Orality and Literacy Chapters 1-4

Orality and Literacy is a 1988 book by Walter J. Ong. It is a discussion of the differences in thought patterns in “primary oral” cultures (those cultures without writing, or which have not yet internalized writing) and literate cultures. The first four chapters introduce the basic subject of study and focus on two things: 1) The ways that lack of literacy impact human thought processes, and 2) The way that the development of writing technology change the human thought processes.

Ong supports neither orality or literacy as superior to the other, but he does note that many valuable developments in human society are simply not possible without the development of literacy. The core issues at work behind the shifts in thinking from orality to literacy (and vice versa) are memory and abstraction.

Early in the book Ong makes quite a big deal about the orality of non-literate language itself being important and necessary to the issues he is discussing. I feel that this is a mistake, though it actually has little bearing on the rest of his thinking. Ong seems to feel that the absolute impermanence and invisibility of spoken speech is a big part of what influences its development. He may well be right, but I do think it is unnecessary to put so much weight on the spoken word when it might have been the case that we all ended up communicating with sign language, or via smell. The dominance of spoken language is not really a historical accident, but is certainly attributable to the specific situations of early humanity: the need for long distance, large audience communication. Sound is just better at that than most media.

As I mentioned, this erroneous focus on aural transmission does nothing to dull Ong’s real point which is that oral conversation is impermanent. Oral records exist literally only in memory. It is impossible to go back and examine a conversation even as it is in progress. (This contrasts fascinatingly with things like email or IM conversations where the entire record of discussion is available verbatim at all times.)

According to Ong, and I certainly think he is correct, the need to remember everything forces an entire set of thought organization and speech patterns on primary oral cultures. Everything worth knowing must be easy to remember because otherwise not enough people will remember it for it to continue being useful to society. This means that things worth knowing must be set into formulaic phrases in order to allow them to better fix themselves in memory. What’s more, these phrases must be repeated constantly in order to reinforce that memory. Primary oral speech patterns are thus full of formulaic phrasings which are oft-repeated.

In addition to forcing this sort of highly mnemonic structure on language, primary oral situations also generate a sort of low-abstraction thought pattern. Since oral language is impermanent it is used only in immediate situations. When I talk about something (Ong uses the example of a tree) in an oral situation I mean a specific tree. Or, perhaps, I mean a tree in a specific location (as in “we should plant a tree here”). Even when recounting events that have occurred in the past I convey the situation in which they occurred: “We were out in the backyard and I was saying we should plant a tree there”. With such a direct level of connection between spoken utterance and direct experience high level abstraction doesn’t occur.

Ong’s book comes at a fascinating time historically. He makes clear distinctions between chirographic (cultures with hand-writing) and typographic (cultures with printing presses) cultures. Though literacy obtains in each, the impact of literacy on thought changes as writing technology does. Writing in the mid and late 80s, Ong missed the explosion of the next big writing technology: the internet.

The reason the internet pertains here is that, while Ong doesn’t seem to make a big deal of this, perhaps because he does not fully recognize it, the entire orality/literacy duality turns on one class of technology: memory aids. Writing is the first, easiest, and perhaps most flexible memory aid ever produced. Chirographic cultures are able to use it primarily for aiding personal memory: writing thoughts as they occur. But production is too slow and expensive to generally externalize one person’s or group’s memory to the culture at large. The printing press adds to the advantages of chirography the ability to mass-produce certain works and thus make them generally available. This allows certain thoughts to become generally stored in the cultural external memory.

The internet, and computer technology in general, allows for even more off-loading to external memory. And, perhaps more importantly, allows one to carry and/or access an entire library near-instantaneously. In a purely typographic culture one might know that one has access to an idea or thought, but must find the book which contains it and then find that thought. We are rapidly moving to a point where anyone can instantly search their library (or Wikipedia for that matter) for just the thought they are looking for. This large-scale near-instant access of printed material is beginning to produce yet another shift in thought processes.

The key observation Ong has is that as memory becomes less and less important humans are able to devote less and less of their linguistic and mental structures to it. This allows language and thought to shift in other directions, focusing on solving other problems. It’s a shift that I suspect we’re about to undergo again.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Reaction to the NYC Waterfalls

For those who aren’t familiar, and I suspect that’s true of many people, the NYC Waterfalls are a public art project. The basic construction is a scaffolding system with a set of pumps placed near the East River. Water is pumped up to the top of the scaffolding and allowed to fall. The effect is, in some ways, quite waterfall-like, hence the name.

