Friday, 01 September 2006

Do you remember?

I've not been productive today at all. Or, I should say that yesterday I wasn't productive, at all. Today is a new month and very soon the beginning of a new school year.

Tonight I had a phone conversation with my beloved Sarah O. To say she has a lot going on is a dirty understatement. Because I don't have enough energy not to write in clichés, I won't say anything more about what's happening in her life except that she is in my thoughts and I love her very much.

Today I had a marathon-ish extended IM session with the one and only mandinator. We brainstormed a new domain name for her and I got a nifty subdomain out of the deal. She paid for the domain and has free hosting.


My issue with blogging (which posts so far seem to be "doing") is that they manifest symptoms of time-sensitivity. (I've also been writing and thought paralyzed since yesterday for reasons I'm not quite sure.) What I mean about time-sensitivity is undoubtedly partly my understanding and interaction with the medium of digital self-publishing in blog form.

First, yeah, the agent which assembles entries for the "index.html" of this URL collects entries, picks the ten most recent, and places them in reverse-chronological order. I'm reminding myself of a former friend and co-worker who when Mac OS shifted from The Mess Inside™ to its present UNIX base was obsessed with compiling and running a feature-restricted version of a UNIX text editor.1 noodle marker small numbskull

Friday, 01 September 2006

Do you remember?(notes)

1 noodle markerThe UNIX software in question is JOVE, whose name is an acronym for "Jonathan's Own Version of Emacs."

Tuesday, 05 September 2006

Chaotic Experiment

This subdomain, "noggin," is a giant and chaotic experiment with Tinderbox. I'm not entirely sure I'll be able to use what I've created productively. I suppose it's a learning tool to show me the phenomenological character of Tinderbox. Fine.

Starting too late on Sunday, I put together the syllabus for my Fall ENG 327 course on African-American Fiction. I should clarify a bit on "too late." Putting together daily syllabuses is arduous. Trying to balance the capabilities of students to read a given amount of material in a limited amount of time with my own pedagogical intention demands clear-headedness, attention, and lots of trial-and-error. It helped that this Fall quarter much of the material on the syllabus is material I've taught several times before. Even so.

Translating the syllabus from a format editable by me as an instructor (and individual) was quite distinct from the process of making that syllabus available to my students on the web. In quarters past, the process of generating web material was confusing enough that I'd interpolate new data into a structurally compromised but functional web structure rather than rebuild the web structure. And, as I've said before, "Dreamweaver is an abomination," so I couldn't define and reuse assets in any simple way. Going to server-side PERL and turning the pages into scripts that pulled from common chunks of HTML didn't seem, uh, very sensible. The point was to save time while being structurally transparent. Structural transparency that sacrifices all notion of efficiency is busy work.

So, I decided to take the lessons I've learned in noggin and apply them to (re)developing a course website. The first step was to revise the daily and general syllabuses for the course using wordprocessors and Excel. The second step was to reconceptualize and rebuild the basic page with CSS compliance. After that, I needed to analyze the page into its constituent parts and bring those pieces into Tinderbox.

This last part—the "tinderboxing" of the basic page into separate components so constructing new pages and updating old ones could be achieved from inside Tinderbox—was surprisingly simple and short. I attribute these two characteristics of that process to my experience here in noodle!

The kicker, though, was that updating the page layout for legibility and (what passes for) aesthetics was also simple because I'd implemented CSS. I mean, really simple. Going from confusing layout to readable presentation took a few passes at the style sheet. A few more passes, and I was able to make it somewhat aesthetically acceptable. At least, for a professor who specializes in posstructuralist theory and postmodern fiction.

So, despite that I've been using the web to deliver information to my students since 1999, this was the first time that the process of delivering that material was accelerated by the tools I was using compared to tools I had been using previously. Looking ahead to the midterm paper and the final exam, what was cumbersome in the past—making a new widget for every new page and updating the navigation widgets for every page that had been created up until that point—is now automated. I could even add breadcrumbs to help users know where they were in the web structure.

Inspired, moments ago I decided to color the background (#EFCAFF) of the cell containing the information for the upcoming class. This system works much better. Rock. small numbskull

Friday, 08 September 2006


I forgot where I was earlier this week.

I was somewhere between working on my article and teaching my new class. The third thing to come out of my mouth is about this magnificent perspective-altering software that I used to reorganize my class discussion/presentation notes. I was stupefied by the way in which handling the indexed notes to Nella Larsen's Passing--a book whose direct style has always felt to me soporific, facile--made the organization of those ideas memorable.

