Thursday, November 30, 2006

A company that defends digital reputations


There is a new company Reputation Defender that will scan the Internet for information about oneself and about family members (mainly children) and remove it (at least when self-posted, and in some cases, when posted by others). It has trademarked "MyReputation" and "MyChild". This company was reported by NBC4 (Washington) on Nov 30, 2006 in the Nightly News broadcast. The founder is Michael Fertik. According to him, about 1/3 of employers do "background investigations" with search engines (as well as searches of social networking sites). Here is the NPR story:

There are a few other startups doing this, such as Naymz. As has been noted in the media during the past years, there are also some companies that offer to "manage" online presence with profiles on their own sites, such as Ziggs.

The concept of “reputation defense” should be compared to a related but separate concept called “reputation intelligence” which has to do with companies defending the reputations of their brands, which I have discussed here on my blog.

“Reputation” is a subjective and evolving concept. Many people tie it to family links and experience it in a collective fashion, but that has become less true in the modern era of more individualism. Intellectual property law has built up a long tradition with respect to issues like libel and slander, as well as invasion of privacy, well documented in many texts on the Internet. But reputation is more general and pervasive than what these concepts invoke. The Internet poses particular issues because of “free entry” and the ease and practically zero cost with which people can put things up. Entries can stay up for years, cached in search engines (even buried within the texts of books), and the search engine companies are only now refining their techniques for dealing with this evolving issue. Employers have been particularly concerned about the tendency of teenagers and young adults to incriminate themselves on blogs and social networking sites (with respect to issues that seem mundane to some people, like underage drinking or minor drug use). Speakers often believe (with some good faith) that this speech represents legitimate protest of what these see as artificial social values that serve the interests of those “in power”, perhaps illegitimately, so this sort of problem can quickly become politicized. I have long been concerned about this and part of the concern is that the “First Amendment in Reverse” when used by employers and background investigation companies could turn out to be a new tool of social conformity. How is information about sexual orientation to be viewed in this regard, when there are employers for whom this is a big issue (most of all, the U.S. military with “don’t ask don’t tell”, and, to a lesser extent, teachers)?

It's important to note the different kinds of objection that can exist about content posted by a third party about a person or entity. Libel and invasion of privacy, and copyright infringement (to name a few problems) are legal concepts that can be backed up by litigation (or even prosecution). There have always been ways to have such content removed. A posting because one person does not like being perceived as "associated" with another entity because that entity referred that person does not sound like a legitimate cause for action. More troublesome is the idea that correct and generally legitimate information can become irrelevant with the passage of time and cause the person to be perceived poorly. The best discussion of this problem that I know of occurs in Goldfard/Ross "The Writer's Lawyer", Times Books, 1989, p. 133 in the chapter on invasion of privacy. "Reputation" is a shifting concept that exceeds the legal parameters of defamation. It is the "What will the neighbors think?" problem, and sometimes that can matter. To some people, it involves how others feel about a person with respect to the values of a particular (sometimes religious) subculture, especially with areas like that person's ability to serve as a role model or authority figure.

It is not clear what the takedown policies of ISPs would be if they received formal complaints about comments or references posted by others (or if complaints from "cleansing" companies could have any legal standing). Right now, the acceptable use policies or terms of service of ISPs generally relate to the legality of content: most of all, copyright infringement, but also some other issues well established like libel. (International issues come in to play; libel is more a problem in British law than in the U.S.) The takedown policies with respect to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) could provide a model for issues like this. And I am no fan of the DMCA. (Look for my blog entry, further back, on Tim Lee’s paper).

Perhaps the company would work with a webmaster over a particular person's reference on a case by case basis, informally at first. It does appear that it is possible to remove specific search engine results from certain engine databases (including caches) in many cases.

The company does insist that it cannot remove conviction records or other legitimate public records, or legitimate news stories backed up by facts. It does have an FAQ page.

One issue that has me concerned is the idea that a company really could clean a person’s “reputation” as many people perceive the social concept (that can affect other such as a person's family in some cases). My pen name “Bill Boushka” has 13 google pages; my legal name “John W Boushka” has 8, and “John William Boushka” has 3. This is true of a lot of people who have ever involved themselves with any public controversy (gays in the military for openers). Furthermore, synonyms in names represent an enormous opportunity for misidentification. (My entry on “Idology” as an ID service, or age verification with respect to COPA, comes into play). Yet, it is true that many people will have digital audit trails that will follow them for lifetimes, maybe not always to their advantage. I have written about this problem before and coined a term for it based on free entry, “leveraging.”

Blogging, amateur writing on personal sites, and self-presentation on social networking sites has exploded in the past few years, most of the expression done by "amateurs" with no legal training. Much of the content may be frivolous and silly, but some of it provides valuable debate, outside the usual well-funded interests that present issues only in a biased fashion or the estatlished "professional" journalistic press, that must water down much material for general public consumption. There is a lot at stake.

