 100 Strangers project by the prospect of taking better photographs. I am also using the project as a way of disrupting the culture of anonymity. That is to say, I believe technology has made you and me shier, less approachable, and more cowardly than would like. I am going to change. Myself.

In 1940, Robert Heinlein wrote the story “The Roads Must Roll”. The rolling roads in the title were high-speed conveyors that connected cities. They carried people, freight and even restaurants and bars along for the ride. The express lanes of these roads had a top speed of 100 miles per hour. It is now sixty-seven years later and the best we can do to approach this idea are the moving walkways of Helmut Jahn‘s Concourse 1 out at O’Hare. That’s damned disappointing, right there. Don’t even get me started on the promises of flying cars, underwater resorts, moon colonies, and X-Ray glasses. And, hey! Where is my jetpack!?

Daniel H. Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute. And he has as many questions as I do about the future science-fiction authors have been promising us for the past fifty years. Not the least of which is the title of his latest book, Where’s My Jetpack? He also has some hilarious answers. He tells us what technologies do exist, who provides them, and where to find them. If the technology is not publicly available, he teaches you how to build, borrow or steal it. Now this is satire that doubles as real, practical education.

A little more than I year ago I finally read the Erik Larson blockbuster thriller, The Devil in the White City. I thoroughly enjoyed that book for a number of reasons: the book was factual, with hundreds of sources cited; it was set in nineteenth century America, a time and place with which I am repeatedly fascinated; it chronicled the 1893 Columbian Exposition that arguably brought Chicago back from the fire; and it illuminated– in great detail– the actions of one of America’s very first known serial killers.

Larson’s follow-up book, Thunderstruck, returns to this formula of marrying two seemingly incongruous true stories: the scientific work of Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication and the “North London Cellar Murder,” a bizarre and detailed murder that captured popular imagination even fifteen years after the events themselves. Larson delves into the development of technology from wireless, to steamships to the emergence of forensic science to capture the events of a time and place not so far removed from our own as to be unrecognizable.

Work has sent me to Pittsburgh. I would not call Pittsburgh the most exotic of locales, but it has not been unpleasant. I’m here for a week’s worth of training on ATM. No, not that ATM. Not the machines that happily spit out currency from your bank account. I’m talking about the telecommunications protocol, ATM: Asynchronous Transfer Mode. The class is with Marconi—recently acquired by Ericsson. At work, we make extensive use of ATM to carry voice, video and data traffic between our various locations. I could ramble on about the virtues of ATM and all of what I’m learning. I just don’t anticipate that my faithful audience will have much interest in that. So I’ll spare you.

What I do find of more general interest about this class is that my co-worker, Rob, and I are the only people in the class working in the private sector. Rob works for broadcasting where we use ATM to deliver television content to a number of our television stations throughout the country. I’ve primarily used ATM to carry data networks. The other students in our class are either military or work for military contractors. We have had a couple of fascinating conversations over lunch about the differences between federal networks and private enterprise networks. As we talked about budgets Wednesday morning at break, I could not help but be reminded of Milo Minderbinder and his syndicate in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I also got a chance to catch up with some childhood friends I have not seen in many years. Amy and my sister have been best friends since they were very young. I last saw Amy at her wedding eight years ago. Since then, Amy and Paul have had three children. I met all of them. I had dinner with Amy’s parents, Ann and Jim. In the process of meeting the children I learned all about The Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys, Crocs and Jibbitz. Since that wedding, I’ve changed as well. We talked quite a bit about my brain injury and how that has radically altered my life. I had a great time with them.

I have orders from my sister to kidnap Amy into my carry-on bag and bring her back to Chicago with me. I’m still trying to figure out how to accomplish that. I’m nothing if not persistent. I’ll figure something out.

A couple other humorous observations about Pittsburgh and my class:

  • I now know where Pittsburgh is. Pittsburgh is never where you currently are; it is always just over that next hill.
  • That road you think goes over that next hill straight to Pittsburgh—doesn’t.
  • Pittsburgh seems curiously trapped between the East Coast and the Midwest, but does not sit comfortably in either cultural category.
  • The company, Marconi, is named after the Italian radio pioneer, Guglielmo Marconi.
  • Two bits of geeky creativity I found quite clever: the name of the company cafeteria is Bite 53. The name of the associated coffee shop is the Jitter Café.

I am convinced something is changing with the way people communicate. I do not like this change. I am not talking about the insidious invasion represented by technology, but rather the linguistic shift that accompanies the barbarians. I am talking about the pernicious degradation of language itself.

Slang fills the Internet. I think that it has for quite some time. I remember writing a paper and giving a speech on the syntax, style and elements of Internet slang in 1992—spring of my senior year at Wabash. While the world wide web was invented in late 1990 at CERN. But the web needed a client. It needed a program to make it accessible. That program was Mosaic. Without Mosaic there was not much interest in the world wide web. Mosaic was released in April of 1993. I obtained my first exposure to Mosaic shortly thereafter at Loyola University here in Chicago. I developed my first web page– using Mosaic as the test client– in the summer of 1993.

