Amazon S3 outage hit SoundCloud, reminds us dangers of centralization

Those of us in music more or less noticed today, “hey, my SoundCloud audio isn’t loading” — while the rest of the Internet went crazy because lots of things were broken. But the reason was Amazon S3, the “cloud” storage service provided by the retail giant.

Early indications appear, though, that SoundCloud’s audio playback and buffering difficulties are the result of degraded performance of Amazon S3 storage.

See, on the outage in general (still ongoing as I write this, amidst some really confusing messages from Amazon):
Amazon’s AWS S3 cloud storage evaporates: Top websites, Docker stung [The Register]

Now, I use “cloud” storage heavily in my personal work. It’s a backup service, a failsafe data source when on the road. It’s a way of sharing music – as a journalist, as an artist. I use it to save and send critical jobs. Most importantly, I use servers to run CDM, which is a huge part of my livelihood. And it mostly does its job. But then, it’s also important to understand that what “cloud” means. These are physical servers at a physical location with physical connectivity, and they’re operated by humans. That’s a long string of vulnerabilities there, from human error to external attack to forces of nature, even apart from technical problems.

Nerdy web comic xkcd has been there – of course.


If you understand that, you understand that failure is indeed an option. Furthermore, I think you’ll agree there’s vulnerability in centralized, monolithic solutions.

And today, many pundits are reaching the same conclusion.

So, I’m not looking to criticize SoundCloud in particular here. Indeed, a service like that is likely to be more able to recover from trouble than you would on your own, and I don’t know enough about the specific interaction with S3 and SoundCloud today to comment on how they’ve set up their connectivity.

But that said, there is a larger concern about over-centralization and monocultures, even just from the standpoint of ensuring you’ll have access to your own music.

And I’m not the only one adding a red flag here.

In fact, not coincidentally, I quickly am seeing pundits making the same comparison that popped into my head – to Dyn, a DNS provider that took down a ton of the Internet during an attack last year. (That included CDM.)

Here’s Wired:

The “winner takes all” dynamic of the tech industry concentrates more and more power into fewer and fewer companies. That consolidation has implications for competition but also affects the resilience of the internet itself. So many people rely on Gmail that when the service goes down, it’s as if email itself has gone offline, even though countless other email providers exist. Facebook is practically synonymous with the internet for many people all over the world.

The Amazon S3 Outage Is What Happens When One Site Hosts Too Much of the Internet []

(It’s also worth reading Wired’s interview disproving the Internet was built to withstand nuclear strikes. I think I’ve repeated that urban legend. It’s not true.)

That’s a pretty profound statement, though. It suggests that there’s a fundamental problem, but that the dynamics of the industry itself are making the problem worse. (Dyn was a pretty clear-cut case of that, as I can attest. Like a lot of Dyn customers, I had originally used a DNS provider as a way of adding resilience. I didn’t even pick Dyn, though: my provider was bought by Dyn and I was given no choice but to switch to their service – and their pricing, I might add.)

For their part, SoundCloud has been a featured Amazon case study – even though SoundCloud didn’t mention Amazon Web Services (AWS) by name today. (No need; the discussion dominated Twitter if you followed anyone doing Web work.)

AWS Case Study: SoundCloud [Amazon AWS Solutions]

Here’s Alexander Grosse, VP of Engineering at SoundCloud, on that solution:

SoundCloud uses a combination of Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon Glacier as its storage solution. The audio files are placed in Amazon S3 and distributed from there via the SoundCloud website. All files are also copied to Amazon Glacier, to ensure that the data is available at all times, even in the event of a disaster. The company currently stores 2.5 PB of data on Amazon Glacier.

Through the combined use of Amazon S3 and Amazon Glacier, SoundCloud is able to securely store data volumes without requiring additional operational overhead. “We don’t need to worry about storage. AWS lets us sleep well at night,” Grosse says.

Now, again, I don’t want to criticize SoundCloud here, or maybe even Amazon. The simple fact of the matter is, Amazon may provide more performance and reliability at the costs SoundCloud requires than would another solution.

