Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cairo: Traveling

Hey all! The Cairo posts are long overdue, I know. But it's awfully hard to sit down and write a worthwhile post when you're in the middle of such an amazing city.

To answer the most frequently asked questions, no, I did not line up a job, and no, I did not line up an apartment. But this is not as disastrous as it sounds. Firstly, I did have a meeting with ARCE, who told me that they don't usually take interns. They nevertheless told me that they might be able to offer me a volunteer position doing archival work. It would be GREAT experience, and would give me an opportunity to network in the Egyptian archaeological community. I also have part-time job prospects, at the expat cultural center in Maadi or as a proofreader for an English-language publication. Secondly, the agent - whom Lisy and Wahied informed of my travel schedule - contrived to be out of town while I was in Cairo. So I didn't get to look at any apartments. However, Lisy believes that finding an apartment will be decidedly easy, and the agent has told us that there will be more apartments available when I come back in June (and at better prices). Lisy has offered to let me stay with her until I find a place, which shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks. As you can see, things are falling into place fairly well.

Now, on to the part that you all really want to hear. I left Chicago at 10:30 PM Thursday, March 18 on a Turkish Airlines flight. This plane served to emphasize the fact that Middle Easterners have a special relationship with color; the seats and blankets were turquoise, the overhead lighting was navy blue, and the wall lighting was bright pink. The food on the flight was unexpectedly good, but bear in mind that I hadn't eaten anything for sixteen hours prior. Fasting is supposedly a ward against jetlag, and I'd recommend trying it - I had zero problems with the time difference.

The Istanbul airport is actually a really lovely place - but, like most airports, it's far less enticing when you're there for an hour longer than expected. On the other end, Lisy and Wahied had no way of knowing that my flight was delayed, as you have to pay to enter the Cairo airport if you aren't flying. Still, I arrived without event, and managed to pass through customs without a bag search. This was the subject of much discussion beforehand, with advice from Lisy on "looking clueless" and "authoritatively brandishing an American passport." She had a vested interest in my smooth exit, since I was "smuggling" ten pounds of puppy chow and assorted dog toys into the country for her.

Cairo is a brilliant city full of strange aesthetic juxtapositions, rather like if Daniel Burnham built a mobile home and then left his Christmas lights up year-round. Weird and tacky, classical and arresting, you're never quite sure what you'll see when you turn around. We drove down a brand-new freeway lined with palm trees on our way back to the greenery and classical villas of Lisy and Wahied's neighborhood. Driving in Cairo is like nothing else I've ever seen - it combines the free-for-all vehicular negotiation of Rome with the supremely confident pedestrian behavior of New York City. Cars maintain only centimeters of distance, and in fact most of them have a crushed and dented ring around their widest part. People amble carelessly across six lanes of high-speed traffic, prompting sudden stops and constant honking. And despite all of this, Lisy has managed to keep her two-year-old Honda from ever getting hit. I think she's gone native.

Well, that's a long enough post for now - I promise I'll get to the really cool stuff soon (maybe even this afternoon!). Next post: the Giza Pyramids!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ongoing Omnibus Autism rulings

The Omnibus Autism cases are continuing. The Special Masters ruled in favor of reality in Feb 2009, and they're continuing to do so this month. Let's hear it for SCIENCE!

That said, the antivaxxers are complaining that they'll never get a fair ruling in proceedings awash with big gub'mint money. So apparently, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear one of the cases. Now, I'm not sure how to feel about this - part of me is cranky that we're continuing to legitimize these people's complaints when they're so clearly unfounded. But another part of me hopes that all the publicity might convince a few more people who are teetering on the edge, and that would be a victory in and of itself.

What do you think?

ACTA Link Roundup

This morning, I read this article in the New York Times. In short, it discusses a recent study which has found that the Obama administration's efforts at greater governmental transparency (mostly in the form of FOIA requests) have been erratically implemented with heavily mixed results. The National Security Archive, a private research group affiliated with George Washington University, found that only 13 of the 90 government agencies that it queried had taken "concrete steps" to implement the administration's new policy on FOIA requests. That policy, for those playing the home game, places the burden back on the holders of sensitive information to show why it should not be released (as opposed to John Ashcroft and the Bush administration's policy, which placed the burden on requesters).

Those of you that have listened to me rant over the years know how I feel about transparency and freedom of information. My latest favorite attempt to screw us all over on this issue is the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Ten political entities (the US, the E.U., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates) are discussing this international network of policies for cracking down on copyright infringement. The real kicker? The content of the treaty is secret.

In fact, an official of the European Commission stated that several of its members were "uncomfortable" with the secrecy surrounding ACTA, according to a Computerworld article. And they're not the only ones. However, the treaty's contents cannot be released without the permission of all 10 negotiating parties. So who's stopping them? It turns out, according to a leaked Dutch government memo (Michael Geist's commentary, with links to the translated memo), that the holdouts are Denmark, Korea, Singapore, and - yeah, you guessed it - the US. The Obama administration has refused to release the content of the treaty due to "national security" concerns. (Seriously, what?)

