Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Introvert Disadvantage, with Flip-sided Morality


When I was substitute teaching, one lesson plan called for showing a science class the 1999 Joe Johnston film “October Sky” about the teen rocket scientist Homer Hickum in the 1950s. Growing up in a coal mining family in West Virginia, his father insisted that Homer follow “in his footsteps.” When the father got sick, an older brother insisted that it was his “responsibility” to drop out of school and go to work in the dangerous underground mines to support the family. I don’t think that point really registered with the kids.

I call to mind a second data point for today’s discussion. Around 1975, in the time of New York City’s financial crisis (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) I stood with a “trick” on the subway platform at some elevated station in the Bronx, I got into a conversation with him about how “technology” made our newly discovered free adult lifestyles possible. This was almost thirty years before Myspace.

In a couple of episodes of my life (the William and Mary episode being discussed on a Nov. 28 2006 posting on this blog) others care very much about my values and tried to intrude in a way that modern western society would see now as morally inappropriate. I understood ideas like, if you bring a child into the world, you’re responsible; but if you’re gay, why is that morally even a bigger deal. I felt I was entitled to an intellectually logical explanation that no one could come up with. There was, of course, “religion,” and in 1961, the remnants of McCarthyism stalked our lives.

The baseline experience for families when I grew up was that the “family” determined the frame of reference for all of life. Fathers, mothers, and the children (and elders) all had duties and “roles” that expressed a great deal of complementarity. There was no pretense or concept of “equality” as we grasp it today. It was crucial that every person step up to the plate when necessary and “do his part” for the welfare of everyone else in the family (as Homer Hickum’s, above). At the same time, it was not the business of the individual person to question the “unfairness” of things; the right to do that resided higher up some familial or political chain, perhaps with a labor union. Religious faith accepted the idea of external unfairness and limitations on the individual to earn his place in the world without the mediation of others; it’s an irony that the socialized life of early Christian communities would one day be capitalism, although very structured for a long time.

In exchange for active monogamy, with its tremendous and deferential social supports, married parents had tremendous power and authority over family members, even as adults. Parents could have more children – to increase the odds for the family as a whole – and demand that older children support younger siblings. Such was the power of legally approved marital sexuality. “Right and wrong” were connected to duties within a closely knit family or community, and not just to modern notions of autonomy and harmlessness. But the idea was hard to articulate, and (whatever the pronouncements of the religious right about Biblical moral absolutes) morality was actually a very layered concept with plenty of flip sides.

What changed a lot of this was “globalization” – but that process started long before broadband became a buzzword. Maybe Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci was the first “world citizen” in a sense that we relate to today. Generally, the arts (particularly music and literature) became a way for relative modestly born people to achieve global and permanent fame, if their works lived forever even if sometimes they did not reproduce biologically. Beethoven had no children.

Then, after World War II, the standard of living rose, and individual young adults (especially singles without children) became more mobile. The Civil Rights movement and then Stonewall in the 1960s made us look people more as diverse individuals than just as family members, even if the process would be gradual. With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s and now social networking in the 2000’s, we’ve created a culture where people “seed” themselves in non-biological ways, hoping that their presence or ideas or work take root.

With women’s rights and then gay rights, equality became a monolithic concept, that seemed to reduce itself to relatively simple ideas (harmlessness, the right to be left alone) that eventually would take hold even before the Supreme Court (Lawrence v. Texas). Ironically, the instantaneous globalization of binary information, publishable by anyone, now may be changing the moral tenor of how we perceive fairness and equality and bring some old fashioned ideas back. This concern particularly applies to the “sustainability”, fuel shortage and global warming debates, where some people (as those who made the “End of Suburbia” films) maintain that we may have to get used to living again in a decentralized, family- and community-centered way with more involuntary social intimacy with others.

