MIT is closed…except when it’s not

MIT is officially closed, but some parts are still open.

In a walk around campus, the new cafe in E62 (the new Sloan Building) is open, because, the manager says, “we’re considered essential personnel.”

Dewey and Hayden Libraries are open, and their librarians say that Rotch is open too; “but not Barker.” They could close early depending on weather conditions. (update: they’ll close at 4 p.m.).

In the Student Center, LaVerdes Market is open (until at least 9 p.m.; maybe not all the way until their usual 11 p.m. IAP closing), and Anna’s Taqueria is open as well. At Lobdell food court, only Subway is open right now. But since those vendors are not part of MIT, they can do their own thing.

The weather is beautiful, though a colleague and I helped push one stuck car out of a snowbank on Ames Street as we walked around campus.

Oh yes. As of 8:15 a.m., the UPS Somerville depot (which serves MIT) says there will be no deliveries or pickups today. This despite my expected package saying “out for delivery.” Oh well…

Posted at 9:55 a.m.

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If You Read Two Articles on the Giffords Shooting…

Let them be Toby Harnden’s from The Telegraph and Erick Erickson at RedState.

A summary:

The left is just as guilty of using martial terminology in their campaigning.  They have maps with crosshairs too.  There’s even a liberal map that has Giffords under crosshairs (Giffords after all, was a conservative Democrat).

The shooter is hardly a right-winger.  A friend describes him as left wing, and he lists The Communist Manifesto among his favorite books.  He is simply crazy.

Let’s be clear: the Giffords shooting was not the American equivalent of the Salman Taseer assassination.  And Jared Lee Loughner is not the equivalent of Nashi, Russia’s state-sponsored ultra-nationalist youth group.  This guy is a John Hinckley with lower ambitions.

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The Potshots Pundits Aim at WikiLeaks

In an earlier post (“Enormously Pompous, Infuriatingly Self-Righteous, and Waging a War on America”) on this blog, Mr. Yost remarked that this column (“The WikiLeaks War on America”) was “perhaps the best profile of Julian Assange” he had seen to date.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Foreman, the author of the column, seems to have a poor understanding of what WikiLeaks actually does. For example, he repeats the falsehood that in November WikiLeaks released 250,000 embassy cables (in fact, it is now January and WikiLeaks has released less than 1% of the 250,000 cables). It seems that having a basic understanding of WikiLeaks’s most controversial leak is not a prerequisite for boldly calling WikiLeaks anti-American.

What evidence does Foreman use to support his thesis that WikiLeaks is waging a war on America? (dashes separate Foreman’s evidence from my commentary)

  • Firstly, a portion of a speech Assange gave in Oslo, where he compares the slogan the US has in front of Gitmo (“Honor Bound To Defend Freedom”) to “work brings freedom,” a slogan used by the Nazis. — Amnesty International has called Gitmo a “human rights scandal” and “the gulag of our times.” Is decrying human rights abuses anti-American? The YouTube video of Assange’s speech currently has 398 likes and 2 dislikes. Are virtually all viewers of Assange’s speech also anti-American?
  • The focus WikiLeaks had on leaks relating to the United States in 2010 — Assange has repeatedly said that WikiLeaks is committed to publishing every secret document it obtains of ethical, historical or diplomatic importance (after appropriate harm-minimization procedures).
  • “Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details” — In fact,  WikiLeaks made plenty of redactions to the Afghan War leak. For example, WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 sensitive-looking documents, with Assange saying they’d be reviewed “line by line” to remove the names of “innocent parties who are under reasonable threat.” It is true that apparently WikiLeaks failed to redact some innocent names. But this error was caused by limited resources. In more recent leaks WikiLeaks has been more careful: the recent release of embassy cables has been a slow trickle.
  • The “departure of key WikiLeaks team members in September of 2010″ — Foreman uses this as evidence that Assange “looks like someone who might engage in dissimulation in order to mask a secret agenda.” To me, it looks like Assange’s management style did not appeal to a few members of the organization. There’s no need to construct an elaborate conspiracy theory.
  • The 2008 publication of a report on US countermeasures against IEDs – To his credit, Foreman qualifies this point: “WikiLeaks’s defenders asserted that by the time the report was released, technology had moved on, and U.S. forces in the field were largely using newer jamming devices. Still, even the anti-censorship campaigner Steven Aftergood [...] lambasted Assange for publishing a secret that could get people killed. In response, Assange told a journalist at that he had been justified in doing so because ‘U.S. soldiers are not happy that literally billions have gone on these jammers, with apparently little thought going into how soldiers are going to communicate after they have been turned on.’” I think it’s important to keep in mind that this was a very small leak relative to other leaks WikiLeaks has released.

