Category Archives: faq

Working on MathLAN remotely

Guess what? You can work on your MathLAN account remotely using a browser:

Go to

Log in

Click Launch Session

In the pop up window, click on XFCE and then Launch

Another tab will open up that will look like a desktop on a MathLAN computer

Note: It is annoying to impossible to copy and paste from the MathLAN window into anything on your own machine, so be thoughtful about where you type things and the potential need to re-type them or share them another way.

On Unsworth & Marx

Unpacking Unsworth (at least partially)

In class this past Monday, we discussed the history of operating systems. One of our readings was John Unsworth’s “Living Inside the (Operating) System: Community in Virtual Reality.” To be transparent about my pedagogical goals, the key points I wanted you to take away were (I think) simpler than the very good questions that came up. Specifically, I wanted you to take from Unsworth that operating systems embed certain ideas of human agency and social relationship that, while they might seem to radically challenge the market capitalist context that they come from, also reflect it and reproduce it.

This is what I see as the key passage for this point:

“…the paradoxes are striking. On the one hand, as a mental representation of the universe of information, Unix is deeply indebted to culturally determined notions such as private property, class membership, and hierarchies of power and effectivity. Most of these ideas are older than the modern Western culture that produced Unix, but the constellation of cultural elements gathered together in Unix’s basic operating principles seems particularly Western and capitalist–not surprisingly, given that its creators were human extensions of one of the largest accumulations of capital in the Western world. On the other hand, this tool, shaped though it was by the notions of ownership and exclusivity, spawned a culture of cooperation, of homemade code, of user-contributed modifications and improvements (viz. the canonical /contrib/bin in Unix filesystems, where user-contributed programs are stored) –in short, of “fellowship.””

You all, being careful readers and intrepid scholars, seemed to really want to know more about how Unsworth was bringing Marxian concepts of labor and species being into his reading of a virtual community built on the Unix OS. So, here’s an attempt at unpacking it.

When we were trying to come up with a keyword sense of labor for our readings, and Unsworth’s was really the one that addressed that head on, TJ offered “the objectification of the species life of man” and Sean Haggerty-Ruiz got us started breaking it down with his summary of Marx’s concept of alienated labor, which went something like: in a capitalist context, the human being’s innate capacity to produce is instrumentalized–made to be for a certain purpose (specifically, profit) rather than for itself.

To build on that, here’s some glossary definitions:

Marxian species-being: the essential nature of humanity, which Marx thinks is creative work freely chosen.

Marxian social being: a degraded form of being that is conditioned into you by your social environment. In the case of Western capitalism, this is the self-made, isolated individual.

Alienated labor: work that is disconnected from the deep purpose of species being, undertaken for subsistence only.

I think the trickiest word to make sense of in passages Unsworth cites and uses is “objectification.” “Object” and “objective” have so many potential meanings:  thing, goal, empirically real, impartial, to name a few. So let’s walk through how it is getting used in Marx. The “objective” is the world as it is, which for humans is the the world as we have created (both mentally and materially) because we are the species that is conscious of its place in the world. It is human species-being to objectify, or to create the world around us. Alienated labor, however, objectifies the human, and a human is not meant to be an object. A human is mean to make objects. So objectify can have both a positive and negative connotation. The work of the human is to object-ify — to make things. Capitalism, in Marx’s view, tends instead to turn humans into objects.

So, how does this help us make sense of operating systems? On the one hand, operating systems are a product of market capitalism–all of the readings touched on this. On the other hand, they seem to give rise to creative, voluntaristic work in the form of writing and sharing code (on an individual and sometimes a corporate level). It is both endearing and puzzling that as soon as you have a digital platform, you have a group of people who just can’t seem to stop thinking about how to use it to communicate, represent, and discover. Nobody needs a text adventure or a message board where people use pseudonyms to debate plot twists in a television show. Perhaps nobody even needs a blog post on Mark in Unsworth. And yet we make them. We seem driven to represent and create our world.

What Unsworth is, I think, ultimately calling our attention to is that creation in these digital environments is inherently alienating at the same time as it feels less alienating than other forms of work, and we need to keep an eye on what we’re now calling work and now calling play.

Unsworth, being not just a literary scholar but a scholar of postmodern theory, then connects Marx to Baudrillard, a theorist who thinks about the role of representation (as in icons, images, and reproductions of reality that he calls simulacra) in how we organize ourselves socially and imagine our lives. This is farther than we need to go for this class, but it does start to touch on debates that you’ve probably encountered in far less esoteric contexts such as, is life on social media real life?

A digression/exploratory connection:

As I was talking with Sean and remembering my own introduction to Marx in graduate school, I realized that one of the key moves in contextualizing Marx’s work is connecting it to Hegel. Marx borrows several key concepts from Hegel, including the idea of consciousness of species being as the defining feature of humanity and the dialectic of history. A kind of lecture notes summary would be “Hegel consciousness, dialectic–> Marx.” In the context of having just done a Python lab, this reminded me of the “import” process. And that got me thinking about how far that analogy would go. On the one hand, when we import a code library, we’re building on the work of others and using what they’ve done to make a new combination of procedures. On the other hand, ideas are never simply “imported.” We make a mark on them first through our own process of reasoning and understanding, then on our way of expressing them, and in the case of scholarship and theory, by expanding, challenging, or changing them. And of course, that’s exactly what Marx did. His species being and his dialectic are not the same as Hegel’s, although they launch from a framework Hegel provided. So maybe the difference lies in first really getting to know what you are importing and being selective about what you take the time to build on. You can’t just “import Hegel” and understand its key terms and applications. Whereas, you can “import datetime” and then just use one function without ever knowing the rest.


