March 29, 2010

Do you Open the Hood or Do you Free the Source?

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 5:44 am

So I tend to de-emphasize the differences between free and open source software as it tends to break down when you look at what people do (as opposed to what certain purists say). That said, there are important differences, especially given certain conditions and questions. In the fall, I participated in a debate on this very question, representing at some level the angle of free, the artist, Zach Lieberman representing open source. I think the meat of the event is during the Q and A so if you are interested in this issue, it might be worth a whirl. I also think this format might work really well for Debconf10 so if you can think of some hot-button issue that should be subject to debate, do propose.

March 28, 2010

The year of the conference

Category: Academic,Conferences,Debconf10,Debian — Biella @ 5:42 am

For me, this is the year of the conference, mostly because I am helping to organize Debconf10, which so far has been quite fun, though I know that as we approach August, the planning will become more all encompassing. It is also the case that my piece on the hacker conference has finally been published by Anthropological Quarterly (and thanks to those who help be hunt some of the mistakes and typos). If you have university access you can get it via the traditional (and closed) routes but you can find a copy via my department web page or here.

For those that did not catch my last post about this piece, it is a rare specimen for academia: a feel good piece or so I think and so I have been told. If you have been to Debconf before and liked it, it is a good piece for reminiscing. If you have not been and are thinking of going, I would also recommend it (and btw the deadline for the end of registration is fast approaching.

Now that I am organizing the event, I know the experience of the conference will feel, look, and be quite different from what I have portrayed in the article. So maybe at the end of August, when I am worn, torn, and deflated from months of hard work, I will write a piece poking fun at my feel-good description, a nice counter-weight to what is admittedly a bit of a romantic piece.

March 14, 2010

Call for Contributions

Category: Debconf10,Debian — Biella @ 12:04 pm

It is a little later than we wanted but here it finally is: Debconf10 call for contributions. Do read as it has some new ideas, categories, and prospects. Also make sure to share with us on the brainstorming page.

March 13, 2010

Training it up to Debconf

Category: Debconf10,Debian — Biella @ 6:51 pm


That’s right: I am taking the train uptown to my old romping ground, Columbia University, for Debconf10. I am supremely and superbly excited as I tend to really like these events, so much so, that I am also pretty involved with the organizing team.

For those on the edge of a decision, here are a few thoughts that might push you toward the edge of “f*ck yea, I am gonna go!”

So one important, one of the MOST important parts of the conf is the venue and Columbia University is a fantabulous venue. In fact, it is the only great venue, imho, in all of Manhattan so I was pretty thrilled (and relieved) to hear that it was secured.

It is an oasis in an otherwise bustling city. And better, a compact oasis where everything is nestled and close to each other, within like 3 minutes walking distance of each other. Even better is that the grounds and architecture are quite beautiful and charming. There are these majestic stairs, “the steps” where you can soak in the sun, great lawns for tossing a Frisbee, wonderful and smaller patches of lawn behind old school red brick buildings, and statutes, one of which is great for climbing on to sit and contemplate the day or night or just life, as I used to love to do. It is a great campus for staying up late and watching the sun rise. My fondest times was when the campus was blanketed under a mountain of snow, but it is pretty nice over the summer as well.

We have also secured an all night hack lab, which is a pretty essential touch.

We are also thinking beyond the venue, concocting and expanding ideas for contributions, a great day trip (that will likely not entail a bus but a beach, lots of Russians, roller coasters, and even baseball, oh and lots of NY Kitsch), and there are many other ideas swirling around. We are about to release the call for contributions so you will learn more, including some information on how to brainstorm with us, so be on the look out and remember to register if you’ve made your decision!

March 12, 2010

Stuff I have been enjoying (a freaken lot)

So in the last week I have read some stuff, seen some presentations, and visited some sites that I have really loved, so here they are to share:

Trollcats (this will take my power point slides to a whole NEW level) and here is one for all the free software geeks, in particular.

