May 18, 2009

Chain-reaction of ideas

Category: Science Fiction,Teaching — Biella @ 9:25 pm

One day, I would love to teach a class on the culture and politics of technology and ditch all of the academic pieces and replace with a string of novels and fictional short stories. Though it may be a few years before I can pull this off, I am already compiling my list and there is naturally a healthy serving of science fiction (along with Kurt Vonnegut, who I adore).

Perhaps one my favorite science fiction authors is Philip Dick who edges his readers close to delirum and sometimes insanity and all through mere words. But one of my favorite writings by PD comes not from his fictional fun house but from a regular (and staid) letter composed of a simple and elegant description of what makes science fiction so e(special):

I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at
Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf
story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is *good* sf the
idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all,
it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the
reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that the mind,
like the author’s, begins to create.  Thus sf is creative and it
inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not
do.  We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read
it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being
set off in our minds by something we read, something with  a new idea
in it; hence the very best since fiction ultimately winds up being a
collaboration between author and reader, in which both create–and
enjoy doing it:  joy is the essential and final ingredient of science
fiction, the joy of discovery of newness. Philip Dick (in a letter)
May 14, 1981

Truth be told, I don’t really know much about science fiction outside of the classics but I look forward to reading more and slowly am adding a few pieces to my collection. And when I need to find out something about sci fi, I turn to Sumana who is pretty well schooled in its ways. She has recently co-edited a new anthology of science fiction stories including one on hardware hacking and faith that some of you might enjoy.

December 20, 2008

Anon visits NYU, the audio

Category: Academic,Anonymous,Anthropology,Geek,Politics,Teaching — Biella @ 5:30 pm

Since they beat me to it and I am swamped with stuff/errands/cleaning/grading/everything else, here is the audio from Anon’s great visit to my class on Dec 8th. I will throw up a copy on my server tonight as well.

Warning: Not lots but in fact tons of expletives.

December 7, 2008

Nerds, Geeks, and Nerd/Geek Grrrls

Category: Academic,Geek,Geekitude,Gender,Nerds,Teaching — Biella @ 10:13 am

I have not sat behind the helm of teaching for very long but I already have a few tricks up my sleeve. One of them is that I assign some of my favorite readings at the end of the semester so as to counter the downtrodden and tepid spirit and mood (not to mention attention) of my students, which drops precipitously with each passing day. Let’s face it post Thanksgiving, we are all a little tired and I try to find the readings, which uplift, intrigue, and challenge cherished assumptions about marriage and sex.

So far it seems to pay off and I often can tell because the conversational pitch and excitement in class is high and the student writings are good, great, even exceptional, which, again, is hard to produce/induce this late in the semester. Readers of this blog would probably be most interested in one of these lively readings, Ben Nugent’s American Nerd (and it might be interesting to hear how the European Nerd story would diverge or converge with this one).

One of my students, an audio geek and Free Culture President/Free Software junkie, by the name of John Randall produced a very nice little response (not research) paper on the Nugent reading as well as a short piece by Sarah Seltzer from Bitch Magazine
The(Girl) Geek Stands Alone (and thanks to Joe> for cluing me into this piece). Seltzer piece basically argues, in her own words, the following:

Imagine this scene from a comedy: a group of female friends sit around smoking a bowl and working on the Wikipedia page for Lord of the Rings. Their fashion sense is decidedly iconoclastic and several sport thick-rimmed glasses. Without a trace of self-consciousness, they have a hilariously ribald discussion on the relative traits of elves and orcs.
Awesome as it is, you’ll never see this scene onscreen. No mainstream movie or TV series would dare group so many female nerds together, or celebrate them so unabashedly

So John’s whole response paper is here and here is the pdf. In the paper, he makes a number of excellent points but what I loved most about it was his very geeky move at the end of the paper to prove Sarah (somewhat wrong) by listing all the girl geeks that do and have appeared in mainstream (and not-so mainstream) entertainment venues/shows, etc. They are as follows and in his own words:

I will now showcase my own geekiness through my knowledge of geeky female characters. Why? Because I can. But also because I want to demonstrate that if you look hard enough for representations of female geekyiness in pop culture, you will find plenty. Moreover, if you pick the right ones, you can make them support your argument about gender relations, whatever that argument might be.

