Monthly Archives: November 2005

good reading [november edition]

okay, i’ve been very sporadically having a couple of spare hours to catch up, and i do a lot of reading, and noting articles i’d like to comment on, but you know what? it’s just not going to happen. so here is some of the stuff that’s caught my eye this month, relatively uncommented-upon and in no particular order:

(11/29: I couldn’t help it. I went back & ordered them in reverse chronological, by my dates — when I was reading it.)

  • 11/6 – 11/29: Katha Pollitt tears up Maureen Dowd. [link from sideshow] But why stop there? Because Maureen Dowd is but the tip of the iceberg on the NYT’s history of writing stupid articles about rich white women who choose to give up careers for the “mommy track”. See pink feminist hellcat for a wrapup that links to a lot of the relevant coverage. Then see Salon’s Broadsheet on some ugly correspondence they’ve gotten about the strawfeminist. (A handy phrase I first saw on Pandagon.)

  • 11/29: ann bartow @ sivacracy links to a “christian underground” site where they get tough about prayer & the persecution of Christians in modern USA. The challenging young woman (very grrrl power) says “I will pray when I want where I want – School Work The Street The Mall – Persecute me at your own peril.” I’m resisting the urge to sarcasm here. Instead I will merely note that, contrary to Christian talking points, Christians and anyone else can pretty much pray at school whenever they like. Like before a test, for instance. These “they took God out of the schools” folks love to conflate the question of whether teachers can lead students in prayer, with whether students can pray for themselves. Pray away. Heck, pray the whole entire school day and to and from school, too. No school can stop an individual’s private silent prayer. That’s wholly distinct from asking for publicly monies to pay teachers to lead you in prayer or employing the power of the state to coerce others to pray.

  • 11/28: feministe takes on the pro-rape — really — commenters at vox populi. [link from badgerbag]

  • 11/28: SJ Mercury (11/28) profiling a new lawsuit against a UC Berkeley website on evolution. The claim? That the scientists provide information about evolution as if it were factually true & as if evolution were not necessarily in conflict with religion. As if!

  • 11/22: John Rendon clarifies the technical difficulties with embedded reporters:


    Indeed, Rendon is already thinking ahead. Last year, he attended a conference on information operations in London, where he offered an assessment on the Pentagon’s efforts to manipulate the media. According to those present, Rendon applauded the practice of embedding journalists with American forces. “He said the embedded idea was great,” says an Air Force colonel who attended the talk. “It worked as they had found in the test. It was the war version of reality television, and for the most part they did not lose control of the story.” But Rendon also cautioned that individual news organizations were often able to “take control of the story,” shaping the news before the Pentagon asserted its spin on the day’s events.

    “We lost control of the context,” Rendon warned. “That has to be fixed for the next war.”

    [link from sideshow who pointed to amygdalagf who quoted Rendon from an article in rolling stone]

  • 11/13: Pretty good breakdown of spousal notification from frogs & ravens [link from sivacracy’s Ann Bartow who also linked to the same redneck mother posting i was reading]

  • 11/13: Very pleased to see Ann Bartow taking note of the gender imbalance at a current Yale conference on public interest IP/tech issues. I was drafting a rant, but she did it so well …. Go, Ann!

  • 11/10: Women get a bigger buzz from cartoons according to New Scientist

  • 11/6: not a baby machine: an excellent rant on the realities of women’s pregnancies and the folly of trying to regulate women based on a mechanistic view of pregnancy.

    Long ago I promised a rant about how a mechanistic view of women’s bodies and reproduction misinforms attempts to legislate control of women. At the time I was writing about a Virginia legislator who wanted to force women to call the cops if they had a miscarriage while not under a doctor’s care. But the rolling shitstorm of pharmacy zealots, other ridiculous bills and Alito’s track record has me thinking about women as baby-machines again. This phrase from the Virginia debacle, carried over from an earlier bill, stuck in my craw:

    If a fetal death occurs in a moving conveyance, a fetal death report shall be filed in the registration district in which the fetus was first removed from such conveyance.

    When I first read it, I thought, fetal death usually occurs in the mother’s body. Why does the conveyance matter? If you lose a pregnancy while rolling down the hall in your office chair or going over your fields in your combine harvester, the state needs to know?

