June 26, 2012

Engendering Change

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS — Biella @ 11:53 pm

I have always thought the question of gender in FLOSS far from simple … And so when I came across a peer review publication on the topic that made it too simple, I along with Christina Dunbar Hester — the real heavy weight of our piece — penned a response. It goes well with Jon maddog Hall’s moving piece coming out for Alan Turing’s 100th birthday.

November 23, 2010

An unlikely story about a pit bull attack, free software, and a New York Times reporter

Category: Academic,F/OSS,New York City,Pit Bulls — Biella @ 6:43 am

If I told you that in the last two days, I have been caught in a vortex of coincidence, a vortex composed of pit bulls, free software, diaspora (the software), mold, and a New York Times reporter, I bet you would think “not likely.”

So the story started on Jet Blue, which offers snacks, lots of them, and Direct TV. Since I don’t have TV I kinda go on a binge, watching all sorts of shows as I make my way home. I watched a pretty distributing but interesting documentary on Jim Jones on CNN and a show on Animal Planet on pit bulls and parolees. When I rolled into my my current digs in northern Manhattan (I am currently banished from my downtown apt due to mold, but that is a whole other story), there was a dinner party well underway. At some point in the evening prompted by me, we talked pit bulls as my friends want to get one but their family has issued a threat of disavowal if they do.

The next morning, I was scoping out the website for the Animal Planet show as I was intrigued by it and frankly I kinda like pit bulls (maybe less now although I think they are unfairly maligned). Five minutes into pursuing the site, I hear screeches from hell. It sounds like a woman is being attacked. And she is. A woman right outside of my window was being attacked by… a pit bull.

So I am staying with a friend, an open source developer, Karl Fogel and good soul that he is, he runs out to help the lady (since I have been subject to 5 weeks of sickness due to mold—or so that is what we think it is—was enough for me; I could not stomach the idea of getting bit so I played the role of concerned spectator). It took minutes upon minutes, really just too many minutes to get the pit bull off, even a brick pounded against his head failed (apparently, a cigarette or match held to the throat does the trick, which I found out later). Eventually, the dog was extracted, a huge team of cops showed up, the dog was whisked away, the victim taken to the hospital, and life returned to calm and quiet.

So the next day, I was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer who wrote a story about Diaspora for the New York Times back in the summer, helping to propel it from relative obscurity to near insta-fame (one of the Diaspora developers, Max, was my student). We were running out of time (I had another appointment) so I asked him if he lived in northern Manhattan as that is what his bio page indicates. He confirmed, I explained I was up there and that we could meet up there later to finish up. He inquired what part, I told him roughly where I was, he remarked he was near there, and so naturally I told him about the crazy pit bull attack I witnessed from my window as I can’t shut my trap when it comes to things like that.

Well yes you know what is coming next next: he was there, helping Karl (and others) deal with the pit bull attack. He lives nearby and heard the shrieks of agony and came out to aid. All and all it was pretty horrific. He also “met” Karl in so far as Karl gave him his phone number and email just in case he was needed as a witness (Karl had to dash off to catch a plane). Well, the “funny” thing, or as you also might guess: Jim, who is doing some more writing on tech, free software etc, should really talk to Karl given his key role in the community, so they already met, although under odd and terrible circumstances.

I am not sure if I am more wigged out by the fact that I was reading about pit bulls when the attack happened or whether the reporter I was interviewed by was there along side with a free software developer he really needs to interview. Whatever the case, I kinda hope the vortex of coincidence now leaves me to hit someone else (sans any horrible attack). Or else, as Karl noted in the blog comments, I will have to be very careful about what shows I watch:

Amen to that! Enough with the coincidence vortex. As I said to Biella in IRC later: “Do us a favor — don’t watch any shows about nuclear attacks on New York, okay

September 7, 2010


This summer of 2010 has been memorable. It started with a difficult period following the hospitalization and death of my mother, a series of very intense and equally memorable conferences catapulting me out of my funk and ending with a trip to Ireland, perhaps one of my most pleasant trips ever. I have always wanted to go there, as I have some good Irish friends and I was also quite attracted to the place due to its history, so when the opportunity came for me to go, I did not hesitate to book my ticket. I was not left disappointed in any way, shape or form, although since I barely experienced the gray, misty, and rainy weather Irish is famous for, my experience may admittedly be a bit skewed.

