AT&T spy room in SF

The AT&T Listening Room, San Francisco

This one comes in from Newt O. via The Chatrooms (edited for the clarity barely afforded to that medium, naturally):

“A former professor contacted the [college newspaper redacted] asking us to remove an article written about his not receiving tenure. He is concerned this article written some time ago may hurt his career as it shows up ahead of more charitable results in a Google search of his name.

“So,” Newt O. asks, “is it ethical to remove the article from the archives and does that bring journalistic credibility into question? Or should the article stay and jeopardize his career?”


Good one Newt! I see two possible answers here that both point to keeping the article. The first one:

Like the new saying says, The Internet Has Changed Everything. I’d find it hard to believe that this is the only negative piece of information (which wasn’t even established in Newt’s chat; maybe this professor was denied tenure because he was too qualified) stored away in Google’s cache about Dr. So’n’so. And if it is… then welcome Herr Doktor to our brave new world where every event of your life since 2002 of interest to at least 10 people (doting relatives excluded) is detailed on hundreds of magnetic platters — you may think you’ve just arrived but we’ve seen you around these parts before. Ultimately the tolerance of behavior ought to be extended to meet the widespread activities and comments on our lives that were once easily swept under the rug before the days of automatic archiving and blogs. And we’re getting more tolerant in this way rather quickly. Remember the days when people didn’t care what celebrities babies looked like? Remember how they then cared for about 20 months before losing interest and going back to the meat & potatoes of pictures of anorexic young women in bathing suits?

The other one:

This goes to the question about journalistic integrity vs. negative social consequences. First off, it’s not journalism unless someone’s career gets ruined every once in a while. USA Today teeters on this category. Like clockwork they turn out a hefty sports section, superficial scandals, and barely informative infographics. And then bam!, they score big like they did last spring with the AT&T/NSA domestic wiretapping story. So it depends, Newt, on which side of USA Today you think your newspaper — and specifically the article in question — falls. Is it frivolous, light-hearted, and splashed with color? Then let the man fret about other things. But if it forms, at the minimum, a small footnote to the history of power on campus then keep it as it is.


Michael “the ethicist” Goldman


Back in the saddle

July 8, 2006


Now here are some ethical questionsI can get behind! Randy Cohen’s got some queries for the new generation and he isn’t afraid to answer them. The first concerns a carjacking a tried and true situation ripe for ethical meanderings. There are whole philosophical seminars devoted to grand theft auto (although, to be fair, it is often co-taught with someone from the video game department) but Randy’s got something for the kids — something fresh and with cell phones. C.D., the reader not the media format, tells Randy that his cousin and his girlfriend were forced into a car by two armed assailants. The cousin, seeing an opportunity as one of the men shuffled his broad body into the backseat, took the keys and ran to make and emergency call (or “key by the three when I chirpshawty chirp back” as a recent rapper has taught us) leaving a distraught and uninformed girlfriend to the whims of one very obese carjacker and another, by all accounts, rather tall and thin.

Randy responds with “think of the money friends and family save by not having to buy wedding presents.” Shivers! He hasn’t touched me that way in more than two months. Following the conclusion (cousin was wrong but even genocide is forgivable under such circumstances [read the column; a diligent maniac could find ethical solace in between the lines]), surely to distract us from the absence of promised cell phone and twenty-first-century-ness, he notes in an update that the couple have indeed parted ways much like the cousin parted from his girlfriend and one very fat and one very skinny carjacker. The cell phone, however, will be shared on alternating weeks.

The second question, one we will undoubtedly face with greater frequency as the youth ages into positions of power, concerns what to do with an abandoned bike. Everyone knows the kids like their bikes and with gas prices so high (although still less than half of what theScandanavians pay) the adults are beginning to catch on; Randy’s bringing this to light is surely appreciated. Here we have Kate Clifford (a name oddly reminiscent of another biker lesbian I know — a harbinger, first-class) of Philadelphia, PA asking Randy Cohen if the bicycle that sat outside her home for almost a year with no evidence of its owner in sight may be ethically procured from its lock. Randy admires her patience and blesses her new ride but, just in case a year of waiting wasn’t enough, he plays the authority card usually saved for stickier situations. For shame!

What does the moral wisdom of the New York City Po-Po have to say about this, you’re probably not asking yourself? Don’t worry because Randy is; that’s what he gets payed for. Police policy is a two week warning and then the Dep’t of Sanitation gets involved, Randy, in journalist mode, reports. “In this, they and you act ethically.” Oh, brother!

