Monthly Archives: August 2007

… graduates!

white box, folded

And thus arose the day where I end my association with the University of Copenhagen after almost 7 years to the day.

I defended my thesis this morning with some success, with fun props and pictures to explain my theoretical perspective. And I passed comfortably, though not without being told that there was a distinct lack of methodological discussion, only barely an academic argument, and that it lacked a proper critical approach to the theories I used. Indeed, I was told that I didn’t “unfold” my material properly as there were too many theories in play – several of which which were contrary to one another.

white box, unfolded

All valid criticism, I suppose. In the end, I’m quite happy with the decisions I made, since I emphasized not making only making the field interesting for anthropologists to read about, but also to make it readable and interesting for other people who might be interested in the social dynamics of a free software community. I could have added more reflection on my methods, or focused even more on the analytical crisis cases – but as I already had reached the maximum length allowed for the thesis, I could only have done so by cutting something else.

I’d rather describe the many aspects of the Ubuntu community as they are, rather than focus on crisis cases and dilemmas which are so rare and much less typical of the community as a whole. I’ll digest these comments, clarify a few elements in the thesis and rewrite the conclusion – and ever so soon, I’ll put the “director’s cut” of the thesis up here for all to see.

But for now: Celebration! 🙂

Robert Pirsig’s critique of anthropology

In Robert Pirsig‘s book, Lila (1991), the main character – a thinly veiled author alter ego named Phædrus – tries to write a book about the influence of native American values on broad American culture. Inspired by an anthropologist colleague at the university in Montana where he used to teach, Phædrus seeks to frame the book within the field of anthropology.

Yet he is stopped in his tracks when he realizes that “the whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked in such a way that everything he had to say about Indians would be totally unacceptable.”

Phædrus imagined that the professionals’ refutation of his book would go something like this:

A thesis of this sort is colorful and interesting but it cannot be considered useful to anthropology without empirical support. Anthropology tries to be a science of man, not a collection of gossip and intuitions about man. It is not anthropology when someone with no training or experience spends one night on a reservation in a teepee full of Indians taking a hallucinogenic drug.

To pretend he has discovered something that hundreds of carefully trained methodical workers who have spent a lifetime in the field have missed, exhibits a certain ‘overconfidence’ that the discipline of anthropology tries to restrain.

It should be mentioned that such theses are not at all unusual in anthropology. In fact, during the early history of anthropology, they dominated the field. It was not until the beginning of this century, when Franz Boas and his co-workers started to ask seriously, ‘Which of this material is science and which is not?’ that speculative intuitive rubbish unsupported by any real facts was methodically weeded out of the field.

Every anthropologist at one time or another arrives at speculative theses about the cultures that he studies. It is part of the fascination that keeps him interested in the field. But every anthropologist is trained to keep these theses to himself until he is sure, from a study of actual facts and proofs, that he knows what he talking about.

Phædrus concludes that this state of affairs was brought about with the German mathematician and physicist Franz Boas’ superimposing of the criteria of the physical sciences upon cultural anthropology. In this way, Boas could show that not only were the theories of the so-called armchair anthropologists unsupported by science but that any anthropological theory was unsupported by science since it could not be proved by the rigorous methods of Boas’ own field of physics.

From this, Phædrus launches into a long critique of anthropological theory:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that a certain attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can’t.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn’t scientific.
What theory existed was marked by bitter quarrels over differences that were not anthropological at all. They were almost never quarrels about accuracy of observation. They were quarrels about abstract meanings. It seemed almost as though the moment anyone said anything theoretical it was a signal for the commencement of an enormous dog fight over differences that could not be resolved with any amount of anthropological information.

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages.

The result has been theoretical chaos.

Phædrus liked a description he read in a book called Theory in Anthropology by Robert Manners and David Kaplan of Brandeis University:

“Scattered throughout the anthropological litterature are a number of hunches, insights, hypotheses, and generalizations. They tend to remain scattered, inchoate, and unrelated to one another, so that they often get lost or are forgotten. The tendency has been for each generation of anthropologists to start afresh.

Theory building in cultural anthropology comes to resemble slash-and-burn agriculture where the natives return sporadically to old fields grown over by bush and slash and burn and plant for a few years.”

Phædrus could see the slash and burn everywhere he looked. Some anthropologists were saying a culture is the essence of anthropology. Some were saying there isn’t any such thing as a culture. Some were saying it’s all history, some said it’s all structure. Some said it’s all function. Some said it was all values. Some, following Boas’ scientific purity, said there were no values at all.


