07 April 2009

Recent Posts Revisited

I have addenda to four recent posts so I thought I'd just put them all in the same place. Here goes...

On the topic of Wolfram's new "Platonic Truth Search Engine" check out this piece in Wired about a team of Cornell researchers who built a system which derived laws of motion, including Newton's Second, from datasets of of things like pendula in motion. This is without any inbuilt knowledge of geometry or physics, mind you, just observations. Genetic Algorithms: Wow.

(Via 3 Quarks Daily)

On the matter of Oakton High School in Fairfax County, VA being run by timorous, puritanical legalists, I regretfully report that Fairfax is set to begin mandating volunteerism. As I wrote back in June, even if we put aside the obviously oxymoronic nature of compulsory volunteer work and the moral implications of government mandated labor, we must face the problem that school administrators are not qualified to be the arbiters of what benefits and what does not benefit the community. I could hardly ask for a clearer example of this than the mandarins of Fairfax county so manifestly demonstrating their lack of judgment by suspending a girl for taking the Pill just days before taking on the responsibility of determining the merits of various forms of unpaid labor.

Regarding the suck that is voice mail, it was just announced that Google Voice will be made available for iPhones and iPod Touches. As an owner of the latter I'm excited. It may actually make voice mail not terrible by doing things like transcribing it for you then sending a copy to your email. It has lots of other innovative features, see this LifeHacker post for video demos.

This is a good example of one of the underlying assumptions of most of what Google does: everything can be described by numerical data. In this case we don't have separate things called "phone calls" and "voice mail" and "text messages" we just have data streams, and they can be combined and edited and merged and redirected and copied and so on. I think Claude Shannon would be happy with this.

On the matter of UMD's blue movie, it looks like the canceled screening was uncanceled and held last night in the guise of an academic event. If the organizers had started out this way I'd have way more sympathy for them. The film they chose to run is actually a pretty interesting cultural artifact, in that it's a multi-million dollar production, with special effects and large set pieces and all the things you'd expect from a Hollywood pirate movie, except it also has explicit sex scenes. It's a pretty big break from previous hard core movies, and as such may warrant discussion. I'd just wish they'd started with that rather than cloaking themselves in the mantle of education once they ran aground.

There are a lot of complaints to the effect of "this is financed with student activity fees, not tax funds, so the State Senate should but out."

(1) The facility they're using was built and renovated and is maintained by state funds. They may have used student fees to pay for the reel but they aren't paying close to market rent to use and maintain the theater.

(2) The University is very much a government entity. For instance, I'm a University employee and my paychecks are signed by the Comptroller of Maryland. It's disingenuous to argue that the State Government shouldn't be involved because this is a campus matter.

(3) The fees in question are a mandatory charge placed on all students' accounts. The amount of that charge is controlled by the University with input from the state government, and the allocation of funds are largely controlled and overseen by the University. Maybe I'm not being forced to fund this directly as a taxpayer, but insofar as I'm a UMD student I am still being forced to fund it. The organizers didn't pass the hat around to raise money for their skin flick, they took a portion of my paycheck against my will. I'm all for porn if that's what tingles your fiddly bits, but do it on your own time with your own money.

Also, to quote the Dude, this is not a first amendment issue, Walter. There's a big difference between having the government prohibit expression and the government being required to let you use it's facilities for expression. A lot of the faux-outraged students don't seem to be making that decision.

Furthermore a lot of professors were saying things like Martha Neil Smith of our English department: "I don't believe [sexual content] should be censored in my classroom." I couldn't agree more, but this wasn't a classroom. It was an event put on (I believe - facts are hard to come by in this coverage) by the Student Power Party, a political party of sorts for student government. Out of curiosity, we should also ask ourselves where the 1st Amendment folks would be if this was a fraternity trying to put on a public event with XXX films and strippers and such. My best guess is that they wouldn't be talking about free speech at all, rather objectification and exploitation and hostile learning environment would be the words of the day.

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