Friday, June 27, 2008

Sustainability: a new individual moral virtue?


There is a new moral buzzword, sustainability. Recently I reviewed (on the books blog) a new opus by Peter Senge (“The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World”) that talks about sustainability, mainly in terms of thoughtful activism within the workplace. His basic premise is that the industrial age, that has made our standard of living possible in the developed world, must evolve into a new green age, with some different parameters of growth.

But a pretty obvious question arises. Should sustainability become a personal moral value or virtue? Should one be expected to examine the pattern and significance of one’s own actions and expressions in terms of sustainability? Could the concept of personal sustainability allow others (eg "society") to redevelop the notion of "the right way to live" (the way churches do now) and impose it on non-conformists in anti-libertarian fashion?

I think that a lot of the notions about “public morality” that we endured before the 1960’s civil rights movement and increasing demands for individual freedom have to do with what we thought made society “sustainable.” We often put these ideas in religious terms (and still do). But we now know that the old standards of “Victorian morality” etc. did not make for a permanently sustainable world. But by the 50s a view had evolved, that family-based personal mores were a necessary condition for stable freedom, even if diplomatic, political and moral collective leadership were also necessary to reduce or eliminate group injustices.

In fact, many people will say that the world (with its pretense of religious virtue) of the 1950s simply enabled one group of people to exploit the labor of others, while consuming and exhausting resources, and that this continues now. If we look back at what we learned about comparative government back in high school civics, we remember that totalitarian ideologies were often based on ideas of “permanence.” Nazi Germany predicted a thousand year “reich” that lasted a dozen years. Stalinist Communism (and Marxism) talked about a state that eventually withers away after the long term establishment of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Nevertheless, there were concepts in our “public morality” of the 50s that do seem applicable to sustainability. A couple of them were striking. For example, men were expected to prove that they could defend and provide for women and children (not just their own spouses) before they were respected by the world. The Cold War, followed by the Civil Rights revolution and disenchantment with Vietnam, taught us that brains and “geekiness” could be more important than brawn (a bit of the thinking behind Richard Connell’s famous story “The Most Dangerous Game”) and encouraged more emphasis of individual development of intellectual skills. (Actually, that had been true during World War II, but we hadn’t caught on to what Alan Turing had taught us.) However, until the 70s, at least, there had always been a strong moral current that people should become responsive to the real needs of others and incorporate taking care of others as a prerequisite to any notions of personal success. The idea that personal risk should be shared (as a “rite of passage”) had been built into the draft, and the “unfairness” of deferments drove many of the “morality” debates of the 1960s. I remember these well during my own coming of age and I am struck that many of today’s teens and young adults have no concept of what this meant.

The modern world has given individuals unprecedented capabilities to live their own lives individually as they chose, regardless of the needs of others or of hidden interdependencies on others. It allowed some people (like me) to be “choosy” about their social experience. Originally, this experience consisted of physical personal mobility and then the ability to live alone or in various other arrangements (besides the marital family) in some sort of economic parity (able to buy homes, for example) which was not the same thing as “equality” that we demand today. I took advantage of this gratuitously on some of my rent car vacation trips, but usually lived in high density urban areas and required relatively little commuting. With the Internet, global self-expression, outside of the ties of family and business reporting structure, became possible, and I took advantage of that. I developed my own "way of life" and it became productive, but I fear that it will not be sustainable for today's or future generations, which may have to accept much more socialization.

All of this suggests that I lived in and counted on a world where one’s “work” or “experience” or “expression” or even possessions can become more important than “people as people” (a favorite phrase of my father a few decades ago) – especially accountability to people. That sounds like it can be wasteful (sometimes) and destabilizing. It suggests a world that now appeals to more introverted personalities and discourages personal dependency, when actually it involves hidden dependencies. The “moral” consequences of all of this sometimes get criticized in belief systems like that of Luddites. Or, for example, consider the Amish, who shun all modern technology that allows “independence” and who believe that their world is sustainable and stable. Of course an Amish outlook could not save the world from an asteroid hit, were as a technological society could save itself, or perhaps even move to another planet some day.

That brings us to the “cultural war” and “family values.” Now, in the past couple of decades, we have gotten used to hearing about family values in taking responsibility for your own acts. That is, raising children you parent (hopefully married first) and protecting yourself and others from STDs. But older ideas about morality turned this around a bit. There was a presumption that you owed your society (and especially your parents and family) biological loyalty, usually through having children and raising a family yourself, or at least by being supportive of those who did. In a sense, that sounds like the essence of “biological sustainability.” The strengths of marriages were thought to depend on the kids, even when the kids became adults. You can imagine the logical conundrums that result, and I’m surprised that someone like Dr. Phil doesn’t go deeper into these. (Or maybe I’m not surprised.)

You know where this leads – the contentious areas of “gay rights” and today, gay marriage. We all hear the complaints that gays renounce any responsibility for procreation in marriage and having and raising children. Except that many gays want to adopt and sometimes do. (Listen to Rosie O’Donnell’s story.) But having or at least taking the responsibility to raise children (even other people’s) can give one an obvious personal accountability to future generations, and an incentive for “sustainability.” Likewise so does a system that encourages childless people to remain loyal to the goals of their families, even though such an archaic or tribal value system raises painful questions about equality, privacy, personal sovereignty and individual liberty.

What does seem at issue, in part, is how much responsibility we should feel for other people’s children in all of our actions. That sounds like a genuine sustainability question.

Furthermore, because of demographics, eldercare is becoming a big issue, making demands on people who did not have children of their own and have never had to be responsible for other people who need to depend on them. In some cases, adults caught in this situation wonder if they would be better off if they actually had children, ironically. The demographic problems (fewer children and longer lives, and shrinking pensions and challenges to social security) certainly make an economic and lifestyle sustainability problem

One can think of a lot of the crises of the past few decades: the oil shocks of the 70s as well as the recent oil price runup, the AIDS epidemic, terrorism, the threats of new kinds of pandemics, and the enormous problems on the Internet caused by individual abuse (spam, for example, and viruses) – all of these relate in some way to “asymmetric behavior” where the actions of a relatively small number of people can have enormous impact on the world that seeks to liberate itself from the stifling pattern of political and familial loyalties in a spirit of individual liberty. Now we see that global warming (as well as other novel challenges like sudden pandemics) could force us to recognize our hidden interdependence on each other and accept others into our lives (even in somewhat intimate circumstances) in circumstances far from our own choosing. The future economy may not support the asymmetry of personal expression, with relatively little formal accountability or reportability, as it has so far.

We do see signs, on shows like Oprah, of examples of what personal sustainability ethics might involve. “Going green” could demand a lot more sociability and less convenience and perhaps less media dependence than what we have come to take for granted. It could demand more preparedness. It could demand the contingent skills that earlier generations demanded of everyone, in terms of raising children and caregiving, to help “socialize” the “risk” for those who do “choose” to have children. Philip Longman (“The Empty Cradle”) may be right in maintaining that modern society encourages self-absorption and disables some of the special continuous intimacy needed for having and raising children in families.