These are some of things I did and some of my fragmented thoughts about Ireland and some photos, proof that the weather was UnIrish

Ireland and The Irish: Well I can’t—as no one can—speak of The Irish as if they were some unitary group but I did learn a lot about Irish history and managed hang out with a number Irish folks (even a family) and one thing that seems to mark Ireland as distinct, what makes it stand out from the rest of its Western European brothers and sisters, is the pervasive sense of history bleeding into the ambiance, perhaps because it is so tragic. The short version of the history, if you don’t know it, is that the Irish, especially the Catholics, got repeatedly screwed by the British monarchs/rulers/planters/government/ for nearly a thousand years, the last five hundred of those being particularly harsh and ugly, a cycle of slight gains crushed by various forms of tyranny and violence at least until part of the country achieved independence (Northern Ireland is a bit of a different story).

I may have gone a bit out of my way to learn about Irish history, more than I have done for any other place, but this historical consciousness seemed to be inescapable, precipitating into all sorts of conversations and places. To take one example, I went to see Gaelic Football, one of the two beloved national sports (the other being hurling), and the minute you learn anything about this sport, you learn that it is intimately bound with the Irish fight for independence and nationalism.

The Irish are also very warm, kind, and outgoing. They also seem to curse an awful lot as well, so much so cursing is a bit of a national pastime, which yes, I (f*cking) loved as I tend to have a bit of a foul mouth myself, curbed I will admit, in recent years and in the classroom. It crept up in a lot of places but was most pronounced during the All Ireland Semi-Final Gaelic football game when the ladies (not lads, mind you) behind me were constantly yelling at the referee, hurling the c-word (rhymes with trunk) whenever they made a call they disagreed with.

EASA/Maynooth.: I went to Ireland to attend the largest Anthropological meetings in Europe, and in specific an all day panel on digital anthropology, which seemed like a great opportunity given we are a a bit of a minority. The conference was impressively large with roughly 1200 attendees (can you believe there are that many anthropologists?), smoothly run, and the all-day panel on digital media was quite lively and I got to meet some really interesting folks. I was a tad sad to find out Maynooth is the only university in Ireland with an Anthropology department (for crying shame lads!!!) but at least it is located in a darn stunning university: the old quarters of the campus are strikingly beautiful.

Anonymous: I have done some work on Anonymous and well when I found out there was going to be a raid/protest at the Church of Scientology (a pretty dismal, and run down church), I got in contact with Irish anon to let them know I was coming. Although someone first decapitated me (at least in character with their norms, right?), when I showed up in person, they were not only civil but really quite hospitable (greeting me with one of my favorite songs). Overall it was a great day. I was reminded of important differences among Anons (Irish Anon’s take their anonymity pretty seriously, the New York Anons do not) and also good to experience the social life and metabolism of a protest, especially one attended by folks who have lost family to the church.

Dublin: Since I stayed with my friend and his family in Dublin, this is where I spent most of my time. I was able to hook up with various friends, including one from graduate school who just got back from years of fieldwork in Rwanda and hearing about his experiences and stunning but stunningly sad project made me feel like mine in comparison was Child’s Play (in fact, it really was). I got to see the Debian crew (many who work at Google) and I finally paid a visit to the office, which was exactly how I imagined it to be (good and abundant food, good lighting, lots of toys and bikes, lots of Star Wars posters.. Yep, it could have been in Silicon Valley). But I was surprised at the young age of the marketing and sales folks who were hanging in their lounge when I ran into them. In fact when I saw them I thought like I was looking at my freshman class or something! It was great to see the Debian folks (though no one I met was actually Irish), as well, one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit a foreign city.

I walked my heart out in the city getting a blister in a shoe that I thought was blister proof and while not as picturesque as some other European cities, it has a ton of character and no shortage of Guinness and pubs (no surprise there). My favorite places/things were: The National Library (great exhibit on Yeats, but make sure to use the multi-media as that is where all the information is stuffed), St. Stephen’s Park (overflowing with chubby ducks and lovely flowers), the prison Kilmainham Gaol (would not advise a visit if you are feeling in any way down, there is some heavy shit you learn during the tour), the simple stained glass that seemed pretty common, and finally the Long Room in Trinity Church, which you enter after the Book of Kells (I realized just how much I adore books when I visited this old library stuffed from floor to ceiling with old old old books).