One point I want to stress here, about "my stuff." The names present in my sites are mostly bibliographic references to articles, or to names of people that appear in news stories already in the “established press” media, including print, film, television, and Internet. I do shoot pictures of public protests sometimes but I do not target individual people. I don’t photograph people in bars or at private gatherings (many people do this – I see cell phone pictures being taken on disco floors all the time -- and post them on the Net), even though I have seen many celebrities at some of these functions (including gay events). However, the references on my sites are factual and based on previous sources (in a very few cases, personal events).

Reputation defense should also be considered in comparison to the email spoofing problem, recently discussed by me at this blog entry.

Other references by me: Blogging and professionalism;
Blogging notes;
Employee blogging policies

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Always Be Closing: Sales Culture


The comedy film 100 Mile Rule (2002, Velocity, dir. Brent Huff) inundated the sales reps at their rah-rah gatherings with the mantra, “Always Be Closing.” There is something about aggressive sales culture that serves itself. The “rule” refers to how sales reps behave with respect to their wives when they are more than 100 miles from home, and that gets beyond the point of this post. I actually review this film (as a similar one, Diamond Men, here).

After spending the last twelve years of my career in life insurance and annuities in information technology, and then “retiring”, the question comes up: isn’t it a natural to want to sell this and make a living off of commissions (especially renewal commissions)? If the last twelve years of career meant something, wouldn’t this be the case?

This is no idle question. I did collect unemployment in Minnesota for a time, and the issue could have come up as a legitimate work-fit requirement. On at least two occasions, I was approached with this possibility. One of the presentations happened in Minnesota in 2003, with a company expanding offices and specifically trying to induce families to convert whole life policies to term, which the presenter claimed was a “$40 trillion” market. When I asked some gentle questions toward the end of the half hour (nothing really edgy) he became defensive. I was a little put off by his spiel, “We give you the words.” He even said that actresses were thankful to screenwriters for “giving them the words.” Now, I wonder, why am I the person to go out and manipulate others with someone else’s words, when I could write the words myself.

The second was a series of interviews in Virginia in 2005 to become an insurance agent/financial planner for another major life company. This company offered generous benefits and training programs, but had a strict rule of “no outside income” for the first three years while the training bonus was in effect. This was explained as a post-Enron legal requirement of Sarbannes-Oxley. (That would have shut down this blog, and a lot else; I think pensions from previous job were allowed). The company would have required a “fast start” and the quick development of a list of 200 potential contacts. I don’t do things that way. People can do much more for themselves today in the financial products purchase arena over the Internet. I do agree that in some communities, a general agent still performs an important community function, such as pulling it together in hard times (as on the Gulf Coast) but I don’t have the right protective temperament for that.

The same question could be posed regarding selling software. There might have been non-compete issues that could have cut off some of this. I take up a discussion by Bob Weinstein (“Can Techies Sell?”) at this blog entry.


Weinstein talks about the schmoozing and buttering up that goes on with this kind of life, which is obviously not for me.

So far, I have focused on a certain monolithic idea about sales. It has long been considered a career on its own, with people who say that sell anything to anyone. It has been perceived as an exercise in masculine polarity manipulation. Technical people look askance on this, as if it were a refuge for people not smart enough technically. Many people justify their sense of professionalism in sales for its own sake, as connected to their competitive ability to provide for their families. As far back as the early 70s, people would joint Amway or similar multi-level marketing companies as distributors, to provide extra "cushions" for their biological families. I cannot carry out that kind of a motive with integrity.

I did, however, venture into sales as interim jobs. From April 2002 to June 2003 I worked in a phone bank calling donors of a major symphony orchestra to support their educational programs. This was considered non-profit. The work was totally manual, without computers. Renewal gifts (even second-asks) were usually relatively easy to get if you could reach the people, and “blue money on credit” (new money) was a priority, especially in the fall, early in the orchestra season. This was not as difficult was it would sound, although other people who worked there said that 9/11 and the economic tailspin had made earning enough commission difficult. (I could make about $700 a month part-time, “not too shabby” for softening the landing of semi-forced retirement from corporate downsizing). There was negative talk, though; this was a phone bank, and working for a phone bank was seen as a job for people for whom “this was the only job they could get.” And we all know that telephone sales has come under fire with the crackdown on telemarketing, with the result that it does not sound like a reputable way to make a living to many people, since it seems predicated on annoying or disrupting people with unsolicited phone calls. But that again is a cultural change in a more individualistic society.

When I returned to the DC area, I worked for a while selling symphony subscriptions by phone. This was very difficult unless you reached a previous subscriber, because of the all-or-nothing aspect of the sale, and it was increasingly difficult to convince people to buy. (Hence, "Always Be Closing!") The talk was always about “overcoming objections.” This was run by an outside arts marketing company, which sent a young sales consultant to help the sellers. The consultant had been a music major, and I thought is was an odd outcome to see an artist with a career in sales.