— Aethix Plexis


The Plexis recently received a very distraught letter from the wife of a recently deceased former African military dictator. Several important ethical questions are raised…


Dear Beloved,

Due to the sudden death of my husband General Abacha the former head of state of Nigeria in June 1998, I have been thrown into a state of hopelessness by the present administration. I have lost confidence with anybody within my country. I got your contacts through personal research,and had to reach you through this medium. I will give you more details when you reply. Due to security network placed on my daily affairs I cant visit the embassy so that is why I have contacted you.

My husband deposited $12.6million dollars with a security firm
abroad whose name is witheld for now till we communicate. I will be
happy if you can receive this funds and keep it safe I assure you 20%
of this fund. I will need your tel/ mobile numbers so that we can
commence communication. I await your urgent reply.

Sincerly Yours,

Hajia Mariam


Who knew we were so loved by an African princess? It's nice to know you have friends (and lovers) in high places. But aside from that, Haija's letter poses the interesting question of how much (if any) payment should one receive for secretly funnelling money our of government coffers. Is it better if the current government has left the remaining elements of the previous government disaffected — hopeless, even — or are we simply obliged to do what people tell us to do from unsolicited emails?

Assuming the money is the personal and fairly obtained retirement stash of the late great General Abacha, wouldn't it be better to facilitate the hush-hush transfer of said funds to the widow and her children than let it fester in the King's coffers until put to a nefarious use (no doubt more Hummer limos with swivel-mounted AKs on the roof and Cristal in the cooler).

Although, who's to say the dictator pro tempore wants more Hummer limos? Is it possible that one alone does not satisy even the greatest thirst for status? Perhaps he plans to spend the $12.6 million on the construction of free clinics for the countryside and the education of doctors and nurses to man and woman them. And isn't this a better use of a few mil (which is actually a lot of mil in sub-Saharan Africa) than the assurance of the comfortable final years for an African princess and her children? And is it such a stretch to imagine Hajia foregoing personal fiscal responsibility by getting her own assault-rifled stretch Hummer?

Well it seems the Plexis is at a crossroads (pun definitely intended): not knowing whether Princess Mariam or Nigeria's "hopeless" administration would spend the fortune more ethically we must request that both parties provide more information of their intentions. Upon completing this entry you can be sure AP will use all our contacts and personal research to notify (through some medium, as it goes) the Nigerian government and Ms. Mariam of our eagerness to resolve this matter with their cooperation.

Sincerely, Michael "the ethicist" Goldman

Theses are finished

April 26, 2006

The most disinterested and meritorious public servant awakens


What's this I hear? Murmurs of spring? It. Has. BEGUN! That's right, with senior these due by 5pm today the Aethix will be back on track to give Randy Cohen the ol' one-two again.

In the meantime, does anyone want to publish an 80 page paper on the ontological character of consciousness?

Some house-cleaning and announcements:

Where has Aethix Plexis been the last week, you undoubtably are asking yourself. The answer is simple. The ethicist and his partner in righteousness are both humanities students in their autumnal year of college and, as such, are fast approaching the time of reckoning — a 60-100 page essay representing the culmination of all knowledge in our respective fields. Expect scarce but rambling posts in the coming three weeks. Were the characters of our photographer-housemates, who have a (to be generous) slighly less demanding barrier to graduation, not so colored by their exploitive craft, perhaps the Plexis could maintain its regular features by turning duties over to them. Alas, we don't play with that kind of fire.

And in case anyone was wondering, Randy Cohen did a bang up job this Sunday in his column.  What a coincidence that Randy did his job just as I didn't want to do mine.

So, in the meantime, here are some videos about evil.  The first comes from a BBC show where an atheist scientist goes around the world goading the devout into rationally justifying their faith, an untouchable topic in American television (see this survey which, according to a quick google news search, wan't even picked up by the newspapers).  It gets really good about half-way into it, after the narrator compares the evangelist preacher to Joseph Göbbles. 

The second video comes from the middle-days of Pat Robertson.  Having spoken of two plagues — Communism and gays — at a Republican convention, we get a behind-the-scenes look that explains why Larry King Live makes for such asinine TV.  I would have liked to put up the Jerry Falwell video from the 700 Club where he explains the causes of 9/11 as feminists and the ACLU, but no one seems to have it.


Rany Cohen shows us once again that either he or his question screener wouldn't notice if a jumbo jet crashed in their driveway. So Randy's got some real dullards this week. One, a landlords handwringing over the scent of curry and, the other, that re-run formula of duty to my boss or duty to humanity — which do I choose? And they're short enough to quote in full.

The first one:

I use my furnished condo as a summer home and rent it out the rest of the year. A potential tenant, a lady from Pakistan, seemed ideal except for one thing: the condo's ventilation is not very good, and daily cooking with heavy spices would make the curry smell impossible to remove. I felt guilty rejecting her because of her cooking, but a high ethical standard would mean a heavy financial loss. What to do? Chidong Zhang, Seattle

Randy goes into something about Fair Housing Acts and all that. When Randy's feeling hacky he always relies on the law books to make his point. But of course there is nothing inherently ethical about the legal system. Instead, for Chidong, the answer is simple. His premise that somehow curry depreciates the value of an apartment is baffling. Has he ever smelled Indian (or, uhmm, Pakistani, in this case) food? It's heavenly.