"Sustainability" as a moral precept may very well complicate or at least enrich the way we think about the relationship between choice and responsibility. It may force us to accept the sharing of common responsibilities and goals that transcend personal expressive choices, even in family matters. The concept is certainly a familiar concept of most religious faith. It concerns "do's" as much as "don't's".

I may have come of age at the right time for my own karma after all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are ad blockers a concern for the Internet advertising world (when that world supports self-publishers)?


Apparently, the asymmetry of opportunity inherent in web self-publishing goes both ways. An upstate New York guy named “Rick752” is carrying on, with some effect apparently, a one-man (or perhaps there are “accomplices”) war against Internet ads.

Perhaps I am uncomfortable with having to "report" on this matter, as if I were biting the hand that feeds me. But, on my blogs, I want to account for everything that is going on, and get to "The Truth" -- which, as on the X-Files, is "out there." Blogger journalism, like all journalism, demands objectivity.

The practical "risk: from ad blocking is, of course, that if most surfers used tools like his, “free content” on the web for consumers would (or could) disappear because presumably most of it is paid for by ads. Income earning opportunities for self-publishers and bloggers with ad revenue would disappear, and the publishing world would go back to its old ways of formality and “paying your dues.” Maybe. It’s hard to say from the article or the evidence if this is a real danger or not.

The Washington Post Business section today (June 25) runs a provocative and detailed news story on this development. The piece is by Peter Whoriskey, it has the title “One Man, One Long List, No More Web Ads” and the subtitle is “In his free time, ‘Rick752’ helps millions skip banners and pop-ups. Should a $40 billion industry be scared?” The link is here.

The products are called “Easylist” and “Adblock”. The main web site seems to be this. The site has a subdirectory called “subscriptions.”

The Washington Post article (in the printed newspaper) gives a couple of examples of how it works. A Los Angeles Times front page is shown (“before” and “after”) with the blocking on, where an automobile ad is blocked. Adblock allows the visitor to block individual ads. I don’t know how easy it is to disable the blocking and see the ads again.

I personally have no problem with ads that stay “framed” an in place, and I have not used these products. I do get annoyed by ads that have to be closed, which some news sites (like USA Today and sometimes imdb) use. (I find Wal-Mart's coverup on MSNBC particularly annoying and tasteless.) Sometimes these kinds of ads may be skipped by deep links, which is one reason why there have been some legal battles over deep linking (which for the most part is now permissible as long as it is not “embedded” or “hot linked” – the recent story about the AP complaint gives an example). I do use popup blockers, which I can disable. With some sites, pop-up blockers get in the way of what turns out to be legitimate and valuable content. I have had some problems with both IE and Mozilla with blockers that prevent opening new windows.

As with any controversy, it’s important to see the other side of the story. That could be provided by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which says (according to the Post story) “we are no where near a doomsday scenario.” A cursory search doesn’t show any evidence that Wall Street takes this “homemade cookie” ad blocking concept seriously yet. I could not get “Adblock” or “Easylist” to show up on a search of their site (for their comments). They have a very interesting and important article by Randall Rothenberg, “War Against the Web” which discusses, with some sobriety, Congressional and state legislative efforts to stop “behavioral targeting” of Internet advertising. The Huffington Post link is here. Rothenberg makes the point that, in a sense, all traditional broadcast advertising (as on network television) is a form of “spam” that tends to lead to homogeneity of content on public media.

There is also the “ethical” debate. Some people accuse “Rick” of threatening the democratizing potential of speech on the Internet. He answers that things will be all right if advertisers behave more reasonably and stop intruding, driving people like him to come up with blockers.

I have had online websites since 1996 (I started with AOL personal publisher and had my own domain in 1997). For a few years, I offered a little bit of Linkshare on my home page, which actually paid a little. The ads actually made the home page look a bit more colorful. I started with Blogger at the beginning of 2006. Some of my presence (my doaskdotell.com site) has no ads, and because of the volatility of the concept, I do prefer to keep things that way. Another reason is that ad-free pages allow one to be more candid with some kinds of content that would cause PSA’s or drive away most advertisers. And there are many interesting amateur blogs that do not have ads. On the other hand, there are blogs (like Heather Armstrong’s famous “dooce.com”) that provide full-time-job level income for their publishers because of the ads and volume of visits.

It’s important, however, that the ad business be healthy. The ability to provide blogging services, even for bloggers that don’t advertise, may depend on profits from advertising revenues, and from some legal right to target the ads both on content and (sometimes) on visitor behaviors. Of course, the free services, as we know, come with some disadvantages (they have to root out the bad actors and “spammers”, sometimes ensnaring the “innocent”), which can mean that subscription shared-hosting ISP publishing services (that have been around since the middle 1990s) may still turn out to be more important in the long run.

ADDENDUM:

Rick may have an indirect point, in that if ads were "better" (had real content, as some do), people won't object to them. It's interesting, and disturbing, that Anderson Cooper tonight on his 360 News on CNN reported on Internet pharmacies and search engine and blog-associated ads, saying that many of the Internet sales would be illegal. (The transcript for the June 25 report is here.) The search engine companies are said to use a service called Pharmacy Checker before accepting their ads. The government says that much of its regulatory authority is concerned only with controlled substances (that doesn't sound true to me -- the FDA banned prescription of quinine for muscle cramps but you can still buy it over the counter).

Despite the claims in the 360 report, there is a Boston Globe and Washington Post story from December 10 2003 (by Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty) that most search engine companies had stopped accepting many questionable pharmacy ads, here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Associated Press in scuffle with bloggers (Drudge Retort matter)


In the fast few days, blows in a copyright scuffle between old and new media have been popping up like afternoon thunderstorms on the Internet. Recently, the Associated Press demanded that Rogers Cadenhead and his Drudge Retort remove a number of quicklinks to AP stories (especially some political ones) from its site. The links appear to consist of these components: the hyperlink itself, the full title, and often a few sentences from the story, usually (it seems) from the beginning.

The Washington Times reported this on Friday June 21 in a story by Jennifer Harper on p A4, “AP, bloggers clash over use of wire content.” Harper’s story opened by characterizing this incident as a “clash between traditional ‘old’ media and Internet-driven ‘new’ media”. The Times online link has a slightly updated version of the story here, “Blogger, AP meet about use rift.” (The Washington Times no longer prints a separate paper on Saturdays.)

Staci Kramer has a brief story in The Washington Post online from Friday June 20, “Drudge Retort’s Retort to AP: Personal Issue Resolved but ‘Larger Conflict’ Remains,” here.

The Media Bloggers Association (MBA) has a very detailed account “Back Story on How AP and Drudge Retort Come to Terms,” link here. Buzzmachine has an interesting interpretation (by Jeff Jarvis) of the controversy over the journalist’s “link layer” and the ethics of its use, here.

AP reportedly objects to bloggers copying their entire story titles (sometimes the titles themselves are long and convey some of the story). However, this practice would be no different than listing the name of a print newspaper story in a footnote or bibliography of high school of college term paper, pre-Internet. This is not plagiarism.

Many news services and television stations carry warnings that their stories may not be “rewritten” or “redistributed”. However, facts themselves in a story are not copyrightable, even though initial reporters may have gone to great effort to get a scoop (I think now of Sebastian Junger’s daring Vanity Fair piece right from Afghanistan).

