November 28, 2005

Infants and mental health

Category: Pharma,Politics,Uncategorized — @ 8:36 pm

Infants need mental health checks .

tenth of two to five-year-olds have a serious psychiatric illness, yet most cases are being missed, warn experts.

The problems go beyond tantrums and bad behaviour and impact negatively on all aspects of an infant’s life, the Institute of Psychiatry will hear.

And failure to spot and treat these conditions early is causing unnecessary distress and suffering.

Mental health services need to be geared towards very young children as a matter of urgency, they said.

The news comes as a survey of 1,000 young people aged 12-19 by The Priory Group finds as many as one in five teenagers has considered or actually harmed themselves purposefully because of feelings of failure and social inadequacy.

November 23, 2005

The History of The Cabal

Category: Anthropology,Books/Articles,Ethics,Hackers — @ 12:25 pm

If there is one thing that drove me a little nuts about my fieldwork, it was trying to get a very precise handle over the reasons that hackers loved to joke about the existence of a cabal. On the one hand, the joke’s significance was obvious: hackers distrust centralized authority so any whiff of it will attract attention, and joking about the so called existence of a cabal is at once a reflection of this unease and a mechanism to remind those with power that they must always act with good intentions and defer to the group when it comes to technical decisions.

But in fact joking about the cabal opens up into a much vaster savanna related to the tensions between elitism and populism in hacking, as well as the general potential for meritocracies to degrade into corruption. While hackers distrust centralized authority, they do happen to trust those who have proved their worth to peers (though a combination of talent and dedication) and dole out respect and recognition to them. Often this means that some folks will eventually be entrusted with some sort of technical role, and thus, power and this is fine so long as he does not block the process of open ended debate and deliberation by which they achieved power in the first place. I address the question of the cabal and meritocracy in Debian here and am soon going to release another chapter of my dissertation that takes a closer look at the tension between populism and elitism.

But of course there is a much longer history of the general corruptibility of meritocracy (check out Plato’s Republic for an old examination of this problem and if anyone knows of more current accounts of it, please feel free to email me) and of cabal joking within hacking. Just recently I came across a really good piece on free speech, populism, and elitism by Bryam Pfaffenberger: If I want it, it’s OK: Usenet and the (outer) limits of free speech

This piece is not only a solid history of early Usenet, but gives us a clear window into how the value for freedom and free speech grew on the Net, and through very particular conditions (behind the backs of academic, corporate managers and administrators, for example), the enablers and constraints of newsgroup technologies, and of course the unavoidable fact of contingency. Moreover, this commitment to openness grew in the midst of a tension between what he calls the “ethos of collaborative egalitarianism” and the elitism of the wizards who controlled the backbone of Usenet. He sums it up nicely here:

“In spite of Usenet’s implicitly antibureaucratic ethos, it was soon apparent that sites could not function unless someone took responsibility for the many administrative tasks involved, such as placing the late-night calls (and disguising phone charges). UNIX system administrators (abbreviated sysadmins) soon came to have more or less officially recognized Usenet-supervision roles within companies, organizations, and universities they served. This role has never been a particularly happy or easy one. Sysadmins had to balance the needs and interests of their organizations against the ever-more-voracious appetite of Usenet—and later.., they had to deal with the conviction of many Usenet users that Usenet gave them the right to speak and distribute anything they liked” p. 370

For anyone interested in how the net became such a hotbed for the fever of the flavor for the free(dom/speech), this is a must read. In this piece, what comes out so strongly is that the tension between elitism/hierarchy and populism/openness is of course not just a function of social norms, but emerges out of the very contradictions of technology but technology-in-use. Though Usenet was first envisioned as a forum for discussing Unix and providing technical support, it soon burst out of the early seams of its intended birth to become a more global, unwieldy entity. But there were still those with the technical power in charge to manage the network, assign accounts, delete controversial newsgroups and so on. Eventually geeks themselves led a mini-revolution to democratize access (which meant really control over the means of production).

The problem between elitism and populism has not left the halls of geekdom yet but there are certainly more technologies than ever that tend to allow, in potentia at least, for a type of equality than before. And getting a hold on this early history helps clarify the problems and issues of today.

November 22, 2005

Geek Life Histories

Category: Hackers — @ 6:57 am

So I collected many life histories and now there is a place where geeks can write about how they got into computers. Geekrific.

