Friday, January 16, 2009

A Gift and Acrobat® Kludges

Tracing an Article

(The publication of this article in a blog would cause difficulties to the dear friend referenced herein.)


The Trace of an Electronic Document

Chennai: Sun Oct 14 15:35:36 2007
[Origin]: Sun Oct 14 05:05:34 2007

Dramatis Personæ__________________________________________________


[Towards the end, it is revealed that personæ 1, 2, and 4 are the same person. But this advance revelation isn't much of a revelation, it is a retrospective postface, because you, the reader, don't know anything until you’ve actually read it.]


We talk about two persons, using first, second, and third person narrative interchangeably.

Recipient has received an electronic gift from the friend (who is thus his benefactor). Out of love and out of boredom, Recipient answers some questions about the gift.


I: Ahem... it is said you came by a lot of stuff recently.

R: Oh, quite. It was in yesterday's paper, I got it today.

I: Stuff, you say?

R: (Disinterested, as if what he is saying is too technical for the interlocutor to comprehend.) Articles by famous philosophers. It was a sweet surprise. but there's a story behind it...

[We break off and resume quite abruptly where the respondent is answering questions about the sudden acquisition.]

(This is possibly uttered by Respondent.)...The article is named, simply, a2.pdf. This would mean

The article is really called "a2.pdf".

The creator of the article had named it so, this being one in a series, the series starting a1.pdf, and continuing with the current file, in a3.pdf, a4.pdf and so on.

If this is indeed the case, then the author was in a hurry to finish it.

That being so, there would be a number of such articles to be separately named
and saved to disk.

The motive of such an operation is obviously deep friendship, love, and the sense of giving.

The nature of such an operation seems to be covert.

(This indeed seems to be the case.)

I: From the resplendent simplicity of the naming convention, what can be inferred about the friend in question?

R: The friend, as you may observe, has used a simple naming convention: the alphabet is the first letter of the Christian name of the author—or any such identifying name that would qualify. The number represents, as we have seen, the order in which he has saved these documents. The naming method, though simple, is utilitarian, and in addition possesses the qualities of being logical, straightforward, and easily extensible. It can be scaled up to a hundred or more files, with the added advantage of speed. It concentrates the process, it expedites it, and above all it focuses the attention of Recipient to the content of the file, not the form of the file (which is bland enough and uniform for all the files). It asks to be cut open and read. No matter how long Recipient stays away from it, no matter how urgent and legitimate his excuse for being negligent, the day he comes back to it he must open it, and when he opens it the content bursts upon him, shakes awake his familiarity, and he drops down in a chair, exclaiming simply, 'Ah! This was just what I was looking for!'

I: How true is the final interjection? —I mean, did he really ejaculate on all 40 occasions?
(The interlocutor seems remarkably prescient, don't I?)

R: Yes, nearly so. His surprise gradually gave way to the physical expression of wonder, as evidenced by a visible dropping of the jaw, at which unnatural position he contemplated the possibility, immanent, of his investment in a print copy of the Culture Industry being made a mockery of, by the serial exposition of the articles contained therein, such as in the two essays that immediately caught his attention as he himself set upon renaming the files in a fashion more appropriate and conducive to archiving and quick perusal.

I: Renaming the files? Wherefore?

R: Because, otherwise, in the cryptic beauty of the received files and the perceived identity afforded by filesize were hidden the titles of the articles. As such it was but a trivial exercise (unskilled labour).

I: How come?

R: It was done as follows: —

Open file

Observe title (to quench curiosity, and before it kills you:)

Copy title (Ctrl-C)

Press F2 (the file being already highlighted if you'd just closed the Acrobat window using Ctrl-W)

Rename (Ctrl-V)

Press enter to effect the change

I: Bamf! So it was unskilled labour, as we can see. Were the possibility of error discounted, or were they...?

R: …Were accounted for, you see. In case of error,

On renaming and you needed to retain the original cipher, you just pressed Ctrl-Z

Of course, that being the only valid possibility for error (all other possibilities for error being benign with the file not getting renamed), we could conclude that the method was foolproof. Since the possibility for error had been accounted for, we could say a fail-safe was in place.

I: To what end...?

