Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reshaping the World, One Computer at a Time

In his great 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a world where the Axis won WWII. An author in that world imagines another world where the Allies did win for his book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In it, Hawthorne Abendsen writes:
Only Yankee know-how and the mass-production system… could do the trick, sent that ceaseless and almost witlessly noble flood of cheap one-dollar… television kits to every village and backwater of the Orient. And when the kit had been assembled by some gaunt, feverish-minded youth in the village, starved for a chance, for that which the generous Americans held out to him, that tinny little instrument… began to receive. And what did it receive? Crouching before the screen, the youths of the village—and often the elders as well—saw words. Instructions. How to read, first. Then the rest.
Every time anyone brings up (generally in glowing terms) Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project through MIT, I think about this passage.

Now, I’m sure that the people behind this project are not nearly as naïve as Abendsen and the Americans he posits with their great faith in technology as the solution—and I see nothing wrong with developing a $100 computer. But I do wonder if this has been through carefully in consultation with people who have real experience on the ground in subsistence-economy areas. And I don’t mean the aid workers who swoop in from their air-conditioned SUVs and bottled water who stay back in the capital, but the people who actually have lived in these areas—either growing up there themselves or staying for an extended period of time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, say, or a missionary.

When we in America envision the power of the $100 laptop, we are projecting our own desires and abilities onto the rest of the world. By imagining what we could do with such a thing (had we not computer access already), we assume that others could (and would) do the same. I attended a wonderful Computers & Writing conference last week in Lubbock, Texas where people were discussion all sorts of ways that computers can be used to augment the teaching of writing (among other things). There was one discussion, though, on Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat that shocked me in its naïveté, panelists nodding together that OLPC (and things like it) were going to change the world, that, through technology, we really were achieving the ‘level playing field’ behind Friedman’s title image.

Does access to technology really provide an equality of opportunity? I doubt it. Even as China and India take huge economic steps, the divide between rich and poor also widens. Technology is a much more useful tool for the rich than it is for the poor.

As I said, I have nothing against the OLPC project—I just don’t see it as any sort of solution to economic inequities or educational needs. A computer is simply one tool, and it has to have a user able to manipulate it towards a specific end if it is going to be effective. Also, the desire to use the tool has to come from the people using to, not from foreigners who believe it might be just the thing. Cell phones have been sweeping the world not because we in America think they are good for the rest of the world (in fact, we have been rather late in embracing them), but because people saw possibilities in them. Maybe people all over the world will embrace the OLPC computers—but maybe they won’t. That’s for them to decide, not for us.

I have another concern with the OLPC project, one implied in Gary Snyder’s poem “Axe Handles,” where he repeats the old saying that, when making an axe handle, the pattern is not far off (for one uses an axe to cut the handle). By providing computers as tools, we are also providing a pattern and a way of thought. We are reshaping the people we give the computers to—they are not simply reshaping themselves. There’s a logic inherent in any tool, and the logic of a computer is “our” logic of the developed world.

Rather than dropping computers all over the world, as Phil Dick’s Abendsen imagines, perhaps we could simply make the computers available—waiting with them until they are wanted. And we should keep our expectations low: technology isn’t going to change the world—it takes people to do that.

And our goal, after all, shouldn’t be to remake the world in our own image.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Again, Horowitz Excusing His Mistakes

Last week, David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin published an articled on their Front Page Magazine titled ”Joel Beinin: Apologist for Terrorists.” It has to do with a lawsuit Beinin has brought against the authors over the use of a picture of him on the cover of a pamphlet called Campus Support for Terrorism.

In the article, Horowitz and Laksin mention that Beinin:
acquired the copyright for the photo, which previously belonged to someone else and was assigned to him after the fact.
According to Horowitz and Laksin, Beinin filed suit for copyright infringement after buying those rights.