    This requirement, my friends, is a flashing red light signaling ignorance. It’s based on the notion that pregnant women are simple machines that pop out babies. If the pregnancy ends, the machine must surely just spit out the failed product, right? Won’t you smell a fan belt burning or something? You’re up in your hot-air balloon, your pregnancy fails, it’ll be over in a matter of minutes, all nice and neat and ready for the police report?

    No. A woman will not automatically know if her pregnancy is over just because she starts bleeding on the bus. Bleeding might go on for hours before the pregnancy ends. Bleeding might go on for hours before the pregnancy continues. Some women seem to have their period while pregnant. The pregnancy might end with no symptoms at all, making removing the fetus from its death car challenging at best. Sometimes just getting it out of the woman is a nightmare. It depends.

chilling effects from the DMCA

We’re finally finished with the summary report for our DMCA 512 study, which is officially released today. The final report will follow shortly. [pdf & html]

Marjorie Heins @ The Free Expression Project is doing a complementary study; she released her preliminary report in early October and the full report will hopefully be out soon. Her report looks at trademark as well as copyright.

potential evidence for intelligent design

questionable authority reviews a pro-‘intelligent design theory’ entry that describes a future history of the fabulous medical and scientific breakthroughs generated by ‘intelligent design theory’ and the abandonment of ‘Darwinism’. While the whole post is highly recommended, it was one of the commentors who really tickled my fancy. Responding to the future history’s assertion that ‘Darwinist’ scientists ignore ‘junk DNA’*, commentator Stephen Stralka adds:

It also occurs to me that no matter how much functionality we ultimately discover in junk DNA, none of it will be any better evidence for ID than what we currently know about DNA.

The kind of thing that would be evidence of design would be if the junk DNA turned out to contain stuff like copyright notices and license agreements.

Or copy protection. DRM-protected genomes that prevent unauthorized replications, derivative works, jumping genes & species hopping diseases? Or maybe when you have a baby, a rootkit installs itself on the parents’ reproductive organs, preventing them from further replications. I do indeed see a great future for ‘intelligent design theory’.

(Another commenter followed up:

Oh, man. “If you agree to the terms of this pregnancy, click Agree. Otherwise, click Abort.”

Except that he’s missing about 5 screens’ worth of finely printed legal verbiage about restrictions on the pregnancy and abortion process. Luckily Frontline has got it covered.)

* According to the ‘future history of intelligent design’, ‘Darwinian’ scientists don’t do research on ‘junk DNA’. really? in this future history, will my partner’s dissertation & ongoing postdoc work on various aspects of gene regulation turn out to have all just been a terrible and poorly-compensated decade-long dream?

public knowledge of science

I want free public lectures about science (and okay, social sciences, humanities, politics, art, whatever — but especially science!) to be as freely, conspicuously, and ubiquitously available as church/synagogue/temple services. In a city the size of Boston, people have the opportunity to choose from hundreds of free lectures about religious ideas every week, probably several within easy walking distance. Counting Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, these offerings hit Sunday, Saturday, and Friday; plus scattered such offerings sponsored throughout the week.

Viewed in this light, religious services are simply free public lectures about religious ideas, and I want the same for science: multiple series of lectures on biology, astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics (I really don’t get it at all), geology, chemistry … Choose between folksy styles with food & discussion, lecture styles from authoritarian learned types; series that tie it all into politics, or series that tackle the ethical questions relating to particular scientific techniques.

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about the various statistics on US citizens’ belief and understanding of evolution, claims of particular religious beliefs, and the like. Recently I’ve followed the Dover, PA, trial, read various histories of science, religion, and the conflicts between religious and secular values. Here in the US and elsewhere, the forces of religious intolerance, bigotry, and ignorance are on the rise. At the same time, polls seem to repeatedly suggest that knowledge about basic science is declining and belief in creationism is rising. At times, it can look pretty bleak.

The dubious appeal of religious doctrines aside, some piece of this must surely be an artifact of the availability of particular kinds of information. The supply of information helps shape the demand, and we are well supplied (I might say too well supplied) with religious information. Religious institutions provide free public lectures on a weekly basis from people who are (some lay ministers excepted) trained in the field.