I hit most of Foreman’s main points there. Now, here is Foreman’s conclusion:

Assange seems to suffer from a more extreme version of a phenomenon common in anti-war circles in Britain and America: the absolute unquestioned certainty that American forces have been and are continuing to be guilty of terrible crimes because of their very nature. It is a form of knowledge that requires no evidence or certainly no confirmation by a court of law. And in Assange’s case, it apparently means that the Americans are now and always have been the bad guys. [...] [Assange has] paranoid fears of ruthless, hyper-powerful Western states capable of wiping out all truth and justice unless their actions are exposed by people like him

I suppose American hubris combined with attribution bias (psychologists have found that people unconsciously tend to attribute problems to the personality of others; this classic observation has been used by many scholars to explain irrational foreign policy) makes Foreman jump to the conclusion that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are anti-American. This is what I hypothesize because in his long column Foreman certainly does not provide sound evidence for his conclusion.

WikiLeaks’s mission (as described in its About page) is to publish information that “leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies” around the world. Assange has complimented the US Constitution:

United States has an enviable Constitution on which to base its decisions. And that Constitution comes out of a revolutionary movement and has a Bill of Rights appraised by James Madison and others that includes a nuanced understanding for the balancing of power of [the] states in relation to the government.

Here is how Assange describes his view of the United States:

The U.S. is, I don’t think by world standards, an exception, rather it is a very interesting case both for its abuses and for some of its founding principles.

Finally, Assange has said that he is not in general anti-war. The correct conclusion is simple. Does Assange think America is a bad guy? Nope. Does Assange think America has some bad guys? Yes.

Two more points

First,  it’s odd how the falsehood about WikiLeaks releasing 250,000 cables has been in so  many news reports and columns about WikiLeaks since late November. Why has it persisted, when the Wikipedia page on Cablegate and the WikiLeaks website have long highlighted that it’s not true? I think it says a lot about standards of reporting. My pet theory is that since both the Democratic Obama administration and most Republican leaders oppose WikiLeaks, there has been little incentive for the falsehood to get corrected.

Second, why does Foreman, like many others including Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart,  jump on the fact that WikiLeaks is not transparent? The justification for transparency is that it’s necessary to prevent powerful institutions (such as government bureaucracies, which use the public’s tax dollars, write laws and can act extra-judicially) from abusing their great power. On the other side of the spectrum, the justification for privacy is that it’s necessary in order to prevent citizens from arbitrary government (or perhaps corporate) harassment. Privacy and transparency both derive their justifications from the fact that power corrupts.

WikiLeaks is a small non-profit organization (as of January 2010 they had five full time employees). After government leaders decided to declare that they were involved in illegal activity, WikiLeaks had no choice but to see corporations like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon shut them down. Clearly, WikiLeaks deserves privacy, not transparency. Yet Foreman says:

Apparently Assange is not so keen about transparency when it comes to his own organization. There it seems that secrecy is necessary for the greater good [... T]he irony of this escapes him

Foreman is plain mistaken.

Related Articles

Wikipedia’s Information published by WikiLeaks

Debunked: “Wikileaks is Anti-American”

The Guardian‘s article on “Collateral Murder”

EFF‘s The Best of Cablegate: Instances Where Public Discourse Benefited from the Leaks

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Sunday Foreign Edition

RUSSIA — Ultranationalism on the rise

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy says we don’t need to worry about the disappearance of democracy and rise of corruption in Russia… but the ultra-nationalism is worrisome.

George Satarov at the Japan Times gives some more detail on the growing problem of Russian ultra-nationalists.

Anne Applebaum (KPR +1.9) at the Washington Post says things will only get worse as oil prices rise.

