November 29, 2006


Category: Academic,Uncategorized — Biella @ 10:28 am


The failure of an essential piece of technology

Category: Canada,Edmonton,Tech — Biella @ 8:47 am

A few days ago, as we were in the thick of a severe cold snap, I was thinking back to the time in Chicago when my heat went kaput and how miserable it was. And I thought to myself, “imagine if that happened here, that would *really* suck” but then comforted myself with the VERY false idea that such things can’t happen in Edmonton because surely they make heartier, sturdier heating systems.

Well last night I awoke to a cruel wake-up call that heating systems can fail here, there, anywhere. And to think that it is -17 F/-27 C outside. Please please, send the heating fixer upper SOON!

November 27, 2006

Thomas Szasz

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Politics,Psychiatry — Biella @ 3:41 pm

I just finished a pretty good article The Myth of Thomas Szasz, about the man who most famously attacked the psychiatric profession in part by claiming mental illness was manufactured, a myth. In a nutshell here is the point of the article:

“It is hard to doubt the reality of mental illness, especially when the suffering of affected individuals is so complete and the impairment so extreme, when psyche and identity are crippled almost beyond repair. But it is also remarkable how much of modern psychiatry is still theoretical rather than empirical, and how many of the supposed mental illnesses that appear (and multiply) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have no known biological underpinnings or explanations. Although Szasz’s critique often became a caricature, his intuition about the limits and deformations of modern psychiatry cannot be ignored. Many sick people have surely benefited from psychiatric treatment, both “talk therapy” and pharmacotherapy. But psychiatry’s long history of error—from snake pits to ice baths to spinning chairs to electroshock to lobotomy—should give us pause. Skepticism is not backwardness, even if Szasz often took his skepticism to rhetorical extreme”

The part I found most interesting (and now I must read it):

A piece in The New York Times Magazine[by Szasz] titled “Mental Illness Is a Myth” reportedly induced more reader response than any article in the magazine’s history. If he had preached from the pulpit with The Myth of Mental Illness, he had now nailed his thesis to the church’s front door.

I must must check out the reader response!

For those who know little about what came to be known as anti-psychiatry, this article is worth reading. It is written well and presents the virtue of skepticism, even if extreme, which is what Thomas Szasz, was all about. My only complaint is that if you know nothing of anti-psychiatry or the visible and patient-led challenge to psychiatry that followed in the 1970s, you would think that Thomas Szasz was entirely in a class of his own. While he may be the most famous figure, and may have certainly led the charge in many resepcts, there were others (that is critical psychiatrists like him (and not just in the US) not to mention wide spread critique from various social quarters. But a great great article otherwise.

November 25, 2006

NYTimes article on kids and psych drug

Category: Academic,Health,Pharma,Politics,Psychiatry — Biella @ 1:21 pm

It is good to see the New York Times critically report on the (ab)use of cocktail psychiatric drugs used for treating children (and see this older New Yorker article The Pediatric Gap on the general lack of saftey testing for drugs given to kids).

What is a shame, however, is that the total lack of critical interrogation that there may be actual environmental causes for some of these problems and this, despite the publication of new studies from leading medical journals (such as Lancet) that finally are addressing the possibility that over 200 chemicals are causing havoc on brains, behavior, and thus life… (kinda a no brainer at some level even if we do need more specific studies…)

As the article on the chemicals reports, critics of they study say they Lancent authors are verging on scare-mongering, because there is no proof of a pandemic.. Well, we do need more proof but does that mean we should not study what is so understudied (and hard to study because how does one measure the effects of the synergistic combination of x number of chemicals over x many years??)

But as the NYTimes piece shows there does seem to be a pandemic in prescribing people and kids psychiatric medications. So possibly there is some connection to be made here??

And what I can’t understand is why it is that those within the medical establishment who are confronting kids with so called behavioral and those that are critics of overprescription are not asking what may be behind some of these problems…

While I agree that a percentage of the kids being put on drugs are totally fine and just being kids, I am sure there are many others who are suffering. And while some of these psych drugs may be an acceptable and necessary short term solution, this NY Times article should make us pause, and seriously pause, about the viability of these drugs as a realistic solution, given the horrible side effects they cause (just read the article). Even if some so think these are necessary, these are crude therapies.