So, what are the problems with the actual content of the trade agreement? I mean, it can't be all that bad - we've had the Digital Millennium Copyright Act since 1998, and it hasn't caused too many problems. (Ed. note - this is SARCASM.) Well, let me outline for you the issues that I have with ACTA:
  • Third-party liability: Service providers will be held responsible for infringing use of their services. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow's description, this would be like suing Kinko's every time someone used one of their Xerox machines for an infringing purpose.
    • Three-strikes policy: this is not, as far as I can tell, outlined in detail in ACTA; however, the treaty does require service providers to develop policies of action against infringing customers, potentially including termination of service to repeat offenders. Since France has already implemented such a three-strikes law, it would be easy to model any policies off of this existing one. This could potentially leave not only an infringer but her entire family without Internet access - cutting off their means of making a living, access to information, and civil involvement. Even more importantly, this policy is based solely on accusation by rights-holders, not on actual proof or conviction of infringement.
    • Restrictions on limited liability for third parties: Exactly what it sounds like. Service providers would have to meet certain requirements of enacting restrictive or punitive policies against their customers in order to be considered "safe" from their customers' infringing actions or content.
    • Notice and takedown: All participating countries would have to implement a DMCA-style notice and takedown procedure which removes infringing content based on an accusation by the rights-holder. As we've already seen with the DMCA, this kind of policy can be abused to censor criticism (c.f. Scientology).
  • Criminal penalties for non-commercial infringement: You heard me. You could go to jail for copying music or Camcordering a movie, even if it doesn't make you any money.
  • Prohibition on circumventing DRM: under ANY circumstances, even if it's for your own use. This fundamentally violates the concept of first sale, and essentially means that we're just leasing our content from the rights-holders, rather than actually trading our money for ownership.
The US and Japan were the main authors of the Internet chapter of ACTA (just so you know where this is all coming from).

This post is meant to be an extremely biased overview of why I feel strongly about this whole affair. For more information, check out the links below:

The ACTA Internet Chapter: Putting the Pieces Together
by Michael Geist, with more ACTA links along the left-hand side of the page
PDF of the leaked ACTA digital chapter

UPDATE: For an extra dose of surrealism, read this. I'm having trouble seeing how the two would play nicely (hint: not without some serious twisty logic).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I have to talk about this.

Okay, go read this article.

No really, I'll wait. Read it.


Ok, good. Let's go. Now, did that make you want to punch someone in the kidneys/breathe fire at your computer/dump a glass of water over your head? Yeah, you're not alone. The more I find out about the Texas State Board of Education, the angrier I get, especially about the fact that they have so much pull with textbook publishers. It's almost enough to make me ashamed of my home state. Almost.

As a person who works in the humanities, I can tell you first-hand that it's incredibly difficult to take any kind of absolute stance. Our discipline is all about interpretation. That said, in order to interpret, we need to have some kind of absolute starting point from which to extrapolate, and we also need to have a method for interpretation. In the case of archaeology, for example, the starting point is the collection of material culture from a particular site. These materials exist, can be examined, and their context is heavily documented - they're not up for question (well, okay, some might argue that, but that's a blog post for another day). Various methodologies exist for interpreting this hard data; this interpretation constitutes the practice of archaeological analysis, and ultimately of writing history. Methodologies are argued extensively, refined, reformed, reinvented, scrapped, and rediscovered. Despite what some archaeologists and historians may say, there is no single right way to go about interpreting a piece of archaeological data.

There is, however, a wrong way.

Take, for example, a piece of Persian sculpture, excavated at the exact same depth as a piece of Late Bronze pottery. An inexperienced archaeologist might conclude that hey, Persian culture existed a hell of a lot earlier than we originally thought! And that archaeologist would, most likely, be wrong. A not-wrong interpretation of the data is that the strata are tilted or sloped, based on the topography of the particular site. An even better interpretation is that in antiquity, a well or trench was dug into the Late Bronze and then backfilled with Persian material. Either one of these hypotheses can be confirmed or falsified with more contextual data. Essentially, training produces useful interpretations that can further elucidate a situation. Lack of training produces interpretations that add nothing to our understanding of the materials at hand.

Given this, let's take a look at what the Texas State Board of Education is trying to do by shoehorning a conservative agenda into social studies teaching standards. They've found several pieces of Persian sculpture within the context of American history - namely, conservative-identified politicians and movements. And now they're claiming that these pieces of sculpture are game-changing, and should overturn our current understanding of history. Now, to give credit to that inexperienced archaeologist in the example above, there was a very slim chance that he was not wrong. But the only people qualified to determine that are the people trained in solid methods of interpreting archaeological data. The same holds true for the State BoE. Should we change our understanding of American history to reflect a more prominent role for things like Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and "country and western music"? I don't know for sure, but I'd have to say that a DENTIST probably doesn't have any better idea than I do. You know who does? The historians who write textbooks. They're the ones that can tell us if these things are important, and what the most realistic method is for interpreting their existence.

In short: get your history from historians, not from a bunch of politics-driven armchair philosophizers.

Things to do today

Clean the litterbox
Clean my kitchen
Clean my room
Send out resumes
Go to the grocery store
And if there's time:
Bake bread
Blog properly

Well, cross your fingers for me. I'll either be much happier by the end of the day, or I will have chewed my own arm off with self-loathing. Hooray!