R: Renaming, consequent to the 40 cases of gleeful discovery accompanied by two-score tip-to-toe thrills, led to an even richer sense of wealth. Subsequently, to suitably deploy his treasures, he created the following folders:






Though it must be noted in passing that he made these files as he opened and renamed the files. It may also be noted that the sense of order was already present in the friend's gifts: these were simply a 'trace' from the originary communication (the zipped files). The friend had enforced order so:

1. The Reichenbach files were to be found in a zipped file Recipient had downloaded to his disk as simply, '[the name of the friend].zip'

2. The second and third groups of files were all downloaded "as a single file" into two other, similarly named zip files.

Thus had order been established and maintained across the electronic communication, which is really subversion at the speed of light. (Forgive the well-known and slight error in the appropriation of the speed.)

I: And what did Recipient do?

R: Nothing. He did nothing, instead, he was done upon. He received a long distance phone call from Chennai on his mobile phone, from the said friend who, only a few hours ago, had been engaged in sending these files electronically (using simple mail transfer protocol) with the aid of a Web browser. Then he noted the number before answering, when his friend's name had shown up. His face brightened, there was a tension of facial musculature, a sort of expectancy—there is always the element of the unknown in a much desired phone call.

A few short sentences were intoned, to the effect that the friend had sent mail with and quite a few attachments. Which immediately sets Recipient excited, but mail has to wait until eleven at night, when everything is quiet and the line (as in telephone line) clear. He connected using dialup, but connection to the mail server is mysteriously refused. He takes heart in the fact that it is probably very busy for the network (daily dump time). He tries again after ten minutes avoiding the proxy. Same mysterious misbehaviour.

Full two hours later, he tries again and connects and downloads from one of his mail accounts a 1 MB zipped file containing the writings of Hans Reichenbach. He does not unpack it. It is saved to a folder in his desktop which bears the name of the friend, his benefactor (and who would later be described as his wonderwall, out of gratitude).

He replies to the mail, and says something about the friend's comments about his latest writings. The mail is moderately long.


(In the third person) As we have seen, Recipient opened one of his mail accounts, found a few attachments, and concluded—with no hope for retrospective anticipation—that this was to be all. Of course, knowing no other alternative, he was unaware that this was not to be the end of it. (As I am trying to say again and again, this possibility does not exist for Recipient, happy at the time of having laid hands on his first Reichenbach. At that point of time he is simple gleeful as a child with a new toy. And, as I always say in my formal philosopher vein: The possibility... does not exist.)

So yesterday—that is, on Oct 20, Recipient is awakened to the notification of new mail in his regular mailbox. He opens the mailbox and is delighted to find the second and third parts. (The third part, he must add, had been sent thrice by the friend just to make sure it got across—though for what particular reason escaped him at that moment). This communication had the following salient features.

1. The first mail had 13 attachments. Utter delight, coupled with admiration (well, he made full use of all the allowed number of attachments, didn't he).

2. The second mail had—hold your breath—23 attachments. Recipient is stupefied, and glee is discoloured by doubt—how come so many? Perhaps Google did allow so many attachments provided the size did not exceed the limit. He looked at the size—yeah, the single zipped download was around 6 Mbytes. Fair enough. Yea, maybe that was the explanation.

And then began the renaming and arrangement.

And thus finally he obtained the following grand deployment: ~

Fig 1 The Grand Scheme of Things________________________________________

[Figure cut for brevity]

(Conversation continues, in dubious person)

I: His subsequent actions, after being obsequious to the benefactor?

R: ...Were those of studied observation of the acquired treasures, followed by cold, calculated perusal and beautification.

I: Beautification?

R: (Somewhere during this conversation, the narrative jumps into the first person) Some of the pages, being all of them carefully scanned and OCRed from master documents and rare books (manuscripts), were slightly tilted out of the plumb, resulting in a 2 or 3˚ tilt of the page. The tilt—

I: How in blazes is that important—

R: —Allow me to continue! Allow me to ingratiate you with an ample dose of explanation! The tilt… is significant. If you take the printout of a tilted page, with the black scanner background showing, it immediately gives the game away.

I: How so?

R: Well, since there are a lot many pages to print, you economise, and naturally you go for legal size paper, with two pages to a side, four pages to the sheet, and thus end up with the full Monty for much less than a third the cost. That being so, you also take the printout in booklet form (Acrobat Reader 8 gives you that provision, though it hasn't got anything else to recommend it). You end up with tell-tale rectangles framing in the felon pages, which would not be there if the pages were proper.

I: So—?