The process of organizing my sundry notes in presentation form always took upwards of half an hour and produced a more-or-less sequential list of main topics with subthreads following. To offset the arbitrary character of sequence that lineation, I'd find myself numbering in order of importance the points I wanted to cover. Of course, since the arbitrary sequencing of the topics was emphasized by the unidirectional flow of ideas down the page, my intuition regarding the relations between these topics would shift into survival mode and start tagging (with numerals that further reinforced arbitrary serialization) like concepts. This process usually culminated in a minor organization catastrophe and my teaching style for the day would, in many ways, be an attempt to impose mastery on this unwieldy and disparate cognitive framework that, ironically, I had produced just an hour or so earlier.

Sometimes, if I had a very long Sunday, I would finish reading early and start in on a set of notes the evening before. This would not only give me time to produce a framework to help me guide class discussion but also the time to study that framework so I could recall the next day the points I considered most important as well as have a sense of where the lesser ideas were and how they might connect together in order to be responsive to ideas the students wished to pursue. It was only the precipice of madness that kept me from taking notes on my notes.

Enter 2006.

I took an index I had produced the last time I taught this course (Fall 2005) and imported it into Tinderbox. Then I arranged the resulting notes using Tinderbox's map view. My usual pointing device started getting in my craw, so I resorted to my tablet and pen which further naturalized the process of clumping like topics together. I was using the map view to construct piles of like ideas. Five clusters formed representing "Clare," "Irene," "passing," "whites/blacks," and "homoeroticism." This took me about fifteen minutes, even though I was learning for the first time how to use Tinderbox in this way.

Of course, I considered every one of these points important to cover for our second class. The spatialized groupings helped me devise very quickly a strategy for presenting the ideas I thought important. The spatial nature of the groupings not only presented the ideas with a clarity that linear outlines obscured with the arbitrary and unavoidable hierarchy-due-to-sequence could not present, but the spatial groupings also served as a physical mnemonic device, aiding my ability to remember the several groupings themselves.

Class discussion had its normal starts and stops, but what surprised me was that a cross-section of students answered. Part of it, of course, had to have been the students' establishing a social hierarchy in this early part of the term. Even so, my sense was that the several waves of comments from students who had remained silent for a significant portion of the period might have been influenced by the topical variety I was able to offer for the students' consideration, a variety that was easy for me to pursue because the relationship between the ideas was clear to me as a result of the framework I had produced using Tinderbox as opposed to a wordprocessor.

The icing on the cake, though, was that when I returned home I decided to jot a few notes about the ideas which had been covered in class (partially anticipating my need to update the notes I had produced rather than start fresh Tuesday) was that much of the discussion came back to me. The software made it easy to recall the points I had covered in class, the ideas students had brought up, the things we discovered about the text together, and to add that information to my original framework. If I can maintain taking notes of the ideas generated by the class discussing, writing essay topics for the midterm paper and compose questions for the final exam will be much easier than it had been in the past when I would rack my brain and pore through my marginalia for the major themes we had covered in class.

Undoubtedly, there is a class of instructor who does not need knowledge representation software to assist their recall of the topics they cover in class, a well-organized instructor who knows the material being taught so well that even the subtlest interconnections are available for student conferences, paper grading, and exam writing. That person is not me.

A final class-related note. I realized that because I'd used Tinderbox to produce a highly-structured version of the course's daily syllabus that I could add, as a feature, a highlight color indicating the current preparation day. So, yesterday I added that highlight color, thinking to manually update it once every five and then two days, depending if it was Tuesday or Thursday. I'd resigned myself to forgetting to do so, to doing so incorrectly, to perhaps falling so far behind that I'd have given up providing the information as a matter of practice. So, I wrote a PERL script and assigned it to a cron job. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 pm, the old preparation material is returned to normal and the current preparation material is highlighted. This wouldn't have been thinkable if the data hadn't been placed within a predictable, descriptive and well-formed structure. In other words, this new approach to producing the information that provides structure for this class facilitates the development of features regarding that information. My students (and I) get a pretty color to tell them what portion of the daily syllabus is relevant.

Generally, what I'm noticing after this very short first week of classes is that I am not feeling rushed and deadlined out as I have for virtually every other term I've taught since 1997. I also feel, finally, that my main tool (the machines I refer to as "varmint," "pipsqueak," "baby," and "lefty") is facilitating my production of words rather than hindering them. I completed my dissertation despite my process being incomplete and on-the-verge of unruly. After finishing, I turned my attention again to the problem of how these machines can facilitate my textual process.

