November 20, 2009

Moral Grey Zones: Roller-Hitching

Category: Debian,Geek,Geekitude,Humor,Uncategorized — Biella @ 2:58 pm

Moral Grey Zone

Many moons ago while doing fieldwork I went to a radical tech activist camp sponsored by The Ruckus Society to give a presentation on Free Software (which I actually still have online in the gaudy orange I so loved. I could only stay 2 days as I had to go to Debconf2 in Toronto for fieldwork but it forever changed my life in pretty significant ways.

One remarkable thing about Ruckus was that for the first time I meet a particular kind of geek I had yet to come across: the crunchy and chewy granola/environmentalist/hippie hacker– a type of hacker that can be found world over but is likely to be (unsurprisingly) living, sometimes in the trees (literally) in the Pacific Northwest. They are one of my favorite kind of people as I can talk endlessly to them about 2 of my great passions: Free Software and environmental justice. Comfrey, pictured above, was one such hacker from Portland who I met at the Ruckus event and now routinely shows up, usually unannounced to our house at least 1-2x a year.

I woke up this morning to find him on our couch, got a bunch of knot-weed to chew on compliments of his foraging, and took the afternoon off to share some food. Among many stories, he told me of a new transportational pursuit of his, Roller-Hitching, which he uses to get around the country. He uses old school roller skates to skate along the road, even highways, until he gets picked up and get where he needs to go.

Naturally, these old school states are not just functional in the sense that they are faster than two feet in motion, but since they signify a particular spirit of the 1970s–you know, the groovy, dynamite, free love spirit of things, they draw positive attention and apparently when he roller-hitches, he gets picked up frequently (and made it from Minneapolis to Portland in 2 hours and 2 days: not shabby).


In California while on the 101 north of Arcata, California, Comfrey got stopped by the highway patrol and basically the cop wanted to kick him off on the grounds the he was a pedestrian (apparently prohibited on this patch of the 101). Comfrey, being a bright fellow, basically noted that roller skating is not really a pedestrian activity, that he was using, much a like a biker, a transportation device of sorts, so that he was in a grey zone between bikes and walking.

At the time, the cop was convinced enough but did tell Comfrey to look up the law in the library cuz the next time he would give him a ticket and the next time after that throw him in jail. Comfrey has yet ‘sourced’ the law but soon will. When he does, since I like to report on geeks and the law, I too will report on whether one can roller skate down or up the highway for those that might want to give Roller-Hitching a try.

July 20, 2009

A Nerd Bomber HIGH on the 1980s

Category: Aesthetics,Geekitude,Nerds,What Sorts of People,Wholesome — Biella @ 9:30 am

HIGH on the 1980s, originally uploaded by the biella.

One does not spend their adult life thinking about, hanging with, and writing on hackers and geeks if one did not have a bit of hacker, geek, or nerd inside of her own self. Well, since I did not own a computer until I was 20 (the horror), I was no computer tinkerer. I was pretty geeky about my hobbies but foremost and between the ages of 9 and 15 I was a full on nerd bomber as evidenced by the photo above…

Recently, as I was cleaning out a closet in Puerto Rico, Micah called me away from the dust to check out a new awesome site oozzzing with awkward family photos. It was a moment of total zyzygy (what a great word..) as I was JUST pulling out this very photo to show Micah the proof of my nerdliness.

So I quickly scanned the picture and sent off to the blog only to be quite disappointed (truth be told, offended) that they never published it. Well, about a week after I sent it, I got an email that the photo, being so classically awkward, is being reserved for the coffee table book. As my friend put it, the photo will be famous, awkward famous.

This photo means a lot to me and signifies a whole lot about my life back then. Though I grew up for the most part in the tropics, I went every summer to visit my very Jewish American grandmother and grandfather known as “Ruthie and Abe” in Cape Cod. It was delightful not only because I got to escape the scorching heat but it represented the land of Great Abundance. There were things there that I could not get on the island. Notable among many were: Captain Kangaroo (the show), root beer and naturally root beer floats (now available here though Seltzer water for some odd reason is not), rock candy, homemade cookies (my mother did not bother) and a constant parade of geese/ducks. It was pretty neat to be showered with the constant hugs and cookies that a Jewish granny can deliver with a serious punch, all the while chasing ducks in the backyard. I loved it.