Some of these charters and personalities are hardly gendered, some are hyper-sexual. Some are incredibly attractive but completely asexual. Some undergo a transformation into/out of geekiness, while others to not. Some are powerful, while some are powerless. Some (most?) celebrate their geekiness, others are tortured by it. They are all geeks– take your pick:

Aeon Flux, a sexy geek who’s technological gadgets give her super powers (Comic drawings then Charlize TheronAeon Flux)

Wonder Woman, attractive pilot of an invisible plane

Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones in short shorts, wielding guns and cracking computer codes (CGI and then Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider)

She-Ra, who was way smarter than He-Man (Masters of the Universe cartoons)

Gadget Hackwrench, beautiful chipmonk technician for Chip and Dale (Rescue Rangers cartoon)

Velma, featuring eyeglasses, awkwardness and brains (Scooby Doo),

Hermonie Granger, a geek who is temporarily rejected because she is a geek, remains a geek, and finds love and happiness (Harry Potter)

Barbarella, who, through comic strips and a 1968 film, helped introduce science fiction and sex to young women (Barbarella)

La Femme Nikita, a skillful, savvy, and very feminine girl who doubles as a covert spy

Kate Libby, aka ‘Acid Burn’, uber-sexualized hacker (played by Angelina Jolie in Hackers)

Kathryn Janeway, smart and powerful captain of the USS Voyager (Star Trek Voyager)

Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica),

Dana Scully, FBI agent with encyclopedic media knowledge. The bizzare subtex of non-realized sexual tension was part of the magic The X-Files.

Willow Rosenberg, geeky sidekick turned geeky supervillian (Alyson Hannigan in buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Michelle Flaherty, hyper-sexual band geek (Alyson Hannigan in American Pie series)

Dr Ellie Sattler, heroniene scientist (Jurrasic Park)

Ellie, scientis hero (played by both Jenna Malone and Jodi Foster in Carl Sagan’s Contact)

Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse

Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johanson in Ghost World)

just about every charater ever played by Jenna Malone (Donie Darko, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The United States of Leland, Saved!, etc)

half of the charaters played within the last decade by Jodi Foster (Panic Room, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Flightplan, The Addams Family

half of the charaters played by Christina Ricci (Mermaids, The Addams Family, Little Red Riding Hood, The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Prozac Nation, Pumpkin, Speed Racer)

half of the characters played by Natalie Portman (The Professional, Mars Attacks!, Star Wars, V for Vendette, The Darjeeling Limited, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Garden State)

Molly Ringwald. characters played by Molly Ringwald.

Rock musician Ani DiFranco and geeky Riot Grrls everywhere.

Sarah Vowell, NPR commentator celebrating her geeky life. Voiceover for geeky cartoon characters.

Rachel Maddow, for being Rachel Maddow.

First, awesome list, though he forgot a few (like one of my favorites, Bionic Woman and a more recent one, Juno) and it is nice to have it in one compact place. But, I have to say, I still agree to some degree with Sarah Setlzer, though I also agree with John. On the one hand there are representations and it is as important just to strut this stuff publicly as it is to claim that there is not enough female geeky representations in mainstream media. This is what John has done quite nicely.

One the other hand, as he himself says ” if you look hard enough for representations of female geekyiness in pop culture, you will find plenty.” I think those words, “if you look hard enough” also speaks volumes of the continued disparity that does exist. One should not have to look “hard,” and the only blockbusters, so to speak, which feature a female geek, is Tomb Raider, which for being so hyper-sexualized is not so geeky to me, no matter how good she is with the gadgets.

That said, what I find so important, and have emphasized in different contexts, is the need for what I think of simultaneous positive and negative form of critique, the former being about pointing to already exisitng examples to get people jazzed and excited and to put things in perspective. The later form of critique, negative critique, identifies a lack, a void to fill, just the type of excellent commentary in the Seltzer piece…

But now for the most important question, who has John overlooked?

October 17, 2008

Measuring a Courses’ Success: xkcd

Category: academic,Hackers,Teaching — Biella @ 9:56 am

So we are about 1/2 way done with my hacker class and I have to say it has been a pretty fun ride, especially since many students thought hacking was all about pimply kids engaging in malicious acts of computer violence and many had no knowledge of basic technological concepts like UNIX or source code. We had to first sweep away the cobwebs of misrepresentation and replace with a more solid foundation of facts (however messy the world of hacking still is!)

