Thursday, November 10, 2005

Comments and Errata on the Higher Ed Article

Yesterday, I was contacted and interviewed by phone by Rob Capriccioso who wrote the article, Online Quicksand. His emphasis is on blogs in the way that people used to discuss the telegraph--as something arcane and exceptional from the normal idea of communication.

The article is short so I'll comment by paragraph.
Dissent is a way of life in the blogosphere; comments and barbs get traded, and feelings potentially hurt, every day. But one such discussion among three academics has escalated to the point that at least two of them have hired lawyers to try to resolve the dispute.
For my part we have only the perception of escalation due to waves of publicity. The initial libel compelled my publication (after a warning) in order to attach a defense to the false accusation. The defendants were shortly notified that legal action would be taken if there was no retraction and correction. While they have yet to correct they also have not supported the accusations in anyway to the best of my knowledge. The author seems concerned with personal feelings, but I am concerned with information and its aggregate consequences.
Paul Deignan is a 41-year-old mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate, with master’s degrees in math and mechanical engineering, a background in military intelligence and a wife and three kids.
I'm still 40 (we established this in the call) and I am completing the Masters in mathematics this semester.
Since taking up writing his own blog, Info Theory, in September 2004, he’s blogged about nuclear annihilation, mutual information between random variables, and suicide bombing. He’s also noted that the M6805 Athlon-based notebook “may be upgraded to 2GB despite the product specs’ claim that 1.25GB is the limit.” In sum, as his site motto says, he likes to apply information theory to the political and social problems of our day.
Pape's suicide bombing thesis was analyzed since he had claimed to base his conclusions on a database. His data did not support the causal dependencies Pape claimed (linked by RCP). Data analysis requires large amounts of memory, and nuclear annihilation with proliferation is a classic game theory application here with an emphasis on the role of uncertainty.
The blogger from Purdue University also writes with frequency on abortion (in his view, it’s wrong) and blogger etiquette (in his view, it’s complicated) — two seemingly unrelated topics. But in Deignan’s cyberworld, the two have collided in a unique way that may come to haunt his nine-year real-life journey toward a Ph.D.
I consider myself to be a researcher that has access to blog software, not as a blogger. Blogging is just a way to communicate and collect spare thoughts on an electronic dryerase board for comment with some chronological ordering. The post on "etiquette" was more to do with the capabilities of blogs in research and suggested protocols that might increase efficiency, e-mail management, and potential for engineering research. My “cyberworld” is simply this world, only now we may publish intermediate results and peripheral thoughts on a broader scope than in the past. That scope will not get any smaller in the future as this article itself testifies.
On November 2, at 9:03 a.m., he posted a blog entry titled “Thinking Critically About Abortion,” which said, in part, that he believes that in “our democratic society … all persons have equal intrinsic rights,” and a “person is a person …when that person is alive.” He then asked his readers to comment on his ideas. His comment policy clearly states that he “will make a good faith attempt to reply to all substantive comments.… Comments are only deleted for administrative reasons (spam, etc.).”
A small correction: I had told Rob that this post was originally published much earlier and moved up at the suggestion of a reader in light of the Alito nomination in order to allow a possibility to pursue the topic further.
Also that morning, he visited Bitch Ph.D.’s blog about academe and politics where, by that time, the anonymous blogger had written about her distaste for President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito Jr.
This was a follow up of invitation e-mail to revisit and expand on the initial discussion that she/he had participated (a common courtesy).
By afternoon, Bitch Ph.D. had entered the discussion on Deignan’s blog: “What’s interesting is that you’re trying to frame this debate around the ‘personhood’ of a fetus, while completely overlooking the personhood of women,” she commented.

Deignan soon responded to Bitch Ph.D. on his own site with a long comment that ended: “Now, note that your definition of sovereignty is actually anti-sovereignty. We are never sovereign if it is by permission of others that allow us to make decisions. Note also that a woman cannot spontaneously create life. She may only nurture preexistent life.”
These comments were from the initial discussion. The dates are preserved in the Haloscan thread. BPhD did not comment at that time although Site Meter indicated her visits. FWIW, the discussion of abortion on this site is consistent with the constitutional focus which is the fundamental rule framework of the society, i.e. structure.
Then he posted a seemingly innocuous entry on the Bitch Ph.D. site: “Your linking talking points w/o analysis. Already I see several points that are exaggerated and misconstrued without even needing research…”

Feeling that this comment and subsequent ones from Deignan did not qualify as “substantive debate,” she soon deleted his comments and banned him from her site. Her policy states, “Comments are great; obnoxious comments get deleted. Deal.”
The initial comments are still existent. Subsequent comments were not important and mainly had to do with offering BPhD technical pointers on filtering comments with Haloscan (the idea that one can "ban" is silly when one allows unregistered anonymous commenters. I was having a little fun with her over DHCP and subnet masks in line with the tone of repartee that befit the discussion). I don't nor should I care if my unsubstantive or trivial comments of this kind are deleted. It is only relevant if one tries then to characterize the deleted comments as something they are not.
What might have ended there as an everyday online spat was only the beginning. A frequent visitor to the Bitch Ph.D. site, the University of Northern Iowa history professor Wallace Hettle, felt obliged to defend Bitch Ph.D.’s liberal end of the blogosphere. Hettle found Deignan’s curriculum vita at Info Theory, which lists his academic advisers, the Purdue mechanical engineers Galen King and Peter Meckl, who will play a big part in deciding if he will ultimately receive a Ph.D. Hettle e-mailed them, indicating that Deignan’s comments were “unprofessional” and “contrary to the spirit of free enquiry.” Hettle announced his actions within the comment section of Bitch Ph.D.
“Yes, we received an e-mail,” King confirmed on Wednesday. “It said that Paul was exceeding his bounds, if you will, on what is essentially a private site. He’s been asked to refrain, at least until he’s [graduated from Purdue].”
Is this a trivial spat? We are not talking about our taste in clothes or ice cream. FWIW I passed on the advisors request to Rob that they wanted to be left out of the situation. Note that Wally also threatened to make things difficult for them by including administrators in his mailing list. I like to consider Wally to be an exogenous disturbance--unpredictable, unknown, and uncontrollable.

