Archive for the 'Rant' category
This being election day, you're seeing a lot of people telling you to get out and vote, saying that if you think your vote doesn't count you're abdicating democracy, reminding you how many people who died so that you could vote, etc.
I have to admit I find these exhortations both facile and manipulative. If we're talking about the presidential election, sure, you can make an argument that "every vote counts". That argument is not really practical, however, because of the electoral college. Every vote for president counts only in a small number of battleground states. I used to live in California; everybody knows that California is going to go to Obama. The Obama and Romney campaigns certainly know it; how much time and effort did they spend trying to sway California voters? Now, strictly speaking, if everybody who would vote for Obama figured it didn't matter and as a result didn't vote, then, yes, Romney could pull out a surprise win. But, while that's a theoretical possibility, let's be realistic here about how likely that is. It's not going to happen. As a result, if you tell somebody in California that their vote for the president really matters, you come across looking either naive, or manipulative.
So should you vote anyway? Yes. Two reasons.
First, to stay in practice. The USA's current system of elections is horribly corrupt. Jimmy Carter has spent a lot of time overseeing elections in other countries, and he says that about our elections. Also, check out rootstrikers.org, a website related to Lawrence Lessig's book Republic Lost. It's easy to become cynical, to realize that everybody running for any office is dancing to the tune of large campaign donors, and to give up and not bother voting. However, you must vote, both because there are differences between candidates, and because you need to stay in practice, and we need to keep voting as "a thing" that we do in the USA, in hopes that we do manage to fix the corrupt system.
The second reason is: there are elections other than president. If you live in California, no, it doesn't matter who you vote for for president; Obama's going to get your electoral college votes, whether you like it or not. However, there are congressional districts whose representatives are not a foregone conclusion. And, in many states, the Senate seats may well not be a foregone conclusion. Congress matters. You need to vote there. Additionally, there are going to be state and local elections that matter. You need to vote there. With all of these other things, there isn't an electoral college making your votes irrelevant; in these other races, every vote does matter.
So, yes, get out and vote. But, please, let's stop pretending that every individual vote for president matters, because that's simply not the reality of the situation.
My wife graduated from from Oberlin college in 1992, and as such she gets the Oberlin alumni magazine. The summer 2012 issue includes a one-page article entitled "The Entirety of Relativity", which I find to be a very unfortunate presentation of Relativity. (As a pedantic point, it's only talking about Special Relativity (SR), and doesn't address General Relativity (GR) at all, but that really is a pedantic point. When a physicist says "Relativity", she likely means GR (especially given that SR is a subset of GR, so nothing is lost), but when presented publicly we often use "Relativity" as a shorthand for SR.)
The basic problem with the article is that it presents the theory as if its nature were the way that SR has been taught to students for a long time. The article starts with three things that are correct as far as they go: moving clocks run slow, a moving rod is short, and moving clocks aren't synchronized. Where the article loses me, however, is on point number 4, "That's All There Is To It.".The brief text after this says that the first three points are the basis of relativity, and the rest of the article claims that all of SR is a consequence of these three points. This is at the very least a perverse way of describing the theory.
A lot of texts at both the high school and college level present Relativity by first presenting these three points. You're given formulae for each of these consequences; parts of them resemble each other, but they're each presented as if they were a fundamental formula that couldn't be derived from anything else, for you to memorize (or, in a more modern way of thinking about it, look up) and use. However, this is a back-assward way of presenting SR, and I would argue that stating that the rest of SR is a consequence of these three observations is not just back-assward, but in fact wrong.
In fact, these three points are themselves consequences of the theory of Relativity. The formulae for them can be derived from more fundamental considerations. They're no more fundamental than all of the various kinematic formulae you memorize or look up (such as d=½a2) when you do a non-calculus Newtonian mechanics class; those kinematic formulae themselves are just results of the definition of velocity and acceleration as, respectively, the rate of change of position and the rate of change of velocity, together with Calculus. Those definitions are the fundamental thing, not all the various kinematic equations you learn to use if you take a non-Calculus physics class. I could start with d=½a2, take a couple of derivatives, and say, "hey, acceleration is the rate-of-change of the rate-of-change of position, and that's a consequence of this kinematic equation". That would be back-assward and indeed wrong, and it's just as wrong to say that everything else in Relativity is a consequence of moving clocks running slow, separated moving clocks not being synchronized, and moving rods being short.