The recent controversial NBC reality series “The Baby Borrowers” ended with all the teens saying they were not ready for parenthood yet and maintaining they needed to get their educations and careers well underway first. The last episode of the program ended with an exercise that many of us may not be able to make a choice about – eldercare. We saw the flip sides of the modern “family values” debate in the show. It’s interesting: the technology that has enabled ordinary individuals to seed their thoughts globally related to medical technology that is prolonging lifespans with acceleration. This is a development – longer lives and fewer children in many populations – that is setting up unprecedented ethical problems (filial responsibility) with moral and legal dimensions yet unexplored.

That takes us back to the expectations of the family. It often seems to me now that the prohibitionistic rules of the past (as Andrew Sullivan calls them) were a ruse to get everyone to share the responsibility of raising the next generation. But there probably was not enough “globality” for people to even think that way. Families just had to survive. We don’t want to bring back that climate today. But there is a genuine concern that a lot of family responsibility occurs without the “voluntary choice” of making babies. It’s especially difficult for an introverted person like me, who prefers to work alone a lot and seek out social contacts on my own terms. I may not get away with it.

It’s possible to connect “family responsibility” to “fairness.” In a competitive world where some people “have” more than others, it may seem logical to some people that openness to participating in family obligations (marriage and procreation, including the unpredictable risks that babies bring) should come with the territory. Part of the deal is emotional receptiveness to the needs of others who may not have the same access to the “outside world”. There is concern that some of us “world citizens” depend on the unseen “sacrifices” of others like the Hickum family in the movie mentioned above. That can stir up a lot of indignation, a favorite angry emotion of the far Left during the Nixon era. Many of the anti-gay arguments from the Vatican are embellishments of this style of thinking, but they apply to a world where awareness of things is much more “global” than it was a half-century ago. But religious teachings now often maintain (not wholly convincingly) that "family centeredness" should be demanded even of the childless all the more to make things personally "fair" in the face of globalization.

On an ideological level, some of the issues that surfaced in the nineties (gays in the military, same-sex marriage and adoption) can be seen in terms of sharing common responsibilities (national service and intergeneration responsibilities). And in the nineties, workplaces gradually learned that the “lifestyle”-related family obligations (then seen as strictly a matter of personal responsibility going with choice) had an effect on availability for overtime and productivity. Sometimes the childless were seen as cheating the system and competing “unfairly”, a point not discussed that openly (outside of Elinor Burkett’s book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless” in 2000).

Still, the new “flip sided” moral debate creates some consternation indeed. Most of the time in the past couple of decades, we’ve gotten used to “Dr. Phil” kind of presentations about the immorality of bringing babies into the world without being prepared to raise them. But we’ve also seen conservative claims that the expressive permissiveness of our modern culture (as well as welfare policy, which probably matters more) makes it very hard for people to get and stay married when they have babies. Our culture is also, in many quarters, making it very expensive and sometimes unattractive to have children and raise them at all. We’re used to thinking about monogamous marriage as a social invention to tame fathers and nurture mothers, practical necessities among people born “unequal” but only in various dimensions – particularly to harness the normal genetic and Darwinian biological incentive of males to plant their genes as wide as possible. But some of the incentive to plant oneself, especially for persons like me, can be informative and non-biological – yet it still comes from male mentality, at the deepest levels.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Another web entrepreneur, this time at George Washington University


The Washington Post has a “Value Added” story this morning July 28 (page D03, Business Section) about the success on the web of George Washington University college student Matt Silverman. The story says he makes in the five figures with several revenue-earning web sites. The story seems to combine elements of a couple of controversies recently addresses on this blog: “getting noticed” (or “famous”), and business models based on web advertising. The story is by Thomas Heath, is titled “A Collegiate Entrepreneur’s Mantra: ‘Understand Your Audience,” link here.

Heath mentions several of his ventures, which go back to the days in the eighth grade. The most interesting to me was BestViral, which appears to accumulate a feed of “viral videos” as they appear on the web, drawn from different sources (not just YouTube -- this morning he has an SNL video, for example). They are items of fairly wide spectrum importance, in order to draw an audience. I suppose that makes a point about the “Gossip Girl” concept, which seems to suggest that fame (or notoriety) still matters the most within a somewhat circumscribed group of social contacts. It ain’t that way in the real world, folks. Even on Comcast broadband, I did find BestViral a bit slow to respond and load this morning.