What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all theory, by agreeing not to even talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. they restricted themselves to what their particular savages happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right – and scientifically useless.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote, “The very term ‘universal’ has a negative connotation in this field because it suggests the search for broad generalization that has virtually been declared unscientific by twentieth-century academic, particularistic American anthropology.”

Phædrus guessed anthropologists thought they had kept the field ‘scientifically pure’ by this method, but the purity was so constrictive it had all but strangled the field. If you can’t generalize from data there’s nothing else you can do with it either.

A science without generalization is no science at all. Imagine someone telling Einstein, “You can’t say ‘Emc2.’ It’s too general, too reductionist. We just want the facts of physics, not all this high-flown theory.”

Cuckoo. Yet that’s what they were saying in anthropology.

Data without generalization is just gossip. And as Phædrus continued on and on that seemed to be the status of what he was reading. It filled shelf after shelf with volumes after dusty volume about this savage and that savage, but as far as he could see, anthropology, the ‘science of man,’ had had almost no guiding effect on man’s activities in this scientific century.

Whacko science. They were trying to lift themselves by the bootstraps. You can’t have Box ‘A’ contain within itself Box ‘B’, which in turn contains Box ‘A’. That’s whacko. Yet here’s a ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ – on and on.


That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

Certainly, Pirsig is simplifying the whole field of anthropology a good deal, and he is not taking into account the rather immense bout of epistemological insecurity that hit the whole discipline in the post-modern 1980s, which certainly meant leaving behind the ideal of selfless objectivity.

But the post modern turn within anthropology certainly didn’t help to make the discipline better at dealing with generalizations. And here Pirsig’s points certainly strikes home – at least for me. I remember starting out with anthropology and being frustrated again and again by the lack of daring in people’s conclusions. All of the hunches and novel ideas and unexpected connections were hidden away and forgotten under masses of data.

How can we get such wild ideas to the fore? How can we get a sense of daring and intuition back into anthropology and, perhaps, give it some of that guiding effect on the 21st century which it didn’t have on the 20th?

Bruce Perens Live

“Free Software and Open Source are the same. What difference there used to be between the two is now deprecated. When we first began working on the term ‘Open Source’, Eric Raymond was afraid that IT companies couldn’t deal with Richard Stallman, and thus it would be necessary to distance ‘Open Source’ from Richard and Free Software. But it turned out that the companies have no trouble relating to Richard. They do indeed take him seriously, which became quite apparent during the drafting of the GPL version 3 where several big companies took part in the process. So there is no longer any need to differentiate between the two.”

Bruce Perens has launched into his talk at the Danish Unix User Group, and he immediately touches upon the issue for which he is best known: the definition of Open Source, and his role as a mediator between two of the other big men within the free software community, Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond whose eccentricities and disagreements have become the stuff of legend.

As he notes, Stallman often refuses to give talks where people are using proprietary software, instead offering to “defenestrate the computer” – that is: remove Windows from it (and, presumably, install a suitable free replacement).

Compared to those two, Perens appears as one of the more sensible, pragmatic free software advocates. Usually, he does not attract as much attention as the others, and no more than 30 people have showed up this Monday night to hear the Copenhagen stop in his whirlwind tour of talks around Europe.

Most of these talks are given to various government institutions and policy makers who are considering their stance on free software, software patents, or with open standards, or with the GPL version 3.

Perens obviously gets a lot of practice doing public speaking and he sprinkles the relevant technical and legal expositions with some interesting anecdotes while remaining patient and interested in the questions that appear along the way. He comes across as a sage passing on the growing tradition of free software activism, telling us how to learn from past mistakes and seeking to amend previous wrongs – such as the divide between open source and free software.

His talk is called “Innovation goes public” and it is basically Perens’ interpretation of how the free software advocates should go about introducing the core ideas of free software to policy makers, corporations and other non-technical parties:

“You know how newscasters used to report from a crime scene, saying “The police suspect it is the work of a lone isolated nut”? Well, with the Internet, there are no more isolated nuts! The nuts can easily go on-line and find 50 people who share the same obscure interest. That’s basically how Open Source development came about!”

Perens compares this with the way that old people have embraced the Wikipedia. He has found that there many retired professionals with plenty of time on their hands and no one to receive their no-longer active knowledge, so they begin adding that knowledge to the Wikipedia, finding new communities of shared interest in that way.

But the main point of his talk is how free software compares favourably to proprietary software in that it makes economic sense. He argues that companies should examine their use of software and find out which software they use is the differentiating factor setting them apart from their competitors. For the Amazon bookstore, that factor is the recommendation system which boosts their sales remarkably.