But ask yourself this: what about your uptime? Were you impacted by this outage today, and could you recover? (I was – one article was held up, and one work on a release, because each involved music only on SoundCloud that I then couldn’t access.)

This should also make clear that offline storage has got to be a permanent fixture of live performance and DJing. That may sound an obvious statement, but software makers are already trying to imagine a world where music in a DJ set was streamed from the Internet instead of locally.

Ironically, I was working today about an article talking about the dangers of centralization on Facebook. This, of course, interrupted that.

There are cultural and technical issues at work any time our music online is in the hands of just one vendor. You can’t point exclusively at Amazon, because its major rivals in this very business are Google and Microsoft – more big centralized operations by enormous transnational American companies. You can’t just look at SoundCloud, because odds are the SoundCloud alternative you like may also use the same storage provider. You can’t even look at centralization, because centralization for musicians might be what allows their music to be found easily and for people to encounter maximum familiarity and minimum resistance in playing your tracks.

But you can begin to say, we have a potential problem here – and that at the very least, we can’t treat the cloud as something magical that will always be there for us.

So, what do we do?

Well, for one thing, we certainly want the Internet to be less … vulnerable than it is in that IT Crowd sketch. To some system administrators and developers, today, I suspect it felt almost exactly like that.

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Sex Wars Revisited

An early platform for lesbian photography, On Our Backs was instrumental in shaping a culture of desire.

By Laura Guy

Leon Mostovoy, from the series Market Street Cinema, 1987-88© the artist

Leon Mostovoy, from the series Market Street Cinema, 1987-88
© the artist

“For years we as lesbian-feminists have been fighting male pornography,” a reader named Donna from Washington, D.C., wrote. “It shocks and abhors me to find that women have stooped to the same methods.” To scan the letters pages of the San Francisco–based magazine On Our Backs, published from 1984 to 2005, is to find lesbian erotica thrown into relief against the backdrop of the feminist sex wars. Antagonisms that characterized the movement in the 1980s play out in an epistolary exchange, and through the rancor, a contrasting story emerges. “How different—bold—and wonderful to see (for my first time) women enjoying women,” another reader commented. “It makes me remember that I’m not alone in my thoughts, although fairly secluded in South Carolina,” says another. One reader gets right to the point: “A splendid aid to masturbation! Thanks!” Nestled among these letters are whetted appetites and desires unmet, a request for clarification on attraction between butches, a note about racial integration in the San Francisco leather scene, even a complaint about proofreading errors. A field of lesbian desire appears, one that was contested, shared, and shaped by contributors and readers alike.

The publication emerged at a juncture in feminist history known as the sex wars, a time of high-octane tensions between “pro-sex” and “anti-pornography” feminists. The two terms obscure the complexity of these debates yet gesture toward a stark ideological rift. To summarize, pro-sex feminists sought new languages for female desire. Feminist anti-pornography groups, such as Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media and Women Against Pornography, campaigned for increased legal sanctions on the production and circulation of pornographic material. Photography figured predominantly in this debate, both as a catalyst for antagonism and a means by which feminist affinities might be established and fantasies explored. In the context of these fraught and painful divisions, On Our Backs contributed to a burgeoning media through which images of lesbian sexuality were constructed and disseminated, lusted after and spurned.

Bertie Ramirez, cover of On Our Backs, Summer 1987Courtesy the Lesbian Herstory Archives

Bertie Ramirez, cover of On Our Backs, Summer 1987
Courtesy the Lesbian Herstory Archives

