Harvard UC: 2. Evil and injustice: 0.

October 4, 2007 at 2:15 pm | Posted in arguments, crimson, harvard, humor, news, school | 1 Comment
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If it seems like the CrimsonReading debacle has cooled down in the wake of class-shopping week, fret no more. Looks like another opportunity has come up for the Harvard Undergraduate Council to stick it to the man. An out-of-touch, grouchy man, that is, one hired by our friend Drew Faust last month to cut his administrative teeth serving as the new Dean of Harvard College. So far, the only thing he’s managed to cut are his own legs from beneath him. Faust should be pleased. Even Larry Summers wasn’t principled enough to alienate the entire student body in his first two weeks on the job.

The facts of the matter aren’t exactly earthshaking. The college has decided it would no longer allow the UC to give out party grants, or small sums of money to fund weekend social activities organized by students. We are all complaining, of course, because we have been spoiled by the grants into ignoring the fact that no other school pays for their students to have parties. On the other hand, no other school has as inherently anemic of a social scene either, or as humorless of an administration. Our Nobel laureates are not our only world-record holders here.

Even if you weren’t bothered by the fact that you now have to pay for your own booze, you’d probably find the particular tone of the announcement perplexing. In a surprise letter directed to the UC two days ago, Dean Pilbeam displays the light-hearted charm for which he must have been hired:

the UC Party Grant program is inherently flawed, and must be ended immediately. From this date forward no further funds can be dispersed for private parties, including any that may have already been approved for forthcoming dates.

The letter that follows is a lecture on the dangers of alcohol abuse and an admonition to the UC for not having cracked down on recipients of party grants who drank with their underage friends. Thanks Papa Dean, before we read your letter we all just thought vodka made us smarter.

Of course, what the Crimson does not report on, and which I now know from my top-secret sources, is that after writing the letter, Dean Pilbeam went to the UC meeting and tried to bottle-feed VC Matt Sundquist. Upon realizing that Matt, like the rest of the student body, was not in fact 3 years old, the Dean returned to his office in confusion, mustered up all of the tact that he has acquired over the years, and began to work on his next letter to the students. We eagerly await his much-needed guidance on behaving safely, especially those of us not fortunate enough to attend more scrupulously policed venues such as final clubs.

In the meantime, the UC has voted unanimously to continue disbursing party funds in defiance of the administration’s policies. Not even the (much more meaningful) Harvard College Book Information System proposal got this much support. Just goes to show that alcohol withdrawal can be a wonderful stimulus to progressive campus politics. Why don’t we invite the Dean over for a few drinks this weekend, and congratulate him on a job well done? Just don’t forget to apply for a party grant first.

Old News on the Science Wars

September 24, 2007 at 11:56 pm | Posted in arguments, opinion, philosophical, science, social | 3 Comments

Meant to post this two weeks ago, but got myself into a massive time sink after reading this article online: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” by Alan Sokal. No hurry though, this is apparently old news for most people who care about the matter — the paper was published in 1996 in a well-known cultural studies journal called Social Text. Among other juicy pseudo-intellectual non-sequitors (of the sort I routinely peppered my high school english papers with), I quote the following from the article:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it;

Yes, you’ve heard it before, the “science as culture” argument. But before that even has time to sink in, things rapidly take a weird turn:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation G_{\mu\nu}=8\pi G T_{\mu\nu} under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

If you’re wondering what Derrida could possibly have said that would suggest the inconstance of π and G, you need not worry — it’s all a big joke. The article was a deliberately meaningless hoax, and the author was a physicist with a point to make, which he (rather diplomatically) explains as an attempt to answer the question:

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

In other words, “Does Social Text publish bull shit?” Obviously, in this case, the answer was yes. Continue Reading Old News on the Science Wars…

Fairplay ≠ Fair Use?

January 15, 2007 at 10:51 pm | Posted in arguments, nytimes, opinion, rambling | 1 Comment

Well, looks like both boingboing and kleinschmidt beat me to this critique in the NYTimes of Apple’s use of DRM in iTunes, but just thought I’d add a link to this in the Straight Dope on the Fair Use clause, that ubiquitous piece of copyright legislation that some of my friends swear justifies their peddling of bootleg movies on eBay. (Actually I think the argument was that it was legal to copy CD’s to give it to friends, which is still untrue, “technically” or otherwise.) Lest we might get “legal” confused with “everyone does it,” here’s the Straight Dope on Fair Use, inspired by common sense for the most part:

  • It’s OK to copy music onto an analog cassette, but not for commercial purposes.
  • It’s also OK to copy music onto special audio CD-Rs, mini-discs, and digital tapes (because royalties have been paid on them) but again, not for commercial purposes.
  • Beyond that, there’s no legal “right” to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of a CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won’t usually raise concerns so long as:
  • The copy is made from an authorized original CD that you legitimately own.
  • The copy is just for your personal use. It’s not a personal use in fact, it’s illegal to give away the copy or lend it to others for copying.
  • The owners of copyrighted music have the right to use protection technology to allow or prevent copying.
  • Remember, it’s never OK to sell or make commercial use of a copy that you make.