As you can see, I am also donning a pretty flashy Pacman shirt, which I probably wore 4 times a week for at least a year. At the time I thought I was so bad ass for owning and wearing it. I was really into video games (especially Galaga, but I guess we found no teeshirt to represent the love) and I guess, I was into ridiculously looking slicked back hair and white sandals and white socks. (I just can’t believe my mom let me out looking this way, she had a much better fashion sensibility).

People have asked me what I was laughing at and really I have no recollection. Perhaps I was pointing at the ducks going across the lawn, which made me instantly happy. Most likely, I was making fun of my sister, who is wearing the braided head band (wow, the hipster kids in Williamsburg won’t even touch that sartorial Sh*t; it is that tacky) and who was clearly pissed. In fact, it seemed like childhood and pre-teenhood was marked by me being the happy goofball and my sister being… pissed (which has amounted to some serious karmic battles in our life).

Though happy in this photo, being a nerd, especially in Puerto Rico was no walk in the park. Most of the girls in my school were hawt stuff even as pre-teens (take a walk down the beach in PR and you immediately realize why a disproportionate number of Mizz Universes have come from a island the size of Rhode Frekan Island) and if you looked like I did, you stood out. Luckily, just as in the great show, Freaks and Geeks, I had a crew of geeks and we were tight, which shielded us from the worst forms of verbal abuse.

When I turned 15, however, I had enough of the nerd bombing and turned full on Freak, which entailed horribly frizzy hair aided by peroxide, a love for heavy metal and reggae, and other things which shall remain nameless. It was the year, as my friends like to remind me, I don’t remember due to all the partying and the like.
When I turned 16, I managed to unite the freak and geek in total harmony, and live out my high school with some pretty good times and now I can look back with nearly only fondness for the nerd, freak, and nerd/freak years.

July 15, 2009

Coder Girl

Category: Geek,Geekitude,Gender — Biella @ 4:23 am

I seem to be on a musical/video roll, so here is another one that I am pretty sure will make most smile.
via mike r

March 23, 2009


Category: Academic,Geekitude — Biella @ 6:36 pm

Memefactory! :

What do you get when you combine a lecture, vaudeville and Double Dare? Memefactory! Three gentlemen with five computers and three projectors take the audience on a fast-paced, whirlwind tour of every major Internet meme, famous piece of Internet media and YouTube footage imaginable. The modus is not depth, but breadth, and constant audience participation is required. Over the course of the evening, the audience will produce an entry for every internet phenomenon possible, including but not limited to: LOLCats, Bouncing GIFs, Me Singing [blank], Reaction Videos, Folk Covers of Hip Hop Classics, FAILs, Redubbed music videos, and more. Some will become famous like Boxxy, most will drink beers and a brave few will be nude.

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?

November 16, 2008

Where have all the women gone?

Category: Academic,Geekitude,Gender,Hackers,Politics — Biella @ 5:54 am

Today, the NYT has an interesting piece on the declining numbers of women in the field of computer science. Ultimately the article presents a bleak picture but does not give a firm sense of why this is so (I think because it is so hard to answer).

I do agree that if girls are not hopping on the computer at a young age and are not using it as a tool for production (they do use it a social tool), they are always going to have trouble catching up to men. Many CS majors, not to mention most hackers, develop quite intimate relations with the computer from a young age and thus have a level of comfort and expertise they have is nothing short of astonishing. If women are not developing that expertise as children but only much later in life, there will always be two classes of citizens in computing. Men, in other words, are native speakers, while women learn computing as a second language.

The comment I agree with less is the following:

Ms. Cassell identifies another explanation for the drop in interest, which is linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek.” She said that this school of thought was: “Girls and young women don’t want to be that person.”

It seems to be that in fact in the 80s and prior to that, the only word in town to describe computer folks were nerds. But geek arose to take its place and in part to take away the pejorative sting. Geek is cool. Nerd is not. And geek is now associated with all sorts of computer cultures in a way that it was not before. So it seems to be that more than ever, there is a positive geeky association with computing so in fact this would open the doors to more people than before.

October 21, 2008

Nerd Girls.

Category: Geekitude,Gender — Biella @ 10:30 am

I am all for models and examples, and well, Nerd Girls, is such a web portal meant to celebrate “smart-girl individuality that’s revolutionizing our future.” And they “want to encourage other girls to change their world through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, while embracing their feminine power.” That message is all good and fine but the profile page is just a little too homogeneous and “made up” and actually just looks fake as fake can be (and what is UP with those dumb glasses they are all wearing?!). Sorry to say this, but all those “chics” look like they are fake nerds and are really models for Seventeen magazine or soft-porn movies. Is Nerd Girls a joke? Or is it real and just not for Ugly (or regularly looking) Nerd Girls?