R: So, Recipient opened the suspect PDF in Acrobat Professional and did the following: ~

1. Removed the first page after transferring essential data (Title, Author, Keywords) into metadata, as well as adding the value for Subject (how own values) and also some custom values (such as Base URL and Created (time)). The first page was removed because it was letter-size, and would not fit in with the rest of the document (which was book-size).

2. Opened the Pages view in Acrobat Professional.

3. Selected each page one by one to see if the page was skewed. If skewed, the following steps were executed.

3.1 Alt-O to enter the value for top crop margin (usually in the range 0.02 to 0.04")

3.2 Tab to enter the value for bottom crop margin (usually in the range 0.02 to 0.05")

3.3 Tab to enter the value for left crop margin (usually in the range 0.02 to 0.05")

3.4 Tab to enter the value for right crop margin (usually in the range 0.03 to 0.07")

3.5 Tab again to see the crop mark on the right margin (just to ensure. The crop marks signify that the page has been placed under erasure.)

4. To correctly view if the cropping was adequate to remove the black edges, Recipient would move the options dialog box to slightly to the bottom right position.

5. After ensuring that an adequate crop box had been provided for, the cropping operation was effected by pressing Enter. Errors were corrected in the manner described above and also by editing the values of the crop margins.

(It is notable that though the offending borders are removed, the text will remain tilted at 2 or 3˚, thus preserving the arche-trace, or a trace of the arche-trace.)

I: Seems to have been a smooth operation. The unskilled labour, I mean.

R: Twice or thrice Recipient, after doing all the dirty work, nearly ruined things by optimizing the pdf. It resulted in the filesize shooting up to over five times the original. However, being conversant with such disasters, Recipient always had his fingers on the ready with the Ctrl-Z keys, and when this was not possible, he made sure to make a copy of the file being modified (using right-click + drag of the file's icon on the folder window, of course). This resulted in the almost hassle-free possibility of just deleting the optimized file and renaming the copy.

I: It must have been exhausting for Recipient. So much unskilled labour to speak of. His neck must be longing for detachment.

R: Oh but surely! His back is aching like a sore bag. But, in between, I had done the following

1. Consumed 1½ plates of mutton omelette (that is: three eggs and minced mutton garnished with pepper powder and some salt, consumed raw, with no fluid intake)

2. Made a dash to the microwave oven, where, after a long stint which is superfluous and much painful to describe in any detail, he emerged beaten and foiled with a flask half-full of instant coffee (Nescafé Sunrise), which he held aloft in his hands towards the ceiling (where the electric fan was furiously circumvolving) only to impatiently retract a minute later to draw the cup towards his lift, take a gulp or two, and immediately feel flat by its taste which fell way below his expectations. (He would, later on, fall tolerably in love with it, as would cause him to go out and fetch two dozen Britannia biscuit-buttons which went well with good coffee.)

3. Consumed the said coffee and biscuits.

All this hard work took their toll on his poor back.

I: But the total feeling has been one of success...?

R: The same. Pure triumph. When he keeled over for the day (night?) he felt like an emperor hemmed in by kludge. He felt kingly, to be sure, with all the aches and hurts of a torpedo.

I: But we haven't broached the subject. The trace, I mean.

R: Oh yes, the arche-trace, or a trace of time-zones. Or, a trace of how McLuhan's prophecy is disseminated through the Web. The promise...

I: Come now. How did the trace originate.

R: It was quite accidental. Recipient was merely copying out the characteristics into the metadata and custom document tags when he noticed that the file creation date as proclaimed in the auto-generated title page was different from the file creation date as reported by an invocation of Ctrl-D (Document Properties). This fact went uncorrelated for some time, but then it hit Recipient that he was banging his head against...

I: Banged your head against what? You torture me!

R: …Against time-zones. Vremya-zona. Or something like what the Russians used to say. It suddenly dawned on Recipient. Everything came in a flash: the file repository tucked away several time zones away, while, a few seconds later, a few time zones and fifteen thousand kilometers away, our magnanimous friend receives his communication which he stores in his disk for five days and then passes on electronically, before invoking his friend's attention with another electronic contrivance, the mobile phone.

I: But the trace—

R: All right. Here it is:

[Origin]: Sun Oct 14 05:05:34 2007
Chennai: Sun Oct 14 15:35:36 2007

(It goes without saying that this is the trace for a particular file; all files having similar trace.)

I observe that you are not quite amused. did you expect something more? Anything different? Did you expect a pack of cigarettes? A matchbox of RDX perhaps? A trace is a trace. Or do you by any chance (sweet sound of birds twittering in the background) fail to see it?

