Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I'm taking an night class on Statistics at the UC Berkeley Extension, as part of my general "Preparation For A Degree That, For Some Reason, I Believe I Need To Get Before I'll Be Offered The Exact Job I Already Have" program. Below, for your amusement, an excerpt from last week's class. All you need to know in advance is that, when you're dealing with probability, you refer figuratively to whatever population you're picking from as the "box."

Prof. Jurkat: So, the first step is to draw the box with the different results. Then, second, we need to determine the proportion of those results in the box...like so. Does anybody know the third step?

Alek: [raising hand] Step Three...um, make her open the box?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Middlebury Affair

Lots of press flurries around the decision by the Middlebury College history department to ban Wikipedia citations in history papers. The most sensible response appears to come from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who simply says: "For God's sake, you're in college. Don't cite the encyclopedia."

Wikivangelists see this as the beginnings of censorship, which just proves that they need to spend more time on Wikipedia learning about what censorship actually is. That said, the Middlebury history department's response to Wikipedia use strikes me as both reactionary and narrow-minded. Don't get me wrong. The preponderance of inaccuracies (which the professors ascribe to Wikipedia, not to the students) is in fact a big deal, and requires an aggressive response. As with, say, large military conflicts, lots of people getting bad information from unreliable sources is a serious problem. But, in banning Wikipedia citations, Middlebury profs missed addressing that problem altogether.

Here are, I think, the putative reasons for the ban: 1) due to convenience, students are relying on a source of information that may expose them to historical inaccuracies, which they in turn embrace because (I guess) they're too dumb or lazy to know better; 2) relying on Wikipedia prevents students from distinguishing the difference between credible and non-credible sources, from developing a critical approach to historical information, etc. -- i.e. they fail to learn proper research methodology.

So what's the solution? Hold students accountable for incorrect information, as you would with any other statement, sourced or not? Actually teach research methodology, so students can independently evaluate sources and the information they provide?

Nope. They just banned Wikipedia citations. They don't, as far as I know, have a public ban on citing The Onion or attributing words spoken by Dana Carvey on SNL to George Bush Sr. But they single out Wikipedia almost, I think, out of spite for the damage they believe it causes to traditional scholarship. Now, despite the histrionics of campus free speech advocates, this citation ban does not constitute censorship in any substantive sense. But how does it help, exactly?

What Middlebury professors (and all professors) should be doing is teaching students how to evaluate information and build a supported argument, then holding those students accountable for what they write. I think they've chosen citation ban either to avoid doing those things, which is sad, or to send a figurative shot over the open-source bow, which is petty. I read the ban, in part, as a sign of how threatened the academic elite feel by Wikipedia and the like. In my view, the limitless benefits of community-created information repositories far outweigh the potential for inaccuracy, especially since rigorous editorial and peer review don't root out inaccuracies or bias by any stretch. But Wikipedia damn sure scares people who control knowledge production, and the anti-Wiki backlash (of which this citation ban is, I think, a part) reveals just how much.

One last thing. In some parts of the academy, Wikipedia is actually offering teachers a way to teach students about research methods (as noted in the linked NYT article). Assigning students to edit or create a Wikipedia pages seems like such a better solution to both of the problems discussed above. Lame.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sneak Preview! Next month's issue...

...of Least Ambiguous Song Lyrics Ever, featuring Arcade Fire's "Intervention":

"Working for the church while your life falls apart
Singing Hallelujah with the fear in your heart"

...which, is actually still less ambiguous than the earlier chorus, "Working for the church while your family dies."

Also, badass point to Win Butler for saying "Jesus Fucking Christ, we're in a church" during their performance at St. John's last month.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Deborah Lipstadt, my badass hero

For the last week, I've been puzzling over an article by Frank Furedi in Spiked. Furedi argues that in the 21st century, the concept of "denial" -- in the critical sense, as in a "Holocaust denier," an "AIDS denier," or a "climate change denier" -- has become a secular replacement for heresy. The essay alternates between bold, compelling, insightful discussion of the relevant issues and a vague, thin, accusatory rhetoric that reveals a little too much about the author's agenda.

