Empty Rhetoric: “Intellectual Property Is Property!”

One of my pet peeves is when, in an attempt to help convey to others the seriousness of respecting copyrights, patents, and trademarks, somebody says, “Intellectual property is property!” This is often followed by an emotional appeal that just as you would hesitate before breaking into somebody’s house and stealing their TV, you should also hesitate before passing on a digital file.

Often, people then respond, “but if I take the TV, you don’t have it any more. If I copy a digital file, you still have the digital file!”

I have very rarely, if ever, seen a considered counter to that response. Most often, what I see are expressions of disgust, lamentations that “kids these days” don’t respect how much work and creativity goes into making the copied work in the first place, reminders that while the copy may be free, the original production was not, etc.

But the fact is, this response makes it very clear that physical property (like a TV) and intellectual property (like a recording of a song) are not exactly the same thing. Any argument based on the equivalence of the two is either going to lead to thoughtless jingoism (which I so often see on the side of the copyright maximalists) or thoughtful dismissal.

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Undergraduate research : a key (essential?) component of a college science education

Following Chad and Jake, I want to jump off from an article in Science about undergraduate research. It’s always nice when some sort of survey confirms one’s preexisting biases….

In short, the survey found that performing research increased undergraduates’ interest in science and technology fields (so-annoyingly-called “STEM” disciplines, for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). Such undergraduates were also more likely to go on to advanced degrees, although here the causality isn’t necessarily clear. The survey did find that students with higher grades tended to be more likely to get involved in research; this raises at least the possibility that “getting involved in research” and “going on to an advanced degree” are affected by a common cause, and that the former doesn’t necessarily increase the probability of the latter.

Of great importance was the fact that undergraduate research seemed to improve the confidence and future success of underrepresented minorities and women. I’m not sure I can tell you what is particularly “white male patriarchy” about classroom performance, but if this is a way to help people realize their true abilities in science regardless of their ethnic background, then it could be an important component in the continuing problem of minorities and women in science. (Indeed, the title of the Science article is “The Pipeline: Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences.”)

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No, really, it’s true! New ScienceBloggers!

Everybody welcome Mark Hoofnagle and Chris Hoofnagle (probably not their real names) of Denialism who are here to spread more of the commonly accepted lies about the truth of evolution, the Big Bang, gravity, 2+2=4, etc., that we in the scientific establishment spend so much time trying to pull as wool over the eyes of the unwashed masses.

A couple of posts are up already, and allow me to recommend A Unified Theory of the Crank. Anybody with a moderately popular science blog has seem some of these. Cosmic Variance, indeed, has a whole posse of cranks who follow them around. The American Astronomical Society even had a crank presenter this last January. Check it out; their post has a number of phenomenological features of the crank that many of us in science have casually observed.

“Be nice to Shelly! She’s cute, and she likes birds!”

Uh, no.

Look, we’re all human, and we all have eyes and brains and things, and as such one may as well admit that if you look at the pictures that Shelly has of herself on her blog, there’s a bird. Also, it’s a flattering image of the blogger. I suppose, while we’re at it, we might as well take a look at the banner, and as long as the image of scissors near a brain doesn’t make us squirm too much with discomfort, we can be amused by the humor. “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

But there’s still some distance to cover, clearly.

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Lock this kid up, he’s a danger!!

Check this poem out, posted at Bad Fortune Cookie (found via BoingBoing).

Disturbing, eh?

Of course, when a student writes a disturbing essay, what do we do in the post-VT massacre world? We lock him up! Freedom of speech be damned, we’re locking people up for writing disturbing things!

Hysteria is such a bad thing. After the Colombine school massacres, for a while it became presumed criminal behavior to be a nerd in a trench coat.

Yeah, the disturbing writings of the VA Tech murderer were part of a larger pattern of warning signs that were all over the place suggesting that this was a guy that perhaps we should be scared of. But paying attention to those sorts of things is effort. It’s much easier to go hysterical and treat any disturbing writing as something as dangerous as a 4oz bottle of liquid on an airplane, no matter what the source.