Furthermore, many conventional media sources carry AP stories. AOL often does so, and includes additional disclaimers noting AP’s intellectual property rights. Often these stories disappear after a couple of weeks. Sometimes the original story cannot be easily found on AP’s own site. In such a case, if a blogger refers to an AOL or Yahoo! copy, the blogger will want to use the full title so that a visitor a couple months later (as with a search engine visit) can determine what the original content was in a new context.

There were also reports that AP was demanding that bloggers pay $2.50 per word for any quote exceeding four words in length. (One account of this story appears on Tech Dirt from about June 17, here.) The “fair use” doctrine well established in copyright law does not set specific length parameters for fair use, but encourages as case-by-case approach. Generally, copyright law does not appear to allow copyright owners to dictate their own parameters in terms of specific word counts or policies on links. There was a well known case on deep links in 2003 (Kelly v Ariba Soft). I had discussed this case in this blog on Feb. 7, 2006 and March 9, 2007 (please see the Archive links on this page).

Of course, one well known problem is the way the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act works. ISPs are encouraged to remove allegedly infringing content sometimes on flimsy claims. Speakers are supposed to be able to appeal, but it seems that in many cases they do not have the resources to fight back even against unjustifiable claims. This is a pervasive problem in American law as a whole, and makes a good case for comprehensive tort reform (and the adoption of “loser pays” systems as in Europe), although there are supposed to be some protections against abusive practices in the copyright law.

I sometimes wonder if this is not so much a battle of “fair use” from a content perspective, but is more of a turf and entry issue. In new media, it is possible for amateurs to distribute news, with their own added spin and interpretations. Older media may feel that this threatens their profits, and journalists employed in older media may feel pressure on their jobs. In a sense, this sounds like part of the larger “globalization” debate and it also ties into disputes that writers (as with the National Writers Union) have over royalty rights for Internet distribution of their work. Could the “manner of entry” (that is, use of “free entry”) by an amateur writer affect his or her claim to “fair use” if the original property holder believes that its revenue potential is affected by manner of entry? No one knows, but the pattern in court decisions so far (including the Supreme Court) suggests (to me, at least) that the mechanics of distribution (such as the Internet vs. bricks-and-mortar print) generally doesn’t affect intellectual property law (copyright or trademark, or even potential censorship cases like COPA, the Child Online Protection Act) as much as the actual content does.

Even so, in the MGM v. Grokster case (2005) concerning P2P and copyright infringement, the Supreme Court did indicate that a “business model” could be taken into consideration in determination of downstream liability if that “model” was predicated on the idea that infringement would inevitably occur.

I recall an email exchange during the Grokster period with Mark Cuban (Magnolia Pictures) in which Cuban said to me that he thought that the Grokster case really was about protecting old-fashioned turf. Even from the viewpoint of his own upstart movie company, he was concerned about it.

So is the AP trying to protect it’s turf and revenue model? AP itself has said that it needs control of its own owned content, as if that was an integral part of its property rights. But does that include making newbies “pay their dues” and potentially raising the barrier of entry?

Reports say that AP will publish a new “terms of service” policy for bloggers Monday (June 23).

Let me reiterate my own practice. I do give links to the original story (on AP or otherwise), and I try to find the most “original” link available. I usually state the author’s name and the full title in the sense that a term paper footnote would state them. For a newspaper I provide the print location and page if known. I provide some additional comments and perspective to “add value.” On blogs, I also believe that visitor comments add value (a contention that Drudge Retort and similar sites will make, too, even if they do not always add their own commentary to the quotes). I may restate some facts (they are not “property”) but I encourage the visitor to go to the original story for more facts (or purchase a print version of a newspaper if practical). Visitors should remember that stories do disappear or become archived, and that some newspapers charge (subscription or per story) for archives, and other sites require registration, sometimes with minimal personal information, before full content will be shown. Also, professional and medical sites often present abstracts that are free, but usually require purchase for full content.

Update: Monday June 23, 2008

I did find a news story, by Seth Sutel, dated June 20 giving the AP's side of things. The link is here. The AP refers (without making the link workable) us to another post by Cadenhead, here. The AP has not yet, as far as I know, released a formal revised AUP, but it claims that it will not try to impose it's own view of "fair use" and says that it is a not-for-profit organization itself.

The AP also provides this link for copyright "do's and don'ts." Note the objection to pasting content into a browser. It does mention "fair use" and gives this SIAA link. There is also a link to a discussion on permissions ("Copyright Permissions Demystified") by Lesley Ellen Harris of copyrightaws.com, here.



Update: June 27

Business Week has a disturbing article by Peter Burrows, June 26, posted on Tech Beat, "The Threat to 'Fair Use' in the Blogosphere, link here. Burrows points out that the DMCA puts microbroadcasters and ordinary bloggers "at the end of the food chain", often unable to enforce legitimate rights, because they haven't "competed" successfully with the bigger folks, who are not above using automated tools to track them down and bully them off the net. The DMCA seems to provide an example of what we call now a "sustainability problem." While the AP may have been right about Drudge Retort, the whole incident could expose other bloggers to automated tools that will not be able to apply "fair use" the way a human would. There is a real problem out there in the corporate publishing community as to whether "fair use" applies to amateurs. The law says it does, but the word doesn't seem to get around.

It's important to remember that publishers, including "amateur" bloggers, have the right to file counter notifications, and that illegitimate takedown notices can sometimes result in secondary liabilities for the complainants. Look at the DMCA policy for any major ISP (for for Google) under the company's "terms of service" links.

Update: July 11, 2008


Saul Hansell has a story in the June 16, 2008 New York Times ("Media & Advertising") "The Associated Press to Set Guidelines for Usings Its Articles in Blogs," link here.
AP's intentions still look a bit ambiguous. The AP says at one point that it would rather see a paraphrase and a link to the entire story so that the proper context is available, rather than even short quotes (which might call under many perceptions of "fair use"). It also says "As content creators, we firmly believe that everything we create, from video footage all the way down to a structured headline, is creative content that has value."

Second picture (to get your attention) from a fake Guantanomo cell on the Washington Mall June 2008.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Employers, personal social networking sites and blogs: there is real controversy now, and times are changing quickly


In the past three years or so, the major media have reported the growing practice of employers in checking out job applicants’ activities on social networking sites and blogs, trying to conduct clandestine “background investigations” and assess the candidate’s “reputation.”

Very recently, a few sources in the human resources industry have advised employers against this practice, arguing that doing so opens the employer up to litigation for denying employment for illegal reasons. I discussed this problem yesterday on my “IT job market” blog (please see my Profile) and gave appropriate bibliographic links.

Employers are likely to say that they are only using information voluntarily offered by the applicant or associate and deliberately placed in a public space, often accessible to quick and free indexing by search engines. Therefore, they could argue (assuming a litigation event) that they are reacting to speech that is, in some sense, already uttered “in the workplace” or easily accessible by clients and stakeholders. They are, in a sense, controlling extraneous or potentially inappropriate speech in the workplace.