Somehow, in the eyes of these two, what Beinin has done is underhanded, though it is perfectly legal and quite in keeping with American copyright tradition. Beinin objected to the use of his face on the cover, but there was nothing he could do about it—because he did not own the copyright for the picture (it was established over a century ago that the subject of a photograph, in most cases, has no rights over the photograph). The only thing that Beinin could do was contact the copyright holder and ask if permission had been granted for use of the photograph. Though Horowitz and Laksin conveniently leave this out, they had not acquired rights to the photograph (if they had, there could be no lawsuit).

I suspect that the copyright holder wasn’t interested in pursuing a case against the publisher, so Beinin offered to buy the rights so that he could do that himself and get his picture off of that cover.

To me, that sounds perfectly legitimate. Yet here is how Horowitz and Laksin characterize his action:
In March, in a move clearly designed to obstruct opinions he didn’t like, Beinin filed suit for copyright infringement against the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (the publisher of FrontPageMag.com).
They go on to argue that:
If the claims in the pamphlet had been false, Beinin could have sued the Center for libel. But the claims were true. So he resorted to the copyright gambit. Copyrights, however, were designed to protect commercial values (something the leftist Beinin has spent a political lifetime fighting against). The Beinin picture is in fact worthless. It is not art and the face on it is distinguished only by its insignificance. No one would buy the picture and the fact that the Center published it (at a time it did not belong to Beinin) costs him nothing. Nonetheless, the professor has engaged the machinery of the law in an attempt to make the Center pay for a crime it did not commit because he wants to punish it for an ideological crime a democracy like ours does not recognize.
Wow.

Actually, as this is the United States and not England, it’s not likely that Beinin could have successfully sued for libel even if everything in the pamphlet were false—but that’s beside the point here. What Beinin objected to was his face on the cover—and he found a legal means of having it removed when he discovered that the Center for the Study of Popular Culture had not bothered to secure the rights to the picture. The Center had evaded copyright law.

The argument that copyright is “designed to protect commercial values” is a little disingenuous, for what it really does is keep control of the work in the hands of the copyright holder (this includes, of course, control of commercial value, but that’s not the whole of it). One reason for that is that it sidesteps any question of value of the particular work—which is irrelevant to copyright law (though Horowitz and Laksin would have you believe otherwise).

Horowitz and his Center acted illegally if they did not get the rights to use the photograph before placing it on the cover of their pamphlet. Any consequences of that have nothing to do with stifling the expression of opinion. If the Center was unwilling to respect copyright of the picture, it should suffer the consequences, no matter who now owns that copyright.

Horowitz and Laksin are simply trying to obscure the facts of the case, as they do so often.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Plagiarism: “They’ve Always Done It”

On today’s edition (May 20, 2006) of NPR’s On the Media, guest host Mike Pesca (a correspondent for Day to Day) spoke a piece called “Cribbing Through the Ages.” His point was that plagiarism was “no big deal” in Elizabethan times and would be no big deal in twenty years.

Pesca’s argument, in part, is based on the fact that the public often doesn’t know who wrote something anyhow: the newsreader mouths words created by a producer, the film’s credited author may have been followed by others who radically altered the script. This “convinces the consumer that a byline might just be a vestige of a bygone era.”

What’s peculiar about Pesca’s piece is that it follows segments on ‘fair use’ and ‘copyright’ without Pesca seeming to understand the relationship between these issues and current concerns over plagiarism. He also seems to have no comprehension of the reasons why plagiarism has become such a concern—and not simply on college campuses. In addition, he doesn’t seem to recognize that Elizabethan England was—how shall we say it?—a little different from contemporary America.

In Elizabethan England, print culture was just taking hold (remember, Shakespeare’s plays were never even meant to be printed and sold). The important thing was the performance, not the author (certainly not to the degree of today). There was also quite a bit less in print: an educated person would be familiar with just about every ‘important’ text and would recognize references without attention being called to them.