The magazine was an early platform for lesbian sex photography. Along with the Boston-based Bad Attitude, it carved out a space for others to emerge (Outrageous Women, Wicked Women, Quim, and Lezzie Smut, to name a few international examples that followed). In its first decade, On Our Backs was instrumental in shaping a culture organized around lesbian desire. The first editorial, written by Debi Sundahl and Myrna Elana, cofounding editor and publisher, respectively, introduces On Our Backs as an “offering” to the community with the aim of “sexual freedom, respect and empowerment for lesbians.” There were many who worked to realize this goal. Susie Bright, then the manager of Good Vibrations, a San Francisco shop selling sex toys for women, oversaw six years as editor in chief. Starting out as something of a sexual agony aunt, she wrote an advice column that became a trademark of the magazine. Nan Kinney, another founding editor, went to develop Fatale Media, a producer of lesbian erotica videos that by the end of the 1980s was the largest of its kind. Alongside essays, poetry, and graphic art, photography was key to realizing the ambitions of the magazine, and On Our Backs was shaped around a culture of image makers. Its smart black-and-white aesthetic was defined by photographers such as Honey Lee Cottrell, Tee Corinne, Morgan Gwenwald, Jill Posener, Leon Mostovoy, and Katie Niles. Photography stories, reportage, constructed scenes, and advertising images mixed with informative articles, erotic fiction, and, importantly, personals. Later, people like Lulu Belliveau and Phyllis Christopher would be instrumental in developing an ever more stylish visual language that continued to challenge the paucity of available images of lesbians in mainstream culture.

Phyllis Christopher, Alley South of Market, San Francisco, 1997 Courtesy the Artist

Phyllis Christopher, Alley South of Market, San Francisco, 1997
Courtesy the Artist

There are perhaps two intertwined genealogies here. One is within histories of feminism, the other within those of homosexual culture. As often happens in politics, the sex wars played out as a dispute not only between opposing factions but also different generations. This division caricatured second-wave lesbian feminism as desexualizing lesbian identity in favor of a political definition (“Any woman can be a lesbian,” sang lesbian separatist folk musician Alix Dobkin in 1974). Riffing on the politics of the 1970s, if not antagonistically, then at least with irreverence, On Our Backs appropriated their title from off our backs, a well-known feminist newspaper with roots in the women’s liberation movement. A series of images that Christopher produced for On Our Backs in 1992 announced a fetish for flannel. Christopher admits—with, one suspects, tongue firmly in cheek—to having suppressed her desire for the unfashionable check until seeing a documentary about Olivia Records, a record label synonymous with 1970s lesbian feminism. Getting off on history indicates a less complete break with the past than the idea of feminist waves first implied.

Tessa Boffin, The Angel, 1990, from the series The Knight's Move © the Estate of Tessa Boffins/Gupta+Singh Archives

Tessa Boffin, The Angel, 1990, from the series The Knight’s Move
© the Estate of Tessa Boffins/Gupta+Singh Archives

On Our Backs also looked back to public sex cultures that emerged in the wake of gay liberation. Many photographers whose work appeared in the magazine subverted the visual language of the male-dominated BDSM community. Gwenwald’s fetish pictures, including a piece of lace reminiscent of a handkerchief or panties folded into a back pocket, offer a wry counterpoint to Hal Fischer’s record of homosexual dress codes collected in his book Gay Semiotics (1977). Christopher acknowledges the formal influence of Robert Mapplethorpe on her approach to visualizing lesbian sex and desire. But, however exciting it might be to consider this subversion of gay male culture, references to canonical figures like Mapplethorpe should not obscure the radical project pursued by Christopher, Gwenwald, and their colleagues. As the AIDS crisis took hold in the United States and elsewhere, the imperative to create publicly visible representations of queer sex became ever more vital. In the context of political disempowerment and medical crisis, lesbian sex photography would take on increasing political charge, as the magazine provided an essential platform for lesbian creativity during a regime of state censorship enacted during the period of the culture wars in the United States. Circulating in unmarked envelopes, On Our Backs networked lesbians internationally. An exchange took place between photographers in the U.S. and the U.K., where figures like Del LaGrace Volcano, Tessa Boffin, and Jean Fraser foregrounded lesbian identity within the theories of representation emerging out of schools such as the Polytechnic of Central London. If this was photography in the service of pleasure, it was also photography in the service of history. To engage in documenting lesbian sex in the 1980s was to advance the historically necessary claims of feminism and gay liberation into the public sphere. For example, Mostovoy’s images of lesbian sex workers at San Francisco’s Market Street Cinema might be viewed as part of a broader reworking of documentary practice in the 1980s, tied to the emergent debates around the politics of representation. Yet many lesbian practitioners regarded documentary with suspicion. Instead, pornography, which is peculiarly structured by both arch realism and pure fantasy, provided a space where the pathologization of lesbian sexuality could be resisted. For its ubiquity, its obscenity, perhaps even the material conditions of its production, pornography is a particularly degraded kind of image making in histories of photography, removed from the value systems of the academy as well as those of the art world.

