turn of the century Russia

Via MeFi, recomposited color photographs from the turn of the century at the Library of Congress’s online exhibition of Prokudin-Gorskii. Some of my favorites include Jewish children with their teacher, the very fat Emir of Bukhara, the beautiful monastery, the cryptic fabric merchant, and the Uzbek woman.


especially a tragedy

While watching the carnage wrought by the tsunamis around the Indian Ocean today on CNN, I was struck by a journalist’s remark that because it was high tourist season for Europeans, the tidal waves were “especially a tragedy.” Now I know that tragedy hits closest to home, but the implication I got was that it would be less of a tragedy if there were no European tourists there.

I suppose close-text reading of newscasts can reveal quite a bit…

the homophobe

David V. over at Left2Right has some thoughts on the term “homophobe.” He points out that

One problem with the term is that it can imply that the anti-homosexual is himself a repressed homosexual, thus implicitly branding him with his own iron, so to speak. The stigma of being a homophobe then incorporates the stigma of being a homosexual, the very stigma the term is supposedly meant to combat. I don’t see how we can combat a stigma by covertly applying it.

His main complaint is that it’s a psychological term, and that we should draw analogies to how the terms “anti-semitic” and “racist” are bandied about. He derails at the end though:

Just as opposition to affirmative action is not in itself racism, and opposition to Zionism is not in itself anti-semitism, so the belief that homosexuality is a sin is not in itself a prejudice against homosexuals. It’s a moral opinion, motivated by prejudice in some people but held by others in good faith.

The major difference in opposition to Zionism or affirmative action and the belief that homosexuality is a sin is that the opposition in the former cases does not attempt to demean a group of people. If I am an anti-Zionist, that doesn’t mean I am judging Jews as a people to be inferior or flawed in some way. If I think homosexuality is a sin, then I view all the GBLT people around me as sinners. I have made a value judgment on those people.

Now suppose my opposition to Zionism is on moral grounds. Does that mean I have to suppose Zionists are immoral? Not necessarily. I know many vegetarians who are so on moral grounds, and they don’t go thinking I’m immoral. But “sin” is a different concept from morality. If I think homosexuality is a sin, I have one of two choices. I can just say “it’s a sin, and therefore not for me,” or I can say “it’s a sin, and therefore Sin is a sinner, and is going to burn in hell, along with all those with whom he associates.” Which do you think is more common?

This is not to say that using the word “homophobe” is appropriate. The psychological connotations are imprecise enough that it should probably be abandoned. Even though it is an opinion held for reasons of personal morality, “it’s a sin” anti-homosexual attitude should not be viewed as equivalent to opposition to affirmative action or Zionism.

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professional blather

As fate would have it, I am in the same subfield of electrical engineering as my father, namely Information Theory, but even within this subfield we are not in the same sub-subfield. This leads to endless frustation for me nowadays; having been used to babbling to him various technical points and tidbits until this point, I am abruptly cut off now that I have my own agenda that doesn’t fit neatly into the undergraduate and beginning graduate curriculum. I’ve been on a crutch for the last 24 years. It’s not that I ask him lots of questions or he demystifies for me things that I wouldn’t otherwise have figured out, but the comfort of being able to explain technical things to someone who understands is gone. Talking to my advisor about my little points of misunderstanding is a waste of his time. Talking to my father about them is somehow less guilt-inducing.

Now, when I explain my research to him in an attempt to figure out what I’m doing wrong, I have to start from the basics. Which is good in its own way, but that little “wasting other people’s time” guilt kicks in now. It’s kind of sad to me, but that’s a part of moving on I guess. I still hope to someday co-author a paper with him, it for no other reason than for the fun of seeing it as “Sarwate and Sarwate.” As Lucky from Waiting for Godot says “only time will tell.”

violence in Birmingham

The play Behzti has been shut down due to fears of violence from the Sikh community in Birmingham. Here is the choice quote from Sewa Singh Mandha, a local bigwig in the Sikh community:

In a Sikh temple sexual abuse does not take place; kissing and dancing don’t take place; rape doesn’t take place; homosexual activity doesn’t take place; murders do not take place. I am bringing to the attention of the management of the theatre the sensitive nature of the play because by going into the public domain it will cause deep hurt to the Sikh community.

I’m pretty much at a loss for what to say about this, except that I think it’s horrific that people choose to express their displeasure over the content of a piece of theater by destroying “the front entrance and backstage equipment.” It has often been observed that it is nowhere guaranteed that a citizen has a right to not be offended.

Some might compare a play of this nature to one which depicts Jews as salcious usurers. Certainly if I read a one-line description of The Merchant of Venice I might be offended. Some wild-eyed demagogue might try to convince me that it is a bigoted attack on Judaism and should be protested against. But little I have read about this play says that it is a flatly racist screed against Sikhs, and I categorically refuse to accept violence as a means of expressing political displeasure. What is most disturbing to me is that “representatives of the Sikh community” have refused to condemn the violence, and in fact may be seen to be endorsing it. Perhaps if they wish to live somewhere which does not challenge their views or offer a multiplicity of opinions, they should not live in England?

I’m not saying “deport ’em” or any crap like that. But the expectation that a particular religious community can dictate by violence the artistic expression of citizens of the country in which they inhabit is not one which should be fulfilled.

blogging, privacy, and teaching

Eszter has a piece up at CT on complying with FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) with regards to blogging. Since I’m TA-ing the undergrad communications course next semester, students will no doubt find my homepage or google me and find this blog. The question is: to what extent can I blog about the class and my experience within it without violating FERPA? I don’t have the layered privacy features of livejournal, so I can’t hide my comments about quiz design, etc. behind a password-protected wall.

One of my friends told me he blogs anonymously to avoid these issues, but I’m not sure that lets you off the hook, since your identity could always be found out.

I’m left with the prospect of keeping entirely mum about teaching, which is less than pleasing to me. Though I’m sure generalities about the students are fine (“those Berkeley undergrads sure are smart, they catch me screwing up all the time”), complaints are probably bad (“sometimes office hours are really annoying, especially when it’s clear people haven’t been going to lecture”), and naturally warnings are right out (“this exam is going to be a killer”). What is one to do?

Clearly I must err on the side of caution, if anything. I doubt more than a few students will be bored enough to cruise over to this blog. Perhaps I should make use of it to provide course content, like Brad DeLong does. But engineering is not suited to the blogosphere methinks. I guess I’ll just have to play it by ear. A very careful ear.