This sort of concern sounds legitimate especially in some particular areas. For example, consider what happens when the provocative speech of someone who makes underwriting decisions about customers or employment decisions about subordinates, or a permanent teacher who gives students grades and who is supposed to function as a public “role model,” is found by “stakeholders.” It’s easy to imagine other potential legal risks to the employer. School districts are especially sensitive to the notion of teacher “reputation.” Or consider the possible consequences if proprietary information is leaked, however indirectly and by “suggestion,” by someone with insider knowledge that can materially affect stock price.

But I think there is an emergence or evolution of something having to do with the “meaning” of personal speech here.

Ten years ago, I perceived the Internet as mainly a tool to augment self-publication and guaranteeing that a significant number of people would get information quickly about a number of interlocked issues, such as “don’t ask don’t tell” and “family values.” There was risk inherent in instantaneous, free entry “broadcast” publication, in that less due diligence was practiced than in the past. But there was value in that the public would start “connecting the dots” more quickly and I could be party to that process, a concept that I felt proud of. During 1998 and 1999, we started to realize how effective Internet search engines would become, as well as how e-commerce sites (Amazon, etc) could keep someone’s work in the public’s eye. This is so even as there are debates today in the Wiki community about what merits “notability.” Around 1999, there would occasionally appear media stories about employees fired for stock manipulation (on their own sites) or teachers or nurses fired for appearing in Internet pornography (on their own time). By 2002 or 2003, occasionally there would be reports of people being fired for discussing their workplaces in blogs or personal sites. (Heather Armstrong’s “dooce” sites would provide a famous example. In Minneapolis, documentary filmmaker Chuck Olsen (“Blogumentary”) would warn an audience in 2003 that people were getting fired for what they said in blogs. Even so, employers tended to look at blogs as personal activity, often related to personal political or social causes and often intended as “publication” activity. They did not believe yet that this was a big issue.

This all seemed to flip with the advent of social networking sites, which seemed to take off in 2005. People were using blogs and profiles to – socialize. Well, for one thing, employers could hope to “hijack” this activity to “get business” in sales-oriented jobs. But there was a subtle change in the perception of what blogs are “for.” They are intended to get other people to do things. That may have been true before, but in a more detached, distant sense, where Internet sites (like mine) were essentially online publications and “media.”

The moral responsibility for what others do after reading or consuming someone’s authored media is a controversial topic. It’s apparently starting to become important legally (the “implicit content” problem). We have known of examples from the past, mostly associated with weapons and right-wing extremis (the novels “Hit Man” and “Turner Diaries”). But generally, novels and movies are just that – entertainment and media, not more. They’re not “real”. Yet, Paramount and Dreamworks had to deal with this problem last fall with the release of its controversial film about Islam, “The Kite Runner,” even though the novel had been well accepted.

The idea that people would interact directly with speakers and others was sold by social networking sites. But now the concept applies to other Internet media, too: videos, poems, and even the screenplay drafts that, though fiction, got me in trouble on a substitute teaching job. After all, a particular file on a website may be found with a search engine and misconstrued when the visitor doesn’t bother to look further to find out the larger context to which the item refers. The school administrator, in my case, could wonder, “why is he letting himself be perceived this way. Doesn’t he care about his ‘reputation’?” I didn’t see it as a reputation issue; I saw it as a piece of fiction, like a Stephen King story, and item that fits into a collection that makes a larger whole. To worry about “reputation” this way would invoke self-censorship and make other writings less credible.

The social climate today seems much more troubled (in 2008) than it was in 1997 when I published my first book. Ten years ago, we were talking about “fundamental rights” of privacy and self-expression, not completely realizing that the Internet would create some tension between those two personal needs. Moreover, today we note more awareness of collective dangers (post 9/11, post financial scandals, and pre-“purification”) and wonder what the personal burden that each one of us must share will be – and we don’t have confidence that the market is always “just”. It seems that, like it or not, we are expected to become more connected again and more interdependent. Responsibility for others isn’t always the result of a simple behavioral choice. That expectation can very well make what one says online a more sensitive matter than it was a decade ago.

Post script: Just as I finished this post, CNN's "Your Money" with Ali Velshi came on with a short report "Blogging and your job." Sheryl Spanier was consulted about the dangers of blogging from the office unless it is actually a job duty. There was also a recommendation not to blog even outside of work about "your industry" especially if you have detailed inside knowledge (for example, trade secrets, or the ability to affect a security price). Blogging about personal interests and hobbies is "usually OK" as long as it doesn't create a "reputation defense" problem; but that is partly what the controversy is now about.

See Movie Review blog, May 18, 2011 for more on "Blogumentary".

Friday, June 20, 2008

Congress OK's telecomm immunity in wiretap cases, minimal court supervision required for harbor


The Washington Post this morning provides extensive coverage of a new wiretap bill, which passed the House yesterday. The story, by Dan Eggen, Paul Kane, and William Branigen, is titled “President Bush Urges Quick Passage of Wiretapping Bill,” on the front page of the June 20 paper, link here.

The bill is HR 6304, here on (Library of Congress site) Thomas. The visitor may have to rekey the search at Thomas. Curiously, I could not find it on govtrack. . Media sources like the Post report that the House and Senate have agreed on this bill now, and call this an unusual “legislative victory” for the president.

The bill would protect communications providers from liability for assisting the government with warrantless searches of subscriber Internet activity. Right now there are over forty cases against telecommunications providers in litigation. The new bill would harbor the telecomm company if it can show that a federal judge has reviewed the case and that the judge monitors the administration’s claim that the eavesdropping is of genuine necessity for national security.

The ACLU has a press release that “condemns FISA deal, declares surveillance bill unconstitutional,” here and a talking points list on the bill here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a blog entry (“Republican Senators: It’s About Immunity”) by Hugh Dandrade on the legislation, here.

A related bill is HR 3773, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which is in conference, govtrack reference here.

I have never personally suspected any wiretapping against me. I know that protection of sources is also an issue for journalists and could be for bloggers (as I have covered before, especially on my "major issues" blog). In some cases, however, I believe it is necessary and legitimate (for journalists and especially bloggers) to report what sound like (non “spam”) credible tips or clues given the issues of the post 9/11 world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Bubble": two movies; dot-coms, real estate, and crude oil: a lesson in extreme capitalism?


Bubble” was used as a title for two very different independent movies recently, and now it marks a Washington Post series Alec Klein, Zachary A. Goldfarb. It’s called “The Bubble: Anatomy of a Meltdown: The Credit Crisis.” The series appeared June 15-June 17 and the three parts were called “Boom” “Bust” and “Aftermath”. The best link for the full series is this.

The bigger question is, of course, whether capitalism – especially “extreme capitalism” – naturally leads to a succession of bubbles. We had, at one time, believed we had built enough safeguards into the system after the 1929 Crash and Great Depression with measures like federal deposit insurance, pension guaranty, and social quasi-entitlement programs like social security and Medicare. This, of course, started largely during the New Deal and was accelerated under LBJ’s “Great Society” of the 60s.

Moralists, however, will always insist that there will always be imbalances when some people can promote themselves (financially or culturally) on the backs of others. In some ways, the oil price shock (and the oil embargo and first price runnups in the 1970s) reflect that.