I: Well, it seems pretty dubious to me. Pretty ordinary. Well, those are two times for the same day.

R: My oh my! 'Two times for the same day!' Strike me dead, Injun. Can't you see the trace?

I: Well—

R: The difference. The time difference, you dolt. It is exactly two seconds.

I: What? There's a difference of over ten hours, whichever way you look at it.

R: Ten hours, my foot! Separated by 10.5 time zones, which happens because India uses a non-standard time for its time-zone. It is exactly the same time! (Of course, if I tell you that the "origin" is a core router in Denver, Colorado, separated from us by more than 15 Internet hops, you would be writing me off as a charlatan. But that indeed seems to be the case.)

I: So—?

R: This is the trace. Electronic file generated upon the friend's request in Denver, in less than two seconds the friend receives it over a fast connection (hence the two seconds), so your friend has the creation date inscribed as "Oct 14 15:35:36 2007". If your friend were God, receiving the communication simultaneously with another God situated in Denver, he would have had the Creation date inscribed "Oct 14 15:35:34 2007". The trace also makes it clear that the two computer systems are synchronized by possibly the very same cæsium atomic clock maintained by NIST. In any case, the two machines are very accurately synchronized and in tune with Web time, which is the most accurate propagation of time you get to live with (if you cannot allow yourself the luxury of being God). As we always say, God is dead but not Internet Time...


Dear Raphael, this I dedicate to you. Especially, your gifts. You gift has been magnificent. Hoping that I could hope for repeat performances.

I got the idea for this... thing in about five seconds. As I have said in it, it was quite sudden, the trace revealed itself to me quite suddenly. I suddenly felt like I had prised the wisdom of the electronic communication. (What comes in the communication—the message—is quite secondary, and it may not entirely establish its content even after repeated readings, musing, and subsequent alterations.) So we can quite simply replace the communication with its form. This is the de(con)struction of the form. I could perhaps go on a bit, but this is basically it.

Derrida's technique (whatever he chooses to call it), in a sentence: To discover (uncover) how the writer has written the article (text). This means uncovering each trace, each construction line. (You are doubtless familiar with my idea that a work of art must hide its construction lines no matter what. This is because the artistic creation is not an advertisement; not a business proposition per se.) I had anticipated the very technique independently of him. What he says is different of course, but what I understand of him I understand perfectly. The details he delves in are excruciating but it's nothing to write a lot about, actually. You may be right in saying that the things I write sometimes have that 'Derridean' touch. It's unintentional, it's just me, and I haven't read him much (he is exasperating, much like most continental philosophers).

In retrospect, I also humbly realize that this is my first critique of Derrida, without ever having read even a chapter written by him in full, which is a very shameful thing indeed. But I am against naming of all sorts, so this stands justified.

Essentially a single sitting.

Postscript v2

I’d written this way back in 2007 October, a fact which is attested to by the numerous dates scattered throughout. The article stems from a genuine sense of wonderment which comes only occasionally (perhaps a dozen times in ones life) to habitual users of the computer. It was indeed thrilling (the exact sequence being now quite inaccessible; irretrievably lost) to note that the trace was only two seconds in the making. Occasionally, only occasionally, do I feel surprised by technology. And when it does surprise you, it doesn’t require a CLK or a Sukhoi Flanker to do that; a simple PDF will do.

The original postscript applied only to my friend to whom this was originally addressed. This was not meant for public consumption. I have however posted this taking into consideration the very considerable fact that my readership is rather limited (I should rather say readerboat) in number, so I’m not unduly worried that my friend (who else but—) would come breathing down my back. The dedication (to Deleuze and Derrida) are afterthoughts, because this article was inspired by them.

I’m not so sure about how this post would be taken but I rather enjoy it as a writerly reader. I enjoyed immensely as I wrote it; I hope you appreciate it as a rather technical piece. There are some subtle (if forceful) kludges I’ve described in some detail which would make rather interesting reading, if not complete sense, to those who are acquainted with Acrobat merely as the software used to read PDF. In my opinion, Acrobat is an incredible of software which produces print-ready output (something which UNIX packages like roff still do admirably). I single it out as the software which made the online dissemination of books possible and attractive; hypertext has its place but I don’t think people would prefer to read online. And to me at least, the ultimate electronic gift is a good PDF.


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