I finally read Manuela Carneiro da Cunha fantastic Prickly Paradigm press book “Culture” and Culture: Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Rights. If you don’t know jack about the thorny issues around indigenous knowledge an IPR, the first 2/3 provides a pretty darn good introduction rooted not only in an explanation of trade treaties, the limited repertoire available for indigenous groups to politically respond, but a great story about a specific frog that secretes a sticky film that basically F’s you up (if you let it seep in your open wounds). It is entertaining. The last 1/3 takes a far more theoretical turn and will be harder to understand for novices (it helps if you have like at least a BA, possibly MA in anthro, best if you have a PhD from her academic home, U of Chicago). It is there where she discusses the relationship between culture as “reflexive” (hey, peoples of the world, we have x, y, c culture) as lived unreflexively (the unconscious plane of norms that helps guide perception and action). I loved her theoretical somersaults whereby she explained how contradictions between the two are experienced as anything but a contradiction.

Ok so today I went to this conference Radars and Fences III (where I presented my anon/scientology talk for the first time 3 years ago!). I was not able to stay the whole day but I saw Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll from the Electronic Disturbance Theater present on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which I knew about but did not know how infused it was in poetry, poetry that is, in fact, an integral part of its arsenal. Their presentation was fantastic and it reminds me the great political work being done at the interface of art and technology (and believe me, these 2 are rabble rousers. UCSD, who helped fund the project, are not all that happy they did and they also get not hate mail they get but the HATE mail).

Then I saw Laila El Haddad & Mushon Zer-Aviv present on an amazing project You are Not Here which is a bit hard to explain briefly but I will try (and their site introduces it as “an urban tourism mash-up. It takes place in the streets of one city and invites participants to become meta-tourists of another city.”

So basically there are two interlinked sites (NYC and Baghdad and Tel Aviv and Gaza) where you can be a tourist (though the physical place to follow the symbols are only in NYC and Tel Aviv). You need a map. You get a map. The map, once put up to the light shows two cities/places with symbols that indicate a special spot on the map. You find the physical spot, there is sticker or other sign with a phone number, you call, and you hear a story not about NYC or Tel Aviv (where you would physically go) but about Baghdad or Gaza and a story that pertains to the area of the map that overlaps where you are in NYC or Tel Aviv. We saw a bunch of examples and they were riveting and powerful.

March 11, 2010

Libre Planet

Category: Conferences,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 6:05 am

There was a plug for an up and coming conference in my last post but it was a bit buried and it deserves a bit more attention: the Libre Planet Conference in Cambridge, MA. It is fast approaching but there are still spots, student rates, and funding for female attendees. Though I can’t go as I will be out of town, this seems like it will be a great event: excellent speakers, lots of interesting folks, and I am sure a fantastic set of discussions.

March 10, 2010

A Cultural Alibi of Sorts

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 7:08 am

There is an interesting conversation over at about the “nature” of peer production, and “crowd” based production over at PBS. Thankfully folks right off the bat noted that the types of activities they are addressing—that range from 4chan to open source—are so freaken distinct that perhaps it is not all that useful to use one moniker for them.

The comments I am most fascinated by are danah’s who notes:

“”We” assume that the collective voice will be populist and, more importantly, that it will reflect the diversity of the populous. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, certain values and attitudes and voices are over-represented in crowd-sourced activities. Who is looking out for those who aren’t represented? In what ways are we reinforcing structural inequalities? What are the implications of this?”

And then Clay’s response:

So, to re-ask your question in a non-rhetorical way, under what
circumstances would we want to make the population of Deviant Art,
say, less white, or Linux less male, and if we wanted to do so, what
would need to happen?

What I find interesting about this discussion (and will be talking about this topic here, next week) is there not enough recognition of two related things: 1) the efforts are there (more on this soon) 2) that perhaps hacking and F/OSS in particular are not fully accessible to all and everyone because they are full-fledged, full-bodied, cultural worlds —and all cultural worlds—are to some degree not fully accessible and transparent for there are built on particularities, often invisible and unarticulated, forms of value. That is, just as some norms and values of Indo-Guyanese to take one random example, are not of my world, so too is hacking partially inaccessible for the fact that it is culturally configured.

But I am starting to suspect that the “culture-ness” of these domains are often overlooked because they are overwhelmingly white, male, and chock full of computers (and so economically lucrative). All three, I suspect are (incorrectly) seen as lacking culture, as domains of rationality. (I stand rightly corrected and also forget this very fact, though I know it well from all the Brazil/Latin America Debconfs, as this diversity gets a bit lost from a pure US-European perspective, which I was assuming).