One of his most successful sites is ChipotfleFan (this site has misspelled parked domains on the web trying to draw traffic away, and McCaffee isn’t flagging them yet – I had to gumshoe a bit to find the right one). This site is based on Chipotle’s restaurant in the Chicago area where he grew up and often ate. Chipote’s own site right now has a customer warning about Jalapeno peppers and a link to a PDF document explaining corporate policy!

Matt’s sites do suggest that often the most successful sites on the web commercially focus on rather narrow areas of consumer interest – things people really want. That is, a lot of people like to cook, and a lot of people like recipes. That reminds me of a self-published book award given a few years ago to a book on the Dove’s Nest Restaurant in Texas.

Of course, Matt’s story makes an interesting comparison to that of Cameron Johnson and Aaron Greenspan, both recently covered on my books blog.

I cover a wide range of seemingly unrelated subjects because I think it’s important to see how they all connect. I graduated from George Washington University (Matt's school) myself in 1966 with a B.S in Mathematics and have recently looked at its MEd and teacher licensure program, although I didn't "go for it."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wired Magazine features dazzling guide to "self-promotion"


Okay, the latest (August 2008) issue of “Wired”, which has run plenty of sobering articles about Internet life (include police stings) in distant past history, boasts the ultimate guide to self-promotion. By Jason Tanz, the story is titled “Almost Famous”, as if named after the 2000 Dreamworks film from Cameron Crowe about a teenage journalist who was more stable and mature than the celebrities he covered. (The magazine cover reads "Get Internet famous even if you're nobody!") The article (starting on p 106) focuses on Julia Allison, who is some sort of super "Gossip Girl". The "Andy Warhol approach", Tanz says, is to be “famous for being famous.” So he recommends all kinds of intricate techniques involving various social networking profiles, Twitter, mobile blogging (as opposed to conventional blogging alone), and making your own life a movie for voyeuristic and vicarious consumption by others. It’s good if Blake Lively, Chace Crawford, or Penn Badgley show up on the next street corner (whether New York or even Baltimore). It helps to get a head start on life and be more “mature” than average as a pre-twenty something (although I’m bit sure that’s true of the characters in the CW show).

The story does offer some tips (“faceslamming”) on splitting your friends’ lists on Facebook (or Myspace) to that only a select few see the more intimate things – to keep your employer away with appropriate privacy settings for the most explicit material. You do want to present a different face to the world if you have to go out an sell to clients, or perhaps maintain discipline in the classroom -- so her we are back to “reputation defense” again.

The online version has a page called “Celebrity Meter” (link here), which links to the Allison story, as well as to the supplementary “How to promote yourself, boost your geek cred, be the hero, and fake it.” In print, the “geed cred” page looks like a DC Comics story board, with suggestions of some risky behaviors indeed, like broaching your employer’s firewall with P2P. I don’t think they’re serious, because Wired would certainly fire its own employees for doing that. The online story talks about the “Google Social Graph” service as a “long version” to be compared to the “short version” celebrity meter which is the older version of Internet fame based on links (actually detailed in various articles on Wikipedia). The section also talks about meeting celebrities, and I've personally found out that's not hard at all. (If I'm talking about a personal meeting, you know who you are!)

The issue has a couple of other important stories, like Yasha Levine’s “The Daily Bribe” about the bribing (and harassment) of journalists and bloggers in Russia (at a time when China is payoff off earthquake-stricken parents to be silent), on p 94. “’Real reporting existed for a few years in the 90s,’ a former Russian official says. ‘It stopped as soon as journalists started dying because of it.’” The buzz word is “pay-for-play journalism.”

Even so, "self-promotion" has sometimes been views as a pejorative. In Clive Barker's novel "Sacrament" (1997) his gay hero often uses the phrase, "self-promoting q__r" with irony.

