March 13, 2003

Another World

Category: Politics — Biella @ 12:12 am

Lately my life has been all about Debian although not in the way it is for most people. I mean I use apt-get a lot and all but it is more about “apt-get install debian-culture” and really all the Debianites are starting to grow on me.

One of the greatest parts about being an anthropologist is that it is ok, in fact encouraged to really get to know people. Relationships matter more or just as much as surveys. So it is great when a Debian developer drops you a line to tell you about a really cool conference they are organizing. It looks like just the thing this country needs so if you are in that part of California, Mexico, do try to make it!

March 11, 2003

The Corporate University, Yuck.

Category: Politics — Biella @ 5:45 pm

From time to time, I grab my roommates’ copy of Social Text ,
a largely garbled and incomprehensible journal for the learn-ed to
read while soaking in the bath. I rarely understand more then 50% of
what I read, but somehow I sometimes like the unsubstantiated fluffy
though grandiose narratives of articles, sometimes because they are truly thought provocative, sometimes to remind me that I *never* want to write in that style.

But today, I read a piece that was clear, provocative, depressing, and inspirational. The article, “Tenure Denied: Anti-unionism and Anti-intellectualism in the Academy” by Joel Westheimer recounts how he was basically denied tenure for actively supporting the unionization of graduate students at NYU. After he testified on their behalf, his treatment especially by administration dramatically shifted and soon after he was denied tenure although he was like the cookie cutter candidate for tenure. He had published profusely, was awarded yearly prestigious fellowships, received yearly excellent reviews for tenure, and had the unanimous support from the tenure academic advisory committee. Anyway, he was denied tenure, but thankfully later on after the federal government sued NYU over the fishy tenure proceedings well, NYU lost. It was one of those embarrassingly crystal clear cases of discrimination that was made apparent after certain emails were released after the trial that suggested a strategy for dispelling him after his testimony, a strategy that would indeed be tough given his high qualifications. As he notes in his article:

“Another internal memo between department administrators describes ‘all the high merits that Joel got’ aling with various external awards as a ‘real problem’ and notes the
difficulty of construction a negative evaluation given that
‘Joel is known beyond NYU[and] has the outside ltters.” p. 64

The dumb-ass administrative serving Dean of the Education School of course had to resign. It is great that this professor won and is now a
teacher with tenure in Canada. It also exposes such press releases as shams.

He won but the University is losing as he really shows in this article. I don’t think that the University has been the totally sacred space of independence that people think it is or at least was, but it
is what we should strive for even if an imperfect ideal. This ethos of
independence is being threatened not just by corporate-industry
affiliations which are most relevant to the science but as this
articles shows but the adoption of the corporate mentality of the
administration one that curtails workers rights and intellectual
freedom. As he notes, many departments are making professors reliant
on the administration for money, recognition, and advancement.

I have my problems with tenure (I can’t tell you how many tenured
professors are terrible academics because they, well can’t lost their
job), but it is not such a bad idea. For every 3 lousy professors, if
there is one who is producing high quality work who will not be
for his or her work, then the system is worth it. Sure
you can criticize loud and clear without the PhD and the fancy
institution behind your name but it gives power and force to the
critique. And yes, the system can be improved. Like I would prefer
long contracts (ike 25 years) over absolute tenure but the freedom
that tenure gives is one worth holding onto.

Being punished for the expression of one’s political beliefs in
the University is like well, Buddhist monk elders telling their little monk neophytes that they are not shaving their heads to contemplate compassion but to go to war. All right, maybe I am exaggerating but I am pissed and sickened by this case mostly because I know that it is not an isolated expression but an expression of a much deeper problem going on in the field of academics. I don’t want the university to corporatized as is the current trend and I think it is important for academics at all levels to care about it and do something about it. It is our institution not “theirs” and if we don’t do anything about it, it will change right before our eyes. And everyone will lose.

I am about to start an article with my friend Mako about the differences between free and open source and the academy, in part to clarify the unique ethos that the Debian project has. Free software is often conceptualized as an extension of the academic model of openness and freedom and I have always had a problem with this rendition especially since there are significant differences between these domains institutionally and culturally. And after reading this article, something that really struck me is that free software projects don’t have an administration in the same way that the University does and this has implications for the ethics of these projects. Administrations whose interest are often not in line with the interest of the wider community. Granted, universities are complex institutions with a long histories and I am not saying that they should get rid of administration but it is one significant point of difference with the world of free software that has implications for how the ethics of sharing and knowledge creating is carried out.