November 21, 2005

STS Wiki

Category: Books/Articles,Research,Tech — @ 2:02 pm

Thanks to the efforts of Bryan Pfaffenberger (thanks Bryan!), there is now an STS wiki. Here is a note from Bryan:

I’m writing to announce (somewhat earlier than I had planned) the STS
Wiki, located at . I had hoped to build lots of
content before getting the word out — but the word’s out anyway
(thanks, Google). In the last 24 hours the content has been expanded by
something like 200%. The rocket, it seems, has left the pad. So take a
look – and:

(1) add yourself to the worldwide directory of sts scholars;
(2) add your program to the worldwide directory of sts programs;
(3) upload a bibliography
(4) help build the link directory
(5) think of more ways to use the site!
(6) keep an eye out for vandalism
(7) forward this message to other STS scholars

If you know how to use Wikipedia, you know how to use STS Wiki. It uses
the same software. Do please visit and contribute regularly.

November 20, 2005

More articles on pharma and psych drugs

Category: Pharma,Politics — @ 5:00 pm

A few days ago I posted on various articles critical of a new class of pharmacological drugs. Just found out there were even more:

Wallstreet Journal:
Some Drugs Work To Treat Depression, But It Isn’t Clear How

United Press Internationl:
Study: Public misled by depression ads

Essay questions the role of anti-depressants

She is SUCH a geek

Category: Uncategorized — @ 7:34 am

Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders are editing an anthology of essays titled She’s Such a Geek; below is a copy of the call for subs (posted with permission). Spread the word!

Note that this anthology is open only to female writers.

She’s Such a Geek An Anthology by and for Women Obsessed with Computers, Science, Comic Books, Gaming, Spaceships, and Revolution

Slated for Fall 2006

Geeks are taking over the world. They make the most popular movies
and games, pioneer new ways to communicate using technology, and
create new ideas that will change the future. But the stereotype is
that only men can be geeks. So when are we going to hear from the
triumphant female nerds whose stories of outer space battles will
inspire generations, and whose inventions will change the future?
Right now.

Female geeks are busting out of the labs and into the spotlight. They
have the skills and knowledge that can inspire social progress,
scientific breakthroughs, and change the world for the better, and
they’re making their voices heard, some for the first time, in
Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders’ book She’s Such a Geek. This
anthology will celebrate women who have flourished in the male-
dominated realms of technical and cultural arcana. We’re looking for
a wide range of personal essays about the meaning of female nerdhood
by women who are in love with genomics, obsessed with blogging,
learned about sex from Dungeons and Dragons, and aren’t afraid to
match wits with men or computers. The essays in She’s Such a Geek
will explain what it means to be passionately engaged with technical
or obscure topics-and how to deal with it when people tell you that
your interests are weird, especially for a girl. This book aims to
bust stereotypes of what it means to be a geek, as well as what it
means to be female.

More than anything, She’s Such a Geek is a celebration and call to
arms: it’s a hopeful book which looks forward to a day when women
will pilot spaceships, invent molecular motors, design the next ultra-
tiny supercomputer, write epics, and run the government.

We want introspective essays that explain what being a geek has meant
to you. Describe how you’ve fought stereotypes to be accepted among
nerds. Explore why you are obsessed with topics and ideas that are
supposed to be “for boys only.” Tell us how you felt the day you
realized that you would be devoting the rest of your life to
discovering algorithms or collecting comic books. We want strong,
personal writing that is also smart and critical. We don’t mind if
you use the word “fuck,” and we don’t mind if you use the word
“telomerase.” Be celebratory, polemical, wistful, angry, and just
plain dorky.

Possible topics include:

* what turned you into a geek
* your career in science, technology, or engineering
* growing up geeky
* being a geek in high school today
* battling geek stereotypes (i.e racial stereotypes and geekdom, cultural analysis of geek chic and the truth about nerds,

the idea that women have to choose between being sexually desirable
and smart, stereotypes about geek professions such as computer
* sex and dating among geeks
* science fiction fandom
* role-playing game or comic-book subcultures
* the joys of math
* blogging or videogames
* female geek bonding
* geek role models for women
* feminist commentary on geek culture
* women’s involvement in DIY science and technology groups
* stories from women involved in geek pop and underground
cultures. These might include comic book writers, science fiction
writers, electronic music musicians, and women interested in the gaming world.
* women’s web networks and web zine grrrl culture
* issues of sexism in any or all of the above themes

Editors: Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders are geeky women writers.
Annalee is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and writes the
syndicated column Techsploitation. Charlie is the author of Choir Boy
(Soft Skull Press) and publisher of other magazine.