The West Coast: I did not think I was going to head out west but after hurricane Earl started its burst along the eastern Seaboard and I was able to change my ticket for free so I stayed a few more days. I went to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher both totally stunning, really majestic. As is often the case with these type of these natural wonders, I am often left elated and awed but such strikingly wondrous places also seem to subsequently spur a more melancholic state of mind and heart.

Friends, Family, and Dogs: While in Dublin I stayed with my friend A. and his extremely hospitable family, which included, a brother, a father, and three Irish mutts, one of which, Buster (pitt bull/lab mix), pretty much stole my heart. Buster’s true love, is food, so much so he almost poised himself to death a little while back snorting down something he shouldn’t have costing the family a pretty penny to save him. My friend no longer lives there but came from Berlin and it was a real treat to not only spend days layered upon each other with a friend (it has been an awful long since I have done that outside of conferences) but also meet his family. You learn a lot about your friends that way and in this case, there is some serious and I mean serious intellectual jousting that happens, sometimes bordering on warfare but generally it plays out in more contained, civil and fascinating fashion. Now I understand why my friend is armed with seemingly endless knowledge: it was needed for purposes of defense at home.

So in essence, a great, great trip and a fantastic way to end a memorable summer and transition into what I hope will be a bit of a monkish (I call it monk mode) period for this academic year. I am (so so so) fortunate enough to have a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study and am going to try my darnest to take advantage of the fact I am not teaching (Hell Yes!) and hide away and accomplish all that I have set out to do.

August 14, 2010

Debconf 10: the comfort of the familiar with the thrill of the new

Category: Debconf10,Debian,F/OSS — Biella @ 6:08 am


Debconf10 has come and gone and its effects are still with me. This is not so surprising as this year I was not only a participant but on the local team. When we first started to hold in person meetings, I was a totally overwhelmed knowing that with each passing month, the demands on my time would grow and then explode. Then I got news that I landed a year long fellowship that would relieve me of all teaching for the 2010-2011 year and was able to breathe a little and enjoy what I don’t get to do all that often in my academic job: work collectively.

As Debcamp started, I was not sure whether I would enjoy the conference given that I had to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the conference. I got my answer the first day as folks started to pour in hack lab. Due to the pressure cooker nature of my job, I did not attend the last two Debconfs. Seeing friends that I only see during these fairly intense weeks stirred up a lot of inside of me. It felt really good to be back .

This was also my first Debcamp, and now I understand why people enjoy it so much. It gives you a chance to meet new folks instead of gravitating to those you already know and still get some work done. It also allows the orga team to hammer out some final details and test run some stuff before the swarm descends into the venue. One of the things I enjoyed the most during the week were the take out dinners. Logistically it was a bit of nightmare but it aligned very much with the culinary culture of NY and we had some nice outdoor picnics on the Columbia campus and one in Riverside Park.

The pace picked up a lot during Debconf, which we kicked off with Debian Day. We managed to get a lot of NYC folks—it was one of the best attended Debian Days. One of the highlights was Gale Brewer’s talk. She is a public servant in the full sense of the word, dedicating thirty years of her life to this job and really understands what technology can and cannot due for New Yorkers. It was very inspirational talk.

Aside from a few moments, such as the day trip and the wine and cheese party (btw, party does not capture the quantity of cheese featured and consumed…), Debconf itself has already become a bit of a blur, it all happened so quickly and under sleep deprived conditions. Nearly every vessel of time was filled, overflowing, at times bursting. I enjoyed a number of the talks—Eben Moglen’s, Joey Hess’s CUT proposal, Marga’s talk on Making Debian Rule, Zack’s Bits from the DPL, the derivates BOF, and others. I also enjoyed preparing and moderating the welcome talk, which is not yet online (only the last bit is and the sound is distorted so I sound like a mouse). My sense is that the relationship between Ubuntu and Debian is improving, which is important. We need alliances and allies, not foes in the world of F/OSS (watch Eben’s talk to get a sense of why this is so).

I mostly ate on campus but managed two African based dinners with friends (Ethiopian and Senegalese) and only wished we had a little more time to talk. The late nights in the Carman lounge were pretty epic, if somewhat collegiate and during the end, hot and humid. Here are a few of the pictures I managed to take.

