October 31, 2006

The great, odd, and frustrating things about Canada

Category: Canada — Biella @ 8:21 am

Since the last few days have been:

and thus utterly and totally northern (Albertan) Canada, I thought I would write a little about what, in the last couple of months has taken my fancy here and what I have found a little annoying.

Since the general tenor of life in Canada is similar to the US, many of the differences are subtle. Take for example that coke (the drink) is not made with the high fructose corn syrup but “fortified” instead with plain ol’ sugar, (I guess they don’t have as strong of a corn lobby here); the radio station “Joe FM”, is like the American counterpart “Jack FM” (which has taken over the radio waves in the US, playing “what we want” minus the DJ), in that it has the same collection of cheesy 80s and 90s music, and the same generic Jack(ass) announcer, but in fact, there are still Djs for most of the day… Canadians I guess do put some limits on what large megacorporations can do to destroy people’s livelihoods.

Other differences are a little more noticeable. Top among them is radio in Edmonton is about a million times better than the US, even in major cities. There are 4-5 alternative type FM stations, including CJSR the U of Alberta radio station, which I would say is a notch up or two from most college radio stations. They really know what they are doing and I really recommend The Terradome as well as the dance music they play on Sat night.

There are a few things that strike as remarkably different, and of course, health care, is totally number one on the list. I have been fairly impressed with health services and so far, 2 out of 3 doctors I have seen (one to remove my staples, one to check up on my moles, and one just to set up a visit with my primary doctor) totally dissed on American doctors and medicine. And I don’t blame them. With so much hysteria, almost moral panic, among right winged Americans, about the awful state of Canadian socialized medicine, I too would want to vent in whatever way I could when some American specimen came by the office. When I leave here I will probably miss the most and it will be a very tragic day if Canadians move even an inch closer to our broken system

There are a class of differences that are just a little odd like:

Curling… There is a curling club literally right around the corner from where I live. One night, when I was in a foul mood, I was dragged there, pretty much against my will, in the hopes of purging my bad mood. It mostly worked. I have never been up and close with curlers, and this club and two viewing decks. We went to the cozy upstairs one, with a wooden bar, smooth wooden tables, couches, and warm fire places. 80% of the people in the club were up there… And of course… Why would you spend time on ice when there is beer and warmth upstairs? But then again, brooming outside of house cleaning does seem like a heck of a lot of fun.

Another odd thing is they just don’t plow the streets here or shovel much. It does not snow much (although it already dumped a lot since Friday) but because it never melts, it does mean a constant white and icy swath over the city streets and sidewalks. Thankfully there is free health care because I bet a lot of people fall and break some collection of bones.

People don’t lock their homes, but they do for the most part lock up wireless access. Maybe it is just in my hood which is close to the University so this bears a little more research but I find it annoying and ironic given that you can just go into people’s homes.

The West Edmonton Mall… For those who don’t know it is the largest in North America… Aside from the crazy indoor water park and amusement park with upside down roller coaster and all, it is not all that impressive because it is long instead of tall. What I liked about it the most though were the postcards proudly displaying the mall that were being sold in various stores, were clearly from the early 1980s…. I picked up a few they were so retro.

There is a small class of frustrating things and number one of them so far is:

Teleus… I don’t even want to go into it but trust me, they suck.

The mail is slow and spotty. But this is also a US problem too. Though there is supposedly mailforwarding from Canada to the US, it is basically a lie. Don’t fall for it if you move! While I had changed my address for the most important mail, I did not change it for things like my Alumni college magazine. And basically will never see that stuff (which is probably ok).

But mailing stuff to the US also kinda is unpredictable. I mailed something to PR, for example, and it was supposed to take 6 days… It is now bordering on the 3rd week.

There is a little window into life here in Canada… And so far, so good.

October 22, 2006

Hunting and Gathering on the Internet

Category: Academic,Pharma,Politics,Research,Tech — Biella @ 11:13 am

This morning I got back to an article that has been on and off my work-plate for a year now, one that I have to turn in to a discussant for my 4S panel as well for an edited collection of articles on the intersection between art, activism, and biopoltics.

Part of my efforts meant attacking a virtual “stack” of articles and one of them was one of best journalistic articles I have read in a long time. Exceedingly clear prose is combined with good references, hard numbers and just the right amount of passionate verve to make reading actually fun and not just another nameless, faceless cog in the academic research wheel. The article mentioned a couple of interesting studies that while sadly not linked from the article (but I am going to take that was an editorial and not authorial decision), they were pretty much cake to find by doing a little poking and prodding on the Internet.