Here are the main points. I'm paraphrasing, and (in some cases) I think I'm presenting the point in a more effective manner, but anyway:

  • "Those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies are treated as immoral, evil people, and their arguments depicted as a form of secular heresy."
  • Targeting denial isn't about the highly-charged emotional context of the issues (i.e. genocide, the environment, etc.), but about an intolerance towards free thinking.
  • Traditional heresy involves denying an article of religious truth, but those have been supplanted by articles of historical and scientific truth.
  • "Heresy-hunters" strive to follow the model of the ultimate 20th-century taboo, Holocaust denial, by constructing new taboos.
  • In this way, denial becomes a "generic evil," a "free-floating blasphemy" that can apply to anything.
  • Difference of opinion disappears in the context of debate, replaced by accusations of denial.
  • The perceived danger of taboo opinions makes it "responsible behavior" to repress those opinions. Hence the wave of existing and proposed anti-denial laws (anti-genocide in the EU, criminalizing AIDS misinformation, etc.)
  • These "denial" accusations deliberately conflate the psychological and critical definitions of "denial" in order to discredit a viewpoint, as well as the holder of that viewpoint. Being a denier is like being "in denial." So, as in the psychological case, denial is a disability that results in suppressed information and does damage to society -- which allows the people who subscribe to those articles of historical and scientific truth to justify censoring deniers.
  • Moreover, it's not really about the desire to affirm those truths, but about about "moral policing."
  • Finally, the secular heresy of "denial" constitutes a serious threat to freedom of speech and thought, one which outweighs the ultimately negligible positive effects of censoring taboo ideas.
On the whole, I find the arguments decent, especially the implied distinction between dismissal and debate, and the effort to point towards the resultant problems regarding free speech/censorship. I also have to reluctantly concede that I admire Furedi for wading into somewhat dangerous waters and sticking to his point, given the fact that he's essentially attacking people who try to speak for genocide victims, AIDS patients, and the health of every organism on the planet.

However, in claiming that accusations of "denial" arise from an intolerance of free thinking, Furedi shortchanges the social, political, and emotional context. People's motives as scholars and scientists are (of course) affected by what they care about and what they believe should take happen in the world. Though censorship might arise from a given situation, not wanting people to get inaccurate information about AIDS doesn't exactly describe an intolerance of free thought.

Which leads me to the article's major flaw: the lack of a critical qualitative distinction between good and bad scholarship or science. One's skill at scientific or historical research should not have any bearing on one's democratic right to free expression, nor should one's personal agenda. But these characteristics may start to explain the vehemence with which people attack revisionist Holocaust historians or industry-backed climate change skeptics. After all, bad science is bad science, and people invested in getting accurate information to the public concerning, say, epidemic disease, might be pretty invested in minimizing the influence of poorly researched, unsupportable conclusions. Again, no effect on the free speech issues, but the argument for the intrinsic value of free thinking loses some integrity when it tries to compare David Irving to Copernicus.

I prefer Deborah Lipstadt's take on this question (also from Spiked...hmm). She has no compunction about calling someone a denier, but she doesn't believe in criminalizing or persecuting genocide denial. She describes the proposed EU genocide denial laws as a "body blow to academic debate." And, though I don't want to revert to using someone's C.V. to support the validity of their claims, she does have a great deal of experience in this matter, and she pursues Holocaust deniers aggressively. But she doesn't want them in jail. because of freedom of speech, because of the need to avoid making deniers into martyrs, and because making a law against genocide-denying speech implies that we don't have the evidence to prove the truth.

I like the third reason best. She's basically saying that she doesn't want to censor deniers, she wants to beat them. Debunk their scholarship, destroy their credibility, prove that they're wrong, and let them "fade into obscurity." I can get behind that, because a) it's the right thing to do; b) it not only preserves freedom of speech, it encourages it; c) it keeps us focused on deepening our knowledge of things like genocide and pollution, thus keeping them in our minds and on our agenda; and d) it places the weight of the argument where it should be -- in the evidence.

I already noted how badass Deborah Lipstadt was, but it's worth mentioning again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Apple week

Holy cow. This is like in the Olympics when the acknowledged speedskating favorite, who's been just hanging in the pack, opens up like crazy and leaves everyone else behind. I don't really do too much Apple-polishing, but in the last week this company demonstrated why it consistently beats its industry competition like an old rug. Steve "Boom" Jobs may be a complete parody of himself, but like Ang Lee, his incoherence and goofiness are hiding something.