Indeed, in 2004, Princeton professor David Callahan argued that extreme capitalism has been accompanied by a breakdown in personal ethics associated with a heightened sense of individual competition and short term pressures, as in his book “The Cheating Culture.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s it became fashionable for single people to buy condominiums, and there was a mini real estate boom then, even given the inflation and high interest rates following Jimmy Carter’s moral expansion. This was particularly true in Texas and the southwest, where real estate speculation and flipping boomed. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia started increasing oil production in the 1980 (under the pressure of Reaganomics, maybe) and oil prices fell. As an indirect result, real estate was found to be overbuilt in Texas prices fell, leading partly to the savings and loan scandal (exacerbated by fraudulent land flipping in some areas around Dallas and Houston). I was caught by this: I sold a condo for a small loss, and then had to handle a situation where an unqualified assumption failed. The "rolling recession" of the late 80s and early 90s, however, seems mild compared to today’s subprime crisis.

Consider the Internet dot-com bubble. Much of it may have been explained by the expected efficiencies in retail and consumer shopping, and the economies of scale for companies inherent in broadband (and outsourcing). Those facilities appeal particularly to the idea of short term earnings results. But there was also the novelty of immediate global personal broadcast. That seemed as sudden and surprising a boon as space travel might have been. In my case, I thought I could “monocast” a startling social and political concept, and the idea that someone like me could do so might stimulate a belief in future profits from Internet publishing businesses as whole. But a lot of times, the effect of an idea is social or political and extends over a long period of time, and only makes money later when there is a potential big payoff (like a movie).

I recall at a company meeting in 1999, the CEO said our stock price was weaker than it should be because the company name didn’t include “dot com”. That turned out to be silly, as dot-com started falling apart in 2000, well before 9-11. Nevertheless, a paid speaker at a sales conference in August 2001 predicted a 35000 Dow by 2005. That was also “silly.”

The next bubble would, then, be the “second” real estate bubble, as well analyzed now. The problem seems to be, that the particular kind of “securitization” that hid the real risk from normal investors was not regulated. Real estate, they say, is “real” because it is finite. Well, you can build condos in three dimensions (especially in New York City -- Donald Trump knows all about “air rights”). I wonder how we (or “the market”) would price real estate on Mars if we terraform the planet and can actually move and live there.

And now, people like George Soros talk about commodities (especially crude oil) as being in a bubble. After all, oil prices cracked before, in the 1980s. This time, the underlying fundamentals seem to be different: global demand from competing developing countries is much stronger, and the political volatility from non state actors is much more critical (in a potential “next 9/11” sense). An underlying problem seems to be the pricing of commodities in dollars, and the idea that, by not properly paying for the Iraq war and consumption patterns, Americans are living beyond their means, with the dollar falling. Ordinary Americans, after all, fell for those bad mortgages. We spin and manipulate each other too much, and have stopped learning how to produce real wealth.

Monday, June 16, 2008

B2B and social media marketing: how do they fare in "recession"?


There is a lot of talk these days on how companies (and, particularly, small businesses and individuals) should adjust their marketing and self-salesmanship, in areas like B2B (“business to business”) and in social media marketing.

For example, the blog “Marketto: Modern B2B Marketing” has a position paper from June 14, “7 Strategies for B2B Marketing During a Recession,” here. The paper discusses the hype that we may not be in a technical recession yet, but most “average” consumers behave as if we are in one, and many are severely stressed by the food and gas price increases, the mortgage mess, and job losses. Indeed, the way economic numbers are weighted tends to hide this fact. The paper believes that spending in conventional broadcast or “interruption” or “push” marketing (perhaps best known as expensive network television commercials) could drop (that’s not good news for a lot of media companies), “legitimate” grass roots marketing by email, on the web on blogs, and particularly through social networks may increase. In fact, I’ve noticed an increase in emails about referral lists and leads, common in insurance and financial planning sales, and the level of sophistication in tracking leads has grown. Many of the emails leave the impression that a lot of business is “personal” or “social” in nature, and, while customer service is important, does not seem to depend a lot on originality of content. An example of a company that represents this idea of B2B is “Fierce Markets”, the name of which plays on the idea that “fierce” was one of Winston Churchill’s buzzwords.

There is also a recent article, “What is involved in social media marketing?” on TraffikID, here. It is very difficult to be “The Messenger” with “breaking news” so it seems to be more important to package new material in a branded, catchy way to get the attention of users in online social situations, particularly with effective entry pages.

Along the lines of marketing, I'd like to pass on this source from the insurance business, the "Agent Broker Training Center," Michael Beck, Insurance & Advisor Coach, "Stop Interviewing Potential Agents!", link here. An agent is not an "employee"; he or she is a business owner, but the business often is selling something that someone else developed. I wouldn't want to do just this; I would rather "develop" the concept, product or service and only then sell it. So I would not be his ideal prospect. This makes interesting reading.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

News stories on policy debates: who the players and lobbyists are really matters


Many times on these blog, including the Major Issues blog, I summarize proposals on public policy issues made by various think tanks and “K Street” lobbying organizations. Usually the major point of a posting (on a topic like health insurance, energy policy, or Internet speech and public schools) is to state a position on how to solve some particular problem (like provide universal health insurance). It’s important to know who stated the proposal, and whose “special interests” are being represented, if any. But there is a limit to how concerned the typical Internet visitor is about the internal workings of the many organizations inside the Washington Beltway (or the “bandits” just outside, for that matter). What matters to me is to list and organize a set of proposals (as in a database) and compare them on merits.

The details of how these proposals get generated matter to some people, however. Typically, a newspaper story mentions a number of organizations and individuals, and it sometimes takes some additional digging to find out who the players really are. I got a comment that I had misconstrued the organizational background of one of my postings recently. I can see why it matters sometimes. Organizations have various standings with the IRS or in tax law, and may not like to be misidentified, even by “amateur” bloggers. There are major differences, for example, between political action committees and “political caucuses” (often important in many cities with LGBT issues), which may be run by essentially the same individual people. Sometimes there are concerned about disguised foreign lobbyists.

Another situation that happens is that sometimes stories or law firms report that a particular law can result in a particular adverse result. For example, a law firm’s website suggested that the laws in a particular state allows school boards to fire teachers for inappropriate Internet speech outside of campus. In a sense that was true, but the text of the law did not say that. This was the law firm’s own interpretation of what courts would probably allow. Something like this can become more serious as Internet conflicts (over personal Myspace profiles and the like) grow and as employers might want to regulate them.

There is a short film at the Newseum in Washington called “Getting it Right” about errors in journalism, which sometimes happen because of time pressures. But sometimes what matters is the little details of a story, to alert but sensitive portions of the potential audience.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Those intangible moral standards of decades ago -- we should understand where they came from


So, pastors like Rick Warren (the “Purpose-Driven Life”) say “It’s not about you.” Secular philosophy professors talk about the difference between the individual and a real person. I understand the need for fellowship and the religious idea of salvation, but I also believe in the idea of karma. One’s own personal track record does matter.