I do wonder about the culture of “self-promotion” when it happens without regard to having responsibility for others. Given inherent "starting position" inequalities and hidden exploitations, there grows a moral notion that engagement of the outside world ought to be mediated by sharing the burdens and risks of others and experiencing accountability to someone, and that this deeper level of responsibility doesn’t necessarily wait for the “choice” of having children. A half century ago society enforced such a moral notion with enforced socialization and conformism, with some pretty horrific practices by government sometimes. There is a danger that this notion of "public morality" may come back (after seven years of Bush), and that the “free market” itself might demand it (accountability balancing self-promotion) more as the youngsters who invented the Internet age grow into middle age and take on more family responsibility themselves.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Telecommunications company "Embarq" defends its practice of examining consumer web-surfing habits "surreptitiously"


Recently, one or more Internet advertising companies and ISPs have conducted tests of targeted ad schemes based on deep inspection of a web visitors surfing “habits.” Specifically, Embarq told customers in Kansas that it would target advertisements based on “anonymous” web visit behaviors. The technique consisted of having the ISP install a particular application on the ISP or telecommunications provider’s servers. The application examines packets and information in the visitors' web visits at a deep level in network architecture. The company claims that consumers were informed and could op-out (a few actually did) and that everything was done with the telecommunication’s company’s cooperation and approval. Embarq claims that the information used to stage ad delivery did not include personal information like name, address, social security, and the like.

Embarq reportedly wrote to several members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including John D. Dingell (D-MI), Joe L. Barton (R-TX) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA). The story about this letter to Congress (“Internet Firm Says It Targed Ads to Customers’ Web-Surfing Habits) was reported by Ellen Nakashima on p D2, Business, of the July 25 Washington Post, link here.

So, now it's time to splash some "cold water" on the marketing concept behind this news story, and recall a notion that may sound like the Internet business model's "Gull Island" (a notorious controversy in the oil industry by comparison). One thing that strikes me as interesting is, as reported previously on this blog (June 25, 2008), some entrepreneurs are inventing applications allowing individual users to block ads altogether. That raises a question from a business perspective, at least (as well as ethical and legal perspective), as to how fruitful experiments like those of Embarq would be in the long run.

There is still a pervasive concern that the “free content” model that has become commonplace on the Internet depends on visitor willingness to see advertisements and sometimes relate to them. As with broadcast television, advertising (apart from pop-ups, which have long been blocked by browsers when desired or by default) does pay for a lot of the work it takes to put the content together.

Let me reiterate a point, and warm up the bath water a bit. From my own self-interest in surfing, I don’t object to ads, even flashing or animated, if they are relevant and don’t obscure the text or force me to go through an extra page load. Some pop-ups and ActiveX control features are OK with me. Sometimes I really do want to know about the existence of some product or service related to my own life (for example, senior apartments). A company like Embarq can reasonably argue that it is helping businesses figure out what information visitors really want, from a self-interest perspective, to see, and how to make it artistically appealing. College students do major in commercial art for a reason, they can say.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Blogger journalism: Covering disturbing media comments made by others


There have been some flaps in the media recently with inappropriate or offensive comments by some prominent people. That raises the a question in my mind for bloggers. I often do post comments about incidents in the media, on my issues blog or sometimes on my television reviews blog, as I did a couple nights ago about Larry King Live’s coverage of the “Michael Savage” affair.

I do try to keep my own language objective and focused on the issues. I do give links to the original sources, which may have offensive language, or which (more often) may themselves have lifted the offensive comments from the original source. Some people may feel that by doing so I am myself giving credibility to the comments, and find the practice of talking about the incidents, especially by “amateurs,” personally offensive.

There are a couple of subtleties here. One is that when a disturbing comment (about some group or some behaviors that get associated with a group) appears, there often are behind this strident remark some legitimate public concerns. There are often abuses by some people of the sympathy of others, and these abuses may hurt those whose needs for support from others (either personally within the family or community, or from government by tax funded programs) is legitimate in the mainstream view of things.