Which brings me full circle in this conversation about salesmanship. All work is in a sense self-selling, as are all job interviews. But there is a difference between making a liking selling something you developed or have some legitimate relationship to, and sales for sales sake. Even in the insurance area, I can see sales in areas like long-term care or the proper use of credit reports and CLUE reports in property or auto insurance. When I was working for the orchestras, I thought there could develop some synergy with my youth background in piano. That seemed legitimate.

Of course, customer service is itself viewed as part of salesmanship. But that is simply a matter of doing a job for a customer one has already been paid to do. Yet companies build teamwork exercises around customer service as if it provided some kind of epiphany.

What could I sell now? Besides my books and movie scripts, I can see participation in selling other film or book properties that are similar in spirit to what I would create myself. I can see selling software products or techniques that address reconciliation of critical interests like free speech and protection of minors, or that protect speakers from other liability risks. Those examples make sense. What does not, however, is a culture of peddling and hucksterism.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My own day of infamy: Tuesday, Nov 28, 1961


Tuesday, Nov 28, 1961, occurred 45 years ago to this date, on the same day of the week, according to the Perpetual Calendar. It is my own personal day of infamy. My first full day on campus as a college freshman had been September 11, 1961, exactly forty years to the 9/11 event, in an era when we would soon associate 2001 as a far-off year that would have Pan-Am flying to the Moon and Howard Johnsons hotels on the Moon.

At 9 AM that (1961) morning, I went to my last class at William and Mary, Chemistry 201, qualitative analysis, in what was then Rogers Hall on the Sunken Garden. At 10 AM, my parents drove down Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg (it was open to cars then), swung onto Boundary Street (where Jamestown Road angles into Richmond Road in front of the Wren Building), beckoned me into the back seat, where, as we approached Brown Hall, where I "lived" (by my count, I had spent 79 nights), my father said, “Bill, this is going to come as a blow to you, but we have to take you out of school.”

That day was sunny and windy, temperature in the 30s, and the first cold day in Tidewater in the late fall. In a few minutes, we had a meeting on the second floor of the Wren Building with the Dean of Men, then Carson Barnes, where I was told formally that I had to leave the campus. I could return next spring if a psychiatrist certified me as OK to live in a dorm. There was actually a harrowing discussion of “fixing it” quickly, over at Eastern State! That afternoon, I rode back home to Arlington in a twilight zone, with a sense of disgrace.

What had happened? William and Mary did not have a Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving Day, my parents had taken a college friend of mine and us to dinner at the Williamsburg Inn, and we had taken a walking tour of Jamestown, “The New World.” Black Friday, we had classes as usual, which had included Physics recitation on Friday afternoon. I don’t recall the late Friday afternoon, but when I got back to my dorm around 5 I found a handwritten note on the door to report to the Dean of Men immediately. He had been waiting for me there all Friday afternoon, and we still don’t know why for sure. The note mentioned patent medicines found in room inspections, but his obvious concern was my social relationships in the dorm. I confessed to him that Friday evening that I regarded myself as a “latent homosexual.” My parents were visiting friends in North Carolina, and it must have been traumatic in those days to get an operator-assisted call from campus.

There would follow an attempt to get me to “change” at National Institutes of Health in1962. At least that’s what it amounted to. That was the same place that would become a world leader in AIDS research twenty-five years later (whatever the controversies about the science of HIV). There would be another twist, however. I was the only inpatient on Three-West allowed to go to college (then George Washington University) on my own by bus at night. I would, in October of 1962, be able to watch all of the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold on television sets in the cafeteria or Student Union on G Street at GW in Washington. I would shock all of the other patients and staff when I talked about it (in terms of what would happen to us “mental patients” in case of war) when I came back to the hospital ward.

That is one point of this blog posting, how external history affects and molds our social values and how we must interact with each other. The autobiography available on my websites takes me into contact with many other issues of history with a certain sweep over several decades. The two most important interactions, however, may have been by my involvement with the debate over gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell”, which bears a rather obvious parallel to what happened to me as a civilian at William and Mary as a civilian. (I would always have to explain my "psychiatric treatment," as late as 1979 when getting a company health policy in Texas; I never could get a Top Secret security clearance in those days. But in fact, I would take the draft physical three times, we progressive results of 4-F, 1-Y, and 1-A, and actually serve in the military from 1968-1970 as a known homosexual, although I did not go to Vietnam; there is considerable irony in all of this.) Then, as a speaker on the web, I would become involved in the constitutional challenge to the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), starting in 1999, whose arguments, despite the government’s desperate attempts to narrow the meaning of the law, parallel those of larger social issues in curious fashion. Sandra Day O’Connor, as a justice, heard the case in the Supreme Court , and in Oct 2005 she accepted the ceremonial position of Chancellor of the College.