Other historical factors have also produced certain distortions that don’t allow us to see (easily at least) these worlds as culture-full. First is the fact that so many folks—outside of this world—lobbed onto F/OSS for being radical (and this is partially right in so far as its challenge to intellectual property can be seen as radical). But the portrayal or mere suggestion of these worlds as uber-democratic and populist, made people expect these groups to behave as radical egalitarian collectives. For the most part, they don’t and yet never portrayed their own politics and forms of organization as such (openness comes in the form of code and technical merit).

But this vision stuck and when some folks realized that larger projects, for example are very organized (which many people addressed only very late), have hierarchies (which are flexible and also allow them to function, which is I think is a good thing), and are not as diverse, there was deep disappointment that they did not conform to the sense that there was something extremely radical going on as opposed to a cultural group really into producing free software.

But if I am offering a cultural alibi of sorts—in which barriers to participation are to some degree a function of culture, one of the great things about the norms, values, ideas that compose culture is that there are dynamic and changing. They are alive and historical. They are pushed and pulled upon by insiders and outsiders based on wider social values.

And there is an answer to these questions about diversity for there has been a dramatic, noticeable, and noteworthy push within this world, one that really started to coalesce I would say in the last year or so, to address these issues and it ranges from Python’s mammoth efforts at addressing diversity (and I have been told that there was a great speech on the topic at Pycon recently), the geek feminism wiki, and smaller but increasingly common efforts such as Libre Planet’s women’s caucus and their funding of women to participate.

So while I do think that culture goes at least part of the way to explain why these worlds are not fully open—for culture limits—this very domain has grown dissatisfied with its representational make-up and are leading some efforts for cultural change.

March 3, 2010

The Statute of Anne (was actually kinda revolutionary)

Category: Academic,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 4:17 am

Last night, in two different instances I read the claim that the England’s first copyright act, the statute of Anne passed in 1710 was never intended to protect authors but to protect the reproducers like printing houses and presses investing in authors implying that printing houses loved the act.

After pouring through hundreds of pages of Adrian John’s history of piracy, that statement is pretty off and in fact I don’t think the Statute was really about printers/booksellers or authors but the public.

While licensing had all together lapsed for a period before this statute was passed, and the printing houses and book sellers were indeed clamoring loudly for an official recognition of property in literary works, they wanted a perpetuall right in literary property rooted in common and natural law. Like I am talking here about forever, not like a measly, paltry 14 years.

They were not exactly thrilled at this statute (in fact, they were downright pissssssssed off) for it severely limited how long they held a property right over books. In fact, so pissed were they, they challenged the statute, went to court in 1769 (Millar v Taylor) and got what they wanted: a perpetual right to literary work.

It took s a fiery Scot and bookseller by the name of Alexander Donaldson (I kind of think of him as the RMS of booksellers; he was quite a rabble rouser) to challenge Millar and he finally got his day in the highest court of the land in 1774 in Donaldson v Beckett and the outcome was that a perpetual right in books was tossed out the window. The court ruled that copyright was a limited statute. One of the lords in the case even stated “”Knowledge has no value or use for the solitary owner: to be enjoyed it must be communicated.” Adrian John’s explains the significance of this case in the following way:

““Copyright, they decided, was not a right of man at all. Indeed, it was almost the very opposite: an artifact, and one that replaced a prior right established by an author’s work of creation. . . In terms of revolution principles, liberty won out over property”

Again the printers booksellers (minus the “pirate” ones) were not happy a bunch. Unfortunately the subsequent history is one we all know well, one in which booksellers and others with vested interests in copyrights pushed to extend property rights in all sorts of ways to get to where we are today (obviously with a lot of different historical developments), a land, time, period where perpetuity may not be forever but it is long enough to nullify the very public domain envisioned by the first copyright act.

However, I think it is nonetheless important to recognize how radical in many respects the first copyright act was: given what the book printers and sellers wanted (and they were a powerful bunch).

For those interested in learning more about Alexander Donaldson, I would check out his Some Thoughts on the State of Literary Property, where he rails against the London booksellers for being monopolistic and calling for a limited property right in books.

March 1, 2010


Category: Travel — Biella @ 7:55 pm

Londoners or those that know the city well: if you had to pick your favorite thing to do in London (in March) what would that be? I have 1.5 days there of mostly free time and would love to gather some intel.