Monday, April 30, 2012

Will Harvard Lead the Open-Source Revolution?

Without sounding too cynical about it, academic publishing is complete horse shit. Everything about the model these publishers use is completely bankrupt in both the literal and metaphorical senses. To begin with, to even be considered for publication in an academic journal, you have to pay them anywhere from $50-100 (again, just to read your shit in the first place). And then, after you jump through a thousand hoops for them, if you're lucky enough to be accepted, you have to sign over all copyright claims to your work. So you're quite literally paying someone to take your work away from you. And this is not even to get into the supposedly "blind" review systems that somehow always end up publishing the same select group of people, whether their work merits it or not.

But the funniest, most depressing part of this whole model, is that after you've paid a journal to steal your work from you, they turn around a charge simply exorbitant rates to libraries (and any individual foolish enough to subscribe themselves, but I'm guessing this never happens) for between 2-4 issues a year. And lest you think an impoverished communist such as myself has a skewed sense of what constitutes exorbitant subscription fees for a journal that comes out between 2 and 4 times a year and charges everyone who ever submits to it, here's an example:

The American Journal of Sociology (one of the big two journals in my field) puts out four issues a year. To submit an article for consideration (of which, only a tiny percentage are ever published after being reviewed *for free* by other desperate academics), it costs $30. If you as an individual want to subscribe to it, it will cost you 66 dollars a year. For four issues. Of one journal. But if a library wants access to it (and this is how almost all academics access journals, because you could never afford access to even a tiny sliver of journals at these prices), it will cost that institution $770/year.

You might be able to surmise already that such costs add up pretty quickly, especially when you consider there are at least 2 dozens journals just within sociology that any decent research library would need to subscribe to. Multiply this by an increasingly large number of fields at any university (and the fact that journals within the physical sciences are often even more expensive), and you can pretty easily see this system is not entirely sound. In fact, last week the Harvard Library's Faculty Advisory Council issued a public statement saying Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, can no longer afford its journal subscriptions.

These folks even went so far as to encourage faculty and students at Harvard to start working with open-source journals, publications that do not operate on such an arcane and asinine funding system, but do not yet have even a sliver of the prestige of the traditional journals. And while this is unlikely to happen over night, when one of the world's premiere university makes a call for more open-source publishing, it certainly points in the right direction.

What really remains to be seen is whether a form of publishing that emphasizes creating and sharing important knowledge will ever be able to supplant the system that emphasizes profit creation and the suppression of all but a few voices. Funny thing is that you think the academic world would strongly prefer one of these models, but entrenched interests, etc, etc.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Change A Comin' (To College Football...probably)

The big news in the sporting world this morning (other than the NFL draft, which really shouldn't be news, but that's another post) is that the BCS, the weird, quasi-independent body that for some reason determines the college national championship, has recommended the NCAA move to a four-game playoff to determine a champion.

While this technically really isn't important at all (I mean, it is college football after all), it's a pretty big sea change for a stodgy old organization. And within the admittedly not very important world of college football, this is a really big deal. And I would actually go so far as to argue it is a somewhat important development for the rest of the world, even though, again, at its heart it's about some college kids playing a child's game.

So why is it important? Well, in the previous system, only the top two ranked teams were allowed to play for the national championship. But since there's roughly 8 billion college teams, it doesn't work the same way it does in the pros where the teams with the best records get to go to the playoffs. Because with so many college football teams, there are often several teams that finish the season with a perfect record. The BCS came about as a way to resolve this seemingly impossible situation by using a computer formula that would somehow determine who the two best teams are.

But there are a lot of problems with the BCS. In addition to the fact that the computer formula has never been publicly released (so no one really knows on what basis it's ranking these teams), the formula also greatly favored the teams from bigger schools with longer traditions. The old guard of the college football world essentially justified it by saying these teams are just always better (even when they're not) and because they've been around longer, they get the benefit of the doubt.

And again, even though this is in the mostly useless world of college athletics, this system had, like so many social systems, the practical effect of rewarding entrenched powers and preventing the rise of new challengers (just ask Boise State, the school with multiple perfect seasons in the past decade that has never gotten close to the championship). As such, any change toward allowing new teams in is inherently a step toward more democratic reform. And while the football itself may not be that important, the hundreds of millions of dollars attached to these championship games certainly does make a different to the schools involved.