I grew up during the post WWII era (with McCarthyism, unfortunately) that had a particularly stinging sensation about personal morality. One of the most important notions was to be able to “justify” that you “deserve” what you have in relation to what others have – whether money, social position, or limelight. Often, given the gross collective injustices of the time (segregation), the moral ideas do sound like so many rationalizations. The “Left” took over this notion in the late 60s with a communized idea of “deservedness,” and then the Moral Majority tried to replace this with a religious notion in the Reagan years.

The “deservedness” relates to interpersonal values that transcend the usual legal expectations of playing the free market by the rules and within the law – doing your job, and taking responsibility for your own choices. It presumed that one owed some loyalty to family and to others in terms of emotional conformity even beyond just proving you could support yourself as an adult.

One of the “qualifications” expected of young men was to prove they were capable, in a competitive sense, of providing for and protecting women and children. This notion supported the military draft and started to come undone in the 1960s with student deferments, leading to great protests about social injustice. But families had another expectation: having a family yourself once you were grown was a way to prove your worthiness. This fit into ideas about sexual morality. In a world where technology was opening opportunities for expressive lives for the more introverted, it was important to be receptive to intimacy in the family context, to be open to taking the “risk” of having children and raising them. Family responsibility existed even before one had one’s own children, and this notion was as important in terms of “public morality” as was marital fidelity itself. For an only child like me, childlessness was perceived to have permanent, "metaphysical" consequences. Married people believed that they were entitled to monopolize sexuality and control the emotional lives of their children, as part of the marital experience. The supposed “breakdown of the family” that would develop later then was partly related to economic pressure on families from extreme capitalism, but also to the privatization of relationships and the reduced cultural importance given to “meaning” derived from social supports. In many countries and in some segments of American society, there is resistance to the psychological pressure on the nuclear family placed by “hyper-individualism” (accompanying capitalism) and the culture of self-expressiveness and relationship selectivity built into the modern culture of the Internet and online social networking.

As I’ve related on past entries, I had a lot of trouble with these “gender role performance” expectations, especially in the later elementary school and junior high school years. If one could replicate me today maybe a medical explanation would be more apparent, but at the time the pressure and taunts took on a moralistic component. I was not doing my share; yet at the same time I had picked up on the competitive, "Darwinian" nature of competition among men (for their "families"). I was supposed to sacrifice for others, rather than let them sacrifice (as in war) for me. Some of the bad things that happened in the early college years do relate to this. I would actually try to redeem myself by getting myself drafted, but only after finishing graduate school and being finally safely tucked away and castled, as in a chess game (after a protracted “book opening”).

Today, I do face pressures to be more emotionally receptive to others, and not always on my own terms. Sometimes (as in the school systems) I found myself in situations where I was expected to pretend to be a false but temporary "male role model." This is very touchy, given the meaning that I attach to what happened in my own coming of age, and to the urban social segregation that I experienced as an adult for several decades. I maintain that I need a better “political climate.” As did many “me generation” people, I invested a disproportionate share in taking care of myself (avoiding “mistakes”), and stayed away from learning to provide for others, a capability that now needs to be expected. Barack Obama talked about all of this in a recent commencement speech, and his comments were appropriate. We do owe something back for where we are, and what we owe is a bit intangible, but transcends the norms of adult independence.

Will I pick up a hammer and head to New Orleans, or some place similar? It’s not that easy. I know this is an issue. I do talk about the movie I would like to make (call it “do ask do tell” or the like). One of the points of making it would be to convey an understanding of the moral notions that people took for granted a couple of generations ago. I don’t want to go back to them, but it’s important to understand where they came from. (Real need, and survival, and external threats, in large part.) I do think that a more consistent idea of service obligation (the kind Obama talks about) would help depolarize some of the issues that stir up so much emotion today – issues like “don’t ask don’t tell” and gay marriage.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bloggers ride and get "off the bus" of political campaigns


Citizen and networked journalists are certainly attracting the attention of the political campaigns. This morning the Washington Post ran a front page “Media Notes” story (by Howard Kurtz), titled “Amateur Campaign Blogger Scoops the Pros” about Mayhill Fowler, who caught Bill Clinton in diapers when she confronted him in South Dakota right before Hillary’s appearance anticipating the South Dakota Primary. The online version of the story is called “Blogging Without Warning” and appears here.

The “master blog” that had published Mayhill is called “Off the Bus” (as if getting of a campaign bus, plane or train -- or spacecraft, some day -- for a major political candidate) and is sponsored by the Huffington Post and New Assignment, apparently receiving contributions from 2500 people. The main blog URL is this. The blog, taken as a whole, is a bit more complicated than many, and is set up to be retrieved in various ways since there are many contributors. The blog entry in question was entered June 2 and is here. (“Bill Clinton Purdhum”) where there appears an audio file of Bill Clinton’s discussing the Vanity Fair article by Bill Purdhum. That appears to be the piece “Bubba Trouble: The Comback ID” (link here. Purdhum’s Vanity Fair blog is here.

The Post story maintains that Fowler admits that she has “no journalistic training” and spent effort with trying to get books and novels published, apparently by regular trade publishers. “I’m impelled out there and get the truth of the matter.” Ditto. I’m under the impression that bloggers are often “paid” to cover specific events, like political campaigns and sometimes criminal or civil trials, sometimes with an adversarial purpose in mind. What seems necessary to me is the even bigger picture, of all the issues, and how they fit together. Yup. Connect the dots.

Other media sources (like CNN 360) indicate that Bill Clinton didn't realize that Mayhill was a journalist when he talked to her. He should have realized she could subsequently blog. Perhaps he doesn't realize that bloggers are journalists (read Electronic Frontier Foundation), although given all the issues that came up in his own administration, that surprises me.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Self-sovereignty and human nature: individuals v. people


Last week I discussed professor Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book on “sovereignty” on my books blog. I was particularly struck by how she distinguished “individuals” from “people” and maintains that as a moral principle, people should “live” in order to experience social connectivity. Among other things, for many people, that obviously includes children and family. And what seems at issue is not just the presence of family and community influence, it is the personal meaning given to it in a “global” world.

I was struck by her analysis of the social and political dangers of carrying the “ideology” of “individual sovereignty” (or "self-sovereignty") to its logical conclusions, at least for making policy or even for developing ethical philosophy.

People are different in their need for social connection. Some are more internally driven by their own thoughts and ideas than others. Within the human race, we normally encounter differences that normally among animals differentiate whole species: dogs from cats, or, even, lions (which are social) from tigers (which are almost identical biologically but which are solitary). Introversion is supposed to be a good thing within limits, necessary for truth seeking and artistic creativity, but carried too far, it seems to bear a relation to autism. It seems like introversion itself can become perceived as a “moral” problem. The modern high-tech world, and especially the "self broadcast" facilitated by the Internet may actually appeal to introverts because it allows introverts to attract and then filter exactly the other "individuals" that they want to relate to. But this capability requires some political and economic stability and at least the freedom from involuntary impositions from others. Introverts may believe that if they lose their "independence" because of external circumstances beyond their control, they forfeit any individualized sense of accomplishment and purpose and feel forced to play by the rules of someone else's social hierarchy. Freedom remains a requirement to maintain personal integrity.