Special Relativity itself starts with just two very simple postulates— "simple" in the sense of "not complex", not in the sense of "easy to understand". Those postulates are:
- The laws of physics are the same for every freely-falling observer
- The speed of light is one of those laws of physics; every freely-falling observer will measure the speed of light in a vacuum to be 2.998×108 meters per second.
Everything else in SR— including moving clocks running slowly, separated moving clocks not being synchronized, and moving rods being short, as well as other things (such as the Doppler shift, focusing of light emitted by a moving object in the direction of motion, an apparent rotation of a moving object) are consequences of these two postulates.
I should note that both of these postulates do require more explanation to be truly precise. For the first postulate, you have to carefully define "freely-falling observer". You get it basically right if there are no net external forces other than gravity acting on that observer. (However, if you allow gravity to be around, things can get a little subtly complicated. It doesn't ruin the postulates, but you have to be careful in treating the consequences.) For the second postulate, in fact it's not the speed of light that's absolute, it's the speed of any object that both carries energy and is massless. Light just happens to be the thing that we think about the most that works like this, and thus we call the cosmic speed limit "the speed of light", even though we really ought to call it "the speed of spacetime" (at least in the context of Relativity).
One of the most interesting consequences of these two postulates it that you have to change the way you think about time. Most of us live our lives with a Galilean/Newtonian view of time: it's an absolute, that advances at the same rate and is the same for everybody. However, you can't maintain that idea and have the speed of the same bit of light be measured at the same rate by everybody regardless of how they're moving. Galileo and Newton would say that the latter is wrong; Einstein's postulate, from which all of Relativity springs, was that in fact it's this speed of massless objects that is absolute, and as such we just have to give up on the idea of absolute time. Some of the consequences of this are that separated moving clocks aren't synchronized and moving clocks run slow... as well as other things.
I'm fond of the way that Thomas Moore's Six Ideas That Shaped Physics presents Special Relativity. (This is the book series that I currently use when teaching introductory calculus-based physics.) His Book R of the series is written for college-level physics who have had Calculus (and indeed have had some Calculus-based Newtonian physics). It presents SR not in the old-fashioned and unfortunate pedagogical way that the Oberlin article does— by starting with the consequences such as time dilation and with their formulae, and only later getting to the fundamental structure of spacetime implied by Einsteins postulates— but rather by starting with the fundamental structure of spacetime implied by Einstein's postulates, and then developing the consequences out of that
Yes, it's easier to just learn the formulae and do calculations about time dilation and so forth, and presents fewer difficult abstract conceptual challenges to students coming across this for the first time. However, if you learn it this way, you're given a warped perspective of what the theory of Special Relativity really is. My beef with this Oberlin alumni article is that it presents Relativity as if the theory itself is based and structured in the way that it has often been taught.
The original story that goes with the casual pepper-spraying cop meme is really pretty horrifying. The Internet being what it is, though, it has become a fest of image manipulation (what many people call "photoshopping", but it is no more than than photocopying is xeroxing). Casual disregard for students who were the subject of unwarranted police brutality? Or biting social commentary pointing out the incongruity of students sitting and flinching while a completely unthreatened cop strolls by and deploys violence? Who knows. But once I figured out that the name of the cop who shows up in these images is Pike, I had to throw together my own image manipulation (using the Gimp, of course):
The true tragedy of 9/11 is not just that thousands of people died in an evil and criminal attack. (Aside: I don't use the word "cowardly" like everybody else, because I have a hard time seeing how sacrificing your life in an attack on your perceived enemies is cowardly. Misguided, deluded, even evil, yes, but cowardly? Why can't we call these things what they are? Why is, somehow, "cowardly" a more stinging condemnation than evil?)
No, the true tragedy is how wildly successful those attacks were. What's more, they were successful not because of the death and destruction of the attacks themselves, but rather because of our reaction as a society to those attacks. The way the USA, in particular, has behaved in the last 10 years has served not to remember and honor those who lost their lives on 9/11. Rather, not only were they meaningless deaths, but the tragedy of their deaths have been magnified many times by our reaction and response to them.
