December 29, 2009

This is one if for you: the hacker conference as ritual

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS,Geek,Hackers,My_work — Biella @ 10:08 am

One of the most frustrating things about being an untenured anthropology professor (aside from being untenured) is that, for the most part, the articles you must write to get tenure strike those you write about as hopelessly boring and jargony. I always imagine that when geeks read my articles, the experience can be represented as follows:

%*&%*&*(((& Linux *(&*(^%&%%^%% DeCSS &*(&^&&*^&^&^& Free Speech %^&%^%^%%^ Hacking &*(&^*(^^*^**^*Code*((*&&**&&*&* Emacs **(**)*( New Maintainer Process *&())))))))))&*&7&&*&)*&*&*&& DMCA **(**((( Copyleft. ****W$$&& TINC

Well, finally, I have my hands on the uncorrected proofs of an article that is far far more readable, accessible, and truth be told, romantic than anything I have written “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” This article’s ancestry goes back to this ancient blog entry that I wrote after Debconf4 in Brazil, later made it into my dissertation, and finally a gabillion years later is on the verge of publication.

Debian developers, in particular, might dig this piece. I made use of your blog entries, mailing list discussions, interviews, and photos to reveal what is special about these events and also memorialize some important events, such as the the founding of Debian Women.

So while some I am sure some academics will find this piece distasteful for idealizing these events, so be it. I grew very fond of these conferences, they changed the way I thought of computer hacking, and why not write something that makes those you worked with feel good (as opposed to bored and confused). Finally, academics have totally missed the theoretical boat when it comes to conferences, which are probably one of the most important ritual forms of modernity and yet there is so little written on them—an issue I address briefly in the conclusion.

Note that this version has various mistakes (including the name of Joel “Espy” Klecker and the caption under Figure 3, and Figure 9). Since many of your are human debugging machines, if anyone takes a preview read and finds any typos, feel free to send along as I will be sending the proofs back next week.

December 20, 2009

There is No Cabal

Category: Cabal,Debian — Biella @ 2:18 pm

Does anyone knows who took this awesome TINC photo?? I would very much like to credit the photographer.

December 10, 2009

Postdoc Hall of Shame (please spread the shame)

Category: Academic,Insurance,Not Wholesome — Biella @ 3:19 pm

Postdoc Hall of Shame

So a few years ago I got stuck with no health insurance as I had a fellowship that had for its history accepted professors (with health insurance) not fresh off the boat PhDs as was the case with me. Since I was at a Large State school it was nearly impossible for me to get insurance and finally I ended up paying 400 a month and getting a whole lot of headache. In many ways my ordeal was a fluke following a change of policy and this fellowship now provides insurance to its postdocs.

Increasingly, however, it seems like a number of postdoctoral fellowships shirk from their duties and don’t provide a drop of health insurance. Given the academic job market, many academics don’t have any choice but to accept these positions and if they don’t come with insurance, well then these folks are shelling out thousands upon thousands of dollars for basic, really lousy, coverage. Given that universities for the most part have decent, even in some cases kick ass insurance, with a large pool of people, shutting postdocs out of their pool is.. gross and just plain wrong.

One of my fellow friends, currently on the market and currently screwed by her last postdoc wrote up a short document (aka Academic Labor Hall of Shame) and I thought I would post it here as it gets to the heart of the issues and starts shaming some of these shameful universities. If you know of other postdoctoral positions that don’t offer insurance, please please leave a comment. We will include it in the hall of shame.

Academic Labor Hall of Shame

Universities like to promote themselves as bastions of enlightenment, but their treatment of temporary and hidden employees is often anything but enlightened. Or progressive. Or fair.

1. Postdoctoral fellows and researchers:

There is a growing trend towards classing postdocs as “not employees”. I learned this recently when I was laid off from postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania. I planned to extend my health insurance through COBRA, which is currently federally subsidized for workers who lost their jobs during the financial crisis. I was shocked when Penn initially claimed that I was not eligible for the subsidy (made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the so-called “stimulus act”). Their reason was that postdocs were not classed by Penn as employees. I appealed this with the Office of General Counsel and after a few weeks was told that I was indeed eligible, as Penn had found “an inconsistency in [their] policy for certain categories of post docs between tax treatment and the availability of COBRA/ARRA”. This means that while I am in fact eligible for this subsidy, postdocs paid through many other classes of grants are still not.

If you want to see an example of this process of sorting some postdocs into “not employee” status, here is another one:
Postdocs on training grants or on individual fellowships (roughly 25% of VUMC postdocs) receive a stipend and are specifically excluded from the employee classification. They do not pay FICA and do not receive employee benefits. Their health insurance is provided and purchased separately. [by whom?]