As media exploded, it became necessary to find a way to clarify references and usages of older works, for it could not be assumed that readers would “get” them any longer and the possibility of fraudulent usage rose. I doubt that Shakespeare would have argued that it just happened that his line about Helen of Troy and launching 1000 ships was similar to Marlowe’s—as my students often do, when caught plagiarizing. Why, Shakespeare might have argued, tell you what you already know? Plus, he wasn’t publishing his plays for profit, he was performing them. There’s a big difference.

It was a century after Shakespeare’s time that writers began making a living by their pens. And it was then that the first copyright laws came into effect in England (during Queen Anne’s time). The period of copyright wasn’t very long. Perhaps it was felt that any writing should revert to the commons at some point, but that authors ought to benefit from the sale of their work for a reasonable length of time (14 years, renewable for another 14).

Today, there are two legitimate ways for using the works of others: First, one can receive permission from the copyright holder (generally in return for money). Second, one can use a portion of the work under ‘fair use’ provisions—with acknowledgement. ‘Fair use,’ unfortunately, is not clearly defined, but any use of up to ten percent of a work in a non-commercial (generally educational or scholarly) will generally slide by, as long as attribution is clearly given.

The problem of plagiarism isn’t a problem with using the works of others, but a problem of honesty and the law. Shakespeare wasn’t being dishonest by incorporating the words of Marlowe into his plays any more than Gus Van Sant was by incorporating Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part I into his My Own Private Idaho. Even if he hadn’t acknowledged it, the borrowing would be clear. No one needs to provide references to quotes from Casablanca any longer. “Round up the usual suspects.” “I’m shocked, shocked!” No one would accuse anyone of plagiarism for using those phrases.

No, plagiarism is something quite different from what Shakespeare was doing. It is an attempt at personal gain through the unacknowledged work of others. Through a hiding of the source. This subverts education, debasing the value of what all students do when it is not quashed. It also perverts the various industries involved in making money from the arts. Kaavya Viswanathan (in my view) was manipulated into a position where she had no place else to turn, but to plagiarism. Young and inexperienced, there is no way she could have lived up to her half-million-dollar-advance billing. So she cheated.

How does that look to the thousands of struggling writers who get a few thousand dollars for their books (if they get published at all), yet continue on—some of whom are fine and creative, and original, writers and thinkers?

Another reason that plagiarism has to be considered a big deal is that the provenance of information is extremely important to scholarship and to reporting. A trail needs to lead back to the sources, and the sources themselves need to be judged. That trail is muddied into meaninglessness when plagiarism is concerned. In a time of information explosion, it is harder and harder to know what to rely on. If we can trace something back to, say, Bertrand Russell, we can feel that we don’t really have to go further, for he has a certain reputation. If we aren’t able to trace things to certain stopping points, we will be buried by the information, both viable and bogus, surrounding us.

Pesca feels that plagiarism will be “no big deal” twenty years from now. I disagree. I believe it will be even more important.

[More to come.]

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Why They Lie

At this point, it cannot be deemed an overstatement to say that the American right suffers from an epidemic of lying. Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter (among others) have been caught red-handed by Al Franken. Blogger and plagiarist Ben Domenech even have the temerity to claim that P. J. O’Rourke had given him permission to claim O’Rourke’s work as his own—something O’Rourke himself quickly put the lie to. David Horowitz, once a leftist liar, joined the right a quarter of a century ago—and lies still. These are far from the only examples (and I have left out the politicians completely).

As anyone with even a casual familiarity with my blog diaries knows, what bothers me most about these liars is that I have trouble understanding why these people, all intelligent, lie so badly and so often. Most of the lies they tell are rather transparent, fooling only those most willing to be fooled. Maybe that’s all they care about, fooling that percentage, but I can’t quite accept that they have so little self-respect.

The other day, I turned to Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978), hoping to find some answers.