Keep some perspective, people. No need to lock up the kid with his funny little poem about the evil hamsters. And let us all bear in mind that the consequences of destroying freedom of expression are extremely severe and far-reaching.

Friday Galaxy Blogging : Active Galaxy Mk 509

Are you ready for this? This week’s Friday Galaxy is Mk509:

DSS2 image from Skyview

Admittedly, the image of this galaxy does not rank very high on the “wow, what a cool and pretty looking galaxy” scale. However, this is an interesting galaxy because of what’s going on at the nucleus. Like all large galaxies, there is a supermassive black hole at the core of this galaxy. The black hole in this galaxy is being fed, giving rise to what we call an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN). If you drop gas down into an accretion disk near a supermassive black hole, a tremendous amount of gravitational potential energy is released. That energy goes into heating up the accretion disk, and the radiation from the accretion disk energies all sorts of other fun behavior in the galaxy.

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It does help to have the entire blogosphere on your side

I guess we should excuse Wiley now, because they’ve backed down from pointing their lawyers at Shelly

Potential cynic that I am, I have several residual thoughts on the issue.

Thought #1: I really want to believe what was in the apology letter sent to Shelly: it was a misunderstanding inadvertently caused by a junior member of the staff. I want to believe that had it been calmly brought to the attention of the Director of Publications by a single person (say, Shelley), that an apology letter would have been generated. But I’m having a hard time believing that. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Wiley and to the Society of Chemical Industry here, but I suspect that what really happened was that there was an eruption in the blogosphere, including from the high-profile blog BoingBoing, and lots of letters were generated. Wiley’s response was, “OMG, what bad publicity! Retreat!” I know it’s uncharitable to think that, but that is what I think.

Thought #2: at which point I start to feel sorry for this junior member of the staff who is being said to have made the mistake. Did she really make the mistake? Or was she implementing company policy, and is now being the designated fall-guy when things went south? I remember thinking the same things about private Lynndie England’s high-profile case about torture at US-run prison Abu Ghraib; notice that no senior officers anywhere were charged.

Thought #3: but I also wonder what would have happened if Shelly wasn’t here at scienceblogs.com, and if she didn’t have a forum full of sympathetic, easily outraged bloggers who all like her. She posted that she was getting lawyergrams; we all got outraged. That was enough of a nucleation to send off things elsewhere into the blogosphere, including to the aforementioned BoingBoing. But the issues are larger than this one incident. This kind of copyright lawyergram, where some large interest asserts that it has more rights than it really does under the law, happens all the time. The small party usually has to put up and shut up, becuase they can’t afford to defend themselves. Yay to the blogosphere for coming to Shelly’s defense on this one, but let’s not drop it and say “happy ending.” The system is rotten, and Shelly may be one of the lucky ones for having people to defend her.

Thought #4: Boo to the blogosphere! Or not the blogosphere specifically, but to some individuals in the penumbra of the blogosphere who are a festering problem in cases like this. Notice this one excerpt from the apology letter sent to Shelly: “She has been most distressed by some abusive emails that she has received on this matter.”.

Shelly’s original call to action very clearly indicated that she was hoping people would send polite letters. Alas, the Great Unwashed on the Internet always include a large number who think that sending abusive letters will somehow help. I remember in the early 90’s, when I was an Amiga fanatic, that computer columnists wouldn’t take the Amiga community seriously. Why? Because if they wrote anything critical, they’d receive a huge number of letters, some of them highly immature and critical. The same thing happens with the Linux community now. The president of the AAS told us in a recent newsletter that part of the reason one of the higher-ups at NASA has a very poor view of astronomers in general is that he’s been receiving some very abusive mails from astronomers.

Personal attack letters don’t help, often are directed at the wrong target anyway, and only help to convince people that there is not a real viewpoint to be taken seriously, but that there are whining children who’ve been told that they can’t have ice cream.