In the past week Apple settled its enormous dispute with Apple Corps., which has two consequences, one that might be sort of important for Beatle fans, and one that's likely going to help them secure a future monopoly on digital music delivery. Yeah, we'll be able to get Beatles songs etc. on iTunes, but the big deal here is the ability of Apple (Computer) to begin selling music via "physical media," which, despite all the online music hullaballoo, still represents something like 90% of music sales.

Meanwhile, after vigorously defending their Fairplay system (a Digital Rights Management program that "secures" content downloaded from iTunes), Steve Jobs has essentially reversed their position. He's now calling on the Big Four to acknowledge the DRM doesn't work (no duh) and abolish it. I found the essay lucid and fairly balanced, with the only flaw being a somewhat facetious argument regarding the degree to which Apple's software and hardware lock users into a consumer relationship with the company. This reversal comes after a wave of challenges to the iTunes DRM system throughout Europe, and increasing competition from other online music vendors (especially eMusic) which don't use DRM.

Anyway, Apple made huge, smart strides this week to stay ahead of the curve. The iPhone (even with its 150 kabillion contacts) pales in comparison.

Monday, February 05, 2007

i tried/i gave up

After about two and a half straight years of concerted resistance, I gave in to my demons. See, I love Wikipedia. I feel about Wikipedia kind of the way I do about unions -- with all their flaws, limitations, legitimate detractors, they're still the best revolution we've got.

Anyway, I knew from the moment I first got on the site, back in college, that it could be poison. I'd just recovered from an addiction to the okayplayer messageboards, and now Jimmy Wales was offering impassioned know-it-alls like me an opportunity to weigh in on everything, fight out minor points on discussion boards, root out systemic bias -- it really seemed like a wikitopia. So, even though I use the site all the time, and I followed the recent wave of criticism and praise, and got into a number of intense discussions about the merits of collectivism in encyclopaedic context...I never actually made any edits. Because I knew that as soon as I changed something, it would be a slippery slope.

This weekend I let go like it was Raging Waters. I'd been reading so much about it, and debating it, and I just decided that I couldn't hold my position in these arguments if I wasn't a wiki author myself. So now I am. Oh well.

(title ref. help)

Friday, February 02, 2007

TAP Letter/Change to Win

Harold Meyerson published an excellent column in the online edition of The American Prospect on Andy Stern, titled "Organization Man." TAP published my letter in response today, on their website. I didn't really imagine that they would, so I can't say that I cleared it with our communications staff. I think it's pretty innocuous, though.

Doing Something

Harold Meyerson’s recent column on SEIU president Andy Stern ("Organization Man," 2/1/07) makes a compelling argument regarding Stern’s political effectiveness and his similarities to former UAW president Walter Reuther. But, to strengthen the comparison, Mr. Meyerson likens Reuther’s failed Alliance for Labor Action to the recently-formed Change to Win Federation, which -- according to Meyerson -- "can’t really be said to have done anything, either."

Quite the contrary. Since the formation of Change to Win, SEIU organized 5,300 janitors in the union-hostile environment of Houston, TX, the UFCW mounted an effective nationwide opposition to Wal-Mart, and UNITE HERE, in an unprecedented victory, won organizing agreements with two national hotel chains. In fact, a year ago Mr. Meyerson published a Washington Post column on the revolutionary nature of the UNITE HERE campaign, which he praised for "opening a whole new front" ("Taking on the Hotels," Washington Post, 1/18/06). These milestones, along with the record participation of labor unions in the 2006 election cycle, clearly demonstrate the commitment of Change to Win members to the new federation’s founding principle of strategic, industry-based organizing. Change to Win may have faults to match its successes, but it is, without a doubt, doing something.

Alek Felstiner, Organizer

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Matthew LaClair = Badass!

This is the 16-year old New Jersey high school student who recorded his history teacher telling the class, among other things, that they belong in Hell if they don't accept Jesus Christ as their savior. So, we knew he was badass from the earlier coverage, and just by definition, but I didn't realize until I looked into it further this morning the degree to which he's exposed himself by taking on this fight. And I hadn't listened to the recordings, so I didn't realize how fearlessly he confronted his teacher on the hypocrisy of a loving, merciful God that cannot tolerate dissent. "Why would a loving God give up on someone after just one lifetime?...As a parent, if your child did something wrong, would you throw them in an oven and leave them there forever?" BADASS. He should join Carlton Pearson's church.