[h0mee] lol
[h0mee] actually what it really reminds me of
[h0mee] are those inspirational posters you see in high school meant to inspire students to study harder
[biella] like this one

update again (sorry, the comments on my irc channel are just too good to ignore:

[Atala] lol one of my friends just said the site seems like a thought experiment on what would happen if MTV bought Bitch magazine.

July 6, 2008

To be a nerd is to be …

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Geekitude,Tech — Biella @ 6:26 am

A month ago, I picked up a copy of Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd, and finally got around to reading it the last few days. The prospect of reading an entire book on nerds was exciting—I was a nerd after all—but I have to admit, I was also a little skeptical when I first leafed through the pages. I thought there might be too much auto-biographical mush filling the pages. But I was pleasantly surprised. Within his cool, calm, accessible, and measured prose, there is, to be sure, a dose of autobiographical tales (and this is part of what gives him his “cred”) but these are weaved richly and deftly into a series of ruminations and explanations—anthropological, psychological, literary, and historical in nature—on what makes up a nerd.

What are nerds? Who are nerds? These are the types of basic questions he asks and spends the whole book answering. On the one hand, to be a nerd is as simple and unremarkable (though not so fun) as being designated by others such. Neither ascribed nor achieved status, this form of nerdom is bequeathed by others and accepted reluctantly, if at all.

Yet there is a whole lot more to nerdiness than imputation. First, he explores many types of nerds in relationship to their behaviors and activities (gamers, D & D players, science fiction fans, those that blast to the past through the Society of Creative Anachronism, and even faux-nerds that now populate hipster neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Wicker Park). Along with giving a window into the lives of these folks, most of whom were probably nerds growing up and still may be sort of nerdy in their behavior, he provides a decent historical genealogy of the word as well as the broader cultural context in the United States that would make a nerd a recognizable figure decades later when it was popularized in print and TV.

To work out how American developed its concept of a nerd,” writes Nugent, “it helps to establish how American arrived at its concept of a sportsman.” He argues that the move from an agricultural to an industrial society helped prompt the rise of sport as a method and cultural marker to “reclaim physical mastery” which was marked somewhat dramatically in the Ivy League institutions that started to valorize sport and masculinity (University of Chicago did not seem to follow the trend and hence it is known as a haven for nerds). Given this overarching context, where masculinity was defined through sport and body, the nerd, culturally speaking, lost out.

The term itself also has a specific history. First appearing in the pages of Dr Seuss as a mythical animal, nerd, it was only later at a fairly nerdy school, RPI, whereby it would take on its current and more familiar usage. RPI published a college humor journal by the name of Bachelor, which started, in the 1960s, to feature a dud by the name of Nurdly and soon after, the term nerd became used for any dud. Thanks to the SNL skits featuring Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, nerd eventually became a house hold name by the late 1970s.

If the term nerd has a recent history, perhaps the importance of Nugent’s book is how it goes elsewhere to help us understand nerdom. One fascinating place he goes is to broader (and often negative) cultural representations of the “Jew” and the racism they faced who were in part discriminated against because of their extreme intellectual dedication, which he argues “suggest Jews sometimes played a role in certain popular imaginations not so different from that of today’s nerd.” He then puts this into play with other discussions of racism such as old fashioned racism against African Americans to make the excellent point that nerds and Africa/African Americans are also in the popularly imaginary, diametrically opposed (and Weird Al makes this same point or reproduces this imaginary here). (more…)

June 29, 2008


Category: Geekitude,Humor,Tech — Biella @ 3:34 am

A number of weeks ago, I asked for some help concerning good, geeky web comics and got some nice responses. While in Brazil, Pablo pointed me out to a home-grown strip, Nerdson. Makes me wonder about the other non-English geek comics out there.

May 22, 2008

Comics: some help

Category: Academic,Geekitude,Hackers,Humor,Tech — Biella @ 4:26 am

So, the last day of my class on hacking, we are going to spend some time on geeky comics and talking about this pictorial genre. I have started collecting a set of examples that I think are particularly strong and funny reflections of geek/hacker life but I am looking for more.

So what are some of your all-time favorite episodes/examples from a comic strip? I am looking for stuff that someone who is not necessarily technically oriented will understand but who will be armed with a fairly broad sense of this world too. Any suggestions would be really appreciated.