April 29, 2007

Blogus Christ, My Savior

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 10:34 am

Academics in the humanities and social sciences often struggle with their writing. I just figured that as you did more and more, you got better and better. Well this recent post by Radical Tenure was pretty eye opening because she confesses about losing her writing groove (in part because of sh*t going down at her university) and then she gives a fascinating account about how blogging “saved” her. Now I am stunned because her writing is pretty darn succulent. Really. I love reading her( and am proud that she is a lady blogger too given how many males dominate the “famous” scene).

Now I am more inspired because I think indeed writing, especially in very competitive environments, can be a torturous and fraught task. And while it may get easier, there are circumstances that may derail even the strongest of writers.

It is great to see this confronted head-on, in ways positive, honest, inspiring.

Here are the relevant bits:

Another reason being anonymous didn’t work for me is really internal to Zen – er, Wesleyan, stultifying features of which I was trying to escape following the Unfortunate Events. Like being watched and talked about all the time and treated like yesterday’s news for having done the teaching and institutional work I was asked to do while struggling to find time for my scholarship even as other people were chosen to be groomed as “the scholars.” What happened to me during the last three years nearly destroyed me as a writer and an intellectual (I am actually not joking about this), and I had to start all over again, recreating a literary voice for myself and a confidence that I could command an audience with my thoughts and prose, from the ground up. It was either that or quit. ….
Do not dare feel sorry for me about this, and let me underline the point: I am a highly privileged, senior faculty member at a very wealthy institution, and many other bloggers are not. Furthermore, regardless of this messy coming-out period, my strategy actually worked. Because of this blog *and its audience*, I was able to start writing again, to finish articles that were lying about undone, to write a book review for the Village Voice, to write a book proposal, to get going on revising the book that various people and committees eliminated all over during the Unfortunate Events, to do a ton of research on a new project and to begin speaking about some critical reforms that might really help faculty – on the right and the left – enjoy their work as academics again. In other words: I Saved Myself. And I have been transformed into something more powerful as a result of my trials.

April 27, 2007

Eugenics and Sterilization in Alberta 35 Years Later

Category: Academic,Edmonton,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 6:36 am

Eugenics is considered to be a technology and social practice of the past, swept away in our closest of all things ugly and bad. But the past is, in fact, quite recent, especially in the Alberta region in so far as forced sterilization was only outlawed in 1972–yes 1972.

If your physical body is here in Edmonton and are interested in the ways in which science and technology can has been placed on a truly “mad path” in the name of progress and how we are in danger of repeating the past via new genetic technologies, do check out this conference Eugenics and Sterilization in Alberta
35 Years Later

Free and open to the public, it kicks off tonight and continues all day tomorrow. The line-up of speakers is great and most important is that it includes talks by some of those who were caught by the very unfortunate web of eugenic laws.

April 26, 2007

Abbot and the Slimy Politics of Drug Patents

Category: IP Law,Not Wholesome!!!,Pharma,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 3:38 pm

For those of you who like to follow cutting edge developments in the politics of intellectual property law, do not miss today’s Democracy Now program AIDS Activists Call for Global Boycott of Abbott for Withholding Drug Sales in Thailand.

It is sort of stunning in that empowering and disempowering way. The show discusses protests launched again the large pharmaceutical company Abbot who in reaction–no, make that retaliation–to Thailand’s decision to issue compulsory licenses on AIDS drugs, and import generic drugs acted in highly questionable ways:

“Abbott responded in a way that shocked many AIDS activists – the company announced it would withhold seven new drugs from sale in Thailand including a new AIDS drugs and treatments for arthritis and high blood pressure.”

It is great to see countries use the very slim rights granted to them by organizations like the WTO but in order for the rights to have any punch, these countries *must* be given the space to make these decisions without the deep intimation and that is exactly what Abbot is up to.

To learn more, read the transcript, listen to the show. And if you want to go on, I have pasted the “favorite” part of the show:


April 23, 2007

A geek is born

Category: Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 10:16 am

This is what happens when a geek has a baby geek.

April 22, 2007

On Grading

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 11:08 am

Recently I stumbled on a relatively new blog Tenured Radical that I really dig for it provides a compelling and witty, (if not at times very disturbing) picture of what I am soon to face, being I am at the cusp of starting an academic job. Not only is writing a real pleasure to read but she has a lot of good things to say and it is worth checking out (well maybe only if you are a student, academic, or university administrator though I reckon it may have wider appeal). At first, she blogged anonymously but now she has come out under the sun revealing her identity.