What is the goal of a terrorist attack? I can't be sure, of course. However, the 9/11 attacks were targeted at the symbols of American power around the world: the World Trade Center, probably the largest single symbol of American financial might (our true imperialistic power at the moment); the Pentagon, the center of the American military; and the White House, the head of the American seat of government. When ideologues on our side talk about what it's for, it's because they "hate us for our freedom" and "want to destroy our way of life". I suspect on their side the more ambitious thought that these attacks would cripple the USA, undermining our imperialistic power, showing the world that we're not everything we say we are, and forcing us to further cripple ourselves by changing the way we live because we're living in fear.
Most of these goals, whether you take the ones that were perceived by the attackers or that come out of the rhetoric of those who think the attackers hate us for our freedom, were in fact achieved. Not directly as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but rather because of our response to them.
Showing the World the "True" USA
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there was an outpouring of goodwill worldwide towards the USA. Yes, it was not universal; there were places where people were dancing in the streets celebrating that the USA had been attacked. And, doubtless, there was some snark from our allies in the form of "now you have on your soil what we've been dealing with all along". But, the world recognized this as one of the most major terrorist attacks, and recognized it as an attack on the modern civilized world, not just on the USA.
With a different presidential administration, I suspect that this goodwill could have been fostered, and used to help bring about changes in the world that made it a better place. Instead, what did we do? We completely squandered it. A few years later, it became embarrassing to travel abroad as an American. The USA became not known as the world leader of the great democracies who suffered a terrible attack, but rather as the jingoistic unilateral bully that was going to do whatever the hell it wanted militarily, regardless of what its allies thought. The 9/11 attacks were used as a pretext for an invasion of Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with them.
The outpouring of the "good" form of patriotism that happened right after 9/11 very quickly morphed into the ugly form of patriotism. The kind of patriotism that asserts you're completely for the USA and what it's doing, or you're effective aiding and abetting the enemy. The kind of ugly patriotism that makes people in other countries see Americans not as a proud people, but as an arrogant and ignorant people. Americans have always suffered this to some extent; and, to some extent, it's earned. But it's become much worse in the years since 9/11, as a direct result of our nasty reaction to 9/11. I'm talking about the invasion of Iraq, our open defense of torture, the Guantanamo Bay prisons, our doctrine of unilateral military adventurism and ignoring the protests of the other great world democracies... but also just the general behavior and rhetoric of so many individual Americans.
Losing our freedoms
On the evening of 9/11, George W. Bush gave a rather nice speech that was broadcast worldwide on television. Notably, he didn't refer to the terrorist acts as "cowardly"; that came later. Rather, they were "evil and despicable", much more apt descriptions. Most inspirationally, he said:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.
Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.
America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.
In an administration that was filled with a lot of misdirection, dissembly, and obfuscation of the truth, I believe that this, right here, was W's most egregious untruth. I do not call it a lie, because I think he believed it when he said it. But the years that followed showed that this was completely wrong. American resolve was in fact undermined, and changed from resolve into an ugly sort of aggression. The brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world turned into a bully that disgusted the world. And, freedom in the USA, while still greater than many (if not most) societies that have existed throughout the history of Western civilization, has been seriously curtailed.
Obviously, freedom of speech still exists, or I could not write this blog post. And, indeed, most of us effectively have no fewer freedoms than we had ten years ago. But those freedoms are much less secure now, and there are some who have less effective freedom than they did ten year ago. What am I talking about?
- Airport "security". The fourth amendment of the Constitution ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,...") has been trampled upon and treated as toilet paper if you're anywhere near an airport. In many airports, you must agree to be photographed effectively naked, or, if you "opt-out", you are subject to official sexual assault (including groping of children that would lead to the kid being immediately taken away by child protective services if the parent were observed doing it). This would be inexcusable even if these measures were effective, but they're not. Indeed, as that Schneier piece points out, if our security is going to be insistent on identifying each and every potential weapon that goes on to an airplane, the only recourse is an escalation of intrusiveness that will completely destroy personal dignity (if there is, indeed, any left now), and/or make flying effectively impossible. (At which point, of course, terrorists will blow up trains, or buses! Indeed, right now, if they're going after air travel, the lines at security are probably the most juicy target.)