I love Debconf for it so perfectly conjoins the comfort of the familiar with the thrill of the new. For those who experience it in its full intensity, it can be an artistic moment, at least in the way described by the poet John Keats: “The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty . . . ”

And now, I am, of course, totally beat :-)

July 8, 2010

Debian in the World: Buidling an Institution vs Managing a Crowd

Category: Academic,Debian,Ethics,F/OSS,My Work — Biella @ 8:10 am

So there are times that I think “of course anyone remotely interested in Free Software, virtual projects, and similar endeavors” knows about Debian and its “strange” rituals. I am pretty mistaken, actually. Recently I have attended various events where it has been made clear to me that there are hordes of folks interested in the politics of openness, access, and free software who have heard about Debian but don’t really know what it takes, socially and politically, to manage such a project. Luckily I had the chance to spread some of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ during a talk at MIT for the Knight News Challenge winners and I have received many emails, excited and some surprised about the governance structures of Debian.

If interested, here is a video of my talk, which is quite short, so I don’t go into as much detail as I would like. There is a great audio quote from a Debian developer, taken from this class visit for which there is a podcast and which I recommend as well. If you can’t play flash, you can download the a video of the talk here (look at the right hand side of the page for download link).

update: Interesting blog post on Why the open source way trumps the crowdsourcing way that explores some of the issues I raise in the panel talk. I don’t think it always trumps open source but it is certainly a niche form of production that is useful in some cases but all too often confused with expert peer production in quite unproductive and empirically wrong ways.

March 29, 2010

Do you Open the Hood or Do you Free the Source?

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 5:44 am

So I tend to de-emphasize the differences between free and open source software as it tends to break down when you look at what people do (as opposed to what certain purists say). That said, there are important differences, especially given certain conditions and questions. In the fall, I participated in a debate on this very question, representing at some level the angle of free, the artist, Zach Lieberman representing open source. I think the meat of the event is during the Q and A so if you are interested in this issue, it might be worth a whirl. I also think this format might work really well for Debconf10 so if you can think of some hot-button issue that should be subject to debate, do propose.

March 11, 2010

Libre Planet

Category: Conferences,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 6:05 am

There was a plug for an up and coming conference in my last post but it was a bit buried and it deserves a bit more attention: the Libre Planet Conference in Cambridge, MA. It is fast approaching but there are still spots, student rates, and funding for female attendees. Though I can’t go as I will be out of town, this seems like it will be a great event: excellent speakers, lots of interesting folks, and I am sure a fantastic set of discussions.

March 10, 2010

A Cultural Alibi of Sorts

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 7:08 am

There is an interesting conversation over at about the “nature” of peer production, and “crowd” based production over at PBS. Thankfully folks right off the bat noted that the types of activities they are addressing—that range from 4chan to open source—are so freaken distinct that perhaps it is not all that useful to use one moniker for them.

The comments I am most fascinated by are danah’s who notes:

“”We” assume that the collective voice will be populist and, more importantly, that it will reflect the diversity of the populous. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, certain values and attitudes and voices are over-represented in crowd-sourced activities. Who is looking out for those who aren’t represented? In what ways are we reinforcing structural inequalities? What are the implications of this?”

And then Clay’s response:

So, to re-ask your question in a non-rhetorical way, under what
circumstances would we want to make the population of Deviant Art,
say, less white, or Linux less male, and if we wanted to do so, what
would need to happen?

What I find interesting about this discussion (and will be talking about this topic here, next week) is there not enough recognition of two related things: 1) the efforts are there (more on this soon) 2) that perhaps hacking and F/OSS in particular are not fully accessible to all and everyone because they are full-fledged, full-bodied, cultural worlds —and all cultural worlds—are to some degree not fully accessible and transparent for there are built on particularities, often invisible and unarticulated, forms of value. That is, just as some norms and values of Indo-Guyanese to take one random example, are not of my world, so too is hacking partially inaccessible for the fact that it is culturally configured.

But I am starting to suspect that the “culture-ness” of these domains are often overlooked because they are overwhelmingly white, male, and chock full of computers (and so economically lucrative). All three, I suspect are (incorrectly) seen as lacking culture, as domains of rationality. (I stand rightly corrected and also forget this very fact, though I know it well from all the Brazil/Latin America Debconfs, as this diversity gets a bit lost from a pure US-European perspective, which I was assuming).