What is significant about that moment, the creation of that first web page, is that it was the first time I incorporated an image into any content I transferred electronically to someone else. Up until that moment my use of the Internet was almost entirely textual. Not visual. In fact my exposure to networked computer systems at all up until that moment was almost entirely textual: LAN Manager networks, Novell NetWare networks and predominantly dial-up bulletin board systems. The client operating systems and applications all ran on DOS, or Windows 3.11. The servers usual did not run on anything much more sophisticated. My first exposure to the Internet came in 1991 when I discovered it was an even broader set of interconnected systems than the BITNET system to which Wabash connected. My first several Internet applications included email, BITNET relay, telnet, USENET news, IRC, FTP and gopher. I learned these programs primarily by obtaining accounts on first the Wabash VAX/VMS system and then later a Loyola AIX system.

Those first years on the Internet consisted of me staring at black window boxes filled with white text. The written word. Much of my early web browsing was done using the text-based web browser, lynx. I did this for two reasons: it was considerably faster, and the computer lab only had a very limited number of X-Windows workstations capable of running Mosaic. They were in high demand by computer science students. Philosophy graduate students “just screwing around on the computer” were significantly lower on the priority list. Then I learned about the dial-up access modem bank that was rarely used. I fired up ProComm Plus, dialed in, and was able to sit on that AIX shell for hours from the (relative) comfort of my grungy apartment and explore to my heart’s content—just as long as I did not mind everything being text-based. I did not mind. At the time, the Internet essentially was text-based.

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I spoke with my friends this week about television. Not the latest plot developments in our favorite shows—although we do quite a bit of that, too. No, this was about the object itself: the television.

I explained that I have an uncle who enjoys restoring old radios and televisions—he particularly enjoys working on the ones that do not have transistors in them, but vacuum tubes. He will pick one up at a garage sale or salvage it from the garbage, and then spend the time to determine the make and model and find the parts necessary to repair it. Sometimes the research-oriented approach is not possible and he must experiment. His rate of success is relatively high. More often than not he can successfully resuscitate these devices. I have seen him collect several copies of the same item, each broken in its own peculiar way, in order to produce one working model.

My father has always had a strong interest in electronics, as well. Another uncle, my father’s other brother, works for IBM. All three of these brothers share a strong curiosity for tinkering. Cars, motorcycles, boats could commonly be found in various states of dismantling and reconstruction around our home growing up. When the three of them are together, the conversation often turns to gadgets and gizmos. This shared interest I do not find particularly curious; my experience has been that brothers often have more common traits and interests than they do differentiating ones. What grabs my interest is the speculation on the possible sources. I believe that I may have the germ of a theory. These three men all share the same father—my grandfather. And while I do not know the source of his fascination with tinkering electronics, I do have some anecdotes that may paint his fascination with some clarity.

I trust my faithful readers will forgive me that cumbersome allusion.

Grandpa grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. He left the farm shortly before he married and worked for forty years as a machinist. He served in the Navy at the end of World War II. He died earlier this year. He was ninety years old. Quiet, considerate, forthright, honest—these are romantic ways to describe him. They are accurate descriptions, true. But there is more to grandpa’s legacy than romanticism—time and sorrow have provided a clear platform where I am able to reflect on what has been lost. And what remains.

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My work requires me to test various email functions throughout a broad range of systems. I often do this testing from the commandline, but there are times when you want to automate the testing, to repeat the same task many times to make sure that things are behaving reliably.

What follows is a bit of perl code I have developed over the years to test the SMTP engine on a particular host. The code requires the CPAN modules Net::SMTP, Email::MessageID, Email::Address, Time::HiRes. I use this code for all kinds of email testing– anti-spam, mail redirection, anti-virus, mail routing. The script connects directly to a defined mailserver and dumps appropriate data to it. I change that data depending on the needs of the test. The script listed below is set to send 3 messages. That is easily adjustable by redefining the value of the $count variable.

I am positive there are more efficient ways of doing this. I like my script because it is transparent. I am able to see what it is doing and understand every element of it. It makes sense to me. And when troubleshooting, that is an important quality.

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It’s been a long week. The largest majority of my time has been taken up by a series of bizarre problems at work. The element common to each of these problems is the firewall systems we employ. If you do not know what a firewall is exactly, a short definition might run something like this: it’s the chokepoint that regulates what sorts of traffic traverse the boundary between the wild and wooly public-access network and an individual’s or organizations’ private networks. Any (and hopefully all) traffic that moves from one of those networks to the other does so through the firewall. The firewall, in turn, inspects the traffic to see if it is benign or malicious. If benign, it lets it through, sometimes with some cosmetic modifications. If malicious the firewall systems can block the traffic from going out or in. Think of it as a rural county sheriff’s office looking for out-of-state speeders to delay and ticket.

Here’s the abbreviated version of what transpired: the company adminisphere asked my group to add a new feature to our company’s firewall system. We got the instructions from the systems’ manufacturer; we followed them. The system broke.
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