We’ve gotten used, in the past few decades, to moral and legal concepts based on holding people accountable for the choices they make (particularly having children). But we also know that we need to expect people to take responsibility for each other, within and outside the family, even on matters for which they cannot exercise “sovereign” choice in the normal sense. Whole social and political ideologies grow around getting people to do what others need them to do – and these build history. The Maoist “cultural revolution” of the 1960s is but one example of the results of these “isms”. The use of political force to coerce people to do what perhaps they should do (through codes of "public morality") tends to encourage totalitarianism or at least authoritarianism.

We’re going to hear a lot about volunteerism in the upcoming presidential campaign, especially from Obama. It seems like people need the receptivity and openness to do what is needed and sometimes even experience empathy in unfamiliar situations, whatever the politicians do.

Friday, June 06, 2008

You get what you pay for -- is this true in Cyberspace?


So, they say, you can’t get something for nothing. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So, if there is too much traffic on a superhighway, charge a toll. I notice that VA 267 (the expensive, partly private toll road heading west past Dulles Airport) is usually much less crowded than the free and more or less parallel I-66 a few miles away.

The airlines are exercising this lesson. In the current fuel climate, they can hardly afford to carry excess capacity, which for decades carried the leisure public in piggeyback fashion. Now, business travelers may no longer be subsidizing vacationers.

And we’ve all been reminded of this basic lesson in economics with the subprime crisis. I recall hearing a guy say on Dr. Phil, he didn’t need to bother with college and studies when he could flip houses. Now he is two million in debt at 23. Despite all the pretense of reform since the 1929 crash and New Deal, we keep on seeing Ponzi schemes crash and burn.

So the case seems with the Internet, which has given various people the opportunity to try various business leveraging schemes with little investment, or simply express themselves without going through “political” channels managed by family or business bureaucracy. The efficiency in self-expression is a good thing, and it’s true that a sometimes a free market in the grassroots area can produce real successes and stars, as blogger Heather Armstrong proved. But the lack of stepwise requirement and oversight can also attract a lot of bad actors, certainly when some see infinite opportunity from a free resource, with activities that are illegal or that certainly jeopardize the rest of us.

We’ve learned that lesson with email, although we don’t seem to be very close to charging a micro postage fee for each email sent to discourage spam. We find that offering legal, user-friendly and reasonably priced download services for movies and particularly music will help prevent piracy. Now, we wonder if the same concept could apply in different ways to Internet hosting and particularly free service blogging portals (like this one).

There has been a lot of noise in the literature recently about spam in blogs, on whether captchas stop it, and the use of automated robots to disable or remove them, sometimes, according to some individual bloggers, snaring legitimate blogs (as "false positives"). The problem seems like a serious problem for the business model that underlies free blogging portals. It is presently difficult for customer service, given the best of intentions, to manually review all of the legitimate complaints, and it is embarrassing to individual publishers, some of whom may be driven away to paid hosting. Some literature, such as pieces by Evan Synder on May 30 and June 2 on his (regular site and Wordpress) blog have expressed the libertarian “get what you pay for” idea: if you use someone else’s free service, don’t expect control of what happens to what you publish. But even with rented shared hosting spaces, there can occur other kinds of TOS problems, such as false DMCA “safe harbor” takedowns for incorrectly alleged copyright infringement.

This reminds me of a debate that goes on about the ethical legitimacy of self-publishing. If a regular New York house publishes your book, it is likely to pull the book if it doesn’t make money quickly enough. If you publish it yourself, you can generally keep it out as long as you want if you have the resources, which in the past dozen or so years have not required much expense (desktop publishing and even book manufacturing costs went down quickly in the 1990s while the Internet and PC “revolution” boomed).

But, as noted, any cyberspace enterprise that offers essentially "free entry" (and requires very little individual capital) attracts a lot of abuse and “freeloaders” who can undermine the reputation of the service and of the legitimate work from other publishers or writers who use the service. In different ways, these problems can affect blogging portals, video services, social networking sites, and conventional shared hosting services. (I’m not trying to bash any one of them in particular.) Particularly in the social networking site world, there seems to be a psychological and social issue, too, that people want to substitute a “fantasy” world for a real one that expects people to interact with others (in person) and sometimes compete with them on unfavorable terms. It’s possible that economic and political forces in the future may make these services much less attractive than they are now, partly because of these problems.

It does seem that, just as with email, it would be possible to propose that blogging (and video) portals impose a micro-charge per posting, or possibly expect bloggers to pay for regular hosting services for archiving. (There are some limits and charges with images and video now.) So the free market might have a solution for some of these problems.

But it’s also possible to imagine an economic and legal environment in the future where even self-publishing ventures won’t be able to stay up without getting measurable financial results.

I gave some more details on my own Wordpress blog (go to billboushka.com). Let me add that I am semi “retired” and that I do not work for an ISP or any search engine company, nor have I ever. I did work for NBC in the 1970s as a mainframe programmer analyst. And I do believe I have something to offer ISP’s, search engine, and self-publishing facilitators like iUniverse, Google, or any of the major media news companies and studios. So I plug away at these problems in my own way with my own research. Some day, and perhaps soon, I may approach one or more of them. Maybe it’s time to go back to work, when I'm 64.

(Factual note: I did have a problem early on May 30; for about an hour or so, a number of my blogs gave DNS errors [browser can't find domain at all] even though I could sign in and my dashboard was normal. I wrote an entry in the Forums and in about twenty minutes the problem was fixed and the blogs were loading again.)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

DC area violent storms and tornadoes: yes, they happen here, and sometimes the mountains create them


So, it can happen to anyone. Yesterday, the DC area had it’s taste of Midwestern “tornado alley” weather. Severe storms started in mid afternoon and didn’t get out of the area until almost midnight. I don’t want to trivialize what happens in the real tornado alley. We had a few funnel clouds and damage, but nothing like whole towns being wiped out, like Greenville KS (2007) or Parkersburg, IA. However, there had occurred severe damage in Suffolk, VA, on the tidewater in April, and just NW of Fredericksburg in May.

The geography of the Mid Atlantic area is supposed to provide some protection, mainly the mountains. But yesterday, the mountains probably contributed the storms. A very long stationary front sat from East to West, reaching almost to the Rockies. Low pressure to the north of the DC area brought in cool northwest winds, and summer high pressure trying to move up from the South brought up moisture laden winds from the Gulf. The winds collided along the front and produced shear and rotation. The thunderstorms, as they formed over Indiana and southern Ohio, first looked horizontal on the weather.com map. As they moved east they had to rise over the highest portions of the Eastern Continental Divide, around the Allegheny Front and Spruce Knob areas in West Virginia (a bit away from the stripmining, thankfully). The thunderstorms at first weakened, then they started to reform in the Shenandoah Valley. This time they ran more S to N (SW to NE). As they crossed the Blue Ridge, they encountered the highest Central Section (around Old Rag, Stony Man and Hawsbill) and seemed disrupted as they climbed over. At the same time, Atlantic moisture from the SE was colliding with the eastern faces of the Blue Ridge. This time, several times, the mountains, rather than protecting the DC area, encouraged the violent storms to reform, and “bounce” and race across the area with breakneck speed. I was lucky enough to have power and Internet connection most of the time, and I could watch this happen three times last night on the weather.com maps. They kept on forming as long as the moisture laden flow from the SE collided with the cooler air coming over the Blue Ridge. It has happened before, resulting in catastrophic floods on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge.