In recalling this personal apocalypto, I think it reminds us of what was expected of young men in that era. Although John Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, the opening up of family values that would follow the Civil Rights Movement was not far along yet; Stonewall was still seven years off. You were supposed to prove that you could protect women and children and fight or compete “like a man” to protect family and, if necessary, your country. A sissy was a burden to others because he did not carry his weight. All of this fits into the mentality of the era, of wars that go back in the past, including World War II and Korea. Just before my incident, in late October 1961, there had been a major confrontation with the Soviets in Berlin. The draft and the idea of deferments already weighed on young men’s minds, and the idea that a geek could be more valuable for his brains than his brawn on the football field was just starting to be noticed in more progressive urban areas.

There was, of course, even a more subtle problem in the dorm (to parallel the barracks in the military debate decades later) – the idea that the presence of gay men could remind straight men that they too can fail or become inadequate. That idea may matter more than anything else, and even affects the thinking behind COPA. Ironically, the first time that oral arguments about COPA were heard before the Supreme Court, the date was Nov 28, 2001 (the 40th anniversary of my own day of infamny, although a Wednesday, 79 days after 9/11/2001).

There are people who would ask why I bring this up now, when it could be seen as a source of shame. If so, it is a shame that is defined by society, often by exogenous circumstances of history (McCarthyism and the Cold War here), and yet, civil libertarians today often forget that notions of "public morality" often do come out of a sense of fear and threat, and an idea that family and community loyalty (and patriotism -- "my country right or wrong") are more important than Truth -- or that Truth itself must be dictated from above (as by the Church).

I remember my father's saying, a week or so after the incident, when I got home, that from now on, we had to worry about what "everybody thinks." Today, that sounds like an old-fashioned preoccupation with appearances and "reputation," but that concept has come back as a controversial topic on tne Web (see Nov 30 posting on this blog).

The whole incident, and all the history that follows, plays in my mind like a CinemaScope movie. The incident obviously lends itself to being dramatized and filmed, and I visualize it as a flashback in a bigger movie, shown in black-and-white, though wide screen. Colonial Williamsburg in black and white would make an odd presentation, as it looked in 1961 -- especially since the recreated history (mostly the 18th Century) is timeless. (It's interesting that Smallville -- a series in which the teen hero Clark forever hides who he is -- has a retrospect back to 1961, to show the marquee for Rebel Without a Cause).

How many other students were harmed by colleges with incidents like this in those days? Randy Shilts describes at least one in Illinois in 1965 in Conduct Unbecoming. There must have been many.

The longer discussion of the William and Mary incident is here.

Update: Feb. 12, 2008

For a news story about the resignation of William and Mary president Gene R. Nichol, see the Richmond Times Dispatch, here. His allowing of a controversial art show was a factor in leading to objections from conservative donors.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Smart cards: maybe a major advance with several issues


Lately the news media has reported some discussions on smart cards, on the idea that you can use them to recycle passwords on your many personal, banking, retail, or workplace websites as a security measure. Particularly interesting is the idea that firmware applications in java byte code could be run.

I mention this because it would also sound like smart cards could be designed to work as age verification schemes in conjunction with COPA. A lot of development work by various vendors would be necessary to make this work, but it could be done or at least planned for. One part of the concept would be that webmasters would label their sites with content rating labels, and the smart cards could enable browsers to talk to these. It is, at this point, a long way to go, but I will probably look further into this.

Here are some major references on smart cards.

Securing Java: How secure are Smart Cards?

IBM Smart Card Security Kit overview

Smart card faq's

My blog on COPA and content labeling is here.

Friday, November 17, 2006

HRC, the Foley blogs, and employment ethics


The story of an anonymous blogger who helped bring down Congressman Mark Foley in late September 2006, and whose discoveries probably contributed materially to the Democrats’ giving the Republicans “the broom” in the midterm 2006 elections, raises a serious issue about workplace ethics and free speech, and it is bound to have repercussions as a workplace issue in general.

This particular posting has nothing to do with homosexuality, or some of the other disturbing undertones of this particular matter. The underlying problem would have been the same regardless of the particular political or social issue. I am specifically concerned here about the workplace and speech issues as a matter of principle. This comports with earlier concerns about employers’ doing “background investigations” on applicants with search engines.

On Nov 10, Lou Chibbaro of The Washington Blade provided a full story of Lane Hudson’s blog, which had started in July 2006, and with Hudson’s employment with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in September 2006 as a field organizer in Michigan. When it was discovered that Hudson had communicated with his blog at the workplace using HRC computers, he was terminated immediately, in late October 2006. The story is at this link.

However, an earlier story on Nov 3 by Elizabeth A Perry (link, while confirming that termination had been in large part because of inappropriate use of the employer’s computers, added also added a comment by HRC spokesperson David Smith: Hudson was fired Oct. 24 because he was engaged in “independent political work outside of his work for the HRC.”