Her recent post on the problems of grading hit home, I guess because it seems like in the last week all my friends are talking/complaining about is grading given it is the end of the semester and all (I thankfully don’t have to worry about that till next year). Grades and granting them, have such a complex psychology and set of consequences for teachers and students alike and she gives a nice taste of what they are.

April 21, 2007

Re-public: Re-imagining Democracy in our own (male) Image

Category: Books/Articles,F/OSS,Not Wholesome,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 6:14 am

The online journal re-public: re-imagining democracy has a handful of articles on collaboration and wikipedia, adding to two special issues on reimagining the commons.

Many are good.

But I am disturbed over the true paucity of diverse voices, including women. The recent slew of articles does not have even one authored by a woman and there are only 2 represented in the re-imagining the commons special issues.

Given that there are many woman researchers and practitioners who do work on this material, I honestly don’t think this represents a lack but a problematic oversight. Problematic most especially because they are “re-imagining democracy,” and this does not look to imaginative to me.

April 18, 2007

The Importance of Celebration

Category: Anthropology,Debian,F/OSS,Tech — Biella @ 8:17 am

Recently a Debian user left a really nice note letting me know “It makes
me happy and proud to learn that boricuas are Debian developers! (Hopefully you are not the only one). This is for me the best Debian News since Etch released. Proud and happy for you.”

Here I have to confess, however that I am neither a DD nor really a true Boriqua. I have studied Debian for many years, but have never officially joined. In terms of PR, none of my family is originally from there as my father is Jewish American and my mom was born in Russian, wandered as war refugee for many years in Europe and eventually landed in Venezuela, where I was born. But I have made my home in PR for many years and do consider it one of my many homes.

Speaking of many homes, I also feel, even though I am not a DD, that Debian is an important touchstone in my life. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Manoj recently related to this topic, who almost mistook me for a DD:

[biella] who is that DD that wrote an anthro thesis on debian? [08:55]
[biella] he is brazilian

[manoj] I was gonna say that the dd who did an anthro thesis on debian
was you, then it struck me that you are not a dd, but I still
think of you as one now, and then it struck me further that
making you a dd might compromise your postiion as an observer

After many years following the project, I have grown quite attached to it, and every year, a few months before Debconf I am reminded of this attachment. I have managed to make Debconf only every other year, and usually when I face this fact, a sense of melancholia and slight sadness sets in, especially when I hear of everyone making plans to go. I always start to question my decision to stay back, then hit all sorts of websites for cheap tickets, and start to wonder if I can perhaps manage to complete some work there, which is the main reason this year I am staying away.

I then make myself confront REALITY and remind myself that the whole reason I love attending Debconf is because of its extreme vitality, which after a week, leaves you wrung out and tired, because you put so much of your attention and mind, soul and heart in the events. So even if I go for a week, or longer, you usually need a week ore more to recover. I am not sure I can spare such time this year, especially since less than a month after Debconf, I am packing my bags and moving back to the east coast of the United States. And as I learned last year and the year before and two years before, these sorts of long-distance moves take a lot of your time.

My longing reminds me of how important it is to celebrate those things in life you love. And while there is more to Debconf than a celebration, much of it is just that, a chance, a space, a place by which and where you celebrate. And since I sit only in the shadows of Debian, I imagine the pleasure and joy runs deeper and wider for those who sit at its heart. So if you are on the fence on whether to go, this is your friendly public service announcement that it is, indeed, so worth your while.

April 16, 2007

On the Caveat, Better than Well, and HOT Latino Bodies

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,carl_elliot,Politics,Psychiatry,Tech — Biella @ 12:07 pm

So, yes these three topics, the caveat, the book Better than Well and Hot Latino Bodies are related. You just have to stick with this long post to find out why…


As I progress slowly but surely with my book manuscript, I am really coming to see how a dissertation and book are quite different creatures. I think one of the most important and noticeable differences is that a book has a lot more short caveats and warrants than necessary in a dissertation.

I think there are two main reasons for this. One of which is has to do with your committee members, the primary and (usually only readers) of the dissertation. They are a lot more prepared and adept to ingest complex ideas than lets say undergraduate students, because that is what they are trained to do and because most of them are much more familiar with your topic because they have been with it nearly as long as you have. In a dissertation you are also allowed to (and often expected) to go on and on, ad naseum, with your theoretical explanations that help substantiate what are otherwise shakier, initial claims. For various reasons, for a book, especially if you are not some FFT (Famous French Theorist), you are strongly encouraged to dump most of the theory in favor of providing a streamlined version (which really, is preferable of course, but extraordinarily hard to pull off).