In a sense, religious services prove the effectiveness of open content as a means of popularizing a source of information. How many billions, quadrillions, zillions of dollars have been given to religious groups over the years freely? (Not counting all the coerced funds produced by ties to the state or through outright violence.) Religions are funded with the pledge drive from hell: every single religious service. “We interrupt this service … to ask you for money to help keep our services going. You don’t get this quality of direct-to-God information anywhere else! Pledge now, and you’ll get this lovely piece of pie in the sky when you die! Marked with our logo.” Religious institutions give away their content for free, and they get back in spades: donations to support mega-churches, cathedrals, “towers of power” and so on.

Knowledge about the world — science, our governments, our communities, our environment, our history and literature and art and human nature and health — is not comparably available. This knowledge — which would go so far to empowering and pleasuring people — is carefully metered out to those who can pay for “higher education”.

But imagine if we had free public lectures about science every week; several within walking distance from any point in the city. Would it make a difference? Could people fill the deity-shaped holes in their hearts with excitement and passion about the real world? Could we imagine no hell below us, above us only sky? and then learn why the sky is blue and how fast light travels and really help people understand dark matter and black holes and string theory, for gods’ sakes?

I’d love to find out. And I’ve seen a few moves towards greater openness of academic & scientific content. Stanford is making public lectures available via iTunes. I’ve recently seen advertising on MBTA for free public lectures from Harvard. It’s not quite multiple ongoing series of free public lectures, but maybe it’s a start.

Every university and college should record just a tiny fraction of their content and make it available for free to the public. Consider it a good-will gesture for all those high-handed renovation projects that so annoy the local neighbors. Start with the big lecture hall introductory classes. When a professor wins an award for lecturing or teaching, tape them for the next semester & put them online so everyone can see how fabulous they are. And all those endowed lecture series are just begging to be digitized and made freely available. Many of them have been taped for years; digitization would simultaneously preserve the original tape, make the material more widely available, publicize the lecture series, and honor the, uh, honoree.

And frankly, I’d like to see how well the much-vaunted popularity of religious doctrines stands up to a little competition. [Perhaps this whole issue lends support to the entertainment industry’s contention that “you can’t compete with free” ….]

update 11/22: This posting about “open knowledge drives out closed” is relevant …

update 12/4: Just read about Cafe Scientifique in an article about PZ Myers.

update 12/21: PZ Myers / pharyngula has this relevant post about scientists’ need to communicate clearly, succinctly, engagingly.

mouse songs verified by at-home cat test

BoingBoing recently posted about the songs sung by male mice during courtship, linking to the PLOS Biology article, and the audio files of the actual songs.

We independently verified the actual mouse-nature of the songs by performing a Spontaneous Audio Performance Test (SAPT) with a feline experimental audience.* Sure enough, four sleeping cats roused, lifted their heads, and twitched their ears while the songs were played. One actually rose to a standing position. The subject felines failed to respond to the recorded sparrow song.

Because PLOS Biology is open-access, you can try this one at home.

* No animals were harmed in this experiment. All research animals involved in this experiment receive the highest quality of care, including personalized feeding and support by a trained post-doctoral biologist and her aide; free access to legal counsel and representation; and consultations with a high-quality veterinary facility.

ruminating on … rumination? information? tinkering? imagination?

For some time (years, literally) I’ve been pondering the perfect phrase to capture ‘information rights’ — the natural right people have to create, invent, tinker, think, imagine, ponder, access information, etc. The First Amendment conceptual toolkit doesn’t really measure up: we have First Amendment concepts for speaking and the corollary, listening. But these concepts don’t fully capture the rights which are restricted by intellectual property laws, government Secrets Acts, and the like.

The language I would like would be fuller, and would capture not just the First Amendment concepts of communicating, but also the right to gather information and access information about the world around you, the systems, the people, the cultural creations — the right to investigate? the right to explore? the right to acquire information? the right to learn? It’s about knowledge acquisition and communication. I want the perfect pithy, zingy, umbrella term that encompasses all these information and knowledge-based rights.