So for example, one of them was published on PLoS Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature and stands pretty strongly on its own right. But what is even better are the long list of citations (many with links) that would otherwise be frankly, a *total* time consuming bitch to find like the correspondence between the FDA and pharmaceutical companies:

# Food and Drug Administration Division of Drug Marketing Advertising and Communications (1997) Effexor warning letter. Rockville (Maryland): Food and Drug Administration. Available: http://www.fda.gov/cder/warn/june97/effexor.pdf. Accessed 14 October 2005.

Total gems given to you right there on a silver plate. That is what I love about Internet based research…

On the other hand, this extreme access is not always so peachy. The amount of data now available can be experienced as a totally mind-numbing, frightening, chaotic infolanche (as one of my old adivsors liked to call it), which translates into a lot of academic “hunting and gathering” not to mention all the sorting, sifting, cataloging, and then of course trying to remember what the heck you have just amassed in the first place, even with the aid of tags and all

I am not sure if things have gotten easier or harder because this is all I personally know but what I do know is that there are times when I just love the hunt, losing myself for hours, following links, gathering articles, enlivened, exicted about research and there are others when the woolly mammoth of infomartion gets the better of me.

October 20, 2006

The New Face of Citations

Category: Academic,Tech — Biella @ 11:12 am

Joe Reagle who is thick in dissertation writing on wikipedia, has written a very thoughtful note on how he is handling his citations. Given that so many of them are from online source snad thus more like moving targes than the steady, bound book and journal article, they require different conventions.

The Law in Shambles

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Politics — Biella @ 7:34 am

Many moons ago, when I started my project on F/OSS I imagined that it would stay within the purview of anthropology, hacking, science and technology studies to bleed only a little bit into legal studies and only because I was dealing with the fraught politics of intellectual property law. As it turned out, the Law, with a capital L, as on object of analysis and site for the production of cultural value, turned out not to be peripheral but utterly central… And since, I have pretty much stayed within the territory of legal studies, vastly interested in the more invisible cultural and political effects of the law.

Recent obsessing on this topic has led to a nascent thesis about law, discrimination, politics , and civil rights that I am looking to substantiate (so if anyone has any citations or helpful hints, do pass along) and it is this: When there are positive changes made in the law, it can come with various political costs. And the one I am interested in, is how, given other conducive conditions, legal changes that look awesome on paper, can work to undermine its potential by breeding a type of complacency of (in)action, largely because it seems as if the worst of the problems have been fixed. So if we look to the American legal context of 1960s and 1970s as a prime example, it is clear there was a heck of a lot of turmoil in the arena of civil rights, much of which, many liberals and progressives would say, led to positive legal transformation. During this period the content of many laws were purged of overt discrimination that, for example, which led a lethal blow to segregation and started to dismantle some of the worst pieces of scaffolding of mental health law (just to cite a few examples).

At one level while we may easily recognize these changes as laudable and even perhaps “progressive,” the effects of it may be less so. Once legal content is purged of the “ugly,” this can breed an ugly form of complacency, in which the problem seems (re)solved, so people no longer feel guilt and attention is diverted away from any number of things, like: 1) new problems not necessarily addressed in the law 2) the rise of new laws or 3) the fact that the law is empty unless actively applied.

I have yet to read anything directly related to this theory or apply it myself but it is something that has been on my mind for a couple of years now. But after talking about this topic from a friend, I decided to finally take crack at “The Law in Shambles” a Prickly Paradigm Press pamphlet by Thomas Geogheghan, a labor lawyer from Chicago. While it did not specifically address the issue I am raising (though it got pretty close in a number of places) I got more than I had bargained for; it is truly incisive (though frighteningly depressing) look at the current state of the law, and also, like so many of the PPP’s, much more fun to read than any most academic book or articles.

For those who don’t know the PPP publish a series of short pamphlets and it was started by the legendary anthropologist, Marshal Sahlins, who is also known to be a little prickly himself (but it softened by his humor). They are often written by academics on contemporary topics of political interest (read: very biased) in a manner that is a lot looser and free wheeling than any article or book that would come out of an academic journal or publishing house. The PPP allows its authors to unbuckle a few notches off the sometimes uptight, constraining academic belt of writing and the result is often impassioned, funny, and yet remarkably astute essays. If Montaigne were around today, he would surely be proud of his essayistic legacy.