- The PATRIOT act. This was a gigantic piece of legislation that was passed, with the legislators that passed it not having read it, or, in many cases, not even fully realizing what was inside it. Yet, it was passed overwhelmingly, because the politics of fear, and the fear that our country was feeling at the time, meant that they all had to be seen "doing something". Our legislative process was completely undermined. Supposedly, our congressmen talk about, debate, and argue about the laws being passed. The process fails a lot, I admit, but this failure was truly egregious. Measures were passed overwhelming that would have garnered tremendous controversy (both inside and outside Congress) at any other time. The act granted a huge expansion of the discretionary powers of law enforcement. Again, most of us haven't experienced the loss of freedom due to this, but it is always the people on the margins for whom the defense of freedom is most precarious, and most necessary. (If you're not worried about them, remember that the margins can move in over time, after all.) Among many, many other things, the PATRIOT act includes National Security Letters, that allow them to get private information about you from institutions such as libraries... and not only are these not subject to review, but the libraries (or whatever) are not allowed to even admit that they've received this request. This sounds to me like a very key tool of somebody building a police state!
- Our general response to what is seen to be reasonable in a free society:
- Many people have gotten in trouble for photographing public buildings. And, the rhetoric is such that that we now think, hey, wait, those people might be planning attacks! We need to be safe!
- Many of us argued in favor of torture. Never mind that it doesn't work. Never mind that it's evil and we as a society shouldn't want to be doing this. It's effectiveness on the TV series 24 has lead us to think it's patriotic to want to torture those we suspect of being our enemies.
- Warrantless wiretapping, something that would have been anathema on September 10, 2001, is always being pushed and expanded.
- Because we're all so afraid of terrorists, we're happily allowing our state to turn into a surveillance state where we can expect that law enforcement is watching us and recording us wherever we go, whatever we do.
- At the same time, people are getting in trouble for photographing or videotaping the police. Put "the state surveils you" and "you are not allowed to surveil the state to hold it accountable" together, and you've got the technological underpinnings of the state described in Orwell's 1984. Accuse me of hyperbole— I'm using it, after all— but seriously folks: do we want to keep this a free society or not?
- The current administration, elected on promises of being different from the last one, of trying to undo the expansion of the power of the executive branch, is, in contrast to those promises, quietly pushing forward all of these measures.
9/11 was a tragedy. Many people lost their lives due to the evil and despicable acts of some religious fanatics. But the true horrors of 9/11 are how amazingly successful those attacks were, because of our response. We've handed the terrorists their objectives on a golden platter.
Let's go back to standing firm, to resolve, to freedom not being deterred. If we're to make changes in our way of life, let's not fall in upon ourselves, become ever more jingoistic and ever more afraid, and sacrifice our freedoms in the name of that fear. Instead, let's examine what it is, really, that makes people hate us so much, and ask if there are things we're doing wrong. Let's make changes in how we interact with the rest of the world that build goodwill. In the long run, having more goodwill around the world is going to make us safer than any security walls we build around ourselves. And, by maintaining and upholding freedom and dignity, we might begin to truly honor those who died on 9/11, instead of claiming to honor them while pissing on their graves by allowing fear to turn us into what we're becoming.
There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.
Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it's significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I've heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could "just run it inside a browser" rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don't support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you're just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it's inside their browser, it's easier to use than if it's a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that's run "inside a browser", it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That's changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they're not there yet.)
Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package... and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it's a negative; browser plugin installation, because it's designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What's more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can't get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year... but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.
The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn't that they've created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it's more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn't approved, however; they've just applied for it. It's possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)
Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren't a surprising new innovation; they're things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they're working in today's economy, especially with regard to software and "business methods", is that they turn first-to-market (or "first to claim to want to get to market") with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That's completely absurd.
And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn't have. It's bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn't lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.
A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn't work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there's always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using "defensive" patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.
Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you've done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you've open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it's particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.
So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.
The mission statement of the American Physical Society includes in their mission statement, among other things, the intention to be "an authoritative source of physics information for the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity".