Now that seems to be the more important point. When you go to work for a lobbying organization or any employer where you will represent your employer with your public personage and legal “right of publicity,” the employer presumes that your access to the public is strictly through the employer. This seems necessary to prevent ethical conflicts of interest. I have written more about this on my own site. Link1 Link2

Human resources professionals are only now getting a grip on this program. In July 2006, the American Management Association published a book by Nancy Flynn, “Blog Rules,” sold by The Society for Human Resource Management at this link. with my review at this link.
The recommendations in the book would suggest that employers insist that when associates blog on their own, that they use their own names. Anonymity will not be a defense. Of course, I know that others will object to this idea, and the ACLU and EFF have long defended anonymous online speech. My own feeling has always been, that if public-space (particularly under “free entry,” as on the web) political speech is to be effective, the speaker should be willing to make his or her identity known, and resign from his or her job if necessary. Of course, I know, this gets into the whistleblower issue.

While the media has been reporting on this kind of problem since the beginning of 2006, I have suspected it for a long time, since I have been active on the web since 1996. By 1999, I was already concerned, as I saw how effective search engines were going to be. I wrote my first piece on this in March 2000. In 2003, this issue came up when I made it the basis of a multiple choice question of a certification test that I was contracted to write.

I have maintained that individual contributors (people who do not have direct reports , who do not speak for their employer or who are not known by the public to be connected to their employer) would have more freedom with respect to this issue. In 1988-1989, I was a computer programmer for a consulting firm that provided statistical reports on Medicare for health care lobbyists. I had no impact on policy, but I wonder what kind of position I would be in today if I worked for them in the same capacity, given explosive political sensitivities.

As another example, consider this: in November 2006, an NBC affiliate station in Roanoke VA fired a broadcast meteorologist after a third party posted an inappropriate photo of him on Myspace.com, several months after being taken as a prank; apparently it was taken by a friend, but its appearance violated a clause in his contract since he is a public figure for the station. The story is at here. There is a more detailed story in the Roanoke Times at this link that indicates that he had persuaded Myspace to remove the photo immediately after learning about it, but nevertheless a saved copy got emailed to the station's management. So even removing a blog entry does not always save someone from a firing.

Whatever the ethics, however, I do think that the end results are for the best. In fact (as pointed out by a reader's letter to The Washington Blade), Mr. Hudson seems to have accomplished, with no investment and no compensation, what the HRC "bureaucracy" with all of the spectaculr matching grants at the HRC National Dinner (pushed by Mr. Solomonese) could not do: sink the Republicans this go round. Does the end justify the means? Some politicians thinks so. That is what they always said about Bill Clinton. He would do wrong in order to do good. Bush, given what happened in the 2000 election, can’t even say that.

Gail Sheehy and Judy Bachrach have an article on p 100 o the January 2007 Vanity Fair, "Don't Ask, Don't Email" about the Foley affair, giving his biography, and some graphic Dateline-like chat logs (although it is not sure that the recipients were legal minors). His top aide Kirk Fordham practically singlehandedly kicked him out of Congress when the story broke (with the chatlogs) at the end of September 2006.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Myspace says I have 1 friends


If you go to my bare-bones myspace.com profie (here) you will see that I have "1 friends." (sic) Boy, the sentence isn't even gramatically correct (plural v. singular).

You get a point about the social networking sites. At least this one purports, by a computer script, to tell you how well connected you are socially. Even Dear Abby has problems with this. Kids, she says, can spend too much time ontine, especially kids with problems of social interaction or success in school. The Net can interfere with family communication and cohesion at the dinner table. (But so does television and any media; we have heard this for years.) Cyberspace is a good place to hide out. It is a good place for non-competitive people who don't make the football team.

Okay, I am being a little cynical. But you can see a deeper problem. If blogs and profiles are really a way to carry on conversations in a public space, their substance may not be respected the way a literary piece in hardcopy is. Self-created web content says a lot about the speaker, as well as about the subject matter spoken about. Employers know that, and they are getting very concerned about what they find on these profiles, especially "self-defamation", even with good political intentions.

The COPA trial going on in Philadephia right now is mostly about the objective legality of content, so says the government defending the law. But the notion of "implicit content" has come up, and this concept refers to the meaning that people give to things because of metaphor and circumstance, something that scientists say reflects the holographic processing of "mirror neurons" or circuits in our brains.

On self-defamation, mentioned a couple times in this blog, it's interesting that O. J. Simpson is coming out with a book, "If I Did It, Here's How It Happened", which Fox News will showcase with an interview later this month. That refers to that whole case in the 1990s (remember Kato Kaehlin?) where O.J. was acquitted of the murder but held responsible in a civil trial. This sould sound like the same kind of self-incrimination, which may be all right since you can't be tried twice for the same offense, and because it is already litigated. The speaker is setting himself as the "actor" in a crime, however make-believe. Just pretend. Notice the supposition conjunction, "If." "Hypothetically speaking," a quote from Ashton Kutcher one time on Jay Leno. Still, lawyers say, if the protagonist is identifiable, it's defamation. All very interesting.