The other heartening sign is that even though BCS officials are currently saying it will only be a four-team playoff and will never expand beyond that, they're just fooling themselves. One need only look at the NCAA basketball tournament to see how there's inevitably a push for more teams to be included in a playoff format. And by opening the doors for more teams to participate and have a realistic chance at winning the national championship, it makes it much more likely that the national champion (and the money that goes along with such a distinction) will be decided by the teams playing the games, not some faceless bureaucrats and a mysterious, byzantine computer program. And if you can't see why that in and of itself is a positive development, well, then you obviously care about college athletics even less than I do...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's Good For The Goose, etc.

One of the best and most succinct explanations I've ever heard of abortion politics in this country came from my friend Dr. Doug. Although he put it more eloquently than this, the short version is that conservatives will never make abortion illegal, because they'll lose their favorite and most effective wedge issue. Instead, they'll simply keep passing absurd restriction laws to placate their base, while never actually taking the action of getting fully rid of abortion (why else would all those idiotic single issue voters vote Republican then?). History seems to back up the point, as there have been numerous situations in which Republicans had enough control of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches that they could have pushed through a repeal of Roe v. Wade, passed some sort of ban, or both.

And, as Doug would go on to point out, you just need to do a little thought experiment to see the point. If abortion were illegal, who would be able to get access to abortions? Women who live in major metropolitan areas (who could more easily find/access illegal abortions) and women who have the resources to travel somewhere and pay for a legal abortion. Then think about who can currently get an abortion in America -- women who live in major metropolitan areas or who can afford to travel.

Boom. Effectively illegal abortion while keeping it technically legal and thus a juicy wedge issue.

But the second part of that argument is why it's such a juicy wedge issue. Well, the short version, if you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, is that there a fuckton (scientifically speaking) of people who are very against abortion. Like somehow quixotically believing it's ok to murder abortion providers levels of against abortion.

And one of the favorite tactics of these anti-abrtion crazies is to follow this Republican strategy (albeit for different reasons) -- if you can't make it illegal, do the next best thing and try to create an environment in which no one feels safe doing it. So in addition to committing acts of murder and terrorism (by far the most likely type of terrorism is this nation, though you wouldn't know that from watching the news or listening to our government), anti-abortion crazies try to make life really, really uncomfortable for abortion providers and those who support them.

One of their most tried and true strategies for this is to find out the personal contact information of abortion providers and pester them 24 hours a day simply by giving that info to their giant lists of batshit crazy people and having said crazies repeatedly call and threaten these abortion providers at all hours.

In a funny twist of harassment-as-political weapon in the abortion argument, one provider has turned the table on the crazies. After the crazies crossed the line by showing up at his 11 year old daughter's school, Todd Stave starting taking down the names and contact info of as many people calling and harassing him as he could. He then organized a small, but rapidly growing, group of people (now called Voices of Choice) to call the crazies back, politely thank them for their prayers, and inform them that abortions are a necessary medical procedure and they're glad there's a safe and professional clinic at which they're performed. Such crazies can now expect somewhere in the area of 3,000 to 5,000 return calls after they threaten an abortion provider.

Obviously this isn't going to end the abortion debate or any such thing, but it does serve as yet another example of the cliche: one person's unhinged telephone threats are another person's freedom fighters, or something like that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's Almost As If You Could Read Cynical Motivations Into This

Great piece a friend passed along to me this morning on the changing nature of biblical views. Specifically, the "biblical view" that life begins at conception, which you'll find out if you read the article (you should, it's short and interesting) is actually a more recent conception than the Happy Meal.

In addition to the interesting story of how life beginning at conception went from laughable to orthodox in the span of a few years, it's also a great example of cynical religious exploitation. Not to be too radical, but it's hard to believe that religious scholars somehow made an amazing discovery that a Bible that is completely silent on the subject suddenly has all sorts of guidelines for a medical procedure not invented until thousands of years after the Bible was written.

I'm certainly not saying anything new in claiming religious fundamentalists often cynically exploit the religion they claim to love so they can make political points. Though I guess I'm still naive enough to be somewhat surprised when such cynical exploitation is done in such an obvious manner. But what really gets me is the silence on such issues from rationally-thinking religious people.

Maybe it's just another good example of how the loudest and craziest always seem to dominate the narrative in American politics. So...uh...nothing new there, either.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Would Rather Do This Than Write My Dissertation (Part I in a never-ending series)

Overall, being a grad student is really a pretty sweet gig. Sure, the pay is terrible and your employer doesn't respect you in the slightest, but that also describes about 99% of American jobs if I understand things correctly. Aside from such obvious detriments, though, it's not so bad. I get to largely set my own schedule, figure out my own deadlines, self-actualize my work and other such fun buzzwords, and all of that kind of good stuff.