The first time I saw the waterfalls was while my dad was in town at the beginning of August. We had hopped the Q-train, I think on the way back from Central Park or something. The train goes across the Manhattan Bridge, and it has an excellent view of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the waterfalls (there are four) is erected beneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side. He asked what it was, and I wasn’t sure. That particular waterfall, due to its placement, looks almost like part of an industrial process. It’s hard to see it as free-standing as opposed to some auxiliary structure attached to the bridge.

I didn’t think anything more of it until we got to our first meeting of Comm Lab here at ITP where one of the week one assignments is to visit the waterfalls and write a reaction. Upon realizing that this was an art project, my initial reaction was relatively negative. A sort of “you’re spending public money on what now?” thing.

Having hopped on the IKEA ferry which goes by three of the four waterfalls, and viewing them myself, I was less than impressed. They’re sort of cool, yeah, but nothing spectacular. They don’t evoke the same sense of wonder that real waterfalls do. I suspect that this is due to the lack of waterfall context. Part of what makes waterfalls so awe-inspiring is the sharp cut in the landscape that accompanies them. The sense of insane natural power involved in carving rock and all that water rushing down. When it’s man-made some of that impact is somehow gone.

That said, I can’t actually be unhappy about the waterfalls for one simple reason: while we were waiting in line for the ferry I watched this family a couple of places in front of us. One of their children was a boy who looked to be maybe seven or eight. (Sadly I’m really bad with ages of this sort, which is deeply ironic considering how much time I spent working with kids in the age bracket.)

Anyway, there was this kid, and he was so excited by the prospect of getting on the ferry. He wanted to see the waterfall! He wanted to go to the waterfall! He wanted to play at the waterfall! (I suspect that playing at the waterfalls is not actually permitted, but he didn’t care about that.) So while I, with my world traveling and my viewing of massive natural waterfalls may find the constructed forms lacking and almost a mockery, there is value in them nonetheless.

That value is for the city of New York. I suspect that it’s something I’m going to have a hard time maintaining a proper view of. ITP is an international community, it is peopled by the well-traveled and in many cases by the travel-obsessed (like myself), but New York City itself is like any other place: a huge percentage of the population never leaves. There are kids, probably thousands of them, who will never come closer to a waterfall than this in their entire lives.

While the New York waterfalls may be sad ghosts of the real phenomena they try to emulate, there is power and suggestion in them anyway. A kid seeing them, and applying sufficient imagination, may grasp some of the wonder that comes from such structure. Perhaps they will not experience the same thing that (say) Niagara can instill, but then again maybe they will.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Physical Computing Lab 1

In less I hate the world news, here’s my first real project at ITP. Physical Computing Lab 1 is really more of a “get your feet wet” lab than anything else. The linked lab there is actually more complex than the one we actually were requested to execute.

We’re using the Arduino chipset and codebase for digital control, and the first project was just a “learn about digital design, do a tiny bit of programming”.

We were asked to design a system that, when a switch is activated an LED flashes on and off; when the switch is not activated, the LED stays off.

Most people come out of high school with at least a rudimentary understanding of electricity and thus know how to right a switch-to-light bulb circuit. That’s the first lesson that has to be unlearned for people doing digital work, and that’s probably the important bit (beyond “you can do it”) that this first lab teaches. See, in digital circuit design, inputs and outputs are independent circuits. Instead of rigging the switch to the light circuit, you design a switch circuit connected to the controller and a LED circuit connected to the controller. Their only link is that controller. It looks something like this:

Conceptual Diagram

This means that two separate circuits need to be designed: an LED circuit and a digital switch circuit. The LED circuit is simple, and doesn’t require explanation of the difference between analog and digital switching, so let’s start with that.