But given there are administrations, students and faculties should have a watchful eye for the place they call their community. The first week that I went to Columbia University, the administration was planning on taking away need blind admissions which is a damn important little part of the admissions process in imho. As I was walking around the quad my first day there, it was so great to see a bunch of students climbing all over the administrative building, Low Library, breaking in so they could attend the “closed-meeting” on need blind admission. The break-in to the administration building was a powerful statement that ultimately the administration should not be making decisions without the voice of the entire community and that students and professors should make their voice heard. They succeeded, need blind admissions remained, and the University figured out how to route around the financial problem that it caused.

Without meddling at some level, the path towards corporatization will
continue on ward. It is only those in the inside than can and really
can do something about it. I hope that in the few years that I have
left in academics I see this meddling increase.

Back on Caribbean Shores, well sort of

Category: Research — Biella @ 12:55 am

Tonight, I am reading “The-Man-of-Words in the West Indies” by Roger Abrahams not as a tool of procrastination but in fact for my research on hackers. Yes, it even surprises but delights me as when I left the realm of Caribbean studies to pursue the study of technology and hackers, I thought that I really closed the door on the Caribbean. And I was bummed because the study of the Caribbean though marginalized is one heck of a lot of fun.

I certainly did not think that I would use Caribbean literature to understand my subject matter. But alas, I am. There are many parallels and contrasts to think with that actually are much better conceptual fodder than most of the cyber-material I have so far read. It either means I have yet to read the right stuff, I am totally off mark, or the cyber-material is still in tadpole stage, a little worm-like creature trying to make it out of the water so that it can strut around with some substance. I bet it is a little of each…

The book is great so far but it is approcahing one and I was informed during my Chi Gong class tonight that working, especially reading, beyond 11 totally screws with your gall bladder and liver meridians. And it all clicked: I now know why us grad students are an angry, depressed lot. We never give a chance for our GB and Liver meridians to get restored. It is not drinking at the pub that has caused so much damage but years and years of late night reading!

Oh well, for now I will have to rely on acupuncture and Chi Gong for restoration as I can’t see any way out of this late night reading. Maybe writing ng does not count as long as you don’t read while you write :-)

March 9, 2003

Sing at Da Beach

Category: Personal — Biella @ 9:08 am

Peanut Butter and Chocolate
Rice and Beans
Green Platains and Yellow Plantains

Some of the sweetest things come in pairs. Last night, I found a new one:
Karaoke and Da Beach…

They do indeed go well together, the expansiveness of the beach really allowing you to get loose and belt it out. I now know where I will be having my SF good-bye party. About three months to go for the ultimate karaoke beach party.

March 7, 2003

Debian DPL Debate

Category: Research — Biella @ 11:11 pm

Today I spent the afternoon watching the Debian Developer Project Leader debate on IRC for the elections. I have been anticipating the debate for a long time as such sort of events are pretty pertinent to my research and I was also interested in how a debate would play out on a medium like IRC. I was the back-up moderator just in case the moderator had any problem with his net connection. Thankfully that did not happen but when he asked, it reminded me of one of my recent nightmares that entailed having to ask all the questions for the debate while on IRC. In the dream, something akin to ethnographic stage fright took over as I locked up, unable to ask not even one single interesting question despite the fact that I, as the anthropologist, was supposed to know a lot about Debian. Thankfully, none of it played out and I was able to sit back and enjoy the debate and discussion albeit, a little groggy from some deep sleep after nearly 3 continuous nights of insomnia.