Publisher: Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group,
publishes groundbreaking books by and for women in a variety of topics.

Deadline: January 15, 2006

Length: 3,000-6,000 words

Format: Essays must be typed, double-spaced, and paginated. Please
include your address, phone number, email address, and a short bio on
the last page. Essays will not be returned.

Submitting: Send essay electronically as a [MS Word?] Document or
Rich Text Format file to Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders at
sheissuchageek AT gmail DOT com

Payment: $100 plus two books

Reply: Please allow until February 15 for a response. If you haven’t
received a response by then, please assume your essay has not been
selected. It is not possible to reply to every submission personally.

November 18, 2005

The Uses of Disaster

Category: Books/Articles,Politics — @ 5:52 am

When I was young, one of my fondest experiences were impending hurricanes. Schools would close, we would stock up the house with supplies, my best friend’s family would throw a hurricane party dinner, my family would experience a rare sense of togetherness, and the rains and winds would come howling to leave you homebound till the furious winds made their way to some other Caribbean island.

From what I remember, 2-3 were about to strike Puerto Rico when I was a kid, but never did. Until Hurricane Hugo which hit September 1989. A category five storm, it was a merciless and was the costliest in US history until Andrew in 1992 (and I wonder if Katrina has taken over that distinction). I remember the hurricane well because these events leave an unforgettable imprint on your memory for they disrupt the everyday quality of life. Nothing is normal. I was a little annoyed actually because I was about to get my drivers license and this hurricane ruined my impending independence from bumming rides off of parents and friends.

Once the hurricane hit, I could care less about anything as petty as a license. When the hurricane got close enough to the island so that it felt “real,” I freaked out a little and I left where I lived with my father close to the ocean, to my mom’s house which was more inland. Once there, I spent most of the time watching large object fly by at speeds that seemed too fast for those objects. I was awestruck.

After the storm passed, the atmosphere was dense, heavy and especially hot. Any tree cover was gone, and if there wind had been with us for days, it all but vanished with the departure of the storm. The streets were filled with new objects that clearly did not belong there. Chunks of concrete. Tree roots. Telephone poles. And especially glass. Crunchy glass was the new floor, inches deep, it was omnipresent, causing you to look up at the buidlings now left with gaping holes.

We had no electricity and water for weeks but despite the discomfort, I remember the time fondly. It brought folks together, especially neighbors, in ways that were just impossible before. Time had slowed down because we could not use anything electrical. I fell in love for the first time during that period, via a book, Love in the Time of Cholera which took up most of my sweaty nights when I would read, under the glow of a flashlight starting at 8 pm till I got sleepy and passed out.

Life eventually normalized though many of course were left more poor, more insecure after the storm, as happens with such natural events.

I tell this short story because this weekend I read a short essay by the writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit in Harpers The Uses of Disasters which sparked many of these fond memories. I like many of Harper’s essays but I took special delight in this one because she confronted beautifully the odd question as to why we can take pleasure in natural disasters, especially when they are accompanied by misery, destruction, and death.

The answer lies in part because of the disruption of the normal, the commonsense, the opportunity for “a sense of fellowship to arise” in which humans labor and connect to help each other independent of centralized authorities and the state. It is a moment of reflection, where the outcome is uncertain; where and when political change can often follow:

“The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real changes often emerge. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, building, and property, but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is not just a resecute of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy, one that the status quo usually—but not always—wins.”

She likens disasters to carnivals for it “is a peak moment” which is profound because “what you see from the peak stays with you while you traverse the plateau of everyday life.”

She theorizes that perhaps disaster take on special importance because in our society we lack these collective moments of carnival. I think however, as much as natural disasters do share a similar status to carnival and her essay argues this well, natural disasters do stand on their own as a type of event, one which is profound, for it brings into stark awareness how we can ethically respond to the world around us.

We are limited and constrained by many things in life; social norms, structures of governments, natural events, etc. There are elements of life our of our control. But there are clearly moments and times and instances that are in our control when we can shift the balance, so that we take some control to alter the path we traverse. Natural disasters unambigously provide such a moment (and while Carnival can, not so starkly). An event has befallen us that is uncontrollable. What we can control is the response to others, and in this way, natural disaster’s do and can take on a strong hue of liberation.