But it's also hard not to look at what everyone else is doing and think that looks way better. Especially on mornings like this when I'm staring at the computer screen and trying to will words into existence (pro tip -- this does not work).

I get especially jealous of people who have no responsibilities or deadlines (but again, don't we all get jealous of such people?). Take for example this guy who hiked the entire Appalachian trail. For those not in the know, the Appalachian trail is the longest hiking trail in the US (maybe the entire world? I don't know, you have google, I assume), usually taking somewhere in the 6 to 8 month range to complete one end to the other.

If you try to do the whole thing at once, you obviously need to have a lot of supplies mailed to yourself to pick up along the way. But other than those few outposts where you'll pick up your food and changes of clothes, there's a pretty good chance you'll basically never run into people, or at least not more than one a day. As a world-hating misanthrope, it sounds like heaven.

But since I don't have the better part of the year to take off and go hiking, I'll just have to be content with this video, which the aforementioned hiker put together. He took something like 20 pictures a day on the trail and set them to music for this video. So in a little over 4 minutes, you can see the entire Appalachian trail. It's pretty cool.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I Shouldn't Have Ignored That Old Gypsy Lady's Curse

So I've been really, really sick this week. Not like sniffles and sleepiness sick, but the kind of sick that has you rolling around in pain on the couch, asking God what horrible sins you could have committed to deserve such a fate.

While today it seems like I'm slightly better and is giving me some optimism that I may eventually not be sick, the past two days have been horrendous. It was difficult to even watch t.v., which in addition to being something that is not difficult to do, is something I have extensive experience with.

As I've written before, it sucks to be sick when you're a grown-up, because there's no one there to take care of you and there's no school to skip as a consolation prize. Instead, in the few brief moments when I'm somehow able to break through the ridiculous haze and entertain rational thoughts, all I can think about is how much work I need to get done and how busy I'm going to be once I finally get healthy (though honestly it feels like I should be writing if I get healthy, not when).

And yes, I understand this is one of those "first world problems" things (though I hate that term and it's implicit racism) and that there are all sorts of people with much bigger problems than a nasty flu bug, etc. But if the internet in general, and the blog format specifically, don't exist so that people can bitch about the minutiae of their life to random strangers, then what do they exist for?

Anyway, normal posting to resume when I can walk up the stairs without getting winded and feeling like I'm going to pass out.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Baseball is Finally Back

After a long and cold winter (though not nearly as long nor as cold as it usually is), there's nothing more exciting than the return of baseball. Of course, as a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan, it's hard to get too excited about this season, seeing as the Twins' plan for the year is to cobble together a heavily sub-par roster and pray for the best. This strategy has some major flaws, and those flaws are already making themselves quite prevalent, as the hometown nine dropped 3 consecutive games against the lowly Orioles.

But! As the Twinkies have their home opener tonight, I still can't help but get excited. But if you still need help getting adequately excited for baseball season, might I suggest this nice (but somewhat lengthy) read on the San Quentin Giants, the official baseball team of the notorious prison. It's a good piece on both the oft-forgotten humanity of prison inmates, as well as some, but thankfully only a little, Bob Costas-esque musings on the healing power of baseball and it's grandeur and all of that jazz.

Or if San Quentin doesn't pique your baseball interest, maybe you'll enjoy this song about a certain scrappy utility infielder the Twins could certainly use in their lineup this season:

Nick Punto scares the opposition/because he can play most any position

Thursday, April 05, 2012

File This Under "Technically Illegal, But Really Pretty Awesome"

 File sharing is an incredibly tricky concept for our criminal justice system to wrap its collective head around. Obviously the major media conglomerates have been arguing that it's thievery and should therefore be treated with the same harsh measures we use on all other forms of Type I crimes (what are usually called the "street crimes").

But as this comic points out, file sharing (and specifically piracy) is not that conveniently analogous to theft. Because it doesn't actually remove anything from the original owner. In a traditional theft of an album from a music store, that store is out both what they paid for the album in the first place and the presumable profit they could have gleaned from its sale. But with digital piracy, the original owners are still very much in possession of what they have. So they obviously don't lose that first sum of money (the money that in the past was turned into a physical product). Now these conglomerates will argue this does cause them to lose out on the second sum (the profit) because that person took it for free rather than give them money for it. But this argument is built on a number of assumptions (that said person would have paid for this were it not free, ignores evidence of digital pirates also being the biggest purchasers of digital content, etc.) that may or may not be true, but clearly position it as different than the act we call theft our laws were written to address.