Picture above: I could see the rotation in the clouds when I took this picture. Hard to see, but a tiny funnel was trying to form around 7:30 PM, northern VA. Most funnels did not come down to the ground.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Mixx.com -- another way to "connect the dots" in the news


There is a relatively new concept for helping activists and journalists and concerned citizens keep up with news that concerns them. It is a site called Mixx.com (“Your Blend of the Web”) started in 2007 by Chris McGill. The site has some of the spirit of Digg and Reddit, but adds a feature that allows the visitor to see the news in specific subject matter areas of interest. These can be taken from a prescribed list (like “Tech”) or the visitor can spell out his own areas as one word (“globalwarming” or “DMCA”). I tried this with several areas (those two, as well as “internetsafety”) and got five stories on most of them, some familiar but some with new content. Generally, the stories come from reasonably well known news sites.

Visitors can also add content, although I did not try that yet.

Other major sites, like Yahoo! and CNN and of course Google allow visitors to tailor welcome screens to meet their interests.

There are well documented procedures for account holders to submit stories into Mixx and earn “karma points”. There are virtual lounges with “members” with links to their own content.

This is certainly valuable to me, in covering specific subject areas on my own blogs, and checking for new developments as they happen. A set of well selected keywords can indeed help the visitor “connect the dots” of the news in his or her own mind, and spot important problems (as with finance, particularly) before others see them. I can imagine that they could be useful in tracking potentially very dangerous news, like any future outbreak of something like avian influenza.

What remains to be added, after collecting the related stories about a particular topic, is the commentary on the significance of the stories, taken as a whole.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A caution on hot links or embedded links (yes, SNL has been encouraging them)


There has been a lot of anxious talk in the blogosphere recently about various kinds of crackdowns, and I thought I would reiterate what I understand about links, especially hot links and embedded links.

Sometimes, it seems, many links without explanation or commentary is taken as spam, and I may say more about that later. The other major concern about links might have to do with copyright.

On earlier postings on this blog, I’ve covered deep links, and as long as they bring up separate pages they are usually OK, it seems. Much more problematical are hot links, inline or embedded links (as with the img statement or embed parameter). These cause problems or various kinds. They may make it appear that someone else’s content (video, or photo particularly) is “yours” and not theirs. They may cause bandwidth problems for other domains. They may violate a person’s “right of publicity.”

So generally it sounds like it is not a good idea to embed a photo of video unless you have permission to do so, or actually control or own the site that the image(s) come from and can easily prove that you do.

There seem to be times, however, when original content owners do give permission. NBC’s Saturday Night Live boldly offers html code snippets to link to videos of some selections of its content in line (here) where it says “copy & embed SNL in your blog”. That obviously gives what copyright lawyers call “permission.” Furthermore, the actors shown there are (probably by having signed a contract with NBC for the show) indirectly allowing the blogger to use their “right of publicity” without additional compensation.

It’s not that Ashton Kutcher or Shia La Beouf would need the money (they don’t); it’s just a question of following the law. In fact, if you link to one of the SNL embeds, it leads you to others, including John McCain’s “advice to the Democrats.” Seriously, a couple years ago this might have been seen as a violation of McCain-Feingold (that’s ironic, McCain’s own law) until the Federal Election Commission ruled properly that it wasn’t intended to affect incidental references to politicians in “amateur” blogs. (Guess who gains exposure for the 2008 election.)

Of course, all of this raises another question about copyright law. In theory, a Paramount Indiana Jones blockbuster is equal before the law to my fake “duck and cover” video on my doaskdotell.com photo directory (look for “airraid”; there are several). Studios, as we know, vigorously prosecute attempts at piracy (even camcording a few seconds of low quality video in a theater), and record companies are particularly nasty about protecting music these days (MGM v Grokster). Then, why does NBC (which I worked for in the 1970s, by the way) turn around and invite amateurs to embed their videos for free? The importance of copyright is largely about perspective and, for public companies, fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to maintain and "protect" content assets. It is about their controlling the rights of the content that they own. Media companies will give permission for use of their material when they think they get advertising benefit that outweighs any other direct revenue. After all, they offer plenty of their own trailers on the Internet and on imdb.com.

I do have a couple of these SNL embeds in the May videos on the TV blog (look at the profile). They are funny. No, I haven’t seen Andy Samberg’s “Laser Cats” come up yet as a freebie, but that is the best of the bunch. Maybe they will hold on to that one.

Occasionally, I may embed to a domain that I own (usually doaskdotell.com as on my profile, or billboushka.com or johnwboushka.com). I do this rather sparingly, when I think the volume of traffic will be reasonable. I had a case where I was getting thousands of hits daily when someone embedded one of my images (a picture of a can of the meat “Spam” as in the movie “Sophie’s Choice”), so I removed it. That’s another thing, the content owner could pull the plug at any time, or place something objectionable in its place to make your site look bad. (I pulled the image for a while.) For reasons I’ve outlined, I welcome all conventional deep linking, but if someone wants to use an embedded link for anything I own, I do need to be asked for “permission”. It may be better to make a copy and let you load it yourself.

Pictures that I include in my sites are those I have taken myself. Sometimes I photograph old prints of mine (or screen prints of videos) and they make look fuzzier. If the pictures themselves photographed other images or artworks or people n public spaces (where photography is otherwise permitted), I use "common sense," where any objection would be totally frivolous. No, I won't take pictures to embarrass or "out" or somehow manipulate the "reputation" of any identifiable person in public (as in a disco).

I see a lot of blogs and sites that have embedded YouTube videos from parties other than the blog author. This would appear to be permissible from the way I read the YouTube terms of service "Prohibited commercial uses do not include ... using the Embeddable Player to show YouTube videos on an ad-enabled blog or website, provided the primary purpose of using the Embeddable Player is not to gain advertising revenue or compete with YouTube." I have not chosen to do this; I give just the links. One remaining risk might be that the embedded video itself infringed on someone else and that I didn't know about the original owner; the party complaining of infringement would be the original owner of the content, like a movie studio -- and given my plans, I need to stay on the studios' good side. (Of course, I presume you can always embed your "own" videos, too, as long as they are otherwise "lawful". In Blogspot, apparently "Google Docs" now provides the preferred technique for doing this.)

One thing to bear in mind, too, is that if (a blogger's, or profile or personal site owner's) content suddenly ever disappears (even partially), it could occur as a result of a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown under the safe harbor provision, after an ISP or provider receives a complaint. (The speaker is supposed to be able to respond.) That's the trouble: even given fair use and attempts to make copyright law flexible, a lot of what is permissible is subjective, in gray areas and in the eye of the "beholder." And, bear in mind, original content owners often have very different motives and "business models" and fiduciary responsibilities, despite being theoretically equal before the law.