But after building a foundation, you still wonder whether students are learning. Traditionally we gauge progress with exams or essays, which can be effective but let’s face it, at times a little tedious. But today a student sent me the following very short email, which made me realize I had another barometer at my disposal to gauge their progress xkcd:

I wouldn’t have gotten the joke if it wasn’t for you. Thanks.

The email not only made me smile (for it is always nice to know your students are leaning something) but it gave me the idea that in the future I might include a comic based exams composed of 5-10 comic strips (many from xkcd) and ask for an exegesis of them. Why not? Seems like fun to me. And it would be great to include the following as one of my course objectives: “By the end of this class you will be able to read xkcd and actually understand (most) of it.” If they could do that, well, they must have learned at least something :-)


One of my readers, Florian, sent this nice bit, which I have not read before:

“I read your blog via Planet Debian and immediately felt reminded of Jane
Goodall’s Foreword to Gary Larson’s The Far Side Gallery 5 which I’d
like to share with you:”

| Recently I was talking with one of the best researcher know, Tim
| O’Halloran. He has been able to inspire generations of middle and high
| school students to care for the natural world. Tim told me that Gary
| Larson has had a major impact on his teaching. Tim uses Far Side
| cartoons to introduce topics, to illustrate points, and to “reinforce
| the notion that the more we investigate the universe, the richer is our
| experience.” When designing exam papers Tim finds the cartoons “ease the
| tension and spark the memory.” It all began when, in the fall of 1985,
| he was given the task of teaching science to 162 Tulsa ninth-graders who
| were convinced that it was absolutely irrelevant to their futures. Tim
| put one hundred Far Side cartoons on a large bulleting board, and told
| the students to study them. The consensus was that they didn’t
| understand the humor – The Far Side was “too weird”. However, Tim wrote
| me, “Each time we completed a unit and the students approached the
| bulletin board with newly acquired wisdom, I smiled quietly and thanked
| the cosmos for Gary’s perspectives as the kids roared with the confident
| laughter of the enlightened.”

Having taught myself for a while, I can fully and happily relate.

Later in the semester, and for my hacker course, we will be reading Understanding Comics, which will give us a bit of a meta perspective on why comics are so good at conveying a certain type of message. I can’t wait to read it as I have heard it is fantastic.

October 5, 2008

Slowly Blogging Away

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,IP Law,Politics,Teaching — Biella @ 3:25 am

The students in my Hacker Culture and Politics have now been at the question of politics and ethics in the world of hacking for over a month. I think a pretty solid foundation has been built and now we are getting into much nittier grittier issues, like intellectual property law. The latest entry is on IP and provides an excellent sense of what we talked about and what we covered in class and in the readings.

I am excited to see the class blog develop, if nothing else, because it gives a pretty good sense of the topics we cover and what conversations we have. I used to find it frustrating to have classes literally vanish away after they were done and yet so much labor and time had been put in them! This type of blogging is important as it can provide a tangible and somewhat fixed medium for capturing and preserving what happened (and then free you from having to save boxes of notes that you can collect during college).

I know there were a number of times I really really wanted to recall something from one of my undergraduate classes, but since I had finally thrown away the big old boxes of notes and readings from those days, there was no place to look. It was just not practical to lug my boxes of notes from place to place, move to move especially when I only wanted to take a look every few years for maybe one thing. With this type of blog, there is a record of what happened for everyone to share.

That said, I am faced with a problem when I teach this class again. Since we provide what I think is a pretty decent account of what we are doing, I will most probably have to put down the blog for a period of time when I am teaching it again though of course the syllabus and readings will also change to some degree.

September 1, 2008

Getting there

Category: Academic,Hackers,Teaching — Biella @ 8:19 am

The fall semester is right around the corner and I have spent the last week obsessively tweaking my hacker course. I think I finally crafted a syllabus I can live with for the rest of the semester.

I say “live with” because of what I excluded, which I simply did not want to (notably there is no material on DeCSS/DMCA, hacking the I-Phone, and I wanted to do more on encryption). But the good thing is I will be teaching this again in the future and will learn how to rotate in and out some of this material. Now I am off to enjoy a final free day before teaching responsibilities really begin.