The title of the book sums up the the topic at hand. His explanation as to why the (American) law is in disarray has not to do with the law in the abstract but with the total disintegration of a certain class of institutions and a specific class of law (namely unions , the law of trusts etc.). As institutional supports from the New Deal have been thrown out the door, it is the individual, largely through tort law, who has had to wield the fury of the law, in defense of a slew of individual rights and to defend themselves against new forms of attack (the worst being lawsuits brought forth by “charitable institutions” like hospitals).

While the law is conceived as something we are all equal under, of course, it is access to the law, which makes all the difference in terms of making it a viable (or not) as social tool. With the demise of the unions, he argues, came the death of certain type of contract law in employment, and the stellar rise of tort law, which conceives of wrongful acts not as breaches of contract (which would apply to all persons under the contract) but as matters of personal injury. Whereas in the past unions would arbitrate contract law, wielding the power of numbers so that individuals were not burdened and burned with the expense (of time and money) of the law, with tort the law becomes formalized, conceived, and imagined in highly individual terms (even when grouped into class actions, it becomes a matter of proving personal injury), the effect of which, he argues is “meaner and more complex” than contract for four reasons 1) The name of the legal game is to discover “motive,” which is about as confusing as it can get and thus more arbitrary 2) It is more expensive than old contract law 3) Cases rarely go to trial (didn’t really get the importance of this point) 4) Because its focus is on motive and intense and subjective states, everything is open to scrutiny, so that “I can force you to tell me everything—what is in your secret heart. Not to mention in your tax returns.” The result is torts produced a bitter, dog-eats-dog Hobbesian, legal world, which in turn makes for experiencing the law as an arbitrary force.

This individualization of the law through tort also intersects with many other changes such as the demise of regulatory power that add more fire to the disintegration of the law and the subsequent experience of law and life as arbitrary. And it is this chapter (From Administrative Law to No Law, The Rise of the Whistleblower and Trail Lawyer) which got me a little closer to my own point that I brought up above. For example, he writes:

“Once, when I filed suite to get the Labor Department to enforce the child labor laws for 16- and 17-year olds, kids whom they do not even pretend to protect, I got nowhere. I met with the Solicitor who told me: “Look, suppose I agree with you. How would I ever get the money to enforce it?” He was right. If I had won and they had issued regulations, it would have only been worse. In Labor, as in agency after agency, we have a vast complex body of law—which would take mandarin to learn—that no one enforces.. The law is “there.” On paper. Indeed, it is a lot of paper. How much paper? Fifty volumes, in paperback in total. I know because I counted. But as to big chunks in these volumes, there is no one there to enforce it.” p. 48

Lots of paper I think can make people comfortable in thinking that famous Virginia Slims Slogan, “We’ve come a long way, Baby,” when it fact, it can often just means what it literally looks like, “Damn, that’s a buttload of paper.”

There is a lot more packed into this tiny book, covering the deep gulf between left and right, the stagnation of an old constitution that is impossible to revise, the loss of accountability in all branches of government, the redrawing of districts, and the slight expansion and curbing of of majoritarian voting in the last hundred years. It gets a little shrilly by the end, but you know, it is all pretty upsetting stuff and it is good to shrill from time to time.

Though he never refers to neoliberalism, capitalism, or postmodernism, this book is also a great companion to a class of this literature on the rise of fragmentation and instability in social and cultural life brought forth by changes in the economic system (thinking here of David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, etc). In fact, I think it does a much better job than at relaying how it is that vast sectors of society experience fragmentation, instability, and frustration.

October 18, 2006

Leaked Memos

Category: Politics,Research,Tech — Biella @ 8:06 am

Does the world of open source/ software experience a disproportionately higher number of internal memo leaks than other fields of endeavor or is it that I am just watching more closely?

October 17, 2006


Category: Academic,Tech — Biella @ 7:38 pm

The word on the streets (in my comments really) is that Epiphany may be the future of reliable web browsing so I will have to check it out. I also got an excited email today about a firefox plug-in that is for the (academic) gods: zotero… It looks pretty nifty and handy but since I don’t even use a bibliographic program like End Notes, at least I am not missing out on huge functionality, which reminds me, does anyone have opinions on good GUI free software bibliography programs ?