To this end, they seem to have locked papers from Physical Review from 1948 behind a paywall, for subscribers only, or for those who are ready to pay $25 for access. Thank you, APS. Yes, I know you have expenses, but I also know that I pay more than $100 a year to be a member of your society. Is this really advancing physics and benefiting humanity?
We seem to be locked into our notion that scientific journals belong to the same closed, proprietary publishing model as grocery-store checkout-line magazines. Our blindness to how this utterly contradicts the nature of the scientific endeavor is very similar to what I was just reading in commentary by Eddington from 1920 about how the astronomical community seemed to be clinging to the gravitational contraction model for powering stars, despite the fact that it no longer made sense across a wide range of science.
(This is a repost from the post I made one year ago toady.)
Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.
But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we’re remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won’t be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste….)
To frame the whole thing, let’s start with what I call George W. Bush’s most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don’t doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:
None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.
What was the legacy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?
- The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of “We MUST do something” after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.
And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritarian tenets of this act should have been in the “land of the free”, one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn’t read the act, and I wouldn’t be surprised of most of them didn’t really know what was in the act they were voting for.
This kind of “must do something” response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
- The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I’ve seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won’t even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in comparison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)
Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I’ve actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now… I can’t help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.
- Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn’t work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we’re being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we’re going to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they’ve made, but for the most part, we’re probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending “accountability” while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.
- The end of due process. OK, that’s overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we’re reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn’t stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you’re a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.
There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK’s institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks’ laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.
I believe it’s just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a “weapon of mass destruction” and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I’m talking something nuclear here (be it a “dirty bomb” or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.
We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.
Added 2010/09/11: In the last year, I've noticed a lot more open anti-Islamic hate. It's been pretty obvious in the USA for the last 9 years, but for whatever reason it's becoming more open, and more virulent. I watch the Tea Party and their worship of know-nothingness, the willingness of Fox News to wildly distort the truth, and the growing of loud movements that want to treat Muslims the way that, and Godwin forgive me, Jews were treated in Germany during the years before Hitler came into power. We are not so culturally different from Western Europe; if it can happen there, it can happen here. I'm becoming sadder and sadder about how the USA, the supposed land of the free and home of the brave, is reacting as a whole to having been attacked by evil and reprehensible terrorists nine years ago. I don't think we learned the right lessons; we think we need to get our own back and strike out, when in reality we need to be evaluating the world we live in and ask why it gives rise to the evils that it does. We need to change the world so those evils can't fester, instead of trying to create our own personal mirror image of them.
This editorial by Timothy Egan has inspired me to make the following true statements. We'll see if Fox News picks them up and repeats them with the sense of sky-falling urgency that they repeat other things.
- I have not seen definitive evidence that Sarah Palin's husband wasn't a member of the KKK, dropping out only when she was invited to join John McCain's presidential ticket.
- Rush Limbaugh has not given us proof that he wasn't secretly a member of the American Communist Party in his youth.
I mean, it's only American and responsible to ask the questions, right?
There is an interesting and anguishing post on Inside Higher Ed by psychology professor Monica J. Harris entitled Stop Admitting Ph.D. Students. (Hat tip: Chad.) She describes a problem familiar to anybody who's paid attention to the PhD market in probably just about any academic field in the last couple of decades. Departments continue to admit and produce PhD students, and college administrations (and rankings by professional societies) judge departments partly on their ability to produce large numbers of PhD students. Yet, there are very long-term jobs out there for people with PhDs. Knowing that society and her department isn't going to change to address the problem, she's tried to do what she thinks is the only ethical thing she can: she's no longer accepting new graduate students into her lab, so that at least she personally won't be contributing to the oversupply problem.
The comments are also very interesting. The range from agreement and sympathy to outright claims that she is lazy and "not doing her job." I think the best comment was made by "scandal and a byword":
Many of us PhD students DO know what we're getting into. The problem is that (at least in my experience) we're strongly discouraged from making contingency plans. I get a fairly explicit mixed message from my teachers:
1) There aren't many good (tenure-track research) jobs out there.
2) If I don't get a tenure-track research job, I'm a failure, and my name will ever be a scandal and a byword and a source of discomfort to my teachers. If I have any plan B, I'd better not mention it!