On Monday, Nov 20, 2006, major news media outlets announced that Fox and Rupert Murdoch had canceled the Simpson project because of public outrage over the public attention OJ would get from bragging about his purported (if unproven) crimes. On Saturday Night Live Nov. 18, an imitation of John Mark Karr said of the Simpson crime, "no, I did it," sure, because what he has to give is his pain. Sorry, the imitation was not "thmooth."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Companies that help you self--publish your book


NBC4 in Washington yesterday had a story about a new company that makes it very easy to self-publish a book. The latest company is Blurb.

There have been a number of companies with various business models since the late 1990s. One of the best known is iUniverse, which is a cooperative publisher, and is one of the best known examples of print-on-demand, the technology that makes this new style of publishing possible. iUniverse has a number of programs that include, for some books, considerable promotion. Two of my titles are carried with iUniverse; the details are here. With this publisher, the company becomes the official "publisher" that controls the isbn, and it arranges listings in amazon.com and bn.com. iUniverse has also helped previously conventionally published authors bring books back into print, and it has an Author's Guild section. The company has, with more recent books, arranged with Google to do "search within the book" and makes it an option for all books.

There are other services, such as xlibris. With many of these services, the author remains the "publisher" and sets up the isbn. The company that does is is RR Bowker / Reed Elsevier, and the website is this.

I actually self-published Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back in 1997, with an initial small print run with a book manufacturer in Gaithersburg, MD. I managed all of the publishing activities myself, as I moved to Minneapolis with a corporate transfer imemdiately afterwards. During research for the print run, I found an enormous range in prices. Many of the printing companies are in the Shenandoan Valley or elsewhere in the South. The most common technology then was a "web press." I hired my own proofreader, and we tried to follow the conventions of the Chicago Manual of Style.

When the author controls the publishing company, the author obviously keeps all of the revenue (rather than sharing it with a publisher). There are various tax implications for all of this, which require a tax advisor as they can be complicated (as to what is an allowable deduction). Generally, to take deductions for a "proprietorship" one needs to show an operating profit in three out of five consecutive years (at least that's what I was told in 1997). In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of handbooks or how-to books written on self-publishing.

Writers' conferences say that conventional publishers today expect authors to take much more pro-active responsibility in promoting their own books.

But it is important to note that some entities will not work with authors who are only self-published. The last time I looked, Author's Guild welcomed membership only from authors who had been able to make a living from conventional trade publishers and get advances. Some reviewers in newspaper business will not review self-published books. Yet, I understand, Walt Whitman was a self-published author. A rather famous first book that did well as self-published was Vince Flynn's thriller Term Limits, which he first published with his Cloak & Dagger Press in St Paul MN (I have an original from a 1997 book signing in Eden Prairie,) but Mr. Flynn went on to sign a contract with Pocket Books.

There are more details on my sites these two url's: 1, and 2 (chapter from my "When Liberty Is Stressed" book).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election officership


I did work as an Election Official in northern Virginia on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov 7, 2006. Because of the closeness of the outstanding race between Webb and Allen and because it can take several weeks for a definitive resolution, I won’t be specific as to where I was or discuss anything specific that might have happened during the job. I will share what it is like to do the work and give some general perspectives on the controversies around voting systems.

I had to get up around 3:30 AM Tuesday (rather like KP in Army Basic) and be there by 5 AM. We had five machines from Advanced Voting Solutions to set up, and that is simple. At 6 AM the polls opened, and the voters piled up. The turnout was presidential even though this was a midterm election. It didn’t let up much until around noon. It picked up again around 4:30 and the line backed up as people piled in the door as the polls closed at 7:00 PM. It took until about 7:40 to get everyone voted, not too shabby.

The machines use a stripped down version of Windows XP. When a voter comes to the booth, the officer inserts a mag card into a slot to activate the ballot. Everything is by finger touch. It is possible for blind people to vote by audio, and to enlarge the type. The units are light (like laptops) portable and can be carried outside to the vehicles of handicapped voters. The engineering of the units for mechanical handling is spiffy.

The units can communicate among each other by wireless, but have no connection to the public Internet. Nevertheless, cell phones may not be used in the voting room, because of remote fears of hacking and of security vulnerabilities in the Microsoft operating system.

The systems do not provide a paper audit trail of each individual vote. The voter may bring cheat sheets into the booth but not campaign literature. The voter does not carry away any physical record of the vote. I would presume that the individual votes (though not associated with individual voters) could be recovered from an internal hard drive or card of some sort. The votes include candidates for the Senate, House, county and school board officials, the Constitutional Amendment on marriage, and various bond issues and other minor amendments. A typical voter takes about two minutes.

Some voters brought their kids to watch, and this is allowed. It would give the kids an excellent heads up on an essential process in democracy from their parents before they learn about it in social studies in school.