I was asked what I thought of the debate by one of the candidates and though I am going to refrain from commenting on their positions, there was a lot of stuff about the debate that I found pretty interesting. Admittedly much of it had nothing to do with the debate per se. But more about me as a supposed ethnographer of cyberspace. I think back to a year ago when I only knew like a handful of developers and rarely went onto IRC as it frightened me. But now, there are some nights that I would rather stay home and hang out on various channels and am much more comfortable in the debian-devel channel being that I now know many of the developers in person or from talking to them on IRC. In some ways, being an online anthropologist is not all that different from meat-world anthropology if you take the time to really spend time in this world. Over time, you get to know more people, trying to follow and observe the mundane and extraordinary aspects of their lives. Time, trust, and conversation are all important facets of getting research done. IRC has been a really indispensable part of the process, enabling me to keep in touch more closely with the Debian community as well as developing friendships much like any other anthropologist might living in a more close knit community would. When I first logged onto the channel a long time ago, well, it intimidated for me. All these faceless, people with nicks like “BigNachos” spewing out all this text that at the time was really incomprehensible. I would log off almost as quickly as I entered. It was after meeting a bunch of the developers at the Debian conference that I gave it another go and the second time it was a lot easier and I grew to really enjoy the whole IRC thing, which has seemed to touch my life in quite a number of ways.

March 4, 2003

Hacking Tortilla Chips

Category: Personal — Biella @ 1:31 am

Tonight, I have been working on this paper that among other things looks at the variegated moral spaces within the sphere of hacking in part to challenge the supposed notion of a unitary hacker culture or cultural sphere. As I finished for the night, I went to the kitchen to find my roommate munching on what are probably my third favorite snack food: Tortilla Corn Chips.

You can find TC nearly any day of the year in my house and there are various brands to satisfy the particular tastes of different roommates. And you know, I like them all but it struck me tonight that though tortilla chips are for the most part “the same”, they can taste quite different just depending on the thickness of the cut of the chip and the degree of salting. You look at the ingredients of like 2-3 bags and they will all say corn flour, salt, and vegetable oil yet the outcome can be so profoundly different at least having to do with the subtleties of the taste bud…. Made me think of my paper on hackers although I wish I could transfer the clarity of that sameness yet difference of the tortilla chip to the domain of hacking…

March 3, 2003

Sick but Funny

Category: Humor — Biella @ 10:53 pm

Sick but funny!

March 1, 2003

My Dream IRC channel

Category: Research — Biella @ 2:16 am

I am now at that stage of my PhD research when I “wean” myself off of research and start to try to form an addiction to data organization and writing. Although I have yet to write anything formal for my dissertation, I am starting to work on some articles and paper conferences, which gets me to think about my dissertation in a more visceral and tangible way (maybe the viscerality has to do with the knots in my stomach when I think about it for too long).

Why the knots? Ok, so it is inherently a hard sort of thing to do but really I think it is plain old scary because, well, no one tells you how to write such a “document”! There is next to no guidance which in some ways in nice (no one to cramp your (life)style but on the other hand, it seems wacky wacked). It is akin to running a 5 k and then switching to a marathon with no training in between and no “thirst quencher” to aid you through the struggle.

The powers that be who accept you supposedly only accept very independent thinkers and researchers. And now I know: because, well, there is no one there to give you even the slightest hint as to how to write a book. It is kinda just suppose to happen and you hope for the best.

Writing the dissertation holds the same type of obscure mystique as the “fieldwork experience” for Anthropologists. It is a scary, mythical unknown that you are sort of thrown into, and you have to figure it out all by yourself, groping blind for the right path so that you can finally begin to do some work. But in fieldwork, one hits this time or moment, when the fear subsides, things start clicking and making sense, and one even kinda enjoys the process. For some this is a a gradual happening while for others, it happens more like a Wolfian epiphany that is invoked by some late night drunken escapade which for me is more likely to happen on a late night IRC debate when I fire off words as fast as my non-native typing fingers can type. But it is precisely through learning from others that you come to “know” what the hell is going on.

But I doubt such an epiphany will ever come with the writing of the dissertation.
Or I imagine that it will come afterward when everything is said and done. Maybe I am being a little dramatic tonight but it is for the most part a very solitary process and I am not a very solitrary girl. So I think I have come up with a solution…

Tonight while hanging out on the IRC channel #debian-devel, I grew so envious of the how people could:

a) just pop in to get some help for something they are working on
b) take a little break from work with others who totally share their space mind space

I then began to have little dreams and visions of having my very own anthropology/geek/science tech/dissertation channel that would ease the fright, the pain, really the lacuna of dark asociality that is writing a dissertation and also provide endless amusement with some in-house procrastination. I think it is a tremendous solution to what I think is a real problem but I then also have to solve the problem of how to get what really are a bunch of neo-luddities onto IRC without having them think that I “have just gone native.” Well, one can dream, right?