For those who have not read this piece, well, it is probably clear by now that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

November 17, 2005

In the press: pharma

Category: Pharma,Politics — @ 5:08 am

This week has seen a number of provocative articles in the mainstream press on the debates surrounding the blockbuster SSRI’s which made some pharma companies very rich in the last decade:

Fortune published Prozac Backlash, Trouble in Prozac Nation and the NY Times has published a piece on David Healy, the most famous academic whistleblower who was denied tenure because of his criticisms of such practices as ghostwriting as well as for uncovering the suicide risks that SSRIs carry.

update: There is also this fascinating piece from the NYTimes: Young, Assured, and Playing Pharmacist to Friends. This speaks to dramatic changes in prescription practices and knowledge due to direct to consumer advertising as well as knowledge sharing on the Internet. Below is a nice excerpt from the Times:

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, has for most of their adult lives sent the message that pills offer a cure for any ill. Which ones to take, many advertisements suggest, is largely a matter of personal choice.

“If a person is having a problem in life, someone who is 42 might not know where to go – ‘Do I need acupuncture, do I need a new haircut, do I need to read Suze Orman?’ ” said Casey Greenfield, 32, a writer in Los Angeles, referring to the personal-finance guru. “Someone my age will be like, ‘Do I need to switch from Paxil to Prozac?’ ”

For Ms. Greenfield, who could recite the pros and cons of every selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor on the market by the time she graduated from college, years of watching doctors try to find the right drug cocktails for her and for assorted friends has not bolstered faith in their expertise.

November 16, 2005

Technology in India

Category: Anthropology,Research,Tech — @ 10:46 am

My friend Sareeta is teaching a class on Technology in India, which looks fanstastic. If you are an undergraduate student at U of C, I would not miss it!

Here is the class overview:

Course Overview: Indian Technologies

How has technology shaped the Indian nation-state? How does our understanding of the meaning of technology change when discussed from the perspective of India? These two questions will serve as guides for the duration of this course on the relationship between technology and Indian political society. Seminal readings on technology inaugurate the course. Starting with Heidegger’s distinction between techné and technology, we will discuss the philosophical notion that those objects that mediate the relationship between humankind and nature contain both a promise and a threat—the promise of the full development of human capacities and the threat of the destruction of humanity. We will then consider Foucault’s analysis of techniques of political power through his concept of governmentality. This concept will reappear later in the course when we examine the cases of slum clearance, census, and population control during week 7’s discussion of Emma Tarlo’s Unsettling Modernities, an historical ethnography of the Emergency. Marx’s writings on alienation and industry labor round out the first set of readings, providing us with a theoretical tool kit with which to approach the particular histories of technology in India.
Gandhi and Nehru had in the main opposing views on the benefit of technology to India. The readings for the second and third weeks of class put their views in the context of Indian nationalism and the British Raj. From here we move on to investigate the causes and consequences of industrial and agricultural development by considering Akhil Gupta’s book about the Green Revolution and indigenous agriculture, Postcolonial Developments, and Veena Das’s seminal essay on the relationship of the industrial disaster in Bhopal to ideologies of the nation-state, “Suffering, Legitimacy and Healing”. The authors take up our twin themes of promise and threat and apply them to the future and fate of a free and democratic India.
Mid-quarter, we consider the development of India’s nuclear bomb. These readings reflect the place of science in the national imaginary of India, and situate developments in India in an international context. In the next set of readings, we explore how traditions of governance developed under the Raj vis-à-vis colonial subjects continue to influence the Indian state’s relationship to its subaltern citizens. The readings for this week both help expand the notion of technology to include techniques of enumeration and classification, and interrogate the nature of post-colonialism. Arvind Rajagopal’s ethnography, Politics after Television, illustrates the role of new technologies in political mobilization. It makes the argument that television as a tool of politics also corresponds to a new kind of voting Indian public. We will use these readings to open up a debate on the nature of democracy and its relationship to new technologies. The penultimate set of readings addresses a much-lauded but little understood technological phenomenon, the Indian software boom. The question of the legacy of Nehruvian technological projects will be revisited and the relationship of computer technologies to inequality will be explored.
In the final week, we will review materials covered in the course and test their limits. Marx’s writings on the British in India will be posed as a problem to any critique of technology that seeks to apply his theories unaltered to India, while Vidhu Verma’s article on gender and development will be used to re-think our readings on economic and technological progress.

November 15, 2005

Direct to Consumer Advertising

Category: Pharma,Uncategorized — @ 9:56 pm

The only two nations that allow direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising are the United States and New Zealand. Apparently the US is now innovating on the concept, taking it to a whole new level:

This is the first time I have seen an ad of this nature, which was published in the New Yorker this week.