According to Bok, many liars justify their lies through their estimation of their enemies. They have believed that:
those who threatened society were outside its moral bounds, and, as a result, need not be treated with the honesty due to others. Armed with such a conviction, those who contemplate action against enemies may then throw ordinary moral inquiry to the winds. They see no reason to seek alternatives to lying and rarely question either their own motives or the process whereby they came to see their enemies as enemies, as outside the social contract. (138)
This is particularly disheartening, for it also explains the tendency of those on the right to label as “un-American” those they disagree with. We are beyond the pale, so any treatment of us necessary is justifiable.

Horowitz, certainly, sees enemies all around him. But how does that justify lying to friends? After all, most of the lies written by the right are aimed at people on the right, the liars’ so-called allies. Liars
may believe, with Machiavelli, that “great things” have been done by those who have “little regard for good faith.” They may trust that they can make wise use of the power than lies bring. And they may have confidence in their own ability to distinguish the times when good reasons support their decision to lie. (23)
What arrogance! But there’s truth to this description. From Plato to Leo Strauss, the “noble lie” has been part of the justification elites use for their lying. After all, they often really do believe they are better than the rest of us:
The powerful tell lies believing that they have greater than ordinary understanding of what is at stake; very often, they regard their dupes as having inadequate judgment, or as likely to respond in the wrong way to truthful information. (168)
Another result of the liar’s arrogance is intense anger at being lied to:
Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived. As a result, their choice to lie is one which they would like to reserve for themselves while insisting that others be honest. (23)
Just because they don’t tell the truth doesn’t mean that other people should be allowed to get away with lying. Accusing others is also a way of deflecting attention from oneself. Joseph Wilson, for example, is frequently accused of lying in relation to his findings in Niger—by the very people whose lies are under investigation—as if any lying he may have done (none, as far as I can tell) somehow mitigates the actions of the others.

Believing that “everyone does it—and besides, they lied to me” makes the lying easier to manage:
Many find it easier to lie to those they take to be untruthful themselves. It is as though a barrier had been let down. (125)
There is often an extremely simplistic (and ultimately destructive) “morality” on the part of these liars. They believe that:
People should receive the treatment that their behavior merits. Enemies, through their own unfairness, their aggressive acts or intentions, have forfeited the ordinary right of being dealt with fairly. (136)
’They do it! They do it! It’s a conspiracy. They are simply trying to hurt me!’
Paranoia is not an unusual occurrence when it comes to setting up “enemies” and deciding how to treat them. Worse, the more paranoiac an agent or a group—the more convinced they are both that there is a conspiracy against them and that their cause overrides all others—the more self-righteously will they see their lies as merited by the iniquity of their enemies. (139)
There’s been a liberal conspiracy against him, Horowitz seems to think, ever since the publication of his attack on college professors. I’m sure many of the other caught liars feel the same. Certainly, the defenders of Ben Domenech want to point to persecution by the Daily Kos.

In a comment on his blog, Horowitz claimed that it is only recently that he has been accused of lying. I suspect the truth is quite different. After all:
It is easy, a wit observed, to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one…. After the first lies, moreover, others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen; the liar’s perception of his chances of being caught may warp. (25)
Horowitz is certainly an example of this.

One of the things that has confused me about the demonstrations of Horowitz’s lies in his book on college professors is his dismissal of the lies as trivial. According to Bok, that is one of
three circumstances [that] have seemed to liars to provide the strongest excuse for their behavior—a crisis where overwhelming harm can be averted only through deceit; complete harmlessness and triviality to the point where it seems absurd to quibble about whether a lie has been told; and the duty to particular individuals to protect their secrets. (166)
Many of the liars on the right use the first, manufacturing a “threat” from the left and then using it to justify their lies to their own confederates. Like Horowitz, many also dismiss their lies (when they are caught) as meaningless. As to secrets, well, these particular people have few anyone cares about. Among politicians, though, that’s a particularly strong excuse.