Of course, as a gay man, I experienced my share of this, particularly in the 1980s with the AIDS epidemic and the things often said by the right wing.

But, of course, these sorts of comments can affect many “groups” and involve many different kinds of practical and social justice issues. Some people get unnerved when someone not directly affected by an apparently different issue responds to comments about some other people.

But, that leads me back to “blogger journalism.” I see all liberty issues as ultimately connected, like nodes on a board game map perhaps. The resolution of one issue sets a precedent for resolving others. So, if you’re really going to do “journalism” you have to be able to cover anything. I cover television shows that deal with topics that in some way have significance in the area of personal freedom and “sovereignty”.

Another thing is that, as a matter of law, the legality of content is generally the same whether it comes from an individual blogger or social networker, or from a broadcast television network or motion picture studio. There are some exceptions having to deal with special circumstances in the workplace like access to trade secrets. But many people don’t like to hear from other individuals who don’t happen to share the same responsibilities (whether by choice or not) and hardships.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Twitter, among other sites, aims to improve "human" customer service


ABC World News Tonight reported today (July 22) about a website that allows “ordinary people” (to quote the name of a famous film from 1980) to improve their chances of getting a human being to talk to in customer service at telecommunications or utility companies.

The website is called Twitter, and it requires registration, and brevity in logging a complaint about the service of a company. (You know the saying: “verbosity promulgates egregious epigramization”).

ABC News has a story by Mike Von Fremd and Gina Sunseri, “Twitter Can Rescue You from Customer Service Line Waits: Companies Looking to Microblogging Site to Get Through to Frustrated Customers,” link here.
It pays to log the comment onto Twitter even while on hold. Twitter appears to be a site adapted to mobile blogging, which I have not yet tried (but probably should).

The ABC story described a woman who had phone, Internet and cable TV all from one provider, Comcast. She waited over an hour to reach a human being on the phone, and was told that she would not have an installer out to her home for two days. She went onto Twitter and logged her complaint, and heard from Comcast in a short time. ISPs and telecommunications companies are starting to troll Twitter the way many employers used to troll Myspace and Facebook to check up on job applicants. Apparently “reputation defense” works more than one way.

There are websites that offer tips on how to reach human beings at companies, such as “Gethuman.com. Another such site is "Jack Henderson". I personally find that pressing star or “0” (the zero key) often works.

When I worked in the life insurance industry as a computer programmer analyst (from 1990-2001) “customer service” was said to be the focus of our efforts. Once, we had a customer service and "Team Handbook" party and t-shirts. My last two years I supported an in-house GUI interface called “Customer Service Workbench” which was supposed to assist service center employees respond with the human touch very quickly. All kinds of other subsystems, like imaging and workflow, supported this effort.

Picture: Career Center (Arlington Public Schools) and AT&T Building in Arlington VA.

Update: July 28

Tech Republic offers an article by Jason Hiner on Tech Republic: "10 Tips that will Make You a Twitter Power User," on a blog here. There is some discussion of Summize and Tweetburner.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Prosecutors, law enforcement (and employers) continue to use Myspace and Facebook "evidence" -- with reservations


The media has reported even more stories about the ability of law enforcement, and prosecutors to use “evidence” found on social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace to develop probable cause, make arrests, gain convictions, and particularly get stiffer sentences.

Eric Tucker has a story on the AP, reproduced on Yahoo!, about pictures of a 20 year old already convicted of DUI in Rhode Island resulting in an injury, attending a Halloween party in orange prison jumpers as a costume. Someone posted the party pictures on Facebook. The pictures were shown at sentencing. The AP link is here.

Sometimes in cases like these, the pictures have been posted by other people on other profiles or blogs, unknown to the subjects. But, amazingly, sometimes they have been posted by the defendants themselves.

Likewise, in the past prosecutors have used text posted in blogs or profiles as evidence of confessions.

