May 30, 2009

Two forces of the academic universe: scorching and buttering

Category: Academic — Biella @ 7:49 am

So I am struck by two opposing forces that characterize so much academic labor. Basically academics spend a lot–and I mean mounds–of time judging their peers. It happens informally (“blah is smart” “blah gave such a crappy talk at the MLA”) and formally (journal reviews, book reviews, letter of recommendation, tenure letters and it goes on and on).

While there is certainly a middle ground in judgment in the form of constructive criticism (that which is neither too critical or full of praise), much of this labor is uber-critical and geared toward tearing down and scorching the intellectual earth you walk on. You should read some of the journal reviews! They are a window into some pretty seething nastiness, or at least it comes across as such.

But thankfully scorn, which sometimes is pretty humorous, other times spot on, and other times, just pitiful, sits at the edge of full blown, often overblown, PRAISE. You can find it in journal reviews but it reaches its Whole Hog Glory in letters of recommendation. These letters are all about buttering up, buttering people up to present them as god’s gift to earth or something similar.

I rather enjoy reading and writing letters of recommendation because basically the content is the same (I know blah in this capacity, they are full of nothing but alien-like intelligence and total awesomeness, for these reasons, this is why they are perfect for your program) but the words and style, well, they are always different. And I frankly I just feel good reading them and writing them. Perhaps we have to praise so exuberantly to keep the two forces in cosmic balance.

May 29, 2009

My return

Category: Alzheimers,Puerto Rico — Biella @ 5:59 am

After a fairly tiring (though exciting) semester of teaching, I have packed my books, lots of files, and other things I Can’t Live Without, and shipped myself via Jet Blue to Puerto Rico where I will spend my summer. My reason for being here is simple: I want to see my mother who continues to live in a state of minimalism at a nursing home with Alzheimers. Coming home is never easy. Seeing her for the first time after an absence of months is especially hard and expect will continue to be as such, so long as I have periods away from her like I do. I never imagined that I would live between two cities as I do, but in general I am grateful I have a job that allows me to bridge these two places.

When I am in NYC, I am so ridiculously busy (being an assistant professor is not unlike being a medical resident and doctor except the tempo slows down during our summers, at least to some extent) that I don’t—for better or for worse—have my mother always perched on my mind. But being here is a different story. Not only do I have to structure my own time (so my mind can wander easily into those nether regions), but the house I stay in is nothing but filled with memories of my mom, most especially from the last 4 years she spent here with Alzheimers

Along with visiting my mom, most of my time will be occupied in front of the computer working on the first draft of my book manuscript, which is due on September 15, 2009, 2 days before my birthday. I think I can hack it given that I have lots of time on my hands and when I get into work mode I can get a lot done.

But the first month or so is going to be really really rough. I always find the transition into “stare at your monitor mode” for the entire day sort of tough. Puerto Rico also has a host of magnetic distractions like the garden and the beach, which I don’t love but in fact adore. I also don’t really associate the tropics/this house/the summer with mental work, but I will spend the next few weeks reversing that association or else I will be in deep trouble!

Right now I am setting up the office, struggling to find the right a/c unit for the space, and in a few days I hope to be writing away…

Nietzsche on art, being mighty poetic

Category: Uncategorized — Biella @ 4:34 am

Set outside ourselves, we swim in an enigmatic, fiery element, no
longer knowing ourselves nor recognizing the most familiar of
things; we no longer possess any standard of measurement,
everything lawlike and rigid begins to shift, everything gleams in
new colours, speaks to us in new signs and characters.

May 27, 2009

Journal of Legal Anthropology

Category: Academic,Open Access — Biella @ 12:42 pm

Something I have been thinking a lot about lately is why social science and humanities journals have been slower to move toward the land of open access in comparison to the ‘hard’ sciences. There are a few obvious reasons but there are others which are still a mystery to me.

I understand why existing journals can’t easily pry away from established relations and obligations so I am not all that surprised that these journals, whether in the ‘hard’ sciences or ‘soft’, have not gone open access. But perhaps newly minted journals are in better position to start right off the bat with an OA agreement. This is what the International Journal of Communication recently did and I am sure there are other examples.