October 16, 2006

Sailing the High Seas on Planet Debian

Category: Debian,Tech,Travel — Biella @ 6:35 pm

It is a little weird to read Planet Debian and find a post about a place, adventure, ship that was also once my reality and home. This is the 2nd free software-head I know to have lived on that ship (I don’t count myself as I was pretty oblivious to the world of computing back then). It definitely fuels my desire to sail away again, and even try to do so with all geek-crew. Just need to find a ship and quite a bit of funding.

From the Fox to my Galeon

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Tech,Uncategorized — Biella @ 6:15 pm

Mozilla/Firefox in a lot of ways was/is the poster child of free software… I mean do you know how many times I was talking to a certain non-technologically-inclined-person who claimed to not know a thing about open source, and then after I asked what browser they were using and when they said Mozilla, I would let them in on the dirty little secret that they were, in fact, in its very bosom, cradled in and by the rhythm of freedom. And they would gleefully respond with some excited variation of “I had NO idea and I love it… those tabs, those plug ins, that speed….blah blah.” I just loved inducing that reaction.

But for me my love affair with Firefox is officially over. For many years it was a happy, fulfilling relationship but lately, the little red fox has let me down, acting way too erratic, crashing during those inopportune moments, like when opening a pdf, which would cause the whole apparatus to come crashing down, and all those lovely open tabs, with all that information, would be gone in an instant.

For the last 4 months, every time this disdainful event occurred, I would just bemoan and bitch a lot, especially on IRC. Part of me was a loyalist but a bigger part of me was just very very very lazy. With all my bookmarks, with my tool bar, with all my passwords configured JUST RIGHT, I felt enduring the crashes and loss of data was worth it. But no more (admittedly my IRC compatriots were sick of hearing me complain and pretty much demanded that I change).

So now I am going to “rediscover the web” but with Galeon. It is up and running and I have transfered a good chunk of my settings over and over the course of the next few weeks I will make the transition. So far so good though there is work to be done, to be sure, to make Galeon into my new love(ly), web browser.

October 9, 2006

Trust in the Law

Category: Academic,Debian,Politics — Biella @ 6:23 am

Trust is on the top on my list of topics of inquiry and I have made it one of my main themes in my writings on Debian. Forbes recently published a small piece on the The Economics of Trust, using trust as an example to explain why Somalias economy barely exists while many in the west, notably the US, are thriving. A little reductive but he has something there because indeed, the level of trust that consumers, investors, and everyone else in the chain has to have to make “it” happen is enormous. However, I am surprised he never mentiones the law in name, and contract law to be specific. He sort of subsumes things under formal mechanisms of trust, but it seems like without the law, there would be no trust… in which case, do we still call it trust? or trust in the law that is the condition of possibility for other mechanisms, which do exist. This topic of trust and accountability in capitalism is something that Weber actually spent a fair bit of time in General Economic History for those interested in such topics.

October 8, 2006


Category: Academic,Pharma,Politics — Biella @ 2:33 pm

Yesterday I was catching up with my magazine reading at Chapters (the Canadian equivalent of Border) when I came across an ad for a drug ad for bipolar disorder that struck me as slightly different–less euphoric, more cautious to be exact—compared with the ads that have been bandied loosely in all sorts of magazines in the last decade in the US.

The ad was for a drug called Abilify which must be some verbal riff on Ability (no?) and there was a very clear pronouncement on that ad that admitted they had no idea how the drug even worked. It went like this:

“ABILIFY may work by adjusting dopmamine activity instead of completely blocking it and by adjusting serotonin activity. However, the exact way any medicine for bipolar disorder works is unknown.”

I find this interesting because its tone seems to depart from other ads that seem somewhat more confident (or if they were less so, it was probably kept in the fine print). But when I went to the webpage, this caveat was a little harder to find, as it was a few clicks away within a page entitlted The Brain, Bipolar I Disorder, and ABILIFY . It provides a “handy” pictoral representation of what may be going on with your brain with bipolar disorder/treatment. I found the series somewhat odd and amusing, especially the one that used a magnifying glass to “see” all the neurons and nerves or whatever they are in your brain.

update: so you know, the US and New Zealand are the only 2 countries that allow drug direct to consumer advertising so I am not sure what the ad was doing in this magazine. It was American magazine but in Canada. I would think they would make them get rid of ads like that. Anyone know why it can slip through the border like that?