Other historical factors have also produced certain distortions that don’t allow us to see (easily at least) these worlds as culture-full. First is the fact that so many folks—outside of this world—lobbed onto F/OSS for being radical (and this is partially right in so far as its challenge to intellectual property can be seen as radical). But the portrayal or mere suggestion of these worlds as uber-democratic and populist, made people expect these groups to behave as radical egalitarian collectives. For the most part, they don’t and yet never portrayed their own politics and forms of organization as such (openness comes in the form of code and technical merit).

But this vision stuck and when some folks realized that larger projects, for example are very organized (which many people addressed only very late), have hierarchies (which are flexible and also allow them to function, which is I think is a good thing), and are not as diverse, there was deep disappointment that they did not conform to the sense that there was something extremely radical going on as opposed to a cultural group really into producing free software.

But if I am offering a cultural alibi of sorts—in which barriers to participation are to some degree a function of culture, one of the great things about the norms, values, ideas that compose culture is that there are dynamic and changing. They are alive and historical. They are pushed and pulled upon by insiders and outsiders based on wider social values.

And there is an answer to these questions about diversity for there has been a dramatic, noticeable, and noteworthy push within this world, one that really started to coalesce I would say in the last year or so, to address these issues and it ranges from Python’s mammoth efforts at addressing diversity (and I have been told that there was a great speech on the topic at Pycon recently), the geek feminism wiki, and smaller but increasingly common efforts such as Libre Planet’s women’s caucus and their funding of women to participate.

So while I do think that culture goes at least part of the way to explain why these worlds are not fully open—for culture limits—this very domain has grown dissatisfied with its representational make-up and are leading some efforts for cultural change.

January 28, 2010

Freedom in the Cloud

Category: Academic,Events,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 5:42 pm

Eben Moglen, Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia University,
and founder, Director-Counsel and Chairman of the Software Freedom Law
Center, will speak about “Freedom in the Cloud: Software Freedom,
Privacy and Security for Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing” on Friday,
February 5, 2010, 7-9 pm. This event will be webcast live.

* What: ISOC-NY Public Meeting: Eben Moglen – ‘Freedom In The Cloud’
* When: Fri. Feb 5 2010 7pm-9pm
* Where: Room 109, Warren Weaver Hall, 251 Mercer Street NYC (SW corner
of West 4th) (See note below)
* Webcast: http://www.livestream.com/isocny

* Note: Use the entrance on the west side since construction blocks the
Mercer Street entrance. Must bring ID.

December 29, 2009

This is one if for you: the hacker conference as ritual

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS,Geek,Hackers,My_work — Biella @ 10:08 am

One of the most frustrating things about being an untenured anthropology professor (aside from being untenured) is that, for the most part, the articles you must write to get tenure strike those you write about as hopelessly boring and jargony. I always imagine that when geeks read my articles, the experience can be represented as follows:

%*&%*&*(((& Linux *(&*(^%&%%^%% DeCSS &*(&^&&*^&^&^& Free Speech %^&%^%^%%^ Hacking &*(&^*(^^*^**^*Code*((*&&**&&*&* Emacs **(**)*( New Maintainer Process *&())))))))))&*&7&&*&)*&*&*&& DMCA **(**((( Copyleft. ****W$$&& TINC

Well, finally, I have my hands on the uncorrected proofs of an article that is far far more readable, accessible, and truth be told, romantic than anything I have written “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” This article’s ancestry goes back to this ancient blog entry that I wrote after Debconf4 in Brazil, later made it into my dissertation, and finally a gabillion years later is on the verge of publication.

Debian developers, in particular, might dig this piece. I made use of your blog entries, mailing list discussions, interviews, and photos to reveal what is special about these events and also memorialize some important events, such as the the founding of Debian Women.

So while some I am sure some academics will find this piece distasteful for idealizing these events, so be it. I grew very fond of these conferences, they changed the way I thought of computer hacking, and why not write something that makes those you worked with feel good (as opposed to bored and confused). Finally, academics have totally missed the theoretical boat when it comes to conferences, which are probably one of the most important ritual forms of modernity and yet there is so little written on them—an issue I address briefly in the conclusion.

Note that this version has various mistakes (including the name of Joel “Espy” Klecker and the caption under Figure 3, and Figure 9). Since many of your are human debugging machines, if anyone takes a preview read and finds any typos, feel free to send along as I will be sending the proofs back next week.