I have been thinking a lot of the caveat because I have just finished re-reading a book “Better than Well” that is not only fascinating in its own right but brings the caveat to a stunning art form. The author, Carl Elliot, is a philosopher/bio-ethicist and the topic of the book, broadly speaking, examines how the rise of new enhancement technologies (prozac, plastic surgery, sex change surgery) is bound tightly with longer-standing, distinctly American ideals, such as the autonomous, self-directed and authentic self.

It is one of those rare books that can be read by your father, aunt and uncle, tossed over to a willing teenager, and assigned in all sorts of college courses and still manage to impress all sort of academics in all sorts of fields. Part of the reason for his broad appeal is because the book is thoughtful and clever and so chock-full of really interesting examples that you are hooked and want more of his tasty intellectual Kool-Aid. So while he has one main focus, which largely triangulates between enhancement technologies, selfhood, and consumerism, in the process of exploring them, you learn about a bunch of other really neat topics: suburbia, the history of cosmetics and childhood, odd social phobias, long-gone and culture- bound disorders like dissociative, fugue, amputee wanabee’s, extreme blushing, and so much more. Along with crystal clear writing, he also throws in some classically funny lines, my favorite one currently being: “For better or worse, suburbia has come to stand for something than can be survived only with minor tranquilizers.”

Another reason he manages to pull this Houdini-like feat is because of his judicious and artful use of the caveat, which is really the only way he can bring forth complex ideas, in a fashion that is much more accessible than is usually done in a purely academic book.

To take on example, when he introduces the usefulness theories of Thorstein Veblen, an economist usually known (and only barely), by academics, he opens in the following way, because in many ways, if you just decided to pick up a copy of Veblen, his style make strike outdated:

“Reading Veblen nearly a century after he wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, it is not easy to know which parts of the book to take seriously. It comes off as equal parts intellectual theory, social satire, and crackpot polemic,” (and goes on for a full more paragraph) and then says “Where Veblen is prescient, however, is his sense that in a consumption economy, consumer goods would become markers of who we are.” p. 103

In this way he can say, “ok Veblen is useful because of this specific reason” and yet communicate to his academic readers that he knows the limits of Veblen.

No matter how much I love the book, and now matter how I think his use of the caveat is stunning, there are two problems I have with it. In one case, I think he fails to give one of the most important caveats.

He paints a picture in which all of American society is ensnared in dominant social codes and mores (which somehow all point back to consumerism and capitalism and a desire to improve the self). While there are points he seems to back away from that sort of statement, and a few rare points where he ascribes his insights to the group I think he should mainly be sticking to—white, liberal-leaning middle-class Americans—I think there are more instances where he paints a picture of America as far more uniform than it actually is. According to his account, no one is immune to the forces he so eloquently writes of and so in the end the environmentalist activist, is as caught up in the traps of consumer life-style as is the investment banker on Wall Street.

It lead hims to say such statements as

“Many Americans today learn who they want to be by listening to a Methodist minister or a civics teacher but by watching advertisements for The Gap.”

Ok while he bit about the civics teacher may be true, any consideration of lets, say… the religious right in this country, which, as we know from recent elections, don’t represent a teeny-tiny itsy-bitsy minority (and for a fascinating glimpse into the world, I would recommend Jesus Camp), would bring holes, and sizable ones, to that sort of statement. Many Americans do in fact listen to their minster. And this does not only help explain the deep divisions in this country, but I bet because they do listen to their pastors, their notions of the good, the self, etc, are going to be pretty distinct from those he describes (and gain see Jesus Camp to get at this point)

It is not that the religious right exists outside of the web of consumerism we are all at least partially caught in, and indeed, a lot of the new Protestant religious movements here and elsewhere as Jean and John’s Comaroff’s work has shown can be all about securing a more robust middle class lifestyle. But we must remember that even something as powerful as consumer capitalism or dominant ideals of an authentic, beautiful self—though powerful and more often than not work in concert with each other—do not quite have the power to efface all meaningful difference— between lets say a white, “liberal” middle class woman and let’s say, many Latinos, who, do, let’s not forget, comprise a huge portion of America. Many Americans have a very different picture of the ideal female body than the picture he explores, which is skinny and lanky and forever youthful (and hence the appeal of botox and lipo). Let me provide just one example drawn from the annual Puerto Rican day parade and this hold true for the one held either in NYC or Chicago.