Amy Knight at the New York Review of Books discusses Medvedev’s prospects vis-a-vis the upcoming Russian elections, namely whether he will remain the nominee of his party or if Putin will take back the reins (the idea of a second party winning is absurd).  Her verdict is that Medvedev is down but not out.  Personally, I don’t particularly care.  The hope, which was articulated to me a long time ago, was that Putin’s decision to put in Medvedev instead of seeking a constitutional amendment that would enable him to serve another term, was that Putin was trying to create a government with checks and balances, that he was trying to build up the prime minister position into a real counter-weight to the presidency and thus achieve a less autocratic government.  I think at this point those hopes are thoroughly dashed.

VENEZUELA — Chavez finally ends his democratic guise

The Washington Post Editorial Board seems to think the Administration has already made up its mind to coddle the new dictator.

The Chavez apologists at COHA display epic cowardice.

CHINA — China is quickly growing into the U.S’s main rival

Gideon Rachman at Foreign Policy lays out the case for China as the definite future rival of the United States.  It’s nothing novel, but the position deserves the clear outline that Rachman provides it.  In short: China’s got a lot of people, their GDP is going to keep growing fast, more GDP means more power in a lot of dimensions, the economic growth is probably not going to spur democratic reform, and we play a lot of zero sum games with China (though I dispute the notion that trade and economic growth is one of them).

Asia Times reports that Taiwan, as part of a sunshine policy, is spying less on China these days.

David Axe at The Diplomat says China’s recent military expansions are over-hyped in terms of how they affect the balance of power.

The L.A. Times is less certain of Axe’s assessment.  Michael Richardson at the Japan Times is also less confident.

Frank Ching at the Globe and Mail ponders whether 2011 will see a return to China’s humble foreign policy or a continuation of its new, confrontational course.

Michael Auslin at the Wall Street Journal thinks China’s choice has already been revealed, and that the U.S. should respond accordingly.

IRAN — What should be done about the Persian bomb program?

Gary Anderson at the Washington Times has a bold proposition: we should help Israel strike Iran when they decide to strike.

NORTH KOREA — What should be done with the Korean Peninsula?

Yong Kwon at the Asia Times trots out a line of reasoning that is being repeated more frequently among the chatterati: China does not have significant influence over North Korean actions, therefore attempts to get China to make North Korea behave will be fruitless and/or enrage the North Koreans.  I hate to stick my nose in Mr. Kwon’s area of expertise, but what he is saying is patently ridiculous.  If China pulls its aid from North Korea, North Korea starves and collapses within the year.  Yes, yes, North Korea is very covetous of its independence.  But is it so fiercely independent as to be irrational?  Either it recognizes the position it is in and is responsive to Chinese pressure, or it has made a break from reality– you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Sung-Yoon Lee at the Christian Science Monitor has an opinion that seems much more agreeable to me.

AFPAK — Salman Taseer is assassinated

Fareed Zakaria (KPR: +2.7) discusses the assassination of Salman Taseer.  Ali Dayan Hasan at the International Herald Tribune also discusses it.  Praveen Swami at the Telegraph provides some analysis.

Bruce Riedel at The New Republic blames the generals for the instability in Pakistan and says we should be careful in the coming days to make sure we support Pakistan’s weak democracy.  I think his diagnosis is a little too simplistic– I don’t think either the generals or the pols quite have control over the ISI, and in any case, Pakistan’s strategic errors are a bit of a chicken and the egg sort of thing: is the military to blame for the tactics that have been employed to counter-balance India, or did they only resort to such measures because of the weak economy that the politicians have thieved relentlessly from?  I think Musharraf was a better partner than we give him credit for, and I have virtually no confidence in Pakistan’s civilian leaders, either to change the country’s strategic dealings with terrorists or to safeguard the liberty of the country.

Joe Klein at TIME has a long ramble-y piece on his adventures in Afghanistan.  It’s kinda sorta worth a read.

ZIMBABWE — WikiLeaks helps a dictator persecute his rivals

Several have pointed out that WikiLeaks has materially harmed the cause of democracy in Zimbabwe.  I’m sure some Assange groupie out there has a rationalization, and I’d love to hear it.

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Go Mitch, Go

My early pick for 2012, Mitch Daniels, is out and about raising his profile.  It brings some hope to my dark, cynical heart.

