Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing Writing Writing

I'm furiously writing a paper.  Here is what it sounds like.

Finals week isn't fun for grad students either.

I'm not a fan of grading student writing.  At best it is only excruciatingly boring.  At worst it is so awful that I (not so temporarily) lose faith in higher education.

On Wikileaks

I'm fascinated with the whole concept of Wikileaks and with the immense activity surrounding the release of the first batch of leaked diplomatic cables I figured I'd write a bit about it.  I should mention, since this is becoming an issue, that I haven't actually examined any of the Wikileaks documents myself.

For reference, here is a TED Talk with Wikileaks spokesperson Julian Assange conducted in mid-July.

Just to clarify, because I think this has been confused in the popular media, Wikileaks is a platform for disseminating leaked material.  There is a conception that Wikileaks is actually stealing documents from governments and corporations, this isn't the case.  Wikileaks gets its information from whistleblowers (like, allegedly, Bradley Manning) and then releases them onto the web and to various news sources.  Supposedly all documents are verified before being released and on multiple occasions Wikileaks has asked the U.S. government to help them redact documents prior to leaking to preserve the security of soldiers in war zones.

Another clarification.  Julian Assange is not Wikileaks, and Wikileaks is not just Julian Assange.  Supporters and detractors both seem to have difficulty with this point.  Julian Assange is primarily the spokesperson for Wikileaks.  Other people are involved, Assange is just the least anonymous.  Whatever personal issues surround Assange (whether they be true or not) don't, in my mind anyway, have bearing on the issues that surround Wikileaks.

Wikileaks has recently lost its web hosting and has seen Paypal and other services cut off its ability to receive donations.  The loss of these services has come after comments made by Joe Lieberman and other political figures across the world.  While I'm not an expert on dealing with information security of this nature, this seems (to me anyway) like an incredibly myopic strategy.

Admittedly, the RIAA and MPAA haven't learned this either when trying to prevent the sharing of music and movies online, but knocking out a central distribution point hasn't exactly been shown to prevent people from sharing things on the internet.  Quite the opposite, and this is evident after the shut down of various media sharing websites by the department of Homeland Security, when a central distribution site gets shut down, users just scatter and start up new sharing points someplace else.  As a result, there are now five sharing points instead of one, and users have likely adapted against whatever caused the initial point to be shut down.  As these new points get shut down, the process continues ad infinitum.

This is already happening with Wikileaks.  Folders containing the various leaked documents are now being shared everywhere online, making it basically impossible to track or restrict.  The infamous "insurance" file that was once loaded onto Wikileaks' web-space, with its unknown- but potentially incredibly damaging- contents, can now be downloaded quickly and easily by almost anyone (although the file is still heavily encrypted).  Instead of damaging Wikileaks, these efforts have only decentralized it, making it more difficult to track and seemingly impossible to silence.

As I write this, Julian Assange is being arrested on charges ostensibly unrelated to his involvement in Wikileaks.  Wikileaks has already stated that this will have no effect on their planned release of more diplomatic cables.  If the charges are intended as a strike against Wikileaks (and I am not saying they necessarily are) then I think it is a misguided one.

Media outlets not calling Wikileaks a terrorist organization seem to be portraying Wikileaks as something akin to Anonymous, a group with a vastly different structure and motives (if Anonymous can even be said to have either at all).  In my mind both conceptions completely miss the mark.

To me, Wikileaks just represents the first iteration of 21st century journalism.  The extensive use of information technologies is part of this, but what sets Wikileaks apart is is its how it applies the information it receives.  Rather than interpreting information on its own (though that does happen too) Wikileaks releases primary sources into the wild, enabling others (traditional journalists, academics, etc) to mine the data and make their own interpretations.  This is a far cry from the typical soundbyte journalism and this sort of crowd-sourced reporting could potentially have huge implications on how people become informed about what is happening around them.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This terrifies me

The use of scientific funding for ridiculous research is one of my two science-based pet peeves (the other being puns in journal articles).  But when I say ridiculous research I mean mostly flashy work designed to make the experimenter famous rather than expand human knowledge in a meaningful way.  What is being proposed here is completely horrifying.  The fact that NSF is the first target of Eric Cantor's YouCut initiative is bad enough, but ordinary tax payers should not be in charge of selecting what studies get funded or not.  Political arguments already play too big a role in how NSF hands out its grants and this sort of initiative will only make things worse.

When examined superficially, even the best research looks kind of silly.  Eric Kandel won a Nobel for his work and if you aren't a neuroscientist, the idea of poking at sea slugs to understand learning and memory might seem completely ridiculous.  However, the research that came out of it has had huge implications for a wide variety of disciplines.  To reinforce my point, here is a link to an academic paper about the soccer player research discussed in the video.  I'm not an expert in this sort of research, but if you bother to examine the paper in any depth you'll notice that the research actually has some major implications for understanding team-work in a variety of settings.  Again, I'm not an expert, but investigating new methods for understanding group dynamics and increasing efficiency seems like exactly the sort of thing NSF should be funding.

I don't want to get any more overtly political here than I already have, but I'm really not understanding how certain members of congress can endorse programs as budget saving measures while also holding everything else hostage (including an extension of unemployment, during a recession) in order to pass tax cuts for people making more that $250,000 a year.  I'm probably just biased being a scientist living in an ivory tower (to which funding is also being severely cut), but it seems like scientific investigation (which creates jobs and, and you know, saves lives) should probably take precedence over making sure rich people get to continue paying less taxes than they had to for the majority of the twentieth century.