As it turns out Wally did indeed misrepresent the situation to Drs. King and Meckl. This is just what I had reason to fear. We can easily confirm that the BPhD site is anything but private. It is open to unregistered anonymous commenters, is hosted on blogspot, and includes numerous advertisements. Without an apology and retraction, my advisors would be under a false impression at a time when I expect my applications recipients to call for references. Unfortunately, I did not receive a copy of the e-mail that Hettle sent. I am reading this information for the first time in this article as well as the request to restrain (probably nothing more than a matter of clarification of an earlier request to be more diplomatic after having received Wally's e-mail).
But escalation, not restraint, has marked the ensuing days, in which Deignan, Hettle and Bitch Ph.D. have hurled accusations of various kinds at each other. Both Deignan and Bitch Ph.D. have hired lawyers. Hettle wouldn’t comment on whether he has done the same.

Deignan said he is prepared to begin a lawsuit as soon as possible. He accuses both Hettle and Bitch Ph.D of libeling him — Hettle because of the e-mail he sent to Deignan’s professors, and Bitch Ph.D. for saying that he may have used a technique known as “IP spoofing,” which is a form of hacking, to try to determine who she is. Deignan denies having done that.

Bitch Ph.D., said that she feels somewhat threatened by Deignan. “I don’t know if his attempts to track me down represent a real threat, either in terms of my identity or in terms of a physical threat,” she said via e-mail Wednesday. “I don’t know if what he’s doing counts as cyberstalking. It’s certainly upsetting.”
The IP spoofing accusation comes, I think, from BPhD's unfamiliarity with DHCP and filtering IPs, i.e. her technical ignorance is allowing her post facto wants to trump up a crime in her mind. I tried to inform her. You know, I am sure that this is something that a lot of IT professionals can relate.

The phony stalking accusation was generated in the comment thread by a commenter known as "Buxombroad" almost instantaenously and seems to fall in line with the preemptive accusation of being "sexist". Apparently this form of libel is prefabricated. But the fact of the matter is that identities must be established for libel lawsuits and that reviewing information that the libellant publishes herself is not stalking in any sense of the word. These accusations cheapen those that face legitimate threats. Also, the IP spoofing allegation appears to be in the context of commenting, not anything to do with tracing back an IP to the owner.
The untenured professor refused to communicate by phone for fear of revealing her identity, only allowing that she is “American born and bred” and “voted yesterday.”
“I don’t want my blog to embarrass my university or my colleagues,” she said. “I’m outspoken and opinionated on the blog, including about academic issues.

“The secondary reason is that it’s important to me that my personal and political opinions remain distinct from my classroom persona,” she added. “It’s extremely important to me that my students not feel that I approach them with an ‘agenda.’”
Right. Her IPs are from Toronto (which is indisputable). We can see this on her own SiteMeter when she posts or when she posts to other blogs. If she doesn't spoof IPs (and I don't think she does) then this last bit of information tells us that much more about her. I thought she valued her anonymity? Why not correct and retract? My only defense is to have the truth out there contemporaneously with any false accusations. We all face this very same threat. It has nothing to do with blogs or blogging per se and everything to do with our new information society.
Both Deignan and Bitch Ph.D. agree that this situation escalated rapidly when Hettle sent the e-mails to Deignan’s advisers, which Bitch Ph.D. says she wouldn’t have done.

Hettle’s response for comment was curt: “I have received many e-mails on this matter, and that has been disruptive to my work routine,” he said via e-mail Wednesday. “I’m holding office hours at the moment and need to speak to a student.”

Can this kind of dispute be settled in a lawsuit? Lauren Gelman, a lawyer and assistant director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, labeled the situation “complicated” and said that Deignan will have to show how he was harmed and why. “He’s not going to be able to use the legal system to solve the fact that his feelings may have gotten hurt,” she said. But as the Internet continues to evolve, she predicted, “disputes like this are definitely going to become more frequent.”

King, one of Deignan’s advisers, had perhaps the most unique take on the situation in today’s Web-based society: “I don’t understand what blogs are,” he said. “Apparently, though, they can get you in trouble.”
My claim is that Wally percipitated the affair which is anchored in the BPhD publication and support of the libelous statements. Wally could not support his claims by himself and BPhD could not lend credibility to the false claims as an anonymous blogger. Together they have managed to create a situation that should be redressed. If this were just a matter of name calling, it would be of no consequence. As a final note, Drs. Meckl and King have been good advisors in allowing me to develop the research area of information-theoretic system identification unfettered for which I will always be very grateful.