I think we need another “Silent Spring” with an eye toward possible behavioral effects to shake people not out of an apathy, but from a myopia that seems satisifed with engaging only with symptoms and surfaces.


November 24, 2006

Play Money by Julian Dibbel

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Books/Articles,Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 5:06 pm

A few months ago I finished Play Money by Julian Dibbel and like his My Tiny Life before it, the writing style is simple yet sumptuous, or I guess just simply sumptuous.

Like the travel writings that pre-figured anthropological writing, Dibbel takes us to a “far-away” exotic land (but only a click or two away) that are populated by a motley crew of wizard (or is lizard)? slayers, gold-diggers, money-makers, and virtual-world-builders. For many, these MMOGsare no strange-lands but are becoming weaved firmly and intimately into the fabric of everyday life, whether as entertainment, sociality, and or for a cadre of folks, as a source of income generation.

I think the book has gotten enough coverage that I don’t need to rehearse its content in any detail but the basic story is that Julian embarks on a real world quest in the virtual land of quests to try to make enough money (to be specific make a little more than his monthly salary as a freelance writer) from trading and selling a slew of virtual objects and gold. In taking us along, he gives a compelling entry into the imaginative and morally complex world of these games. And better is that whether you know nothing about them or are a seasoned player, the book has much to offer.

One of the reasons I respect Julian Dibbel is because he takes his sweeeet time to churn out a book-length manuscript. In a day and age when there is so much pressure to release quick and often, especially when writing about anything in the so-called virtual plane of existence, he waited nearly 8 years from the publication of his last book on gaming, My Tiny Life before publishing on a considerably higher-tech phenomenon.

Following him on his most recent adventure, you learn that he threw himself into a variety of gaming environments persistently and consistently and did at least 3 years of research and writing (at one point in the book he confesses how excruciating writing for him, which is hard to believe as the words slip so nicely off the paper but whatever the extent of his writing angst is, he clearly spends a lot of care in crafting his sentences). And I am starting to think that if more people followed this ethic of long-term immersion, coupled with slow-brewed productive sparsity, we would get higher quality products (Yes, kinda like the Debian release cyclce).

Like any good ethnographer, he gives an intimate portrait of life in these worlds of copious play where various types of real world economies have mushroomed apace with new technological developments. That is, he gives us a taste of what it is like, as he cleverly puts it “to own unreality.” Couched within tales of gaming gone real world economic, are hearty reflections on the place of play in social and economic life, the close resemblance and conceptual affinity between computers and games (and not just computer games, and here he does a fantastic job at explaining the Turing Test), self-doubts about writing in general and in particular about this topic, commodity fetishism, and the changing nature of capitalism in a world of ever-greater abstractions. All of this makes for an enjoyable read that if used in the classroom (which like A Tiny Life, I am sure will become standard for courses on Virtual Worlds) allows you to bring in some good supplemental material whether Edward Castranova’s Synthetic Worlds, Greg Lastowka and Dan Hunter’s The Laws of Virtual Worlds and or older heavy-hitters like Max Weber and Karl Marx.

The only topic I think I would have liked to seen included is that of capitalist finance, because there are, I think, some real affinities, phenomenologically and conceptually, between finance capitalism and “gaming the virtual game.”

Otherwise some of my favorite sections were on hackers and the object of the computer, but of course, I am biased that way. So here I leave you with a tasty morsel of something that was sumptuous to ingest:

“It is this endlessly repeatable collusion of freedom and determinism-the warp and woof of fixed rules and free play, of running code and variable input—that sets both games and computers apart, together from the larger universe of information technologies they inhabit…. But only games share the universal machine’s game’s thoroughgoing commitment to the principle of recursion: the chained repetition of simple operations, each building on both the input of the moment and the outcomes of preceding steps. And only games, therefore, come close to capturing that precise mi of unpredictability and inevitability that makes the computer such a powerful simulator of our lived experience of the world.” p. 104

November 22, 2006

Hay Papito, que cold it is!

Category: Academic,Canada,Debian,Edmonton,Tech — Biella @ 6:50 pm

So it is hard to believe that in less than a month I will be somewhere, to be exact, Puerto Rico, that will be 80 degrees warmer than it is right now. And after weekend, it will be 100-105 degrees warmer. Yep, the cold (frikken) snap has arrived to Edmonton and it is preety intimidating. So long as there is no wind, it is tolerable but so long as there is some wind, it is unbearable. And I will park myself at home if that is the case. We were going to make a big trip to the mountains this weekend but with that type of weather, that may have been the end of me. And being that I think I am the only person in Edmonton from Puerto Rico…. that would be a shame.