Perens notes that, generally, a company’s differentiating software is less than 5 % of all the software they use. Thus it will make sense to them to keep that 5 % percent proprietary and develop that as they have so far, but to use Open Source for everything else, since those 95% of their software is infrastructure such as web server and operating system software which isn’t giving them any vital advantage over the competition, and thus, it can be developed in an free software fashion, giving all of the companies greater rewards compared to the amount of development they invest.

Thus, Perens explains, the Amazon bookstore uses free software such as the Apache web server, the PHP scripting language and the MySQL database which cost them nothing, and enables them to get custom made development done in-house or by others as they may need it. Thus allowing them to reduce cost and focus on what they actually sell. That is: books.

I quite enjoyed the talk, which lasted almost 3 hours as Perens expanded his scope to touch upon more and more topics. I wonder how he fares with a less geeky crowd, but he certainly was hit here. Make sure to go see him if talks at a LUG near you.

Thesis defense

Since coming back from my holidays, I have been in something of a limbo state while waiting to find out the date for my thesis defense. I couldn’t quite tell if I should be panicky with last-minute preparations or summerly relaxed with plenty of time to spare.

Well, now I know. I got the letter this morning:

My thesis defense will take place at 10.00 am on Monday the 27th of August, at the University of Copenhagen. Please do let me know if you plan to attend.

As to making the thesis available on-line: I’m still tweaking a few bits, and haven’t heard back from some of my informants, whom I’ll have to hunt down. Hopefully, it’ll be up for download by the end of next week.

Nothing human is alien to you.

Listen. Are you listening? You’re not listening. I am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing.

Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head. There’s the principal. You have to make a decision, a greeting decision. Will you nod? Will you smile? Will you say, Good morning, Mr. Baumel? or will you simply say, Hi? You see someone you dislike . Furious writing again in your head. Decision to be made. Turn your head away? Stare as you pass? Nod? Hiss a Hi? See someone you like and you say, Hi, in a warm melting way, a Hi that conjures up splash of oars, soaring violins, eyes shining in the moonlight.

There are so many different ways of saying Hi. Hiss it, trill it, bark it, sing it, bellow it. laugh it, cough it. A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore.

I’ll do this as a male because women, for me, still remain the great mystery. I could tell you stories. Are you listening? There’s a girl in this school that you’ve fallen in love with. You know she’s broken up with someone else so the field is clear. You’d like to go out with her.

Oh, the writing now sizzles in your head. You might be one of those cool characters who could saunter up to Helen of Troy and ask her what she’s doing after the siege, that you know a nice lamb-and-ouzo place in the ruins of Ilium. The cool character, the charmer, doesn’t have to prepare much of a script. The rest of us are writing.

You call her to see if she’ll go out with you on Saturday night. You’re nervous. Rejection will lead you to the edge of the cliff, the overdose.

You tell her, on the phone, you’re in her physics class.

She says, doubtfully, Oh, yeah.

You ask if she’s busy Saturday night.

She’s busy. She has something planned, but you suspect she’s lying. A girl cannot admit she has nothing to do on Saturday night. It would be un-American. She has to out on the act. God, what would the world say?

You, writing in your head, ask about the following Saturday night and all the other Saturdays stretching into infinity. You’ll settle for anything, you poor little schmuck, anything as long as you can see her before you start collecting Social Security.

She plays her little game, tells you call her again next week and she’ll see. Yeah, she’ll see.

She sits at home on Saturday night watching TV with her mother and Aunt Edna, who never shuts up.

You sit home Saturday night with your mother and father , who never say anything. You go to bed and dream that next week, oh, God, next week, she might say yes and if she does you have it all planned, that cute little Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue with the red and white checked tablecloth and the Chianti bottles holding those dripping white candles.

Dreaming, wishing, planning: it’s all writing, but the difference between you and the man on the street is that you’re looking at it, friends, getting it set in your head, realizing the significance of the insignificant, getting it on paper.

You might be in the throes of love or grief but you are ruthless in observation. You are your material. you are writers and one thing is certain: no matter what happens on Saturday night, or any other night, you’ll never be bored again. Never. Nothing human is alien to you.

Hold you applause and pass up your home work.

Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to school, go on vacation, go to college, fall in love or something, graduate and go into some kind of profession, get married, have the two point three kids you’re always talking about, send the kids to school, get divorced like fifty percent of the population, get fat, get the first heart attack, retire, die.