So today I was disappointed to find out that the following new Anthropology journal theJournal of Legal Anthropology has seemingly gone down a traditionalist copyright route. But I don’t just want to point fingers here as I know editors are often in a very difficult position when seeking sponsorship and support for a new journal. That is, achieving OA, I understand is no walk in the park. And yet given their mission and given that it is a legal journal, it also makes sense to have some sort of open format:

“International in scope, we hope it will be accessible beyond a specialist legal anthropology area and, in practice, both widen what is understood within the discipline of anthropology as legal and position the legal as also ‘socio-cultural’ in terms of contemporary anthropology. The journal is produced by anthropologists interested in making anthropology accessible (translatable) in other settings and disciplines, and by legal practitioners with support from academics working in human rights, conflict and related areas”

A walled garden is not suited for the flowers of access to grow. But perhaps they tried and failed. If this is the case, it would also be good to learn of these experiences, which can be used in future cases to pave the path toward greater access.

Free as in…

Category: Uncategorized — Biella @ 11:02 am

Free as in pie. Might have to start a gluten free version.

Liberated and..

Category: Gender — Biella @ 10:49 am

With more vacation time, longer (paid) maternity leave, and decent and affordable child care, I am sure this scenario would be different.

May 18, 2009

Chain-reaction of ideas

Category: Science Fiction,Teaching — Biella @ 9:25 pm

One day, I would love to teach a class on the culture and politics of technology and ditch all of the academic pieces and replace with a string of novels and fictional short stories. Though it may be a few years before I can pull this off, I am already compiling my list and there is naturally a healthy serving of science fiction (along with Kurt Vonnegut, who I adore).

Perhaps one my favorite science fiction authors is Philip Dick who edges his readers close to delirum and sometimes insanity and all through mere words. But one of my favorite writings by PD comes not from his fictional fun house but from a regular (and staid) letter composed of a simple and elegant description of what makes science fiction so e(special):

I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at
Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf
story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is *good* sf the
idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all,
it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the
reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that the mind,
like the author’s, begins to create.  Thus sf is creative and it
inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not
do.  We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read
it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being
set off in our minds by something we read, something with  a new idea
in it; hence the very best since fiction ultimately winds up being a
collaboration between author and reader, in which both create–and
enjoy doing it:  joy is the essential and final ingredient of science
fiction, the joy of discovery of newness. Philip Dick (in a letter)
May 14, 1981

Truth be told, I don’t really know much about science fiction outside of the classics but I look forward to reading more and slowly am adding a few pieces to my collection. And when I need to find out something about sci fi, I turn to Sumana who is pretty well schooled in its ways. She has recently co-edited a new anthology of science fiction stories including one on hardware hacking and faith that some of you might enjoy.

Tonight: Bollier, NYU

Category: Events — Biella @ 6:42 am

Monday, May 18, 7:00pm


Courant Institute
251 Mercer Street (Warren Weaver Hall)
Room 109

TITLE: “The Struggle to Build a Digital Republic”


David Bollier will speak about the themes of his new book, Viral
Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New
Press). The book is the first comprehensive history of the “free
culture” movement and “sharing economy” that is empowering ordinary
people, disrupting markets and changing politics and culture. Bollier
will talk about the rise of free and open source software, Creative
Commons licenses, the new forms of non-market creativity (Wikipedia,
blogs, remix music, videos) as well as fascinating innovations in open
science, open education and “open business models.” More about the
book can be found at the website More about
Bollier can be found at

May 13, 2009

19th century tatoo

Category: Academic — Biella @ 7:26 am

Wow, this looks like a real cool research project. Wish they had included some photos as well.

May 12, 2009

Water Canary: Toxic Sensing

Category: Politics,Water — Biella @ 3:58 pm

I love drinking water, talking about the future of water, and am especially passionate about the need for clean water. I hate the idea that we have polluted our oceans, our lakes, our rivers and this water of life, is of course, indispensable. Today, I found out about this amazing project, Water Canary, a project out of NYU’s ITP, which is building low cost sensors to detect toxins in water (in Africa in specific but it seems like every corner of the earth is quite eligible for such toxic sensing). All I can say is WoW. There is just so much potential for this type of project of informational visibility and I can’t wait to see it develop.