October 31, 2007

Anthropology, the Military, and Plagiarism

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Tech — Biella @ 7:53 am

There is a debate raging in anthropological circles over the role of anthropologists in the military and the Iraq War Purse Lip Square Jaw has a nice round-up of of articles on the topic. I have only read bits and pieces here and there but this morning I finally gave my full attention to this intriguing article by David Price, which not only covers the vexing debate but discloses the rampant plagiarism in the The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

October 26, 2007

Should it stay or should it go?

Category: Blue Cross Blue Shield,Tech — Biella @ 12:38 pm

What a week. Most notably, I am still in a state of partial disbelief that my case with Blue Cross Blue Shield is now on a path toward resolution and I don’t have do battle with them, or at least in the same vigorous, soul-crushing way I have been engaged in since May (they still have not paid all the bills but at least part of them are resolved).

But the very same day that I received the good news about BCBS, I received not so good news from my dermatologist about the black-blue mole that lies right under my left eye. He wants it gone, removed.

So my whole fight with BCBS concerned claims over pre-existing conditions related to my moles. My claim was that I never had a problem with them until I had BCBS insurance and that is indeed the case. Soon after I first started having problems, I went on mole patrol and found a suspicious mole on my sister, which turned out to be melanoma. Now whenever I see a dermatologist, they all say, given my family history, given I grew up in the tropics, and given the odd size and very dark color of my mole, that it has to go. In fact the last dermatologist said with the firmest of tones: “there is no doubt in my mind that it must be removed.”

The words stung because, well, I am pretty attached to the mole. I have lived with it for my whole life and it is fundamentally, even if somewhat mysteriously, linked to my sense of self. If it goes, I would feel like a very important part of me would also vanish.

On more prosaic grounds, I can’t help think that part of the drive to remove such a spot is just part of somewhat unhealthy social trend toward measuring most everything in finer and finder gradations of risk. Given that this mole is on my face and I see my face at least 2x a day in the mirror, I would probably catch anything if it started to change but given our “risk society” it is unsurprising that every American dermatologist keeps saying it is time to bid adieu to it. Given my background in medical anthropology I can’t help conceptualize all this advice within these much larger social trends and then I go back and forth endlessly in my head as to whether I should remove it because it is safe and right and sound or whether I am caving in to somewhat irrational trend toward the risk management of everything.

Finally I fear my insurance company again. Though I have a good job and decent insurance, I may not have good enough insurance for what this procedure entails.
Because of the size and location of the mole (large and close to my eye), if removed it must be done by a plastic surgeon. And plastic surgery in the US and plastic surgery in NYC costs a very pretty penny. While I would plan on getting pre-approval for the surgery, I somehow have the feeling that they will not pay the full cost and I am going to be left with another bill. And I am trying to stop the unnecessary onslaught of bills.

So should it stay or should it go? I bet that I will lean toward the latter but not without a lot more thoughts, internal cries of resistance, and sense that even if I decide it is the best thing, I will lose a small piece of myself once removed…

October 17, 2007

My Ongoing Saga with BCBS

So here is a real (and positive) update.

So today I was on the phone with a very kind BCBS employee to schedule an in-person appeal meeting where I would present my case to a group of doctors (not affiliated with BCBS). Thankfully on the phone she mentioned that the only pre-existing condition left was an allergy and I was like, “no, how about all the skin stuff?” (this list is too long to list) and she was like all of those were overturned in August and so are not considered pre-existing conditions.” I was shocked and thrilled. She then faxed the letter that never got to me because it was sent to an old address in NJ (that I had changed this summer) .. So now we are moving somewhere good…

More soon but I wanted to pass on the good news!


It is clear to me that a “clearinghouse site” for complaints against Blue Cross Blue Shield would yield a lot of traffic. My post complaining about my problems with BCBJ Horizon of NJ has received constant comments with people posting their horror stories.

I have not moved to create such a site yet, because I am hoping that the outcome of my appeal will be positive and that I can report that going through the appeal process as they set up can lead to fair and just outcome.

But the frustrating thing is 3 emails and 2 phone calls placed this and last week to inquire simply about the status of my appeal has been met with a wall of silence. Frustrating…. I am going to try to contact them again this week and if not… I will have to file another complaint with the dept of Banking and Insurance over their inability to respond to me about the appeal process.

October 16, 2007

Archive of Audio Speeches

Category: Open Access,Tech — Biella @ 3:16 pm

From Stallman to Che to Thomas Edison to Martin Luther King… Check it out.