Along with a blizzard of Puerto Rican flags, what you may also notice is the abundance of really bright spandex being donned on ladies that are not by any standard of the word “slim.” I am sure that any middle class lady (you know, the type who spends 5 days of the week working out at the gym, wishing her thighs were just a little thinner), would feel morally repulsed in seeing that sort of image, that is if they even bothered to go to the parade. But among many Puerto Rican men (not all) a sexylicious and extra-curvy, meaty Puerto Rican woman, decked out in tight & bright spandex, will like bring on a loud “HAY MAMITA, ven acá”…………………” which roughly translates into “You are HOT… Like I want you NOW.”


Wikitravel in Puerto Rico

Category: Tech,Travel — Biella @ 5:46 am

Wikitravel has organized an informal trip to Puerto Rico and I am of course reading the Puerto Rico blog entries as they are posted. Here are my suggestions for what to do there, which I passed over to them. One day I will update it and spend more than half an hour on the writing.

I am eager to see what they say. I love the island but know that it can be a little hard to travel in, unlike let’s say some tropical paradise like Thailand. It is just a little too formalized and expensive perhaps and you need to know a lot since there are not droves of informal travels to tell you that sort of information.

But it is a neat place with lots to do. I wish them happy and safe travels.

April 12, 2007

On My Aunt Enid, Cars, and History

Category: family,Tech — Biella @ 8:30 am

Those who know me even moderately well (as well as every doctor I have ever seen), knows that my real first name as “Enid.” That is the mysterious E. that sometimes precedes the Gabriella.

My mom’s intention was to call me Gabriella, the first name of some “famous” Italian Cabaret singer, Gabriella Ferranti. But when Enid, my aunt on my fathers side, passed away a few months before I was born, I was given the name Enid Gabriella. We have always used Biella or Gabriella but I like that I have Enid in there and have fancied from time to time to start using the name “Enid.”

By all accounts, Enid was an amazing and energetic woman, who reared her four kids with passion, was very open to friends and family, and who, despite living a solidly upper middle class Jewish life, was also involved in interesting political work(like helping Americans doge the draft by escaping to Canada). My mom held a special fondness for her because, well, honestly I think she was one of the only members of my dad’s family who she deeply loved. And Enid always went out of her way to show her care and concern, as when she immediately went to Caracas after my mothers first child unexpectedly died of a high fever at the age of five months.

Today as I was writing away, I received an email from my father that he sent to me and a bunch of cousins and other siblings where he attached a 9 page document of “remembrances” and memories of Enid. My dad, though in no way as bad off as my mother (health wise), is no spring chicken. And I think as he fast approaches 80 years old, he is committing a lot to writing and thus, keeping his memory alive for us. In fact, this reminded me of a really beautiful quote I recently came across on memory:

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” Luis Buñuel

But what was a little odd (but nonetheless very endearing) about most of the account is that it was not organized by stories, or date, but by car models. Yes, by technology. My dad organized the stories about Enid by virtue of the cars they had, which struck me a little strange because it is not like he was a car buff or anything (growing up we always had the most unsexy cars, like Ford Tauruses).

The cars he covers are the following:

The Model A Ford Convertible
The 1941 Oldsmobile
The 1948 Buick Convertible
A Chevy Convertible

Once you read his little tribute, it becomes immediately clear that his choice of talking about cars is also way for him to talk about “history” which is my dad’s great love (he can talk to you straight for 5 hours about some odd event in WW II and why he should have become a historian) as it is about Enid.

Case in point here:

This was the first General Motors car with automatic drive. It was called Hydromatic and even though this car had a powerful 8-cylinder engine, this first automatic drive was very sluggish. Forget about 0 to 60 miles an hour in 7 seconds. This was in minutes. It was the car that Abe used to teach both Enid and I to drive. We both had to have additional lessons with a stick shift car, because the driving test was only given on stick shift cars. I learned to drive in 1944, when I was 16. Enid took lessons from Abe and learned to drive in 1945 when she was fifteen. This was against the law, but the law in the name of Tom, the policeman that covered our neighborhood, liked Enid and looked the other way.

For those who care to read more (it may only be amusing to me and those few people that are into American car history), I have included all the cars and here are the main cast of characters.

Ruth = My Grandmother
Abe = Grandfather
David = Dad
Enid = My Aunt, David’s sister