An LED circuit is almost precisely identical to the classic light bulb circuit. It takes power from some source, feeds it through an LED, and runs that to ground. You’ve probably seen this before. There, is, however, an important exception here. See, the current that the Arduino puts out is actually too high for a standard LED and would burn it out. This means we want to slow that current down so we use a resistor. 220ohms is about right for our purpose here, so we end up with a circuit that looks a lot like this:

Diagram of the LED circuit

Of course I didn’t have a 220ohm resistor handy, so I did the next best thing: I grabbed a pair of 100ohm resistors and linked them in series. When you line resistors up like this in a circuit, you add their resistance together. It’s quite convenient. So the actual circuit I built looks like this:

Alternate LED circuit diagram

My actual design is very exciting. It looks like this:

Image of my LED circuit

With the LED circuit completed, the next step was to design a switch circuit. The traditional analog switch is simple: a switch with a power source at one end and ground at the other. Unfortunately, digital switches are a bit more complex. See, digital switches are constantly looking for an input. If they sense one then they are “on”, if there is no input then they are “off”. For analog purposes an open switch doesn’t let enough current across to do anything significant, but in a digital switch system an open switch may still allow static electricity or power generated by magnetic interference flow to the sensor, confusing it. This means that all digital switches need to be grounded in order to keep them at zero current when they are open.

It’s the “when they are open” part that gets problematic because we need to ensure that when the switch closes that the current doesn’t flow into the ground, but into the digital sensor. We accomplish this with a huge, ginormous resistor. When the switch is open there is a single loop: sensor to ground. This means that no matter how big the resistor is, the loop stays closed and the sensor is grounded out. When the switch is closed, however, the current from the switch has two potential directions: to the sensor, or to ground. By putting a large resistor on the ground side we ensure that the power flows to the sensor, switching it on.

Another diagram (it’s worth noting that in this particular circuit the system is so low on resistance that you can use just about any resistor you want here):

A diagram of a digital switch

Since I didn’t feel like getting out an actual switch, I built my own… sort of. I simply left an exposed section of wiring at the end of my power lead, and another one between the resistor and the micro controller. The switch is “closed” whenever I touch the exposed wires together, and “open” the rest of the time. It looks like this:

This totally \"awesome\" switch I designed.

Now all we have to do is connect our two separate circuits to the controller. We already know how to do this with the switch since it’s wired to an input, and doing it with the LED is just as simple. Since we want the LED to be an output of the circuit instead of an input, we want to connect the power end of the LED circuit to one of the controller pins.

What we get looks something like this:

Combined circuit diagram

What we have here are two circuits linked by a micro controller. The first circuit is a simple light: when the controller gives the signal, the light turns on. The second circuit is a simple switch: the controller constantly listens to see if there is power flowing across the switch or not. Using my amazing breadboard-less skills, it looks like this:

The modern sculpture of my complete design!

Now that we have our exciting digital system, we need to do something with it. There are all sorts of possibilities now because we have a switch and a light. We could make the light simply turn on when the switch is closed, we could make it flash, we could even make it flash at a rate based upon how long the switch has been closed. For now let’s just do something simple, but at the same time let’s do something that actually requires a micro controller to do. That means no flash rates based on how long the switch has been closed, but it also means no simple “close the switch, turn on the light” since we can do that in pure analog systems. Leaving us with the second option: “when the switch is closed, the light pulses”.

With the circuit designed, the actual command system is entirely software-based. Arduinos use a very simple codebase, so here’s all we have to code up:

void setup()
pinMode(2,OUTPUT); // Set this pin as an output,
// It is where we plug in the LED
pinMode(3,INPUT); // Set this pin as an input,
// It is where we plug in the switch

void loop()
if(digitalRead(3)) // If there is current on the switch's pin
digitalWrite(2,HIGH); // Output current to the LED
delay(1000); // Wait one second
digitalWrite(2,LOW); // Stop outputting current to the LED
delay(1000); // Wait one second
} // Repeat the loop code indefinitely

Load that code into the Arduino and you’re all set to go. With a little work, you too can have an amazing circuit like mine. Here’s a nice 30 second video of it in action:


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Surprise! We want all your money!

Let me get the really fury-making part out of the way.

I checked my T-Mobile cell phone bill online today while I was going through a number of rather routine record-keeping things. Apparently I owe them $600+. All of which were accrued in August. See, back in May I purchased a new phone, a T-Mobile Dash. I’ve been very pleased with the hardware and software package for the most part. I’ve had a few problems, but nothing too cripplingly bad.

Along with the phone I purchased an unlimited data plan. This allows me to send and receive email and do some web surfing, and is totally worth it for my purposes. My only complaint was that the built in IM client on the Dash didn’t include support for the Jabber protocol, and thus had no way for me to carry gTalk with me. A problem such as this is easily remedied with the downloading of third-party software, so I grabbed a trial version of something-or-other which I used for a few weeks before deciding that IMing by phone just wasn’t that useful. Thus I uninstalled the software.