Del LaGrace Volcano, On the Way There, London, 1988 © the artist

Del LaGrace Volcano, On the Way There, London, 1988
© the artist

A collective project like a magazine is bound to be fraught with internal struggles, and from the outset On Our Backs lived with a degree of financial precarity that would lead to both a hiatus and change in management in the mid-1990s. The difficulty of running the publication was compounded by the mounting restrictions on queer spaces as moral hysteria surrounding the AIDS crisis intersected with pernicious gentrification in San Francisco, which had a homogenizing effect on the city. Revisiting this era through the pages of the magazine allows a different set of possibilities relating to queer identity to emerge. On Our Backs is but one chapter in a rich history that also includes the work of Cathy Cade, Ruth Mountaingrove, Corinne, and Volcano, whose vital contributions to queer photography began in the lesbian bars of San Francisco in the early 1980s. Trans or intersex-identified photographers like Volcano and Mostovoy started in the dyke scene alongside writers like Patrick Califia, known for his groundbreaking writing on BDSM subcultures and trans politics. Held within lesbian sex cultures of the 1980s are the kernels of the ongoing struggles for recognition—of trans folk, sex workers, fat activists—that continue to unsettle feminism today. At times it seems the magazine presents us with a lesbian feminist history of queer photography; at others, a queer history of lesbian feminist photography. Perhaps instead, the diverse record of lesbian desire produced through the photographs in On Our Backs shows us that the two are yoked together, far harder to separate than existing histories might have us believe.

Laura Guy is a writer based in Glasgow, U.K., where she is Lecturer in Art Context and Theory at the Glasgow School of Art.

Read more from Aperture Issue 225, “On Feminism,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

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Someone at Bitwig is working with Ableton Link on GitHub

One postlude to the Bitwig announcement – yes, someone at Bitwig has forked Ableton Link support. Have a look:


Thanks to one sharp-eyed Twitter reader for catching this one!

The reason is interesting – ALSA clock support on Linux, which would make working with Link on that OS more practical.

Now, Ableton has no obligation to support Bitwig on this. Proprietary applications not wanting to release their own code as GPLv2 need a separate license. On the other hand, this Linux note suggests why it could be useful – Bitwig are one of the few end user-friendly developers working on desktop Linux software. (The makers of Renoise and Ardour / Harrison MixBus are a couple of the others; Renoise would be welcome.) But we’ll see if this actually happens.

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Up Side Down: A Map Game That Will Have You Questioning Geography

The concept of north is “up” and south is “down” is a manmade idea. The only reason we perceive places to be geographically “up” or “down” is due to the composition of the conventional map. Some prime examples of how a map can change your perception of direction would be the early Egyptian maps that established the east as being on top and the early Muslim maps that positioned the south on top.

up side down map

A beautifully designed version of a south-up, or upside down, map was made by Angus Hyland, a partner at the London office of Pentagram. Hyland had designed the map for the firm’s annual Christmas card but has since turned it into an interactive site with an online quiz.

The interactive map completely warps the idea of directionality. To play the game, you are tasked with naming cities and countries based on an out of context, zoomed in image of a random landmass or body of water that has been flipped in one way or another. Even if you’re a geography whiz you’ll still have a pretty difficult time.

up side down map

As stated in a Pentagram blog post, the point of the game is to show just how arbitrary map orientations are:

The booklet and quiz mischievously play with the rigidity of the commonly accepted world map, which is increasingly at odds with modern GPS software that allows us to manipulate the space around us with a pinch of our fingers.

Change your perspective and test your geography smarts here.