Bok was writing at the end of the seventies, when American society was still reeling from the lies of Vietnam and Watergate. She makes one statement about the lie in the public arena that is as true today as it was then:
We cannot take for granted either the altruism or the good judgment of those who lie to us, no matter how much they intend to benefit us. We have learned that much deceit for private gain masquerades as being in the public interest. We know how deception, even for the most unselfish motive, corrupts and spreads. And we have lived through the consequences of lies told for what were believed to be noble purposes. (169)
The book may be old, but it is still available. If any of you, like me, are perplexed by the lies of the right, it is well worth reading.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Horowitz Lies Again

In an email exchange with Scott Jaschik of insidehighered.com, David Horowitz writes:
there is still not a single attempt by my opponents to actually respond to the 15,000 word analysis in the introduction and final two chapters
If there weren’t already plenty of evidence of Horowitz’s inability to be completely honest, this one should be enough.

Let me just take my own case (there are plenty of others). I don’t care about whether or not there are 100 or 101 or 102 professors “profiled” in the book (Horowitz complains about Free Echange on Campus’s Facts Count little bit of snarkiness on this “count” in that same email—rather than really addressing the issues the study raises), but have not only debunked Horowitz’s claim he is using a legitimate research model called “prosopography’ but have shown what a real research project on college professors and politics might look like.

Horowitz can’t even claim to be unaware of my debunking of his ‘prosopography’ claim: he wrote about it on his own blog, claiming to have contacted a “Professor X” who says that “What you [Horowitz] did was look at your 100 subjects and see if there were patterns in careers,” thus making the attempt ‘prosopography.’ Thing is, that’s not what Horowitz did: he looked a 100 selected subjects, thus negating any possible intellectual value to the exercise. You can’t draw conclusions about a whole that way. What Horowitz has done would be the same as selecting young black men as a basis for studying incarceration rates and then applying your results to all young men. Ridiculous. In addition, there is no data compiled in Horowitz’s book, no aggregation at all. No patterns are established, which there would have to be, for ‘prosopography.’ Finally, Horowitz’s conclusions were reached without any collating of the data—an intellectual no-no.

There are ways, as I have shown, that a reasonable study could have been conducted. And, like many others, I have demonstrated the weaknesses of Horowitz’s introduction and last two chapters (the parts he claims no one has responded to). Go look at my posts (there are more, even, than the one’s linked above). You will see quite clearly that Horowitz’s study is in no way reasonable. That is has zero viability or value.

And for him to be saying, at this point, that no one has responding to his chapters just reinforces the current image of him as a dishonest and intellectually bankrupt man.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Fish Hooks Horowitz

Stanley Fish has never been a favorite of mine. I first became aware of him when he appeared on a panel at a Modern Language Association convention over twenty years ago. I don’t remember the topic, but one of the other presenters said things that Fish did not like. Instead of arguing the facts, Fish belittled the man—something that he, with his comfortable stage presence, could easily do (especially since the other was comparatively inarticulate). I didn’t think Fish treated the man fairly, intellectually or otherwise.

And then there was Alan Sokal’s 1994 hoax that made such a fool out of many “theory” aficionados. In a New York Times op-ed on May 21, 1996, Fish tried to brush aside what Sokal had accomplished (he had managed to get a gobbledy-gook article accepted in one journal, debunking is and exposing the hoax in another soon after), in part by comparing observation of science with watching baseball, concluding that:
A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn't reach into, and therefore doesn't pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies.
Uh… Perfesser, that ain’t what was gnawin’ at Sokal.

Nor was it simply that baseball and science are both, to some degree, ‘social constructions.’

Yet I have always respected Fish. He can find the weakness in an argument faster than anyone, and he knows how to express his views with clarity and the appearance of ease. He’s even good when he is wrong (most annoying!).

On May 2nd, in another New York Times op-ed, he was anything but wrong.