The second question, a variation on a tired model:

When I was an insurance-company claims adjuster, I encountered people who were unaware that they might be entitled to general damages — that is, pain and suffering — and who were willing to settle for out-of-pocket expenses. They were not represented by a lawyer. While my company went out of its way to be fair, should I have told such people that they might be able to collect more, or does company duty mean going for the lowest payment? Michael E. Tymn, Depoe Bay, Ore.

Randy loves these questions because the answer is so short — have someone else do it — and he delivers with this admirable line "The best way to avoid being hit by cars traveling in opposite directions is to get out of the middle of the road." A nice analogy but these cars are going to hit someone and if it's not you then it's someone else. If you're in the position — say the middle of the road — to negotiate the traffic, without getting yourself killed in the process, then by all means put on the white gloves. Why can't Michael just tell his clients of all their options? If his company is as willing to go out of their way to be fair as he says it is then certainly they could allow their claims adjuster such a small and decent discretion. Randy's suggestion that Michael's lawyer-less clients get themselves some lawyers is idiotic. There's a good reason people don't hire lawyers when they sign contracts — they're outrageously expensive — and passing the miniscule buck to someone who charges $100/hr is a waste of resources that could instead be donated to the Humane Society of America.

Also, big ups to those in the Northwest with benign problems. Life's simpler there.

Conflicted Clicking

April 2, 2006


A concerned net'izen writes:

I was recently browsing the internet when I came across an article
describing the most valuable "clicks" on Google AdWords. It turns out
that a search for "Mesothelioma", the disease associated with
asbestos inhalation, will bring up AdWords worth a staggering $54 a
click to Google. (I feel obligated to note that I do not suffer, nor
have I ever suffered, from mesothelioma, though I do occasionally
cough.) Knowing this, I still searched for Mesothelioma, and, as you
could guess, curiosity got the better of me, and I clicked on the
number one ad, "", just to see what was there.

Was this click fraud? Full disclosure: I own stock in Google, which further tangles this duplicitous web.

Please, Ethicysts, remove this awful burden from my mind.

– Needs Goggles for Google in NY

The assistant ethicist will take a crack at this one, NuGGeNY.

I was a child with pronounced morbid leanings, one of those kids that drew black spinning vortexi wearing my black crayolas down to little nubs while Cerulean Blue sat untouched in the back of the box. My fears of mortality were only heightened when I broke into a construction site with a friend and played king of the mountain on tremendous pile of asbestos. It was later that day that my mom warned me about the unmarked menace that lay behind that four foot chicken wire fence. For weeks afterward I would wake up in the middle of the night fearing that my pink seven year old lungs would give out at any moment. My mesothelioma fears coupled with all the other metaphysical concerns that weigh upon a agnostic pre-adolescent soon landed my in the school psychatricist office, excusing me from second period math. Thus began my long losing battle with long division.

All that doesn't really speak to your question. But, what's a blog for if not extended personal reminiscance. Ethical advice, you say? Okay, let's do to it!

I think your concern is fairly simple. The answer to your question is in the term "click fraud", at no point in the click that cost the ambulance chasers $54 did you do anything remotely fraudulent. You were interested in seeing the site that is so enamored with the sufferers of this lucrative desease that they are willing to pay so lavishly for the traffic. This is a genuine interest, your curiosity cannot be called bad faith.The idea that as a stockholder in Google you would be benifiting from this click did not enter into your decision to seek out this ad, if anything your financial interest would keep you from clicking the ad because in the long-term click fraud will do the most harm to Google Inc. If adwords become unprofitable advertisers will spend their marketing money elsewhere, and Google's adsense program will turn from magical money press to a dog of a business.

You never signed a contract that stated that you will only click on ads if you intend make the advertiser cash. These ads have been inserted into the sites you use with the intent of making all parties money. If the keyword mesothelioma becomes less profitable because of all the idle clicks from those of us not suffering from life-threatening diseases, the market will sort it out. For now, the lawyers are happy to feast on easy settlement money, the sufferers of this horrible disease can easily find some cash to pay their bills and the rest of us can click on expensive keywords knowing that rubberknecking at the intersection of tragedy and greed is only natural.

The question of where knowing manipulation of these systems to produce a net positive benefit for yourself becomes unethical is intruiging. I'll try to get the ethicist to tackle that one when he can spare a little time.

Austin Alter "Jr. Ethicist"