There are certain exceptions to these general principles Continue Reading Fairplay ≠ Fair Use?…

You want WHAT in Asia?

December 21, 2006 at 5:50 pm | Posted in arguments, international, news, nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

The Christian Democratic Party and the Vatican are up in arms again in Italy, after poet Piergiorgio Welby passed away by means of a rather creative interpretation of Italian right-to-die legislation. The NYTimes reports, “a doctor sedated him and removed the respirator that had kept him alive for the last nine years.” Sound familiar? Dr. Kevorkian and his throngs of supporters have more or less given up on the issue in the United States, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1997 to side with state courts in banning the practice of doctor-assisted suicide, or euthanasia. More precisely, the supreme court decision refused to allow federal appellate courts to impose a constitutional or statutory right to euthanasia, perhaps correctly deducing that this decision should not, if only for the time being, be made by a federal judiciary. It’s not news that Europe is somewhat more progressive on this issue than the U.S., but now, maybe they’re not as progressive as one might think. As the NYtimes (mentioned above) explains,

Direct forms of euthanasia, such as doctor-assisted suicide, are illegal in Italy and are only permitted in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But Italian law allows patients, other than those with psychiatric problems and infectious diseases, to decline treatment they do not want.

The ambiguity of that last condition is what Welby wished to challenge legally, and now it seems that he has failed. The religious right are the most vocal in the wake of Welby’s death, revitalizing the argument elsewhere in Europe. As a matter of principle, doctor-assisted suicide finds supporters among moral philosophers and medical associations in the U.S. The “Philosophers’ Brief” (NYTimes Book Review), filed in the 1997 U.S. Supreme court ruling by a group of six ethicists (including 20th-century giants such as Rawls and Nozick) considers the right to die a constitutionally protected decision invoking “fundamental religious or philosophical convictions about life’s value for oneself.” More recently, a study of European medical practices in the British weekly The Lancet admits that euthanasia is emerging as a medically sound option:

there is increasing recognition that extension of life might not always be an appropriate goal of medicine and other goals have to guide medical decision-making at the end of life, such as improvement of quality of life of patients and their families by prevention and relief of suffering. (Online link to Van der Heide et. al., “End-of-life decision-making in six European countries: Descriptive Study,” The Lancet.)

The social activist group Not Dead Yet was one of many other groups in 1997 to submit briefs opposing assisted suicide, citing two basic arguments Continue Reading You want WHAT in Asia?…

Drugs, Bombs, and Tools

December 19, 2006 at 10:47 pm | Posted in arguments, philosophical | 1 Comment

Asked my roommate P during lunch if he’d do weapons research as a scientist. After he replied, I explained that I find weapons research immoral and not justified as a scientific pursuit. Flash forward to three hours later, having lost a planned afternoon of video games, fun, and napping to a massive, all-consuming debate on the nature of tools and scientific responsibility. The problem is more or less that P rejects my argument that weapons are inherently harmful, and therefore not a valid pursuit for morally conscious scientists. What P maintains is that weapons are fundamentally no different than any other type of tool, having no intrinsic moral value. Instead, claims P, the only way one can judge the worth of a scientific discovery is by the intention attached to it, which only depends on what it ends up being used for. If the scientist designs a weapon, for example, an atom bomb, with the intention that it will be used to end a war before more people are killed, then the net outcome of his research, as far as he is concerned, is positive.

I have to say that I don’t buy this argument. What about the long-term consequences of the discovery? Can anyone look at the state of the post-atom bomb world and say unequivocally that overall, it has changed for the better? Through a little of libertarian zealotry, sheer stubbornness, and a LOT of classic Portuguese charm, P made the following tenable claims:

  1. No tool is ever “inherently” harmful. The fact that we call certain things weapons and not others is an arbitrary distinction imposed on what is simply a continuum of different functional characteristics. It is even more meaningless to classify tools as “right” or “wrong” because even a tool generally considered to be “harmful” may be used for, and indeed may have even been designed for, doing a lot of good.
  2. Deliberately ending human life is justifiable if the outcome is known to save even more human lives beyond a reasonable measure of doubt. As per point (1), consider the use of the atom bomb in ending WWII when Japan promised complete and bitter bloodshed before admitting defeat. Also, when an innocent civilian shoots an aggressor in self-defense. (Yes, we’ve had arguments about gun control, too.)
  3. People have a fundamental right to life, and thus to protect themselves, and weapons are morally justified as a deterrent to immoral conduct by others. A scientist should, and indeed, must, produce weapons for the precise reason that his safety and that of his society are threatened by other people’s and societies’ pursuit of the same goal.

Here are my replies: Continue Reading Drugs, Bombs, and Tools…

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