[Via: Co.Design]


Smithsonian Announces Eye-Opening Finalists of Their 14th Annual Photo Contest

© Michael B. Hardie. All rights reserved. All photos courtesy Smithsonian.

Smithsonian just released the 70 finalists for their 14th annual photo contest and is currently accepting votes for their Readers’ Choice award. This year Smithsonian received some 48,000 submissions from photographers in 146 countries and territories from which they selected finalists in 7 categories: Natural World, The American Experience, Travel, People, Altered Images, Mobile, and Sustainable Travel. Selected here are some of our favorites, but you can see the rest and vote for your favs on their website.

© Lina Samoukova. All rights reserved.

© Sharon Castellanos. All rights reserved.

© Liam Wong. All rights reserved.

© rekha Bobade. All rights reserved.

© Luis Henry Agudelo Cano. All rights reserved.

© vickson dasan. All rights reserved.

© Pier Luigi Dodi. All rights reserved.


Faggots, punks, and prostitutes: the evolving language of gay men

Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit Real Men was the first time I had heard gays referred to as faggots. I was just out of the closet and in my first gay relationship in London. Jackson’s lyrics about how only our friends and other gays could call us faggots was encouraging, coming as it did from a straight man singing a song just before AIDS hit.

Faggot, often-considered a slur, has been reclaimed many times over by gay men, including in a new play by Declan Greene, The Homosexuals, or “Faggots”, currently showing at the Malthouse in Melbourne. The play looks at gay male relationships and their politics, and is apt as middle-class gay men and lesbians struggle with acceptance all over again in the face of their call for marriage equality.

My friends and I called ourselves fags because it was a way of turning the abuse on its head and laughing at the straight bullies.

And in merry-old-England there was abuse: one night when leaving gay club Heaven, a bunch of lads called us and our female friends “pooh jabbers”. It was graphic and offensive (“bum bandit” being a similar, anal-fixated term from about the same time) and it occurred to me how deeply, viscerally they hated us.

Language defines who you are. But words used by others to define gay people can say a great deal more about them than us.

From prostitutes to gays

Let’s begin with the most common term, “gay”, which baby-boomer homosexuals appropriated for their liberationist cause in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its pedigree is longer and according to Edmund White originally applied to women and meant loose or immoral, as in a prostitute. And “gay-house” was the term for a brothel. “In the past one asked if a woman was "gay,” much as today one might ask if she “swings,”“ wrote White.

"Homosexual” (or “homosexualist”) has similar 19th-century origins and was originally coined in 1869 by a Hungarian doctor, Karoly Maria Benkert.

“Faggot” has had different meanings according to where and when it was used. In eighteenth-century London it was first a term for prostitute then for homosexual. In 1920s New York, it described an effeminate homosexual who sought social/sexual relations with “normal men”, according to George Chauncey while a “flaming faggot” was an extremely obvious, flamboyant gay man.

In 1970s Australia, the ubiquitous “poofter” covered all forms of deviancy including men who had sex with other men, poor-performing sportsmen, politicians and motorists. Meanwhile, as the documentary Deep Water revealed, the literal bashing and killing of poofters caught at it in public parklands was something of a pastime.

“Cat” from “catamite” is ancient Roman with connotations of effeminacy, prostitution, and the passive role in a sexual encounter. “Fruit” was, like faggot, according to US historian Randolph Trumbach, a term first used in the 18th century for a prostitute and then a sodomite. “Fairy” and “queer” had similar origins between the world wars.

Why the fixation on prostitution? As Trumbach explains, there is a “long tradition in English usage” of words that are used to designate a prostitute being appropriated one generation later to describe sodomites.

This tendency for the words for prostitute to be later used for homosexual dates from 18th-century England when they often shared common social spaces, argues gay historian Rictor Norton.

Much later, historians such as Chad Heap and George Chauncey found similar intermingling in the underground bars that operated in New York and Chicago during Prohibition in the US.

The words gays use for themselves

Because of the sardonic nature of gayness, all of the above would have to be included also in the vocabulary of gay men and queers.

