Lessig on MIT, Neutrality and Aaron Swartz

by Henry Farrell on July 30, 2013

Larry Lessig “here”:http://www.lessig.org/2013/07/on-the-emptiness-in-the-concept-of-neutrality/ on MIT’s claim that it was ‘neutral’ with respect to the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.

bq. “Neutrality” is one of those empty words that somehow has achieved sacred and context-free acceptance — like “transparency” … But there are obviously plenty of contexts in which to be “neutral” is simply to be wrong. … For example, this context: The point the report makes in criticizing the prosecutors is that they were at a minimum negligent in not recognizing that under MIT’s open access policies, Aaron’s access was likely not “unauthorized.” … But that criticism goes both ways — if indeed MIT recognized this, and didn’t explicitly say either privately or publicly that Aaron was likely not guilty of the crime charged, then that failure to speak can’t be defended by the concept of “neutrality.” … MIT was more than negligent: The issue was explicitly flagged for it, by a senior member of the MIT administration. As the report indicates, Joi Ito, in the summer of 2011, explicitly raised the point … MIT knew something here that at a minimum could have cut short a prosecution, and which, it turns out, could also have saved someone’s life. “Neutrality” does not justify failing to pick up the phone, and telling the prosecutor, “hey, in fact, his access was authorized.” Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the prosecutor would have stayed the course. But then that would have been (yet another) failure of the prosecution, not MIT’s.

What Can’t Moocs Teach?

by Harry on July 30, 2013

How optimistic faculty members are about the educational value of MOOCs seems to turn largely on what they think of as the status quo classroom experience. Colleagues at elite institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges, are generally skeptical, because they think of what they do in their classrooms as being very intellectually alive, and cannot see how that could be replicated online. But most of the credit hours at my institution are not taught in small, intellectually lively, classes. My own department keeps our classes small for majors, and offers very few classes larger than 100 students — still, I am pretty sure that in any given semester most of our credit hours are taken in rooms with 50 or more students. I know of one social science department which offers no classes with fewer than 70 students, even for majors, and many departments in which lectures with 300 or more students are commonplace. It is easy to see how MOOCs could replace such classes.

What seems irreplaceable is the small, discussion-heavy, course.[1] What do students learn in those courses? Not information, but skills — especially skills like being able to articulate ideas, and reason, in public. This excellent piece by Jennifer Morton at the Chronicle notes how much more valuable small classes can be for lower-income, or first generation, students:

For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms.


The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

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Manning and Cheney

by Henry Farrell on July 30, 2013

Since it’s timely, I’m republishing my “modest proposal”:https://crookedtimber.org/2012/03/13/cheney-and-manning-a-modest-proposal/ from last year, one half of which is meant in all seriousness:


It’s not at all surprising that most US media have yawned at “today’s news”:http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/manning-treatment-inhuman/ that a UN rapporteur has found that the US has treated Bradley Manning in a cruel and inhuman fashion. But it does highlight a rather interesting inequity.

On the one side of the balance sheet, we have Richard B. Cheney. This gentleman, now in private life, is a self-admitted and unrepentant perpetrator of war crimes – specifically, of ordering the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Along with other senior members of the Bush regime, he is also guilty of the outsourcing of even viler forms of torture through the extraordinary rendition of individuals to regimes notorious for torturing prisoners (including the dispatch of Maher Arar, who was entirely innocent, to the torturers of Syria). The Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for prosecuting Cheney, or other Bush senior officials, for their crimes. While Obama has effectively admitted that they were torturers, he has indicated, both through public statements and continued inaction, that he would prefer to let bygones be bygones.

On the other, we have Bradley Manning. He appears to be a confused individual – but his initial motivation for leaking information, if the transcripts are correct, were perfectly clear. He was appalled at what he saw as major abuses of authority by the US, including incidents that he witnessed directly in Iraq. There is no evidence that his leaking of information has caused anything worse than embarrassment for the US. Yet he is being pursued by the Obama administration with the vengefulness of Greek Furies. While Manning was being kept in solitary confinement, and treated in an inhuman fashion, Richard Cheney was enjoying the manifold pleasures of a well-compensated private life, being subjected to no more than the occasional impertinent question on a Sunday talk show, and the inconveniences of being unable to travel to jurisdictions where he might be arrested.

It would appear then that the administration is rather more prepared to let bygones be bygones in some cases than in others. High officials, who ordered that torture be carried out and dragged the US into international disrepute, are given an _ex post_ carte blanche for their crimes, while a low-ranking soldier who is at most guilty of leaking minor secrets at the lowest levels of classification, is treated inhumanely and likely, should he be convicted, to face life imprisonment.

So here’s my proposal. It’s perfectly clear that Richard B. Cheney will never be prosecuted because a prosecution would be politically inconvenient. If that’s the Obama administration’s decision (and it’s pretty clear that it _is_ the Obama administration’s decision), then the administration should own it. The president should grant Richard Cheney a pardon for his crimes. Simultaneously, as an acknowledgement that the high crimes of state officials should not go unpunished while the lesser crimes of those who opposed the Iraq war are exposed to the vengefulness of the military tribunal system, Bradley Manning should receive a complete pardon too.

I can’t imagine that Richard B. Cheney would _like_ getting a presidential pardon. Indeed, I rather imagine that he’d vigorously protest it. It would serve as the best formal acknowledgment that we’re likely to get that he is, indeed, a criminal. Obviously, it would also be an unhappy compromise for those who think that he should be exposed to the full rigors of the law. But I personally think that it would be an acceptable compromise (others may reasonably disagree), if it were applied to both sides rather than just one.

In response to my post about whether journal article reviewers’ identities should remain confidential (most commenters seem to hold the view that they should), Jeremy Fox mentioned a phenomenon of which I was not aware: people posting on their Web sites – once the paper has been published – reviews their papers had received during the refereeing process. Here is an example. Just to be clear, these tend to concern anonymous reviews so the author is not breaching confidentiality (unless the reviewer offers feedback in a way that outs the person’s identity – see more on that below). If the paper had been rejected from a journal, the file could include the reviews from those other journals as well (see examples here).

This is an interesting idea. As Terry McGlynn notes, there are numerous potential benefits to such practice. It would certainly make the publishing process more transparent (imagine the value to graduate students, but also others). It might lead to a more civil tone for reviewer comments (for more on the unnecessarily harsh and dismissive tone of some referee reports, see this recent piece in the Chronicle). That is, while reviews would continue to be anonymous, it may encourage editors to keep a closer eye on how reviewers are communicating their feedback when it comes to style. After all, would you want to be known as the editor of the journal whose reviewers tend to be jerks? (I guess some may actually take pride in that, but I would like to think people recognize the difference between giving constructive criticism and simply being a prick.) It might also discourage reviewers from using the referee report as a PR machine for their own work and agenda (i.e., you haven’t cited my work from 1999, my work from 2001, my work from 2010, 2011 and 2012 nor have you realized that my work is the only relevant angle on this topic).

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