April 16, 2008

My Special Topics Course on Hacking

Category: Academic,Hackers,Teaching,Tech — Biella @ 4:52 am

So I am nearly done with teaching this year, which is a relief, not because I don’t like it but because after a full year of teaching, one naturally wants a break. But before it is even over, you have to start thinking about your fall courses, mostly so you can order books in time and because developing a syllabus also requires more than a few days or weeks of work. Next fall, I am re-teaching a first year course Introduction to Human Communication and Culture as well as a new course on computer hacking. While I have an old version of the syllabus, I am going to spend the next few weeks revising, reshuffling, and updating. If there is anything you think should be included in this type of course drop me a line.

Below is the new description of the course.

The Culture and Politics of Computer Hacking.

This course takes as its object computer hackers to interrogate not only the ethics and practices of hacking, but to examine more broadly how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet more generally. We will examine how hacker values are realized and constituted by different legal, technical, and ethical activities of computer hacking—for example, free software production, cyberactivism and hactivism, cryptography, and the pranksih games of hacker underground. We will pay close attention to how ethical principles are variably represented and thought of by hackers, journalists, and academics and will use the example of hacking to address various topics on law, order, and politics on the Internet such as: free speech and censorship, computer gaming, privacy and security, and intellectual property. This will allow us to critically 1) problematize thinking on computer hackers as a socio-cultural group guided by a singular ethic and set of practices 2) examine the multiple ways hackers draw on and reconfigure dominant ideas of property, freedom, and privacy through their diverse moral codes and technical activities 3) broaden our understanding of politics of the Internet by evaluating the various political effects and ramifications of hacking.

March 9, 2008

Dead Media Archive

Category: Academic,Teaching,Tech — Biella @ 6:33 am

When you join an academic department, you are just one body and mind among many others doing what you do: teach, write, go to conferences, answer a lot of student emails, advise, etc. However, what you don’t get to do is really see your colleagues very often. While we come together far too frequently for faculty meetings, once you are done, you just want to scuttle out of the room (and as quickly as possible) to continue what seems to be an endless stream of work. But over the course of months and years, there are times and moments when you do come across your colleagues and their work: you may assign some of their work in your class class, go see them speak at an event, or learn about their work over coffee.

This weekend during a PhD prospective weekend, I finally got to learn about what is probably one of the coolest projects to come out of my department, The Dead Media Archive run by Ben Kafka and Alex Galloway for their Dead Media Archeology Class.

Loosely inspired by a mailing list by the same name started years ago by Bruce Sterling (which eventually suffered its own death), they are collecting information and analyzing the significance of all sorts of Dead Media, some of which were quite present and important for our economy and communication systems, others which flickered much more briefly as a bright idea but never really caught on. As part of their class assignments, students have to write in-depth descriptions, histories, and analysis’ of these objects and they are fantastic; so if you are into dead media, do check out the archive.

February 6, 2008

The rise of the alpha girl

Category: Academic,Gender,Teaching — Biella @ 4:39 am

Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon predicts thet spread and rise of the alpha girl. Does this mean we will see more female software hackers and developers soon?

January 19, 2008

Classic in Internet Studies

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,IP Law,Teaching — Biella @ 10:40 am

One might think that it is too early to declare the existence of a “classic” work on the Internet given how the Internet as a widely accessible communications networks is barely out of its pre-teen years, But if there is one book that I would say is a classic, it’s Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life. There were plans underway to release it under a libre license but after I ran into Julian at the AAAs in November, I got the scoop that things had come to a screeching halt.

So a few days ago I was surprised to find in my inbox, this nicely crafted announcement that My Tiny Life is more or less (more more than less) free as a free bird. This is good news and his story about the trials and tribulations of getting My Tiny Life out of the noose of copyright, is an interesting one, involving among other things, outsourced Indian Labor. Who knew.

And while I am on the topic, I meant to write about who, among the many authors I assigned this last fall, took the cake among students as their favorite book/article. Somewhat, unsurprisingly, Dibbell’s more recent Play Money was the champion. Most of the comments were relayed in class but here is one of the more amusing comments indicating the love:

Reading Julian Dibbell’s Real Money, Or How I quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot was exceedingly more interesting than I expected.

And then just yesterday, another student wrote me an email telling me he read and re-read the book over his holiday break and wants to get Dibbell inivited to NYU to speak (which would be great, though I admittedly have no idea how to make that happen given my recent arrival here). But clearly, there is another classic in the making.

Thankfully students liked many other readings and I think there were two other clear winners: Carl Elliot’s Better than Well , Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal. and Michael Sandel’s The Case against Perfection. This is of course no surprise to me as I picked these books because I knew they would teach themselves.