The pieces that are critical to the term, I think, are

(a) the right to create new stuff;
(b) the right to experiment with & learn about existing stuff, gathering information and exploring the world;
(c) the right to communicate information and ideas; and
(d) the right to receive information and ideas.

Or maybe these could be broken down into (a) communication (first amendment) and (b) creation (gathering existing information and manipulating it; creating knowledge, whether embodied only in the creator’s mind, or whether embodied in an invention, or embodied in a new derivative work). But this doesn’t quite get it: I worry that the concept “creation” is too subject to being cabined off by notions of originality and novelty. Also, while creation requires exploration and knowledge gathering and information access, I would ideally like to the term to capture both aspects and not privilege acts of “creation”.

Or perhaps (a) receiving information ought to be construed more broadly, to include accessing information &mash; as in FOIA requests, sunshine acts, scientific research, reverse engineering products. And (b) communicating and disseminating alone.

The two candidates I’ve toyed with have been intellectual rights and information rights.

“Intellectual Rights” is nice because it balances “intellectual property”: it suggests that “intellectual property rights” are but one subcategory of “intellectual rights”. And “intellectual” gets at the braininess of the matter: the concept should capture the essence of all its elements, which is to say, the human mind at work. But it sounds wonky and, well, in these anti-intellectual times, maybe it’s not really sellable. Also, “intellectual rights” doesn’t necessarily mean that one can gather information, about the government, say, or about the new DRM methods.

“Information Rights” is nice, but the term “information” always sounds so bland, so cheerless and un-fun. Thinking and learning and reading and talking is fun.

I want this concept, because I want a better way to balance the trade-offs of different sets of rights. Information can be free, or it can be controlled. We have many, many doctrines that aim to control or free up information: the Speech Clause and the IP Clause; trade secrets, contract law, the DMCA and DRM; FOIA and government classification and Secrets Acts; privacy and reputational harms; risks of other harms and national security; open content, open source, and open licensing. But often when I look at a particular instance, the values for controlling information are defined well, and the values for sharing the information are not. It seems that a single pithy term or phrase would help make this work more concrete.

Or maybe the “information rights” concepts are too distinct to ever be wrapped into one? Privacy, for instance, has proven to be a troubling concept; we say “privacy”, but we mean “information privacy”, “data security”, the “right to be left alone”, or even “autonomy” (e.g., reproductive rights). And privacy further breaks down on the subject: private from whom? the government? commercial enterprises? public knowledge?

Maybe imsologists and critical information studies folks (CISters?) have already come up with search a term? but I haven’t found it yet.

Hmm. Still processing …

2005/11/28: “intellectual liberty” ???

anti-racist Einstein

A new book by Fred Jerome & Rodger Taylor, Einstein on Race and Racism, fleshes out the historical record on Dr. Einstein’s anti-racist work. The most amazing thing is that, apart from a few quotes, the work that Einstein did on race has been largely forgotten by the public, and obliterated from popular historical accounts of his life.

The avalanche of Einstein images – genius, brilliant, absent-minded, kindly, bumbling and more – has all but buried Einstein’s political dimension, and totally covered up his civil-rights activities which have remained virtually unknown to his tens of millions of fans and followers.

… Einstein and Paul Robeson, two of the 20th Century’s most famous and popular figures, were not only friends but co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching and shared a dozen other anti-racist activities ….

Yet, despite Einstein’s clear intention to make his politics public – especially his anti-lynching and other antiracist activities – the history-molders have seemed embarrassed to do so. Or nervous. “I had to think about my Board,” a museum curator (who doesn’t want his name used even today) said, explaining why he had omitted some of the scientist’s political statements from the major exhibition celebrating Einstein’s one hundredth birthday in 1979.

Racism in America depends for its survival in large part on the smothering of anti-racist voices, especially when those voices come from popular and widely respected individuals – like Albert Einstein. This book, then. aspires to be part of a grand un-smothering.

It’s on my library reading list now. [Link from Marian’s Blog 10/31 via Dru Blood]

david leheny on dan brown

I don’t know how to sum up Dan Brown’s contributions to American literature any better than to say that the first “word” of praise on his website is “Unputdownable.”

Plus Harry Reid, David Brooks, and William Safire. Read the whole thing.