Even if Vanderbilt does in this case make provisions for these postdocs to receive health insurance, there is abundant evidence that some postdocs are outright excluded, as in this example at Stanford:
Stanford makes no provision for fellows to purchase health insurance, and the Institute will not provide medical insurance or other benefits. External fellows must bring their own medical coverage with them or purchase an individual plan during their stay in California.

This is also quite apparent when you look into the outfits that profit from selling health insurance to postdocs (because their universities don’t provide them any):

Also, take a look at the policy they and you’ll note that it stinks: it excludes such luxuries as preventive care, birth control, and chemotherapy. I’m not making this up:

December 5, 2009

Be Counted

Category: Academic,Computers,Gender,Wholesome — Biella @ 1:59 pm

To count means that you/it/whatever counts matters. If one counts the number of females in many tech/media conference, the number of women is dreadfully low, giving off the meaning and feeling they don’t always count, even if they are very well received.

There is a new project spearheaded by the efforts of Annina Rüst that will help us count women at conferences. The project is cleverly called Be Counted and it allows you to input information about gender representation in conferences. Here is a little more about the project and I urge you to check it out and contribute:

The project aims to collect a stream of user-contributed data on gender diversity in technology environments in the form of Gender Ratio Reports (GRRs). The longterm aim of the project is to not just collect but also provide tools for retrieving and visualizing the data in order to encourage others to collectively analyze the patterns behind the numbers.

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics,Toxins — Biella @ 9:58 am

The compensation U.S. veterans now receive for herbicide-related illnesses was gained only after a long, hard-fought battle in which the lines between science and politics were often blurred.

Stunningly written and depressing piece of investigate journalism about Agent Orange’s continued presence, wreaking havoc in the lives of many.

December 1, 2009

The Politics of Piracy and Spicing the Political Life

Category: Academic,Canada,Digital Media,IP Law,Piracy,Pirates,Politics — Biella @ 7:36 pm

Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable. Stephen Duncombe

This fall I have been awash in a few obsessions including book piracy and spam. I recently got to talk about one of these obsessions when I was interviewed about book piracy by Nora Young for her weekly CBC radio and podcast show Spark. I mostly gave a lay of the land panorama with a nod toward some of the conditions, technological and social, that can help us grasp the contemporary explosion of book piracy and also raised some thoughts about what might change the future landscape.

What I don’t raise is whether a politics built around an explicit embrace of “piracy” is regressive, progressive, or something else but these ethical questions were posed in the comments left for the full interview. Some of the comments pointed to the pitfalls and shortcoming that can follow the terminology of piracy many of which I share.

But what keeps me interested in the politics of piracy is how it can speak the language of spectacle, which can be a powerful tactic and technique for broadcasting a political message. Here I just paraphrasing and cribbing the work of Stephen Duncombe, who has argued, I think quite persuasively, that we cannot rely solely on reasoned debate for building political programs. Duncombe does not argue that we must toss out rationality and truth seeking (these are absolutely necessary) but notes how on their own or if not clothed in some other cloak, they may not be enough to convey and compel, especially in this day of total media saturation. Or to put a but more poetically by him “Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable.”

Much (though not all) of contemporary digital piracy follows the logic of spectacle. It builds and conveys a fantastical drama of right and wrong, of new possibilities, of freedom from the noose of the law; it signals and speaks to the thrill and fun in twisting, even breaking, existing structures and constraints; and provides a window into another way of acting/behaving. In many cases what it provides is a commons (and I will be exploring it in depth in my class next semester on the commons) and many folks, I imagine, turn to piracy simply for the free stuff, and a number of them come out of the other side transformed into copy fighters willing to engage in a politics beyond sharing stuff and waving the pirate flag.

For those of us who believe in greater access and different ways of imagining structures and strategies of re-compensation, piracy on its own is not certainly enough and I understand fully and even to some degree, share the skepticism many feel toward such language. But I am not quite ready to declare a politics of piracy as always politically bankrupt or necessarily backward. I guess what I embrace is a diverse political ecology. For some, the drama of spectacle and thrill of transgression are what turns their political mojo on; for others it is the cool and reasoned debate common to policy and reform; for others, they want to focus on building alternatives as we see with Free Software or radical tech collectives. For some, it is both the reasoned salt and the transgressive pepper that spices their political world. And I would rather have more spice than less, especially in an era where the blandness of political apathy is that which is our most dangerous enemy.

Related Links:

Here is a wonderful animation by the NZ Book Council that captures what I love about books and renders its materiality wonderfully alive. On the Media has a episode on book publishing and Cory Doctorow has penned some thoughts about the future of book selling. If you want to keep abreast on the politics of liberating books, check out Free our Books. If you are more interested in the technical side of things, check out the book liberator project.