And speaking of the RICO… WikiTravel has chosen La Isla del Encanto as the spot for the Wiki Travel Get-Together.

HAY Mamita y Papito, que HOT, as one would say… Evan Prodromou a.ka. MrBad, also a Debian developer, kick started the travelpedia and is going to be lucky enough to go.

I am not sure if I can make it but I hearby promise to provide a detailed “map” of where the travelpedias should venture as I know the really good goods.. And they range from the Nuyorican cafe in El Viejo San Juan to hitting a couple of beaches on the amazing island of Culebra, going to Pinones Sunday night to listen to Rumba and anyway the list goes ON AND ON… I will be inspired while baking in 86 degrees (as opposed to freezing in-20 of Edmonton) and will provide le map.

November 21, 2006

A spirited debate on the liberal frame of mind

Category: Academic,Liberalism,Politics — Biella @ 10:16 am

This morning I came across Michael Berube’s response to Jodi Dean’s critique of Berube’s book What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and Bias in Higher Education… It is a fascinating interchange worthy of a close read or two but without first-hand knowledge of the book, I hesitate to pledge my allegiance on either side. But I will hopefully to do so. The only thing that surprised me was that there was no mention of the grand master of the critique of liberalism, Stanely Fish… Not sure why but he seems like an obvious place to start.

These ppst happened to really captured my attention this morening given I found them after reading the Chronicle of Higher Education piece Input or Intrusion? which examines the recent attacks against scholars deemed as “anti-Israel/pro-Palestine,” including against Nadia Abu El-Haj who happened to be on my dissertation committee… It will be very interesting to see how this all pans out and I am sure many of us are watching closely.

And as an added bonus, here is a student’s thoughtful perspective on the Berube book.

November 20, 2006

These two services I am prepared to acknoweldge, but I do not know of any others

Category: Academic — Biella @ 8:01 pm

So I am housed in University of Alberta Department of Philosophy as my supervisor is a philosopher and there is no seperate STS department. And this “academic housing” certainly has its advantages, like for example, learning about probably one of the most audacious (and frankly amusing) statments on religion ever… by Bertrand Russell:

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a diseaese born of fear and and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilizaion. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknoweldge, but I do not know of any others. Bertand Russel. “Why I am not a Christian” p. 24

I am sure he turned over in his grave when his daughter said:

“He was the most fascinating man I have ever known, the only man I ever loved, the greatest man I shall ever meet, the wittiest, the gayest, the most charming. It was a privilege to know him, and I thank God he was my father.”

— Katharine Tait, My Father Bertrand Russell, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, p. 202.

GNU food?!

Category: Debian,F/OSS,Tech — Biella @ 12:46 pm

GNU bars. Maybe they help you code better if you are coding free software.

Modeling Politics on the Model of Free Software

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 7:45 am

My friend Jonah has written a provocative post that asks how the example of free software can be applied to the environmental politics as to create a free energy movement. His suggestion is a good one and it centers on the clear and accessible provision of information of labeling so as to create the conditions for meaningful choice and action.

There is a line of critique launched against free software and the free culture movement accusing it of being myopic, privileged and limited. It is composed of a lot of well educated, white (many boys), honing in on liberating a set of artifacts—software, music, movies—etc, that are seen not to have all that much consequence in the world, compared to other more pressing matters, like famine, genocide, global warming, disease etc. I think this is somewhat of a negative critique that actually misses the point about why so many folks are attracted to the free culture movement in the first place and why it should be considered in a more positive light as a model for other forms of politics not because of its content but because of its form (and this is what Jonah basically says).

In a world in which the mere thought about how to change the world is utterly paralyzing, seemingly futile, and just completely depressing, open source and free culture, by providing a set of tools along with a political message, has broken through the armour of apathy many of us are strangled by. It provided an opening to practically engage in politics, and thus allow many to taste the fruit of political action. And it is the taste, which keep people coming back to try to change the conditions of life.

So the lesson to draw from free software is less whether its politics are radical or important enought, but that it provided an avenue and framework for alternative action. And it is this abililty to build the capacity for empowerment, which is one of its greatest virtues.