Some of that was greatly complicated by my being forced to become my own hosting service. That took nearly eight months to get straight. small numbskull

Sunday, 10 September 2006


Today I got crazy with Tinderbox.

The results aren’t anything one can see looking at this website nor would they be obvious when looking at an open Tinderbox document. Closer scrutiny might reveal some of the mayhem which lies just below. Getting Tinderbox to resolve properly the different dates between items was difficult and tedious, mainly because Tinderbox’s ability to compare dates is pretty much fubar. I’m not going to go into the details as they’re covered in the previous link at great length and in extraordinary detail. I do need to say, though, that getting those dates to work correctly was necessary for this blog, especially as the entries begin to proliferate.

More importantly, as I look toward publishing my research in web-accessible form, I’ll need to keep close tabs on what pieces have been exported and which pieces need exporting. Rather, I need my software to take care of these details since the sheer volume of entries would quickly overwhelm my ability to keep track of them. As it is, I have a feeling that I’m going to automate exporting of files. For now, that kind of automation will wait because I recall reading somewhere in the TinderboxWiki that automatic exporting is a bit dodgy.

So, yeah, I spent nearly seventeen hours today making this knowledge representation software work. That means, of course, a lot of meditating, focusing on chunks of interrelated code and puzzling, weighing information, abandoning strategies, starting afresh. In many ways, it is not about making the software work properly but of cultivating a frame of mind where the answers could come (seemingly) of their own accord. In the last part of the morning, just before noon, I was genuinely stuck. I decided to take a walk to The Village Bakery and on the way there part of the puzzle came to me. Changing my location and what I was doing with my body (i.e. getting up from the computer) helped me overcome a block more than a few times today. That process of encountering, adapting, intuiting, and acting brought me peace and self-reflection.

Had I been working strictly on server issues, I would now be feeling very frustrated in addition to being fatigued. Instead, my work was focused on a tool that will facilitate both my research and my writing. Natürlich, the writing that takes front and center is my personal writing, and my personal writing is what led me into this business in the first place! small numbskull

Monday, 11 September 2006

Molecurality and the Machinic Organism

Today I was productive in the way I wish I could be every day. I became part of my own self-regulating system, to some degree an autopoietic system able whose self-regulation was both the means of functioning as well as its rhythmic breakdown. Malfunction is renewal.

I completed the final major portion of the research for my article. It was the first major research I’ve done since adopting my new Tinderbox workflow. I am a little concerned because I like Tinderbox so much that the idea of using anything else to compose my research seems inconvenient at best, unpleasant as a norm.

This morning I considered that adding comments to this blog would most easily be achieved with a separate program, say a PERL script I could (write and) implement. After nearly a year of running my own servers, it was a religious instant to recognize that the modification of any file could be automated, that I could manufacture—using symbols—machines that generated language in bursts. When I thought back to Sunday and the development which eclipsed my lawn, my pedagogy, I realized further that (my) machinic nature depends on segmenting the idealized passage of points along a circumference, that radians had to be quantized, that breaks must to be inserted inside the flows, the floze, in flōz.

I gave up trying to get it right.

Part of knowing which tool for the job is understanding how a tool joints its output. Segmentation and granularity (and the automaticity of the granulating mechanisms) are in some ways the defining characteristics of disjunctive synthesis.

Instead I got it working. small numbskull

Monday, 18 September 2006

Intangible, persistent

I spent yesterday’s shift into today tracing an anomaly in my pattern of entries. I’d started “the Tasting” within the last couple of days and recalled, vividly, closing it without saving changes believing I’d accidentally dismounted eggplant which contained the original file. I didn’t worry because I hadn’t made any changes to the entry since having left it.

When I opened the Tinderbox file for this blog, the entry was gone and I had no idea where to. While bothersome, I decided to go through my screen capture files and reconstruct the entry from scratch. I’d already tried all of the backup files it could have gotten to in the last couple of days.

Thus ensued an aggravating back-and-forth across my personal calendar and several repositories for screen captures on two machines with no results. I decided to try the last backup source it could have been written to and there was the original file. Tracing the relevant screen captures by consulting the file’s modification time stamp as well as the creation time stamp of the entry helped me reconstruct what had happened: I hadn’t had eggplant mounted at all. Instead, I had opened the secondary backup file for noggin and started my new entry there. That was at 10:45 pm on Friday, 15 September.

At 5:30 am on Saturday, 16 September, that secondary backup was written to maneki (tertiary backup) and was then overwritten by a primary backup on squeye, which contained an older version that did not contain the new entry. All twelve words (not including the two-word title) would have been more thoroughly lost (I still could have discovered the image file at some future date though my initial attempts were fruitless) if I had waited eight hours or so. In the last year or so, I’ve had a few such demonstrations of the robustness of my backup system and, so far, there has been little data I’ve completely lost to the digital ether.