This time, he was writing about David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” doing so with a deftness that I can only admire:
The strong suggestion [in the “Academic Bill of Rights] is that academic freedom and intellectual diversity go together, but in fact they pull in opposite directions. Academic freedom is the freedom to go wherever an intellectual inquiry takes you without regard to directives proclaimed in advance by a regime of prior restraint. Intellectual diversity is a prior restraint; it tells you where to look and what you must look at—you must take into account every point of view independently of whether you think it is worth considering—and it tells you what materials you must include in your syllabus. The number of viewpoints you decide to consult or present to your students should be determined by the shape and history of the academic task rather than by a general imperative which may or not be pertinent to a particular line of inquiry.
What can I say, but “Bingo!”

Fish goes on:
The truth is that despite the packaging of its name, intellectual diversity is not an intellectual requirement, it is a political one. It is at base a demand for proportional representation, for it asks that we take a census of the perspectives and theories vying for attention and take steps to assure that each of them is accorded space in our lesson plan. Intellectual diversity is not a device for winnowing the true from the false, but a device of inclusion.
This is what has gotten so many of us up in arms against Horowitz. No matter how often he may try to claim otherwise, his is an attempt to insert politics into the classroom. The very fact that he is trying to institute his “Academic Bill of Rights” through legislative action makes this clear. Fish’s point, that it is also inherent within, is simply further proof.

Anyone interested in Horowitz’s movement (whatever their view of it) really should read Fish’s piece. Yes, there is a lot of junk out there that doesn’t need to be read, but this article is not one of them. A complaint of the right is that their work is not often considered in academia (Daniel Flynn, for example, doesn’t like that I refuse to even read his books Intellectual Morons and Why the Left Hates America). Fish counters them:
If I am persuaded that a dispute in the field has been resolved beyond any reasonable doubt, why should I waste class time telling my students about approaches rejected by the vast majority of researchers? (Yes, I know that an approach rejected today may be revived in 10 or 30 or 50 years and prove triumphant, but I am paid to teach the present state of the discipline, not to speculate about what it will look like in an indefinite future that may never arrive.) This does not mean that challenges to prevailing orthodoxies should not be mounted, only that they should be mounted for good disciplinary reasons—like the emergence of new evidence or the discrediting of old evidence—and not for the blanket reason that we must have intellectual diversity.
As we Quakers say, “Friend speaks my mind.”

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Don't Make Me Laugh!

Richard Cohen writes today that Stephen Colbert's performance at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Dinner "wasn't funny." Cohen's proof? It includes a claim that he, himself, is funny--and this:
He [Colbert] referred to the recent staff changes at the White House, chiding the media for supposedly repeating the cliche "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" when he would have put it differently: "This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg." A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.

Hmmm... so the metaphor police decide what is funny? And lame? Personally, I can't see the limp.

As if that weren't enough, Cohen also charges Colbert with being rude. For me, that was too much. So I sent an email to Cohen:
It's telling that you flat out state that Stephen Colbert wasn't funny last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner. As usual for someone in the news media, you have set yourself up as the final arbiter--this time, of humor. You should have been a little more circumspect: Colbert wasn't funny--to you. He certainly was funny to millions of others. But you, and so many of the news media people who don't get his jokes, feel that you should be the ones to tell us what is or isn't--whether it's funny, whether it's news... whatever. Sorry, but that doesn't play any more. We'll decide for ourselves what is funny and what is not. What is news and what is not.
As to his being rude, well, he only seems rude to you because you feel insulted. You and yours (and that includes the president). The insiders who cozy up to each other and don't want the rest of the world butting in. By the same token, you probably would have felt it rude for the child to say that the emperor has no clothes (and it was; so what?)--but the truth remains in both cases, and it does need saying.
It's ruder that you in the press tried to bury Colbert's performance because it embarrassed you.

Let me end by addressing to Cohen this quote from Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street":
You got a lotta nerve
To say you gota helping hand to lend:
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning.
You say I let you down,
You know it’s not like that:
If you’re so hurt,
Why then don’t you show it?
You say you lost your faith,
But that’s not where it’s at:
You had no faith to lose
And you know it.

Look to yourself, funny man.