My own field is physics, and the problem of physicists being trained for and expected to get tenure-track faculty positions, without enough of these positions being out there, has been a sore topic for two decades (at least). My last year or two of college (1989-1990), I remember reading a national report about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists". This was based on a rather naive consideration that the boom of scientists who went into the field after Sputnik were all about to retire. In reality, the tech push after Sputnik created a system whereby a tenure-track or tenured physics professor at a research institution produces during his career something like 10-15 PhD students. In other words, while he will retire only once, he replaces himself 10 to 15 times. At first, this worked, because there was demand for that level of expansion. But not for long. Even considering that some will go to smaller, undergraduate-only colleges, this level of over-replacement is not sustainable.
By 1991 or 1992, far from the "shortage of scientists" talks, there were regular columns and letters to the editor in Physics Today talking about how physics graduate students could usually get post-doctoral positions, but it was very tough for those post-docs to move on to a faculty position. At one point, one of Caltech's colloquium periods (perhaps it was Astronomy journal club-- I don't remember exactly) was given over to a discussion of this topic. One of the things parroted there, as in many of these articles, was that we need to be training our PhD students also for jobs outside of academia. Professors said this... but I almost hear each professor present thinking, "but my students will be the ones to get those coveted faculty positions." (Or perhaps it was "but Caltech students will...".)
At least in physics, and at an institution like Caltech, there is a very strong cultural sense that "success" means "ending up in a tenure-track faculty institution at a research University". When, in grad school, I would despair with my friends about our chances, I would sometimes mention that I was as or more interested in teaching than primarily in research, they would say, oh, well, you can get a job at a small liberal arts college! Of course, those jobs are just as competitive as the research jobs. Yes, sometimes people "settle" for those jobs, but the truth is that there are a bunch of us who really value teaching as a primary professional, intellectual, and creative activity.
I also remember hearing students talking about PhDs who had gone on to teach high school, and how depressing that was that they'd have to settle for so little. At the time, I was seriously considering that as a long-term possibility, but I didn't say anything. And this comes back to the comment of "scandal and a byword" above: the culture of PhD granting institutions in many fields remains extremely destructive to the notion of PhDs being self-respecting individuals if they don't get one of the very few coveted faculty jobs.
Many of the comments on thread note that cutting off the opportunity for people to get PhDs cuts off the opportunity for the people who value the PhD work itself. This is a valid point. What I tell people is that if they're going to go to graduate school in physics or astronomy, they should do so because they want to go to graduate school. There is absolutely no guarantee that the PhD will allow them to spend the rest of their lives in physics research. With their skills, the PhD is a more stressful and lower-paying occupation (*) than other things they could be doing. If the coveted faculty job were likely, it might be worth the "sacrifice" of going through a PhD program, but because that faculty job is not likely, the PhD has to be worth it all by itself.
(*) (Aside: in physics, it's a lot better than it is in the humanities. You generally teach for a couple of years, and most of the time your advisor has grant money to pay you a research assistantship to complete your PhD research. In the humanities, you may have a fellowship for a few years, but it's more common to have to teach for many years, or to have to do research assistantships that are not your own thesis research. Yes, you're being paid a pittance in physics, but at least you're being paid.)
You also need to be aware that you're going to receive direct and indirect pressure to consider "success" as going on in research. Even the pep talks about how great a given graduating class is will come across as pressure: "I'm sure you'll go on to do great things to advance the field!" It's supposed to be a compliment, but it bolsters the culture that success is going on in research. You have to be aware of this, and have to be aware that you're still a good person, still a good PhD, and still contributing to society even if you don't manage to go on, or if, horrors, you choose not to go on in research.
The whole culture of the system is broken, and I don't see it changing any time soon. We've been collectively wringing our hands about it for at least a couple of decades, but the evaluation criteria for ranking departments remains "more PhDs" rather than "a responsible number of PhDs", and administrations at Universities continue to pressure departments to produce lots of PhDs to make their numbers look good. How we each respond to this ethically is difficult; I admire Monica Harris' response, and am dismayed by those who think she's finding an excuse to be lazy. Myself, I think the most important thing is to make sure that undergrads going on to PhD programs are not fed a line about a "shortage of scientists", and are fully aware of what they're getting themselves into.