Still, I worry.

Last night I went into Ellis and tested the laptop screen projection capability in Ellis 116. I was ready to settle for mediocre visual quality: what mattered was that my students be able to get a general idea of the major headings I would be covering. The quality of the projection was phenomenal. Even the PDF of the novel I was using showed up legibly with very few noticeable artifacts. Suddenly, everything shifted.

I no longer need students to bring their books to class to follow along! I will not have to urge them to sit next to someone with a book if they have forgotten their own copies. I will not have to spend time locating students with variant editions how far from the end of the chapter the passage is and how it begins. The fun just starts there.

My students will now be able to see my complete set of notes and I will be able to more directly query them about passages they would like covered and concepts they haven't quite grasped. Another benefit is with material already covered. Presuming I have all of my notes and PDFs of the term available to me, I can revisit passages from previous texts and have students follow along. It’s astounding to think it’s taken fifteen years of digital revolution (dating the advent of the availability of the web with Mosaic in 1991) for textual accessibility to affect my teaching in real time.

This also reveals the structure of my notes to the students, allowing them to at least see topics which cannot be covered in detail. Students who have difficulty structuring their notes may benefit from seeing the structure of my notes. Students who do not take notes may also benefit, though the easy accessibility cuts both ways and may encourage the less industrious and thoughtful not to take notes at all.

Anyhow, I am very excited about this next phase in my pedagogy and will certainly work up a short presentation for my PDF this year.

I’m also thrilled about how my research process has been facilitated. small numbskull

Wednesday, 20 September 2006


When I called to beg off on Project Runway tonight, Jeremy told me that this week there wouldn’t be a new episode. I explained that I was going to spend some quality time with myself before asking for Paul. I griped to Paul about the self-absorbed and pedagogically disinclined attitude of one of our colleagues. He told me about a lunch meeting on Friday near my home. I told him to email me.

Catherine and I spent an hour together this afternoon. We did a quick catch-each-other-up. I never would have thought this possible before today but we were fucking efficient! No joke. I told her about how happy I am that for the first time in four years I found myself in my perfect space: relationally unattached, intellectually engaged, and emotionally stable. I’m not smarting over a lost relationship, not mourning the death of a loved one’s loved one, certain that the career I’ve chosen to pursue nearly a decade ago can further the person I am becoming, that I’ve been all along.

The weather turned beautiful the day before yesterday, and I can’t stop running.

My teaching is undergoing a massive shift in process, mainly because I am representing my primary and secondary texts by new means (yes, Tinderbox). Yesterday, Tuesday, I worked entirely from pipsqueak and my class could see on the projection screen everything I could: the structure I’d built as a framework for the ideas I had about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; the incidental and extended notations I make while soliciting their comments and interpretations; the video clip of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Irving Cummings’ 1938 Just Around the Corner. Even though I’d gotten only four hours of sleep becoming, once again, Thomas Jefferson (except that day I did come home and nap).

At some point during my reading today (Andrew Scull’s 2005 Madhouse), I thought about the convention I’d recently discovered: TK. I’ve used different means of noting in my unfinished manuscripts places that needed a specific piece of information I did not have readily available (Google goes a long way to obviating such usage) or which required a passage I was not prepared to write (which usually meant I hadn’t researched my subject thoroughly enough). So compact: TK. They are also the initials of the person, a figure really, that I fell in love with at the age of thirteen.

Since then (most notably the summer of 2004 when I finished the second half of my dissertation at 1501 Oxford Road), the fact that my feelings did not center around an actual person as much as around the concept of “the loved one” became more than intuitional deduction. When Phil explained to me that the person around whom I’d built that fantasy of connection and loss characterized me as obsessed, well, I understood that she understood nothing about what brings writing into being.

Writing for a muse is not writing to a person or even about a person, even if the muse figure is connected to that person. The real-world relationships affected by the writing are themselves distortions of a purer ideational moment, domain, sequence. Even the real-world writer, me, is not coincident with the speaker of the writing. That being, depending on how one views such things, is either a purer or reduced instance of the real-world person usually identified as a work’s “author.” I am not the entity spoken in the writing, though I am the most proximate embodied instance of that purer ideational form. There is a split in the subject where writing begins. Flesh-and-bone exist in the realm of degree one of authorial embodiment; the entity inhabiting the space of the writing itself exists in the real of degree zero. Nothing precedes it.