Topics in Digital Media

Category: Academic,Classes,Tech — Biella @ 1:00 pm

Next semester I am teaching one (yay one) course and it is a graduate course on digital media. This is the description I have so far and I will post the tentative syllabus in the next few week.

Mondays: 4:55 – 7:05 pm, E58.2130-001.
Computers, especially in their networked dimension, have sparked a series of ethical, political, and social debates that often revolve around a series of stark and connected dualities: control and freedom; pleasure and exploitation; creativity and constraint. In this course we will approach topics in digital media via an historical angle that squarely addresses these dualities. To this end, we will often cross-cut readings on similar topics and material whose conclusion about the nature of computing will often vary considerably. The goal, however, is not to determine the correct or right side of these dualities but have students come away with a firm understanding of the following: 1) the history of computing and networking in light of the ways the authors as well as technologists/inventors construct or understand these dualities; 2) the various sources—technological, social, and political—that may shape or drive any of these elements; 3) unpack the political and social relationships, if any, between them and the stakes involved in how these authors represent the nature of computing and networking.

The course primarily concentrates on computers and networks and is roughly chronological, starting with the first digital computers and ending with our digital present. Particular topics we address are: cybernetics and liberalism; networks and the cold war; personal computers and online communities; hackers, the free software movement and intellectual property; labor, development, and computers; peer-to-peer knowledge production; computer gaming; and counter-globalization and computer networking.

October 15, 2007

On Adivising Grad Students: A grad student perspective

Category: Academic,Tech — Biella @ 7:52 am

Joe Reagle, who happens to be a PhD student I am happily advising, wrote a response to my blog entry on the Chronicle of Higher Education article lamenting and lambasting advising graduate students.

I am quoting it here in its entirety because it is a very thoughtful response:

Difficult issue. I certainly feel sympathy with the anonymous faculty member with respect to her amorous and litigious students. Also, I often wonder how I would deal with students who don’t share my sensibilities or workstyle if I were advising them under such circumstances. However, I also find much of her disappointment is related to disappointment of what her students do next, and in this I feel she may be a little unfair. She rightly recognizes that graduate school is a time of flux, no student can really guarantee what’s going to happen next. (One of my favorite religious jokes is: “How do you make God laugh?… Tell her your plans.”) If she is disappointed that a student she tried to help achieve a position at a tier 1 research institute accommodates themselves to something less than that, I’m sure at the student worked just as hard and was even more disappointed.

The heart of the issue is that academia is so ridiculously competitive. It is never good enough to make a contribution or to be helpful, one always needs to be the best. It’s an exemplar for “The Winner Takes All.” I often think of this in relation to my technical work. One of the most rewarding professional relationships I had was when a more experienced programmer co-authored a Python software library with me. I don’t think he did it with any expectation that he was somehow seeding the discipline with followers, or even that I would someday be able to reciprocate in a similar manner. He was a good guy, we enjoyed our collaboration, I think he was learning by helping me, and in the end we made something useful, even if neither of us ever became Python gods. This is one of the things I like about open content communities, yes the people at the top get a fair amount of attention, but even if you spellcheck Wikipedia articles or write a Python library for canonicalising XML, that work is still appreciated.

October 13, 2007

Bad Apples….

Category: Academic,Tech — Biella @ 11:44 am

I am not even sure what to make of this article, written by a professor at a well-known university, on the perils of advising graduate students. Given that I have been sitting at my computer for nearly 12 hours straight and since 4 a.m, I don’t think I am really in a state of mind to think too much of it. Neither do I have much experience doing this (though whatever experience I have had, it has been good so far), so I can’t really comment back via personal experience. I only hope that her/his experience was the exception or that he/she allowed too many boundaries to be crossed, but whatever the case, interesting food for thought.

I am sure a graduate student could write an interesting counterpoint, talking about all the questionable things their professors did back to them too and knowing the web, I am sure that will be forthcoming soon.

Decoding Liberation: The Promise of FOSS (and Web 2.0)

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Kaltura,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0 — Biella @ 2:53 am

Last week I helped Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter kick off their book release party in New York City. The book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software is the first academic book length piece on free software proper that among other things examines the repercussions of such elements as language use (free software vs open source) and licensing (such as non-copyleft licensing). Here are my opening remarks, which don’t give justice to the book but give a small taste of what is in there.

Samir and Scott are computer scientists, philosophers, and political thinkers and bring these positions and perspectives to bear in their work. While I tend to avoid the discussion on the differences and divergences between free and open source software and licensing (just because I ask a set of questions that tend not to go into that territory), they spend a hefty about of time on this sort of engagement And what is so useful about their approach is that it is technically detailed and carefully analyzed, clarifying the stakes involved in choosing a certain set of licensing over others, or the political implications of language use. Along with this focus, there are many other threads they unpack and one of my favorites is on the aesthetics of code, which I discuss with some detail in my opening remarks with the help of one of my favorite literary writers, Susan Sontag.