As well, there are community-specific terms, such as “clone”. Historically-specific, it connotes the style of gay men mid-1970 to mid-1980s (moustache, short hair, faded, baggy Levis and pocket and/or neck handkerchief) as exemplified by the lead singer of the Bronski Beat at the time of their hit single, Smalltown Boy.

More arcane terms include “ganymede” (a young male) which was used by Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries and “Marianne” and “Molly” from the earlier 18th century, again connoting an effeminate (or passive) male.

“Nance” and “nancy boy” as well as “Nelly” and “nellies” were terms used by both gays and straights also connoting effeminacy or youthfulness. According to one of writer Keith Vacha’s interviewees, nellies were “common queens” by which he meant: “ones with bleached blonde hair and plucked eyebrows”.

And finally, perhaps to the consternation of some of today’s toughs, there is “punk,” which according to Rudolph Trumbach was once the slang term for both prostitute and sodomite.

Terms of abuse and endearment

Terms of abuse are a way of distinguishing those whom we choose to marginalise because we do not like the look of them or because we were there first. In other words, they are the “outsiders” of sociologist Norbert Elias’s important work from the mid-1960s.

Humans have been doing this from the outset. Gangs and groups, them and us, and in the case of sexual preference, there are the straights, the “normals”, if you like, and the others, the sexual outcasts.

The terms I’ve illustrated were used by the majority to exclude prostitutes and homosexuals from “polite” society. While these terms were used to mark their difference, this did not prevent males from that same polite society from using the good services of prostitutes and homosexuals when it suited them. And as they did so then, they still do so now.

What is also interesting is the way in which sexual outcasts could adopt terms of abuse used for them and turn them into terms of endearment for each other — as my friends and I did in the 1980s when we called ourselves fags. And so, self mockery becomes a form of defence against the strictures of the priests and preachers.

It was literally the priests and the preachers, and later doctors and lawyers, who sought to demarcate “useful” sexual activity from wasted sexual activity. According to historian Michel Foucault the monogamous heterosexual couple produced new workers; those erotic and sexual activities that detracted from or weakened it were identified, categorised, and punished by law.

That young, gay men are now starting to reclaim these words is significant. It could mean that they are becoming interested in finding out where they have came from, that is, what are the origins of the culture they inhabit?

Twenty-one years ago, AIDS, which was then the dominant concern for gay men and culture, ceased to be a death sentence and instead became a manageable disease. Young men who have grown up since then could feel that other aspects of gay life can now be explored with greater freedom.

If this is so, it would suggest a strengthening of gay culture and community because people can only start exploring their past, warts and all, when they feel safe.

The Homosexuals, or “Faggots” will be showing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre until March 12.

The Conversation

Peter Robinson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.


Lesson 16

In lesson sixteen, students are asked to consider context and audience, and how these two elements impact meaning. Gordon Parks’s first photo-essay featured in Life magazine serves as a prime example of how sequencing and context influence the meaning of photographs. Using printouts of Parks’s images, students make editing choices based on what story they want the images to tell. This activity encourages students to edit and sequence their own photographs based on how well their images fit with their chosen theme.

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Lesson 15

By lesson fifteen, students should be pursuing their book projects and how to develop their themes further. The class considers the work of Richard Renaldi and the themes found in his project Touching Strangers. Students will be asked to review their own photographs and make a “shot list” that covers the photographs that are needed in order to complete their project. By the end of this lesson, students will understand that themes can change and reshooting is often necessary.

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Lesson 14

In lesson fourteen, students engage in an open discussion surrounding the works of Gillian Laub and LaToya Ruby Frazier, two artists who make different artistic decisions when photographing their families. During class, students have time to revisit their mind maps and review their chosen themes. Students are asked to photograph their neighborhoods, and will begin to actively conceptualize and work toward their chosen themes.

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Lesson 13

In lesson thirteen, students brainstorm themes and create mind maps for their final projects. A mind map is a visual thinking tool that allows students to better understand as well as generate new themes and ideas for their projects. Students can look at their mind maps later on in the curriculum when they need inspiration and motivation regarding their projects.

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