Monday, April 18, 2016

New Briefs 4.18.16

The Ethics of Free Knowledge

Alexandra Elbakyan, a 27-year-old Kazakhstani grad student, is the world’s leading pirate of academic research.

In 2011, Elbakyan founded Sci-hub, a website dedicated to free (and illegal) downloads of scientific research papers and scholarly articles. Sci-hub has since expanded, and taken Lib-Gen, another pirating website that uses ‘donated’ passwords to access various databases. Elbakyan affirms that many passwords were donated to the site by those sympathetic to her cause, but also admits that many passwords were obtained using phishing schemes like those used by hackers to steal credit card information.

Sci-hub and its partners are facing an injunction by a federal judge. Each of the nearly 50 million articles could cost up to 150,000 dollars in damages. The sites have been sued before, but always return with new domains. Elbakyan has kept away from charges but has not shied away from being the face of her cause. She maintains that information should be readily available to all “without obstacles.”

While Elbakyan’s cause is admirable, her methods are questionable. Access to knowledge and the ability to learn should indeed be available to anyone, but pirating materials is not fair to the people who wrote, researched, and worked on the materials. As we all know, academia is not exactly a lucrative industry, and good scholarship takes many hours of hard work. Pirating scholarship is effectively stealing a product that one or many people worked hard to create.

Pirating is not the answer, but until the publishing industry finds a way to allow those who cannot pay hundreds of dollars for information, pirating will always exist. It is time to find an ethical way to reduce paywalls and keep the cost of information reasonable. Answers should always be available to the curious.


Gun on Bible at the left, The Reagan Diaries to the right.

On April 15th, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed into law the Church Protection Act, which allows guns in places of worship to provide a line of defense against attackers. There are many things about this law that are problematic, but lets start with the simplest: it permits people to carry holstered guns without, well, a permit.

The law states that if a church (*place of worship*, but the law says church, which in itself is problematic) bestows the responsibility of protector upon a congregant, all that person must do to become a designated armed security guard is undergo firearms training. They don't need a permit, they don't need to learn diffusion tactics, probably not even how to shoot under duress/in crossfire. to shoot.

These designated security guards can bring guns into church buildings - no background check, evaluations, or permits necessary. As long as your church trusts you, and you do some training, you are legally protected. The thing about this is, even the police don't appreciate this law. The Church Protection Act loosens Mississippi's licensing law, making it more difficult to check if a gun owner is a criminal or not.

Speaking of crime, here's another story: this week, word got out that Mississippi's prisons are experiencing crippling lack of revenue.

State and private prisons in Mississippi are losing so many inmates that they are struggling to stay afloat. As drug policy reform becomes more ubiquitous, less people are thrown in jail. Mississippi officials have recently opened up about the detriments of having less inmates in the system. 

Let's just say it's bad for the state's economy.

Many counties in Mississippi and other less-endowed states rely on mass incarceration for jobs and revenue. It's not only jobs created within the prison that people rely on, but the low-pay (in many cases free) convict labor as well. The more bodies in jail, the more money made, and the more cheap labor.
These prisoners do manual labor that taxpayers would have to pay for without their existence, thus making it easier for local government to handle budget cuts doled out by Tea Party members. Now, Mississippi can't pay many of their guards to work in their facilities - they can't afford free labor, as jails are losing inmates without replenishment, losing thousands of dollars each month.

What should have been about punishment, or better, rehabilitation, had become a method of money making. The prison system became a way to get around hiring people for fair wages, utilizing inmate labor instead.
Well what does this mean for Mississippi, and other states that rely so heavily on this intrinsically flawed, immoral Prison Industrial Complex? I don't know, but if drug policy reform and active efforts at rehabilitation mean more government level attention to Prison Reform, I can't say I'm upset.

- Renee

Trump is the President America Deserves

Islamophobia in the United States is real and pressing danger, as Khairuldeen Makhzoomi discovered this Sunday when he was escorted off of a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking Arabic. Mr. Makhzoomi is a Iraqi refugee who is studying at University of California, Berkley. This upsetting incident occurred when a woman on the same plane as Mr. Makhzoomi interpreted a conversation he was having over the phone about a United Nations meeting he had attended as a threat to the security of the aircraft.  Mr. Makhzoomi was removed from the aircraft and searched, but was apparently officially ejected from the flight after mentioning Islamophobia to a crew member.

This is a stark reminder of the moral and intellectual lowlands our country is wallowing in right now. We stereotype and discriminate against easy scapegoats in the form of newly immigrated  Americans who have come to our country to revitalize it with culture and labor, the way that immigrants have done so continuously for generations. While Trump may not be the President we want, he is certainly the one we deserve if we watch our fellow citizens act like this in silence.  

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