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.

It’s that time of year again!

October 1, 2007 at 11:05 pm | Posted in artsy, news, rambling, school | Leave a comment
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Yeah you know what time it is — the leaves have turned all those romantic colors in a Bob Ross painting (dab a little of that happy yellow ochre here…yeah, just dab it); the study cards have all been turned in and you are starting to ignore the first 400-page reading of the semester; the balmy 80-degree days have given way to the pleasant-and-not-yet-unbearable New England chill, and you can no longer feel your toes while wearing flip-flops; the brain-eating amoebas have completed their summer reign of terror (that is the most emailed story on the Boston Globe); and the narcissists are back at ego-stroking academy (another gem from the aforementioned paragon of journalistic excellence — Harvard folks should check out the photo slideshow); the sun no longer lights your dinner table from across the dining hall in beams of golden dusk, and instead the creeping unease of pre-seasonal affective disorder is interfering with your concentration and has lulled you into fits of procrastination writing to an imaginary audience.

Yes, it’s, um, autumn.

The Harvard Cooperative Monopoly

September 26, 2007 at 3:22 pm | Posted in books, news, opinion, school | 6 Comments

textbooks.jpgMore brouhaha brewing at everybody’s favorite campus bookstore, the Harvard Coop, the latest confrontation involving members of the Harvard Undergraduate Council and some friends from the Cambridge police department. More eyes are watching this time, since boingboing has linked to both this Crimson story and an earlier incident as well (boingboing link for that is here).

This all started last year, when a few guys decided to found an online textbook comparison-shopping website called crimsonreading.org for Harvard classes. The website eventually partnered up with the Harvard Undergraduate Council (UC), but failed to garner any sort of support from the administration, nor the permission of the Coop to access the ISBN numbers of all the textbooks in the store. These ISBN number are crucial to providing the right books for each course, because they are unique to the each edition and printing. Usually these numbers are solicited from professors directly via phone or email, or for a small minority classes, they are available online from the course syllabus after classes have begun. The painstaking process of getting these numbers quickly before each semester is both the reason the Coop is so protective of its book list, and also the reason that it has been able to levy unnecessarily high mark-ups on books without suffering from significant competition. Very simply, there is no other place to get the right books for a course, and even students who care about saving money often have no choice but to buy from the Coop.

One alternative that has been available to students is to order books online. Continue Reading The Harvard Cooperative Monopoly…

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?…

Metaphysics, etc.

January 2, 2007 at 11:20 pm | Posted in nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

My friend Dave posed a question on his blog a while back, to the effect of “Can non-physical things exist, and how?” Far from being exhausted by philosophers over the years, the topic has inspired some interesting and modern ideas. A recent article in the NYTimes on free will mentions one such idea that I’ve been trying to get my mind around for a long time. It’s called emergent phenomena, or emergence, and provides a sort of explanation for the metaphysical conundrums that give scientific positivists a lot of grief.

Simply put, emergence is the idea that things we consider “abstract” can often be produced through the combination of many simpler, less abstract building blocks. The complexity of the combination is what then gives the phenomenon its non-physical nature. For example, neural synapses combine in the billions to produce not only the functions of a biological brain, but an arguably metaphysical construct–the mind. In a less dramatic (and more tenable) way, billions of simple on-and-off transistors combine to form a computer, and the possible metaphysical manifestations of software. The survival instincts of individual creatures combine to produce an ecosystem, and those of investors, a stock market. As the article explains, hopelessly complicated systems such as

brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then sculpts it — a concept sometimes known as “downward causation.” A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity? (NYTimes)

The last question there is the “deepest” question, Continue Reading Metaphysics, etc….

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?…

Want AIDS? How about dwarfism?

December 7, 2006 at 6:12 pm | Posted in nytimes, opinion, sarcastic, social | 2 Comments

All the cool people are doing it. Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about bare-backing, or unprotected sex. You probably only know what I’m talking about if you’ve read this article about bug-chasers, i.e. “The men who long to be HIV+”? In case you don’t have time to read a million pages of repetitive prose (like me, Rolling Stone writers just love watching themselves type), here is a pretty good excerpt of what on everyone’s mind these days. And by everyone, I mean every sadomasochist homosexual with no regard for the intrinsic value of their own life:

Carlos is part of an intricate underground world that has sprouted, driven almost completely by the Internet, in which men who want to be infected with HIV get together with those who are willing to infect them. The men who want the virus are called “bug chasers,” and the men who freely give the virus to them are called “gift givers.” While the rest of the world fights the AIDS epidemic and most people fear HIV infection, this subculture celebrates the virus and eroticizes it. HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold.

Is Carlos an idiot? The Traditional Values Coalition seems to think so, and considers homosexuals like Carlos to be “actively seeking death” and “willing to kill others as part of a sickening ‘erotic’ thrill.” Here’s a legal question no one wants to answer — can deliberate HIV infection be considered murder? Suicide? Manslaughter? Probably none of the above. I’d say it’s more like delayed potential murder with mutual consent, with no real intent to kill since none of these men worry about the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs other than that “it works.” Has anyone explained drug resistance to them? Continue Reading Want AIDS? How about dwarfism?…

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