Blogging at Lawyerpoint : Intellectual Property Maximalism is Bad for Science

Fair use? If it benefits the progress of science or the dissemination of scientific knowledge, it really ought to be fair use, no matter what. But when it’s cropping out a piece of a figure for an illustration in an article about a scientific result, with that result fully cited, it fully is fair use, even under the shrinking domain that remains within USA copyright law. Alas, when you are an individual graduate student, and the entity asserting that you’re violating their copyright, knowledge that you are well within fair use is little comfort when you’re faced the travesty that is our civil justice system and the publishing company’s phalanx of lawyers.

Perhaps it is of some help if you have the entire blogosphere on your side, ridiculing the publishing company for their stupid assertion and generally heaping scorn on this company for their awful and borderline unethical behavior.

The situation is doubtless one you’re already well aware of as a scienceblogs reader. Science blogger Shelly Batts wrote a piece about a scientific paper that has been presented in the media as “alcohol is good for you.”. Shelly went and looked at the actual paper, looked at the results, and posted her own analysis. Unsurprisingly, things weren’t quite as clear cut as the media hype. Shelly’s take on it did not quite have the spin of the press releases put out by the publishers of the article. In her article, she used one panel of one figure from the paper.

The result? Shelly gets a lawyergram from Wiley insisting that she’s violated their copyright by reproducing their figure, and that she had better take down her post or face legal action.

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Too much travel!

Truth to be told, I’m not a gigantic fan of traveling. It can be entertaining and enriching sometimes, but too much travel all at once leaves me pining for home….

At the beginning of April, I went on a 3-day trip to the University of Missouri at Rolla, where I gave a Shapley lecture. Then, for 10 days, I made a trip to CTIO in Chile for a 7-day observing run. (It takes 10 days because of the travel time involved.) Currently, I’m in Greenville, NC, where I’m giving another Shapley lecture (including talks to three high schools, a departmental colloquium, and a public talk). I get back, and then in the middle of next week I leave for Tucson, AZ, for the meeting of the NOAO Time Allocation Committee.


Don’t get me wrong, the Shapley lectures can be very rewarding, and I had a good run in Chile (5/7 clear nights, lots of should-be-good data). I’ve always gotten a particular charge out of giving public lectures, which is why I jumped at the opportunity of becoming a Shapley lecturer when it was offered to me. However, I feel like I’ve barely been home in April, and after a while it starts to wear one out. Indeed, even before all of it started, I was busy making sure all my ducks were in a row getting ready for all of the travel.

Hopefully, come May, I’ll be keeping up a somewhat more regular blogging schedule!

Second Life

I have too many hobbies. It’s always been true. And, indeed, a quote by Mike Dunford has spurred me into writing a post… but not this one. The other one will come sometime (I hope). In grad school, I suppose it’s possible I would have graduated sooner if I hadn’t done some much theater. I wasn’t always doing a play, but I had small roles in the musical Working and a sort of dramatic reading of John Brown’s Body; I was the stage directory for a musical revue (the baby of my housemate, musical director Deepto Chakrabarty); I was a unicycling waiter in Hello Dolly!; I was Brutus in Julius Caesar (my favorite role); I was Antonio in Twelfth Night; and I was Polonius in Green Eggs and Hamlet. (Assuming I haven’t forgotten anything.) I was also, the entire time, principle second violinist of the Caltech/Occidental orchestra, and was regularly playing with a chamber group administered through the excellent chamber music program of Caltech which was (at least at the time) amazingly well run by Delores Bing. And, I was a C-128 and Amiga nerd, idly participating in some things associated with that— at one point I ran the premier ftp site (this was pre-widely known Web) for the C64 and C128. I also started the Dramatic Exchange with Mike Dederian.


Now that I’m pre-tenure, I don’t have time to do any theater at all, and I’m no longer involved in Amiga or C-128 stuff. I do still play in an orchestra sometimes, but I’m not doing a lot of chamber music.

I know that us scientists are supposed to absolutely hyperfocus on what we do and put all of our time and energy into that, but I’ve never been able to work that way. I’ve always had too many diverse interests.

Alas, I’ve found yet another one.

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