Archive for: January, 2012

Value Freedom of Speech? Donate to Wikipedia

Just in case you haven't been on the Internet in the last month, SOPA and PIPA are two laws that were working their way through the US legislature that would have brought sweeping powers to pretty much anybody to block sites on the Internet that they asserted were guilty of copyright infringement. These laws would have made the US into an Internet censorship regime that— even according to the backers of the law!— would be on par with Syria or China. You can read more about SOPA and PIPA here at the EFF and here at Wikipedia. They are now on hold (but, sadly, not dead), and the lion's share of the credit for that belongs to Wikipedia. If you care about this (and as somebody currently reading something on the Internet not produced under the aegis of a large media company, you really should!), you should consider donating to Wikipedia. Some may credit Google with part of getting this message across to Congress, and doubtless Google deserves some credit. However, it was Wikipedia that went fully dark, and it was immediately after that event on Jan. 18 that Congress stepped back. What's more, Google is doing just fine; they have a gigantic revenue from their advertising business. Wikipedia is much more dependent on donations. After you're done donating to Wikipedia, also consider donating to The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I just donated $100 myself. That's not very much. Indeed, I'm sure that I have received a lot more than $100 worth of value out of Wikipedia in the last decade. But, every little bit counts.

Defenders of SOPA and PIPA say that fears of the law have been overblown. However, if misinformation about the law has been spread, it's by the backers themselves. Their claims of "lost American jobs" have not been supported, and there is evidence that they overestimate the "lost revenue" to piracy by at least an order of magnitude. What's more, while the backers disingenuously state that the laws are directed against "rogue foreign websites" and not against legitimate US users of the Internet, already we see copyright laws routinely abused to take down legitimate content on the web— if not through the full mechanism of the law, through the threat of legal action. See the repository of information at for huge numbers of stories about this. It would be absurd to believe that tools like SOPA and PIPA, which would make this kind of squelching of the expression of soembody you don't like that much easier, would not only be abused more. For those who argue that intellectual property needs stronger protections: right now there is indeed an imbalance between laws that allow for copyright enforcement and freedom of expression, and that imbalance does not favor freedom of expression!

People like me were howling (well, tweeting, with the occasional signed petition or letter to a legislator) in rage about SOPA and PIPA at the end of last year, but Congress was by and large ignoring it. They had their Hollywood lobbyists telling them that it was all necessary... whether that was necessary for the "survival of American competitiveness", or whether it was just necessary for the re-election of legislators is not clear. Certainly the latter; in public they said the former, but my cynicism grows every day. (Indeed, very recently the head of the MPAA more or less admitted in public that he expects lawmakers to provide him with legislation he demands in exchange for his organization's campaign donations.) Indeed, Congress celebrated their ignorance about the Internet and completely refused to pay any attention to Internet experts telling them about the technical and security problems that SOPA and PIPA would bring. (Never mind fundamental issues of freedom of expression... which somehow doesn't seem to be a legitimate thing to bring up in the face of concerns about "jobs", "the economy", or "terrorism" any more.) I believe that the perception in Congress was that most of the public weren't really all that aware of copyright issues, and didn't care that much; indeed, they said that it was a "vocal minority" arguing against it. They evidently believed that just giving Big Media the laws that they wanted was a great way to secure a source of campaign funding without doing something that might torque off the general public. ("Oops!")

It was only after great public outcry, spurred on by the Wikipedia blackout (and several other sites) on January 18, that Congress woke up and changed its tune. It's ironic that the MPAA has accused Wikipedia of "abusing its power". Evidently Wikipedia is supposed to purchase legislation directly, the way that the MPAA does. Informing the public of what's going on so that they will realize that if they care at all about freedom, they need to make their voice heard, is somehow an abuse of power. If that's not an indication that large congressional campaign donors have completely warped the standard process of how laws are made in the USA, I don't know what is. (To read more about how bad the routine corruption in the USA is as a result of large campaign contributors having primary access to lawmakers, and the pipeline of legislators and their staffers getting cushy lobbying jobs after helping organizations get the laws they want, check out the Rootstrikers website. Also, although I have not read this yet myself, it's probably worth reading Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost.)

Donate to Wikipedia. Better, remember that SOPA and PIPA have just slowed down, not stopped. It's going to take vigilance to prevent them from passing later. It's likely that next time Congress and Big Content try to get them through, they'll do it in a more stealthy manner. It may well be attached to a routine appropriations bill, much as the reprehensible "infinite detention" clause was recently attached to a routine defense appropriations bill (passed by Congress and signed by the President). The fight is far from over, even if we came out ahead in the latest skirmish.