The conversation that followed was lively, in part because there were a number of people in the audience who are also very familiar with FOSS (Somewhat unbelievably, there were 3 anthropologists there who study free software, myself, Jelena Karanovic, and Anita Chan). And I think one of the most interesting questions was launched by Anita who asked the authors what they meant more precisely by “the promise of FOSS” as well as liberation.

The conversation that followed was too rich to recount here, but something that I raised and I do think is important is the relationship between the buzz word of the last few years, Web 2.0 and FOSS. Web 2.0 is related to FOSS in so far as Web 2.0 refers to a suite of technologies that allow for the creation of user-generated content and collaboration. FOSS refers to a development methodology that is based on promiscuous sharing of code and collaboration.

The similarities, however, end there because much of the Web 2.0 infrastructure is proprietary. FOSS by definition is non-proprietary. But I think that soon we are going to see more Web 2.0-like companies open up their infrastructure entirely or at least important components.

One example of a new technology that is Web 2.0-like and is entirely free software is a activist networking tool crabgrass that is pretty impressive (I have used it to coordinate my move and am using it now to coordinate a collaborative grant). It is still under development but once released, it will be a great boon to any group that needs to collaborate and organize and coordinate:

Crabgrass also provides a public advocacy centric view of content so that people can learn more about issues and organizations through social relationships. Blog tools, voter guides, petitions, event organizing tools, and action alerts are being added to the functionality of the platform. Crabgrass integrates wikis, asset repositories, task lists, calendars, polls, and meeting schedulers into one tool which allows groups to manage their internal organizing.

The other technology that I am excited about and that I have already written about is Kaltura. As I mentioned, Kaltura is important because it lowers the bar for collaboration, providing tools to facilitate video editing. But what I find as interesting and as significant is that they are perhaps the first large-scale Web 2.0 company that is actively seeking to enter the territory of FOSS and in this respect, once they do so, they will lead the field, not simply for technical reasons, but because they choose to make and engage with open source technologies.

Bringing Web 2.0 within the orbit of FOSS and brining FOSS within the orbit of Web 2.0 can only work to bolster each other, and this is where I think, at least part of the promise of FOSS lies.

On Networks and Experimental Writing

Category: Academic,Teaching,Tech — Biella @ 1:42 am

One of my dissertation thesis advisors, Christopher Kelty, is teaching a superb looking course at Harvard this fall on networks. The only thing I would add to that syllabus right now is a book by a department colleague, Alexander Galloway, who just published a book with Eugene Thacker The Exploit. And while I have not read more than a chapter, what I like about it is its experimental style. They open this book with the following orientation:

It is our intention in this book to avoid the limits of academic writing in favor of a more experimental, speculative approach. To that end, we adopt a two-tier format. Throughout Part I, “Nodes,” you will find a number of condensed, italicized header that are glued together with more standard prose. For quick immersion, we suggest skikking Part I by reading the italicized sections only…. In this sense, we hope you will experience the book not as the step-by-step propositional evolution of a complete theory but as a series of marginal claims, disconnected in a living environment of many thoughts, distributed across as many pages.

The good thing is while the form is experimental, at the sentence level, things are quite clear. I have often had the experience of reading experimental work whose content was the experiment but not the form, and basically I did not understand a thing. In this case, it is the form that achieves their desire to explore and present their marginal claims.

Annemarie Mol in The Body Multiple also uses a two-tiered experimental approach that is just fantastic, especially since her writing is especially accessible.

October 12, 2007

New York Public Library Labs

Category: Academic,Digital libraries,Tech — Biella @ 2:50 pm

Interested in what it would be like to digitize a good chunk of the New York Public Library?

If yes, join the good folks at the library who are experimenting and implementing new methods, protocols, and best practices and documenting it all on a very nifty blog, NYPL Labs. One of the brains behind these mass movements and migrations is Josh Greenberg, the Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship. In many respects, it is a dream job for an academic (he got his PhD from the venerable Cornell STS Program and is the author of a forthcoming book, From Betamax to Blockbuster: The Invention of Movies on Video) because he can have a more dramatic and lasting impact on the world in comparison to most social science and humanities work, and in the process he and others will collect and gather all sorts of experiences that I am sure will become rich food for thought and future academic work on digitization, cultural preservation, and access.