Writing does not originate in the specificity of first love, romantic disillusion, emotional loss, except as these things are themselves pure ideas. First degree phenomena insinuate into the zero degree space of writing but without causality. Writing is prior to the stupid fact of belief and feeling. I write as the proximal effect (nearest descendant) of something that is not me.

You are not the reason this writing exists.

Sunday, 24 September 2006

Panic destruct

Starting Thursday (21 September) when Matthew and I watched Joe Dante’s 2006 Homecoming (as of this writing there is no IMDB entry), I have been out on the town socializing. I went out three nights and, with different companions every time, was treated to engaging and satisfying conversation. Except for not being motivated to run, my carousing left me none worse for the wear. I think I’m taking a break from my beloved isolation. These things, however, are cause neither for panic nor destruction.

I brought lefty home on Friday, 11 March 2005, a snow-stormy night which nearly witnessed me hydroplaning into a police blockade around a jackknifed U-Haul. With the exception of a few dozen hours at most, lefty has been up since the Saturday that followed. The last ten days of December 2005 were an exception I hope I never see repeated.

At 1:30 this afternoon I lay down to nap and awoke to lefty’s fans spun what must have been practically all the way up. Flicking the power to his displays did zero and there was No address associated with nodename for lefty. I shut down lefty hard and preceded to get everything working properly. The thing that tripped me up the most was that postgrey wasn’t responding to postfix’s transport calls. My guess is that when lefty crashed, postgrey had not released all its locks and couldn’t reinitialize them even during reboot. I deleted them directly and all seemed OK, except Safari kept occasionally crashing, as did Activity Monitor, and Photoshop, and I got very unusual messages from the Finder.

My first clue was trying to mount a backup .dmg file of lefty and the Finder notifying me The following disk images failed to mount because of a code overrun. Then lefty’s GUI started artifacting like so:

A couple more reboot cycles revealed that the cut-rate DIMMS I purchased from had crapped out. In the time it took me to diagnose the problem, I saw the next two weeks fall prey to a server I could neither afford to replace nor repair and my tenure bid briefly flashed before my eyes.

::wipes sweat off brow:: small numbskull

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Posthuman Me

Here comes tomorrow looking as beautiful as she did that morning we went for a walk through the snow. I am by myself now, but I remember thinking that we were like snowbirds and we were so happy to be with each other. All things will change.

I’ve been going through massive adjustments with regard to the way and the how of my work, my teaching, my loves. It's impossible to know where to begin, all of it is so much better than it was even a few years ago.

Yesterday four other faculty, the Dean of the Honors Tutorial College, and I had a conversation about a horrifying book by Andrew Scull entitled Madhouse. I had finished reading the book well ahead of schedule (last Thursday, the 21st) after having devoted a week to reading it in 40-page increments. I procrastinated indexing my ideas and forty-five minutes before needing to leave for the discussion began compiling that index from my marginalia. I definitely wouldn't be able to put everything inside Tinderbox.

I printed the plain-text index (from BBEdit) and made note of a couple of passages I wanted to consider. The conversation between James, Janet, Bob, Ann, and me was good. While I did feel that one of us slightly intruded personal (as opposed to professional) experience into the conversation, pulling our attention at times too far away from the book, important ideas from the book were broached, the book's weaknesses were discussed, and students became engaged enough to offer their own opinions about the matters at hand. Afterward, two students approached me to ask what classes I would be teaching next term.

Not to lean too closely to Cotton’s megalomaniacal stream, my comfort with the material and my ability to range over the text effectively (thrice bringing our attention to the text though not slavishly devoted to the source) was due to my recent engagements with knowledge representation software which has exercised and strengthened my ability to organize the concepts and structure of a text. The plain-text index method was more rough-and-ready than I would have preferred but things worked out very well. The other important part of the equation, of course, was having managed the time it would take to actually read the text. That, too, was facilitated by means of software.

Get my shit together.

So, I can't help but think back to the Fall of 1997, standing on the West side of McCormick Avenue in Charlottesville, Virginia, having a conversation with Michele Ierardi Ferrari in which everything she said to me and I said to her I instantly forgot. I relied on the phenomenological structure of the conversation to guide my verbal and nonverbal responses. I was in that much anguish. That deep sense of insecurity and panic was nowhere near me last night. I know one day circumstances may again deprive me of the ability to understand speech and formulate coherent sentences, to panic at the idea of her seeing me after she had judged me uncompanionable. Where did those feelings come from and how did they disrupt my ability to produce language for the better part of a decade?

When will those feelings return?small numbskull