Each machine has a variety of counters, and at the end of the day a report is printed on a 3-inch roll of tabular paper at each machine. Now, during the day, each voter is identified by an officer, and marked off on a greenbar printout, in two lists split through the alphabet. The worker enters the most recent sequential number on the greenbar listing of the name. After the polls close, the precinct must balance the count of the voters who came in the door with the counts on the machines. The total number of voters signed plus the number of provisional votes must equal the machine total count from the five machines. The possibility exists that an officer will lose concentration, and write the same number down on the sheet two successive times, resulting in an undercount on the voter sign in. In theory, this could be reconciled only by combing the lists to look for duplicate numbers. There are some classroom java and C# programs around in various textbooks (and from Microsoft with Visual Studio .NET) that could be used to make it easier to locate the duplicated numbers, as this sort of problem lends itself to textbook writers in making up simple examples of object oriented code. The balancing procedures could use major work including a design with systems analysis for automating it, with coding and implementation.

As it was, we were there until about 9:30 PM, about a 16-1/2 hour day for $130 for the temporary officials. The possibility exists that the day could be much longer for various problems (including balancing) that might occur. All election officers must sign certain paperwork and sealed results at the same time as a procedural security protection, before anyone can leave.

The media has reported many misgivings about various computer voting systems. There is a reent film from HBO Documentary Films called “Hacking Democracy” which I review here.

Advanced Voting Solutions;

Diebold election systems ;

Electronic Frontier Foundation links
e-voting

problems

Princeton Researchers Release Devastating Diebold Security Report

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Knowledge management: connect the dots, vet the speaker


I know visitors will wonder why it isn’t gratuitous of me to cover so many topics on these blogs and personal websites.

As an exercise, consider this list of issues:
. the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military
. gay marriage and civil unions
. gay adoption and child custody
. conscription and the draft
. national service and “mandatory community service” in schools
. the right to privacy and to private choices
. the right to be left alone
. freedom of religion
. freedom of the press
. freedom of expressive association
. freedom of individual speech
. freedom to publish in a public space with “free entry”
. right to life, “right” to die
. lower birthrate and longer life spans
. social security
. pension stability
. health insurance and Medicare
. unions
. immigration
. filial responsibility

You can decompose these into more, but a good exercise in a social studies class is to draw a diagram showing how all of these problems are connected, “Babel-style.”

People typically express themselves politically by supporting candidates and organizations who cover their problems with specific issues. It is true that many people are treated unfairly or unjustly with respect to the specifics of some issues (such as with the marriage issue). But the deeper problems usually have to do with several issues working together.

If one is going to contribute a value body of writing about issues, then, one needs to be able to take up any issue. Anything can be fair game. Issues cannot be avoided just because they make people squeamish or because an “interest” in one of them is viewed as reflecting unfavorably upon the speaker or upon others connected to the speaker. Intellectual integrity is an absolute.

There are a couple of levels on which to discuss these issues. Law professor Elizabeth Price Foley, in her new book Liberty For All, argues that American law has always been based on respect for individual sovereignty and on the Harm Principle. Moral expectations must go deeper than the reading of statutory or even the usual application of common law. The general notion is called “public morality.” Most people perceive this in terms of religion or family loyalty. All of this has to do with one’s moral or social debt to others, to the sharing of burdens or sacrifice, to preparations for possible exogenous hardships, and intergenerational responsibility—the ability to return something back to others merely for having been raised. These ideas must balance the need to get society’s work done and for one to take turns being one’s “brother’s keeper” with the legitimate respect to merit and accomplishment as commensurate with freedom and property. The detailed “moral standards” can evolve toward more personal freedom from one generation to the next was technology enables self-definition and simplifies meeting the needs of others – but the idea that they exist can still remain, but with the rules refined.

Of particular interest in the past dozen or so years has been self-promotion in public spaces on the Internet, with the likelihood of being found by search engines or through social networking sites. This opportunity raises issues that had not been seen before, as others associated with a person (in the workplace, such as customers, or family) can be disturbed by what one says but that can be partly because of public prejudices. Speaking first may appeal to those who do not like to interact with others in a personal way on terms not of their choosing, or who do not like the forced “solidarity” required to have their rights protected by more conventional political activism through groups and organizations. Individual speech undergirds the COPA trial discussed elsewhere in these blogs, and so does then the objectivity and integrity with which social and political ideas are aired publicly.

If we were to have a public forum on the future of our individual freedoms in a changing and challenged world, we would have to account for all of the issues and the chemistry of their interactions, then at the layers with which we apply the laws, and then at who we vet our own speakers.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Free entry again with Microsoft Office Live

David Pogue has a story "A Web Site to Call Your Own" in the Nov. 2, 2006 New York Times, Business Day Section, C1, in his "State of the Art" series. The URL for Pogue's NYTimes blog is this.

The product, available Nov 15, 2006, would offer a small website and domain name (.com, .org, .net) free for any small business or individual. Microsoft expects to make money by upgrades from webmasters, and by addons, especially advertising packages. There will be a product called AdManager that manages the placement of paid ads on other sites or search engines within a user specified budget.

Microsoft's link for this is here.

This story sounds like another free entry offering with the "wild west" mentality that is getting some people into trouble (see the previous post on this blog). Nevertheless, it sounds as though Microsoft has designed this offering to appeal to the "serious businessman" with transaction processing in mind. I can see how it could be appealing, for example, if someone wanted to start an IT recruiting business.