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To Make Government More Efficient, Bust Up Public Unions

The Economist sounds the call for union reform.  I’m in perfect agreement– the piquant twist that The Economist adds is the argument that union reform should be pursued in lieu of cutting government spending.  I like that take, and hopefully some of the liberals towards which it is geared like it too.

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Putting Words in Scalia’s Mouth

Ann Woolner at Bloomberg is furious with Antonin Scalia’s position that the U.S. constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender.

But it seems to me, after reading through the interview that instigated Mrs. Woolner’s ire, that Scalia isn’t guilty of much.  He explains very thoroughly that one does not need backing from the constitution to mandate gender equality, and it doesn’t seem like the justice is eager for the U.S. to return to an era of gender inequality.  All the justice is saying is that his duty is to interpret the constitution.  If he believes the constitution is flawed, it is not his place to change it by fiat.

Woolner’s claims that Scalia thinks she is some sort of subhuman don’t seem very well substantiated.

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Texas Remains the Gold Standard for State Budgeting

Paul Krugman (KPR: -0.8) has a scathing article in the New York Times, ripping into Texas for its upcoming budget shortfall.

It’s hard to tell though what Krugman is actually upset about.  He claims that the Texas model has been debunked, but the state has done amazingly well, with an enviable economic performance that continues to this day.  It has achieved this performance without running up massive debts: today it holds about $34b in debt, and a large chunk of that is self-supporting– i.e. the state loaned out money to other people (like students) and when those people pay the state back, it pays its creditors back. Nor has the economic growth come at the expense of investments in the state’s future: it’s middle of the pack in things like education and infrastructure, and has even saved up about $8-10b in a rainy day fund.  So the conservative model of small government has worked well.

Still, Krugman claims that there is evidence that a low tax, low spending system doesn’t work, namely that if the state changed nothing in its budget, it would face (he claims) a $25b shortfall (the real number is probably a good chunk less than the estimate Krugman cites).

But this doesn’t constitute evidence; Krugman is merely predicting that the state will be unable to write a satisfactory budget that covers the shortfall without raising taxes.  If they do indeed pass a budget that raises taxes, or they pass a budget that doesn’t raise taxes and then have some sort of economic collapse, that might be evidence of an abandonment or failure of the conservative model.  And either way, this evidence would not simply erase away past experience– it is not as if Texas has been kicking the can down the road for a decade and shoveling burdens onto future generations.  There is no way to point the finger of blame for future troubles at past policy, as Krugman does (without explaining at all why past policies are to blame).

Furthermore, Krugman’s prediction of future troubles is itself shaky.  Kevin Williamson at National Review reminds us how robust the Texas budgeting process is.  It’s also worth noting that Texas’ budget problems are much, much smaller than California’s, New Jersey’s, or Illinois’ when looked at as a fraction of the state economy, and unlike California, which has made pension promises it has no hope of keeping, Texas does not have any exploding entitlement programs– when the recession goes away, so too does Texas’s budget shortfall.  Nor are the municipalities in Texas in particularly bad shape, as the risk of having to bail out cities is comparably low.

If there is a case to be made about Texas having a bad experience with conservative economic policies, Krugman hasn’t made it in the least.

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For profit vs. community colleges?

The Harvard Crimson last month wrote an editorial examining how for-profit colleges are hurting America — through student loans, they collect enormous amounts of taxpayer money, and often reward graduates with a poor education.  Plus, many for-profits rely on fraudulent recruiting practices.

Meanwhile, community colleges offer similar, and often better educational programs at a fraction of the cost.  How can this situation be fixed?

On a related note, Ryan Normandin wrote a column last Wednesday explaining how student debt is unsustainable.

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Chemical spill in 66/68 basement


Around 6 p.m. this evening, a hazardous chemical spill took place in the basement between buildings 66 and 68. The chemical is believed to be acetonitrile. The spill is not serious (Cambridge Fire has categorized it as a “class 1″ spill, the least serious type).

Buildings 66, 68, and E17 were evacuated.

MIT Police, MIT Facilities, Cambridge Fire, and MIT Environmental Health & Safety all responded. The spill is believed to be contained and there are no known injuries, as of 8 p.m.

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