And a short note if you are still reading:

For later discussions, this reading also plants an important seed about the relationship between digital technology and labor. Unsworth writes:

“I’d like to recall for a moment a recent advertising campaign for AT&T, in which lots of “ordinary” (but very professional-looking) people are shown using technology in futuristic ways. The tag-line of the campaign is “have you ever … You will”: “Have you ever gone to a meeting in your bathrobe?” asks the voice-over, while a man lounges at the breakfast table while video-conferencing, “Or sent a fax from the beach?” while the man lounges in his beach-chair, sending a fax from his (apparently sand-proof) laptop: “You will.” I’m sure that AT&T; intends this campaign to present a happy vision of the future, in which work somehow is less work-like; I’m equally certain, though, that it’s possible to view the campaign in exactly the opposite light, to hear an imperative tone in that “You Will,” and to consider that, without that handy laptop, the man on the beach might not have to be working. It is, in some sense, the essence of professional occupation that it crosses the line into our personal lives: no profession is truly 9-5. If technology, born from useful play, becomes an environment in which work can be carried on in the guise of play, then either we will never really work, or we will never really play, after this. It remains to be seen which of these–or both, or neither–proves to be the case.”

Works Consulted:

Halliday, John. “species‐being.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press, January 01, 2009. Oxford Reference. 28 Feb. 2019, <>.

“Species Being, Social Being, and Class Consciousness.” 28 Feb. 2019, <>.

Wolff, Jonathan, “Karl Marx.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2017, 28 February 2019, <>.


Moore’s law

A couple of folks asked about Moore’s law on their exit tickets from Monday.

Tl;dr: Moore’s law is the conjecture made by Gordon Moore, based on observation of the early progress of integrated circuit production, that the upper limit in transistor density would double every year. This would lead to cheaper manufacture of more powerful computers, driving not just the market for high-end machines (such as those commissioned by the military and specialized research labs) but for consumer products (aka things average people could afford and use). It is NOT a scientific law. It’s kind of a nifty catchphrase that’s turned out to be more or less accurate. So far. But there’s speculation that we are going to reach the hard limit of transistor density as traditionally conceived, because things are getting pret-ty small in there, like nearing the width of an atom.

To go further:

Here’s a good overview.

Here’s something the Association for Computing Machinery had to say about it recently.

Here’s a critical technology studies reading of it by Paul Ceruzzi, which relates the general acceptance of this as a “law” to our tendency to adopt an outlook of technological determinism, or that our tools decide our future rather than they other way around.

Why did three characters turn into two?

Following up on the Python demo we did during the character representation lecture: when we finally got to the correct encoding scheme for the characters to make sense, why did our three characters turn into two characters?

For starters, this demo was drawn from Sebastian Mathot’s blog post, “A simple explanation of character encoding in Python.”

Sebastian addresses the 3 to 2 issue: “According to utf-8, 195 and 167 together make up a ‘ç’, and 97 makes up ‘a’. ”

But wait, isn’t the whole point of unicode that every symbol has one single code?

Yes, but sometimes it’s more efficient in practice to break certain things up. utf-8 is one implementation of unicode in which one of these options is to “decompose” the ‘ç’ into a c and a cedilla, separately. You can see this specified on this table of utf-8 encodings, with some fiddling with the settings to show the decimal encoding and going to the second page. You can see in the full unicode specification of the ‘ç’ that it does have it’s on unicode designation, but when it comes to bit storage, it combines two other symbols.

Guidelines for jigsaw discussion

Part 1: Expert groups

This is the group of all the people who have done the same reading. Your goal during Part 1 is to highlight the key points of the reading, go over any outstanding questions about these points, and decide what you will present when you are in the “jigsaw” group, in which you will be the only one who has read that particular reading and will have three minutes to present on it to your colleagues.

Some things to consider as you prepare to be an expert:

  • You will not be able to include every detail. It’s okay to make choices about what is most important.
  • It’s usually both important and effective to clearly convey the argument of the piece. All authors have arguments, even if they are largely implicit.
  • Don’t worry about having a “hot take” on the reading. At this stage, your goal is to provide an accurate representation of it.
  • I will be spending time with each group for questions and feedback.


Part 2: Teaching groups

In these groups, there will be one expert per reading (unless numbers require us to have 2). The goal of this group is for everyone to have a basic understanding of all the readings (argument and most important points) that they can draw on for full class discussion.

Some things to consider for the jigsaw phase:

  • Have a timekeeper.
  • Ask questions after everyone has done their presentation.

Part 3: Full class

In this phase, you’ll be asked to explicitly make connections between the readings, critically reflect on the contributions and limitations of each one, and build connections to broader themes of the course.

Part 4 (end of class/out of class): Argument/key point summary, one per reading

In no more than 300 words, convey the significance of the reading to which you were assigned. This should be in grammatically complete sentences for the most part, and direct quotation can be no more than 10% (i.e. 30 words). Due via blog post by 5pm Monday, categorized as “reading.” Must include a description of how labor was divided.