I did have a domain name "hppub.com" which was an acronym for "High Productivity Publishing," for selling the first two of my books. After a cooperative publisher took over most of the publishing (with print-on-demand, as the first printing of the first book was sold out by the start of the year 2000), I saw less justification for keeping a domain name like that, and I relinquished it around Aug 1, 2005. I merged all of my content onto the domain with a much more politically descriptive name, doaskdotell.com. Hppub appears to be in use with an overseas online casino company with no relationship to me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Speaking out for yourself in a public place


One of the major points brought up at the COPA trial in Philadelphia is that the Web allows speakers “free entry,” to articulate or present in a very public space – and be found by many other people, through the search engines – controversial or disturbing ideas without seeking permission from others. And, as pointed out, this possibility, evident only in the past dozen or so years, is quite disturbing to many people.

Note well: Most of my blog entries about the COPA trial are on another blog, at this URL.

And underlying issue is turf protection. People who made it the old fashioned way, by moving up social and business hierarchies, may feel threatened. Indeed, it seems refreshing that individuals have an alternative to throwing money to organizations and politicians to represent their partisan interests, often in an intellectually dishonest or incomplete fashion. This blog entry will list a number of possible problems, but many of these may well seem to be red herrings. One way to derail a new competitor is to ignore it, and not give it credibility by responding or complaining. Yet, sometimes people play victim, if they feel that newbies are competing unfairly, or are not paying their dues, or are indirectly denying others income.

Let’s run through a list of the possibilities.

. Free content can displace income-producing content from professional writers and journalists. (The ultimate turf problem.)
. Individual speakers may endanger kids with unsupervised posts. This is what COPA is all about.
. Credit card and adult-id verification screens mandated by COPA could compromise privacy of visitors and pose security problems
. Speakers could inadvertently divulge confidential or classified information or business trade secrets through posts, sometimes through inference
. Speakers, even while avoiding piracy or direct posting of copyrighted content without permission, could violate press “no rewrite” rules with paraphrased postings. Speakers could dilute this danger by combining different stories and attributing them, and by adding personal editorial perspective
. Speakers could be accused of offering “legal advice” and probably should have disclaimers denying such in many cases. Legal discussions are often necessary to make political or social arguments
. Speakers could be violating campaign finance reform laws, although this danger has been somewhat attenuated by moderate FEC rulings earlier this year.
. Based on past experiences in a few communities (Chicago, LA, a few New Jersey townships) speakers could be violating local zoning laws.
. Speakers, if offering a lot of “personal stuff” or if getting into certain controversies, could attract risk to others associated with them, such as family members or neighbors. This could present problems for insurance companies or property owners, and states have already looked at this issue with respect to hate crimes laws. Entities doing business with the speakers might perceive themselves to be at heightened risk, also. This is the “heckler’s veto” problem. There are "skip tracer" sites that can locate some people even when their personal information is not disclosed.
. Speakers could provide a distraction to stakeholders, clients or customers in the workplace. I have written about this a lot on this blog, and it is well known now that many employers have started looking at the public web activity of job applicants. I have suggested that blogging policies be based on the kind of job to be offered.
. Speakers could, because of search engine, keep other people visible to the public, sometimes in an unfavorable light; search engines can produce misleading results when names are combined with derogatory phrases.
. Jobs that require forced intimacy present particular risks when others can find personal writings. Sexual orientation disclosure provides serious issues for military servicemembers because of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. As has been noted at the COPA trial, teachers have been fired for making personal information available to students (sometimes including sexual orientation) on the web. There is a long audit trail of case law dealing with issues of public school teacher free speech.
. In some unusual cases, some speech could be seen as enticing wrongdoing by others. This might include “self-defamation” which is sometimes done (as on social networking sites) and is intended as social parody or role playing, but might be seen as enticement legally. Other problems come out of demonstrating weaknesses in public security systems, as with a recent controversy caused by graduate student Christopher Soghoian who demonstrated a way to generate fake airline boarding passes on his server. Links about this in The Washington Post, story by Brian Krebs on Nov 1, 2006m or Chris's own blog.

The Washington Times, in an editorial on Oct 12, 2005, had pointed out some of this in relation to the election reform issue. Amateur speakers cannot afford the legal advice previously commonly sought in the publication and journalism businesses. Nevertheless, proportionally, most litigation still involves "established" publications and media. Future controversies are likely to deal with the circumstances and standing of the speaker (as with respect to "conflict of interest") as well as with his or her content viewed "objectively."

On April Fools Day, 2006, Electronic Frontier Foundation sent out an email claiming (as a joke appropriate for the day) that cease-and-desist letters had gone out to social networking site companies blaming them for allowing "minor age" job applicants to defame or disqualify themselves from consideration on their social networking profiles! That is, the sites were by definition "harmful to minors." Perhaps this whole problem sounds like one of John Stossel's "Give Me a Break" segments. But those segments are real reports!