Indeed, next time you're about to buy a big-studio Hollywood DVD or go to a big-studio Hollywood movie, pause and think. Realize that the myopic leadership of the MPAA (the same group that decades ago fought tooth and nail against the VCR, fighting against their own interests as they would profit greatly from the new market that home video players would bring) is going to keep trying to push draconian laws limiting freedom of speech on the Internet in the name of "protecting intellectual property". Ask yourself if the value you will get out of that DVD or watching that movie really is worth more than the value you get out of Wikipedia. Ask yourself if you want to indirectly support an organization that is fighting to maintain a 20th century model where broadcast expression was practically subject to a small number of gatekeepers (only then it was practically, and now it would be legally), or if you would rather directly support an organization that has made an amazing (if imperfect) crowd-sourced knowledge repository available to the world for fully free access (in every sense of the word "free"). Then, consider not buying the DVD or going to the movie, and instead donating the money to Wikipedia.

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Why go to graduate school in Physics?

I just came accross an article at The Economist entitled The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time. This has prompted me finally to write this post, which I've intended to write for a long time (like so many other posts on my too-quiet blog).

There is one, and only one, reason why you should go to graduate school in Physics or Astronomy. (This is probably true for any other field as well, but I'm going to stick to the field where I actually know what I'm talking about.) That one reason is: because you want to be a graduate student in physics for five or six years. That's it.

It is true that if you want to teach physics at the University level, or that if you want to have a career in physics research where you're leading and doing you're own research, you need to get a PhD. This isn't 100% true; you can certainly teach at the community college level with a masters' degree, and you can get a job working with a physics research group (although those are quite rare). However, for the most part, it's true. This leads many people to conclude that, because what they really want to do is spend their life as a professor at a University, they need to go to graduate school.

However, going to graduate school because that's what you want to do is similar to buying a lottery ticket because you want to be a millionaire. Yes, buying a lottery ticket is a prerequisite for winning the lottery, just as getting a PhD in physics is a prerequisite for being a physics professor. However, the fact that you've met that prerequisite is very far from assurance that you'll be able to do either. Thankfully, the chances of getting a physics professor job aren't quite as bad as the chances of winning the lottery. However, in both cases, they're bad investments.

There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with being a physics graduate student. It's not as bad as being a humanities graduate student. For the most part, if you can get into a physics graduate school, your tuiton will be paid, and you will receive a stipend of something like $20,000/year. You may be able to make this as a research assistant— a good deal, because you're essentially being paid to do your PhD research. Or, you may have to teach some classes... which I also personally view as a good deal, but that's because I like to teach. (And, the teaching you do as a PhD student is lower stress and less time consuming than what a professor at a small liberal-arts college does.) However, there is still the opportunity cost. With your skills and abilities, you would be able to make a lot more money doing something else.

If you think you want to pursue a profession in academic physics, but you are going to view the years you spend working on your PhD as a sacrifice, then it's not worth doing it. The probability of getting that academic research job is just not high enough, even if you go to one of the top schools out there. What's more, ironically, the experience you get doing something else may well serve you better for any other job you might get thereafter, and it will almost certainly look better on your resume than the PhD will.

On the other hand, the life of the physics graduate student isn't necessarily a bad one. Yes, you will spend several years of your young life making a whole lot less money than you could otherwise. Yes, you will live the "graduate student lifestyle", meaning that you're still more or less pond scum in the hierarchy of your institution, and that you're still in training, still living the life of an apprentice. However, you do get to spend five or six years studying very interesting stuff, and performing original research. It can be a very cool thing to do. Yes, no matter who you are, you will go through moments of self-doubt where you wonder just what the hell you're doing, and you may go through periods of despair. But, overall, it can be a very fulfulling way to spend several years. That is, if you go into it recognizing that you're doing it for the sake of doing it, not as an investment in a future career that you'll have any assurance of achieving.

And, of course, to enjoy the graduate student lifestyle, you have to keep some perspective on life. If a professorial job were guaranteed, then perhaps one could stomach the idea of living several years with your life on hold, being underpaid and undervalued for working too hard. But, since that professorial job is far from guaranteed, you can't sacrifice your whole life to be a graduate student. Some will consider this heresy, will believe that graduate students are supposed to work really really hard because "your education is an investment in your future". But, again, a PhD program is today a terrible investment. Yes, you should probably expect to work up to 50 hours a week... not because you're overworking, but rather because you're inspired by your subject. But you should not, under any circumstance, join one of "those" labs where the professor expects you to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to have a life. Work hard, but keep perspective. Recognize that you need to value your life right then.

What's more, you'll need to recognize that the culture of the PhD program is a bit dysfunctional. You almost certainly will feel cultural pressure to want to achieve the highly valued research professor position after graduate school, especially if you go to a top tier graduate school. You will feel this pressure from peers, and from your institution. (They partially judge the "success" of their graduate program based on the "placement" of their graduates.) Take it all with a grain of salt. It's your life. You are decidedly not a failure if you don't get one of the vaunted research positions, and indeed there's nothing shameful about deciding that you don't want one. Try to get one if you want one, and it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed if you don't, but don't feel ashamed, don't feel like a failure, and don't feel like you're letting anybody down if you don't get one. After all, most of us, if we're honest, will admit that we're overproducing PhDs in all fields, including physics, for the number of jobs out there that Physics PhDs are "supposed" to want.

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