Now had I the time or inclination, this is where I'd make the argument that the music and movie industries really need to figure out a new business model because their old one is clearly becoming obsolete, but instead they refuse to acknowledge reality and instead are trying to sue it out of existence. But suffice it to say, the criminal justice response has been inadequate at best. And it's largely because our criminal justice system and the vast majority of our laws in these areas were more-or-less cemented into form long before the internet existed. The police and the courts simply lack the sophistication to effectively combat digital piracy. Because, again, not only are you not taking something away from someone, but you're also not even making a direct copy of one person's material. Instead you're taking fractions of that source material from thousands of different places. This is, in short, very hard to prosecute.

So as I've mentioned, the industry's response to this has been to try to sue individual downloaders (you will never be able to sue even a fraction of all people who have illegally downloaded something) and file-sharing sites (ignoring the fact that these places don't have control of their users and provide many legal functions as well). But as anyone who knows even the slightest bit about the internet will attest, shutting down individual websites doesn't do anything. It's like arresting individual drug dealers; sure, you stop that particular one, but there will be another doing the exact same thing in the exact same place by tomorrow at the latest.

Further complicating matters is the continuing advance of technology (and the resulting price drop in formerly prohibitively expensive technology) means digital piracy can evade any attempt at stopping it through the criminal justice system simply by keeping somewhat up-to-date. For instance, take Pirate Bay, the world's largest (and arguably best) torrent site for digital piracy. Operating out of Sweden, they've been indicted by several US courts, but have argued that their physical location in Sweden means they're not subject to US laws. The US DOJ responded by attempting to strong arm the Swedish government into getting involved. Sensing the writing on the wall, Pirate Bay has announced they are going to send their servers into space in unmanned drones, where it's pretty well agreed that if laws don't count once you're 20 miles into the ocean, they must not count in space (though maybe someday we will have some sort of...Space Law. Which, incidentally, would make for the world's best t.v. show and profession. I would totally go to space law school).

And this is when even the staunchest defenders of law and order have to admit the criminal justice response is simply not ever going to work in stopping digital piracy. Because now that pirates can have the only physical thing you could possibly seize to shut them down (their servers) out in outer-fucking-space, you're probably not going to catch them. Unless we're willing to invest billions in a police program that sends highly-trained officers to space to intercept these drones, which I don't doubt someone will seriously propose, but will likely not happen (though, on second thought, it totally should. Space Police! I think we just found a show and profession better than Space Law.)

Monday, April 02, 2012

So I Don't Have Good News To Report

When I last left you, dear reader, I was awaiting the election results determining whether I would be union represented or not. Things did not turn out like I had hoped/expected, and I will not have a union. Instead I will have the same shitty pay check and crappy work conditions. Maybe someday when I'm not still all pissy about the way things turned out I'll post something explaining why I think things didn't work out, but today is definitely not that day.

Being a radical leftist, I don't experience many victories in the political world, especially electoral victories. So it's not as if this is the first time I've ever been on the losing side of a political movement. But this one hurts a lot more than most any other loss ever has. I don't know if it's because it was so personal or because I was so highly involved (though I doubt it, because that describes my participation in a lot of things), or if it was because this is one of the few times I really thought I was going to be on the winning side. I mean, truly believed it.

Though if my life of being a Minnesota sports fan has taught me nothing else, it's that as soon as I start to believe, that's when everything falls apart. I must admit last weekend I experienced a feeling eerily similar to watching Brett Favre lead the Vikings down the field for what should be an easy field goal to win the game and send them to the Super Bowl. I distinctly remember saying aloud to no one in particular "Damnit, I'm starting to believe, and that means they'll lose" only moments before Brett threw that ridiculous interception.

So instead of the difficult albeit fun work of moving forward, last week was mostly spent drowning my sorrows and trying to get back to a regular work schedule. And while I think my sorrows could still use some drowning, at least I'm back to being marginally productive.

But really, all of this is just exposition and an excuse for me to say go read this article about how Wall Street investors are psychopaths. And please do keep in mind these are the same psychopaths that will try to explain to you why you don't need a union. Please don't listen to psychopaths.