Skip ahead to my road trip. Specifically to Philadelphia where my laptop suddenly died (still working on fixing that). I was brutally disconnected from my social network and had to fall back almost completely to the phone. Good thing, thought I, that the Dash has an IM client built in. So I started using it to keep in touch with people.

Now my bill comes due and I discover something rather insane: T-Mobile’s built in client treats IMs as text messages.

Let me repeat that: T-Mobile’s built in IM client on a smart phone with a data plan treats IMs as text messages.

Since I don’t have a text message plan on my phone, much preferring to simply pay for the dozen or two I use a month as I use them, the 2,000 or so IM send/receives for the month have racked up quite the impressive bill.

I spent about an hour on the phone today bouncing from department to department at T-Mobile. First I spoke to billing and was told by both the employee and her supervisor that “no one could credit my account for those charges”. This, I knew, was a blatant lie (due to my long association with the most excellent N), and was just what they were saying to make me stop arguing. Now, I should say I was as polite as possible, understanding that these people don’t make policy, they just carry it out.

After the nice, but lying and unhelpful, people in billing, I got in touch with technical support. This was because I was curious about the whole not-being-charged with the third party software. Tech support insisted that all IM software for phones, no matter who created it, should use the SMS servers. Thus I had been using Mystical Software That Shouldn’t Exist. When I asked if it was possible that the software just used my data plan instead, tech support seemed to think not.

So back to billing, where apparently I was connected to a different call center (as the supervisor I had spoken with before wasn’t at this one), so the story was repeated. The nice lady kept insisting that these charges were my fault for “uninstalling the software that let you have free IMs”. She was nice about it, but insistent. Finally she admitted that she couldn’t override a decision made by a supervisor (during my first call to billing), but that she could transfer me to her own supervisor and I could talk.

I was then placed on hold while she did so, and after about three or four minutes I was disconnected. Having managed to spend an hour on the phone accomplishing not much, I decided to skip it and take another shot later.

But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about here. What I wanted to talk about was how utterly insane a move this is for T-Mobile. Or, rather, how underhanded it is. See, IM is an inherently data-based system. The only reason that you might have for billing them on an SMS basis is that for a long time you didn’t have pure-data plans for phones. What T-Mobile has done, in effect, is to cripple (making specifically less-efficient) their IM clients in order to make more money. That’s all this is. And that, more than the money, infuriates me (and giving how much money we’re talking about, that’s a lot of fury).

Anyway, I just needed to vent, and now that that’s done I shall return you to your regularly scheduled whatever-you-were-doing.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

A quick update for those watching from home

It’s been a while, huh?  Well, I figured I’d run an update so that people could catch up with what’s going on with me these days.

Back at the beginning of the month I successfully got moved into my apartment in Brooklyn with some cool roommates.  So far it’s been quite a good experience.

Yesterday classes at ITP started, and they started well.  My Communications Lab course is using Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as one of its texts, and that’s a good thing.

Basically everyone I know has a standing invitation to crash on my couch if you want to visit NYC.  You handle travel and I’d love to put you up.  Just give me a day or two notice so I can warn the roomies.

Real quick note: I’m going to start using this blog quite a bit more than I have been.  Specifically I’ll be using it for projects and stuff for classes here at ITP.  You may or may not notice the nice new categories I’ve established (if you’re reading on a LiveJournal cross-post you won’t, since my blog only cross-posts stuff from the “life” category) then you’ll see what I mean.  It’s possible to follow only a single category, so if you don’t care what I’m doing over at ITP either just keep using the LiveJournal or read stuff at http://blog.thomas-robertson.com/life/ which will avoid all categories not directly tied to stuff happening in the everyday world.

Anyway, I’m hoping to get back to a post-a-weekday format here (as always), so I suppose we’ll see what happens.

Hope you’re all doing well.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Let’s do this thing

Current plans are for me to be on the road at 06:00 en route to Houston, TX. That should have me pulling in right around 17:00 or so. Man… I’m pumped.

I’ve got my phone, I’ll be checking my email along the way. You know how to get in touch with me.