Jonathan, that is the most miserable scenario of American life I’ve heard in a high school classroom. But you’ve supplied the ingredients for the great American novel. You’ve encapsulated the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

They said I must be joking.

From Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” (2005)

Summer books

Summer time to me means time to read books. The kind of fun, fascinating books that my studies don’t always include. And I’ve read a fair few books this summer, presented here in chronological order as I’ve read them:

Robert M Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I liked this. There is just so much interesting insight in this book. But I thought that there were too many themes going on all at once, and the actual points on zen and motorcycle maintenance were drowned out by metaphysical considerations. I’d like to remix parts of the book and make a long essay that contains those points in a more clear cut fashion.

Charlie Stross: The Atrocity Archives
A guilty pleasure. It’s not really a very good book. But as a fast-paced science fiction horror story, it’s good fun. Recommended for anyone who can’t resist the prospect of fictional dimension-hopping Cthulhu-worshipping nazis.

Bill Bryson: The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid
This is the first I’ve read by Bill Bryson, but it’s actually really funny. Some of his observations about growing up in 1950s America illuminate the mindset of the baby boomer generation quite cleverly, and it’s an easy, friendly, good-humoured read which will remind you of all those long summers you spent doing absolutely nothing as a kid.

David Graeber: Towards an Anthropology of Value
A serious exploration of the concept of value. I really liked the first, theoretical half which does well to define value and explore its role in various societies, and, having just read “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, those points seemed even more relevant. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is a tour de force of ethnographic presentations which do not build on the first chapters as well as I had hoped, and rather appeared as separate essays thrown in, but without following the exact same project that was hinted at initially.

Stieg Larsson: Mænd, der hader kvinder
This was recommended to me by my mother, since one the characters is a hacker. But there is very, very little hacking in it. Most of all, it is a fairly typical crime fiction novel where the main characters appear to be unable to do wrong, and if they do. They are simply victims of deliberately unfortunate circumstances.

Eric von Hippel: Democratizing Innovation
This was a fairly short book. And having done fieldwork in open source communities, I knew much of what von Hippel is talking about already. But it is good book to read to get an idea of how to present user-based innovation to others in various businesses. Which hopefully will be relevant to me in my job hunt.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow sun
Beautifully written, and well told story of Biafra. Slightly too long, I think, but perhaps it feels that because of all of the suffering which unfolds in the later chapters. People don’t seem to stay happy for long. Adichie seems to be channeling the stories, feelings and memories of her whole family, and because of this, it becomes a very earnest and alive description of African life. If you plan to read it, make sure to get hold of an African cook book to try out some of the West African dishes mentioned in the book, such as Chin Chin, Jollof rice and much more.

Frank McCourt: Teacher Man
A high school teacher’s memoirs of 30 years as a teacher in New York high schools. A personal, witty and very, very well-written book. With some bits of interesting insight on teaching. For instance:

In all my years at Stuyvesant only one parent, a mother, asked if her son was enjoying school. I said yes. He seemed to be enjoying himself. She smiled, stood up, said, Thank you, and left. One parent in all those years.

That’s all the books so far. I suspect people will note the absence of Harry Potter on this list, but I don’t really like the Harry Potter books. I suspect it’s because I grew up reading the books which inspired J.K. Rowling, such as The Wizard of Earth Sea, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings, and when I read the first Harry Potter book, I just found it slightly shallow and unimaginative compared to those, older books. I’ve seen little to change my mind since, despite my brother and sister continuing to rave about the books.

Summer 2007 pt. 3: Tuscany

Coming home from Finland, I had 18 hours in Copenhagen to repack and reorganize before setting off for Pisa with my mother, my brother and sister, my stepfather and his whole family. Coming from the erratic and rainy Scandinavian summer weather, it was great to see some stable sunshine, hang out by the pool, read lots of books, see a bit of Renaissance art, and most importantly hanging out with the clan which was lots of fun (except when all 13 of us, spread across 3 generations with widely different interests and agendas had to go do anything touristy together. Luckily, we did well to organize ourselves into smaller groups for most excursions).

Tuscany is a great place, though understandably crowded with tourists at this time of year. It is amazing how perfectly sunny the weather is, how perfectly sun-ripe the vegetables are, how well-tasting even the simplest meal is. Once away from the main body of tourists at the local agri-turismo (we stayed in a small village called Barberino Val d’Elsa halfway between Florence and Siena), you batteries recharge surprisingly quickly, allowing you to come home with the necessary mental and solar surplus to keep you going at home.

Tuscan Night