To me, the fact that LaClair's classmates and community don't support him strengthens his claim that without the recordings he would never have persuaded the school, district, and community that Paszkiewicz was doing something wrong. I mean, the man is teaching an 11th-grade history course about the US Constitution, and he says the following:

[God] did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he's saying, 'Please, accept me, believe.' If you reject that, you belong in hell....If you reject his gift of salvation, then you're going where you belong.''

Yeah. People are defending that. Now, to be fair, Paszkiewiscz makes one (1) feeble attempt (on the NYT recordings at least) to say that this is his belief, and he makes a couple of references to interpretation of scripture being "your prerogative," which is good. But he still presents salvation, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the condemnation of the unsaved to hell as incontrovertible facts. Not so good.

Other highlights include the penetrating distinction that "Scriptures aren't religion," by way of arguing that all Christian religions believe in one book, "The Bible -- you should be able to bring that into the classroom and read it."

Another hilarious moment: Paszkiewicz asks the class, sarcastically, if "anyone ever observed" the evolution of simple life forms to complex life forms, like it's a ridiculous notion. Then he goes on to say, sarcastically again, "You can collect some data...like the fossil record." ....hmm. Yeah, that pesky fossil record, with its overwhelming mountain of observed data supporting evolution. Oh, also comparative anatomy, molecular genetics, geographical distribution...there's some observation going on. But, damn, scientists can't prove that life spontaneously generates, and they can't repeat it in experimental conditions, so it can't be a scientific fact! Wait, whoops, that's
completely wrong because they can and have. It's one thing to present the scientific argument for evolution in an unbiased manner, then express your belief in another explanation of life, but lying about what's out there is just a shameful, criminal action from any teacher, especially a public school teacher.

Also good: Paskiewicz distinguishes faith from blind belief, saying that his faith is "rooted and grounded in Scripture" because of "Prophecy," which came true. What's his example? Moses says in Genesis (right) that Israel would endure 400 years of slavery, and, lo and behold, it happened!...When? In the next book of the Bible. Not really a prophecy so much as a clunky piece of foreshadowing.

I was disappointed to see that the most aggressive response from the school district was to ban unauthorized recording in class...which, okay, that's fine, but isn't there a larger problem here? If students have to surreptitiously record their teachers in order to fix drastic Constitutional problems with the curriculum, maybe the district can do better than a memo and some teacher education. Here's some evidence that they're on the wrong track. Paszkiewicz recently compared global warming scientists to Hitler repeating a lie often enough that people believe it. The school board's lawyer reported that the board didn't investigate the report (???) because the comment wasn't religious and didn't break any kind of law.

Um. I don't know where to start with that. He didn't break a law (assuming New Jersey doesn't have a statute requiring public school teachers to represent scientific and historical truth to the best of their ability). But come on, you've got recordings of this guy endangering your school district by violating the Constitution in a class about the Constitution, and you didn't feel the need to investigate an incident wherein that same teacher discredits science some more?

Leaving aside the wildly inappropriate nature of the Hitler analogy, global warming isn't a lie -- calling it one is. Also, much as we might like to believe it, Hitler's use of the "big lie" theory is widely misinterpreted. In
Mein Kampf, Hitler attributed the "big lie" strategy to a conspiracy of Jews in media, bent on convincing the German people that they lost World War I (they did). Goebbels later appropriated it for his attacks on Churchill's "Lie Factory." So, Nazi leaders obviously believed in the effectiveness of the "Big Lie," and it may seem like the "Big Lie" concept played an obvious role in Hitler's propoganda strategy, but that latter point hasn't been substantiated. So, giving Paszkiewiscz the benefit of the doubt, we'll assume that he's not implicitly associating global warming scientists with an evil conspiracy of "Big Lie"-telling Jews. Instead, we'll just assume that he's adopting the common "Big Lie" myth that surrounds Hitler, and he's ignorant of WWII/Holocaust history.

That's cool, though, it's not like he's a history teacher or anything.