Don’t forget to check the crazy roadtrip website (which I hope to have actually bug-free soon) for what I hope turns out to be relatively updated updates…

Later skaters.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Blog migration complete

I have managed to import my entire LiveJournal archive into this blog. While I couldn’t get the tag structure copied (because LiveJournal’s export feature sucks and doesn’t support tag exports apparently) I did get comments and everything else. With that done I’ll be moving my base of operations to here. I’ll still be cross-posting to my LiveJournal, of course, for those who want to simply follow along there, but I’ll be primarily operating out of http://blog.thomas-robertson.com.

I’ll actually be producing more posts than I’ll be putting up at my LiveJournal. I’m going to operate under the assumption that people who are following along there are mostly interested in keeping up with day-to-day stuff. So I’ll be maintaining a category here called life that will cover that, and only posts in that category will be put up on LiveJournal. I’ve also managed to get my archives from my old blog Musings and Mental Meanderings brought over, and if you’re looking for those they can be found in the musings category.

At the moment those are my only two categories, but I’ll probably be adding more as time goes on. If you want to follow everything I’m up to from life to research to projects to essays then this blog is the place. And if you just want to follow some things? Well, you can do that too.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

A door closes, looking ahead

Today has been a day of change in many ways. Let’s go through those, shall we?

First of all, today was my last day at work. While my resignation doesn’t officially kick in until Saturday, and while I do have to go pick up a paycheck tomorrow, I’m no longer on the schedule and I’m not on call. While it’s conceivable that someone might want me to cover a shift int he next two days, it’s exceedingly unlikely. It feels odd, but after three and a half years of dispatch I’m ready to move on. I’m ready for a change.

Second, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been working on this big web application which I’ve been planning to use to track my roadtrip. Well, it’s done and it’s now online. You can go check things out at www.roadtrip2k8.com. All the features work, and as far as I know there are no bugs in the current version. I know there are some interface issues which I need to resolve. Primarily: because it’s basically a series of blogs linked by a map, I need to figure out a good way of showing users recent updates so they can keep up with traffic. If you’ve got suggestions I’d love to hear them.

Third, I’ve actually worked up a tentative itinerary for the roadtrip. It’s… extensive. And having it down on paper really makes it seem more immediate (and gives me a sense of just how big an undertaking this is). If you’re curious, you can check it out online too since I have a Google.docs spreadsheet. (Wow, my entire life is on the internet.)

Fourth, you’ll probably notice that this is coming from yet another new blog. I’ve managed to import all my old blog posts from “Musings and Mental Meanderings” as well as the one post I made from the blog I thought I would use for my personal life. I’ve decided to simply put all my posts in one place and use WordPress’ category system to allow people to read selectively. For the moment I’m only going to be posting to the one category: “life”. I’ll use tags to differentiate within that. I presume that I’ll eventually add one for research or essays as well.

As more categories come online I figure I’ll put together a tutorial or something on how to use them. I think that’s it for now.

Huh… all these changes and I don’t feel any different.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Life, it does go on

In addition to being a post about my day this is also the first test of me using a cross-posting utility to post to a WordPress blog and my LiveJournal at the same time.  We’ll see how that goes.

Took two of my four exams today, and now those are out of the way.  They were for two of my less stimulating classes, both in the sociology department.  I don’t understand (except that really I do) how we can make learning so grueling.  I mean, sure learning is often difficult and requires effort, but it should be fun!  I tend to feel that if a class makes you dread going, and dread executing assignments, then it must be doing something wrong.

I mean, come on people…  You really have to work to take a field I find fascinating and then make me tune you out when you talk about it.

Anyway, just the two exams left.  It’s not long now.


Originally published at Brain Dump. You can comment here or there.

Huh... I don't feel any different

Today marked the last meeting of a class of my undergraduate career. I presented my final project in Web Applications with XML and JSP today. The project is actually something I'm pretty excited about, and I'll probably talk about it more soon since it's part of my plans for the road trip this summer. That's for later though, for now I thought I should have a post commemorating my last day of classes.

In other news I'm seriously contemplating setting up a WordPress install to take up most of the content that goes here. If I do I'll mirror it to this journal, of course, but I'm finding that more and more of the people that I'd like to link to a blog about my life so that they can keep up with me don't really need the LiveJournal thing. A simple (and easy to remember) blog URL is probably a lot less trouble for them.

I'll probably work on that sometime this week or something.

Anyway, I'm keeping this short.