Prosecutors, however, say they must be very careful about using “evidence” from social networking sites or personal blogs or sites. Derogatory comments posted by third parties usually aren’t credible as admissible evidence. There are issues for law enforcement when such comments rise to the level of threats. Self-postings may contain an element of irony or “fiction” (such as in a current divorce case in Vermont, discussed earlier, or in a situation I was involved in as a substitute teacher, discussed on this blog July 27 2007). Generally, in criminal investigations, material that appears on the Internet must be corroborated by real evidence from other means already familiar in the “real world” before it becomes admissible or forms the basis of prosecution. Sometimes there can be questions about material that is posted for an “illegal purpose” where the act of posting becomes prosecutable.

As noted again in the AP story, employers have been looking at personal site, social networking profiles and blogs to “vet” candidates. However, as noted recently, some legal experts are now criticizing the practice, saying that it amounts to the legal equivalent of asking illegal questions during an interview, and can invite lawsuits. Some human resources lawyers say that employers should not look at the personal blogs or profiles of candidates without informing them in advance and having a well-crafted personnel policy about doing so that is announced publicly. On the other hand, in reputation-sensitive jobs (the “reputation defender” problem again), employers may want the employees to have their entire online presence professionally managed.

It's also essential that all gumshoeing of web materials runs the risk of identifying the wrong person, especially when more common names are involved. It can be amazingly easy to confuse photos of actually different individuals.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Various online book searches could keep more "personal information" in play


One area of some controversy, at least with some book authors, has been the indexing of the contents of books in various ways by search engines. Some cooperative and self-publishers (like iUniverse) offer Partner Programs with Google, and books that were published after a certain date (I think that’s 2002 for iUniverse) usually are placed in these programs automatically. The end results is that some passages from the content of the book become available for searching much the way other online static text essays on the Internet area, and follow some kind of proprietary algorithm for relevance to search arguments. Some self-published authors (as I have done) will, in time, make portions of their text available separately in normal HTML or PDF files for free viewing (it’s also possible to set up e-books or Kindle, and a few years ago there were experiments with a process called Softlock). That may duplicate the text, which is considered undesirable by search engines but generally causes no problem. The author can correct any errors, misspellings, or in rare cases remove names on request related to ambiguous “reputation defense” concerns of others over the long period of time of a book’s existence. With a copy indexed from the publisher’s copy, changes generally would not be possible.

Amazon.com also offers “search inside the book” on many books, and it seems there is a focus now on doing this with books not in other partner programs. It’s possible to find any text within such a book locally, but that does not cause it to be found randomly by search engines. The visitor would need to know or believe that a particular name or sequence of words is there to begin with. The capability is analogous to physically looking at a hardcopy in a “bricks and mortar” bookstore, except that the computer can find the words within the book without a physical page-by-page search, so perhaps this has some significance.

Before the “revolution” in lower cost desktop publishing – it was starting in the 90s well before the Internet became a repository for publishing and social networking – major book publishers tended to practice extreme due diligence before putting opuses out. That practice would certainly have changed, as we now have a world in which there are orders of magnitude more speakers than there had been a couple decades ago, and where speakers are less well informed on intellectual property law and on the unintended effect that their speech could have on others over time. That is a situation that, partly because of the rapid increase in the effectiveness of search engines in the late 1990s, was growing even before social networking sites and Web 2.0 became all the rage, and then, perhaps to the surprise even of the younger entrepreneurs who set up many of the web companies, employers (and to some extent other agents like law enforcement) started using the Web for investigatory purposes without a lot of care about the accuracy of the information they found on subjects. However, the media did not start to report widely on this problem until it came up in conjunction with social networking profiles and blogs, starting late in 2005.

As I have said before, it’s important that the well-established Human Resources world develop “best practices” for use of various Internet and other investigatory tools to check applicants and existing employees, and that they inform their stakeholders openly about their policies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New York case with "Room 8" tests blogger anonymity, and right to seek publicity when drawn into legal actions by others


There is another issue brewing now with bloggers and the interrelated issues of anonymity, discovery, and reporter shield. A website called “Room 8 New York Politics” which publishes posts about New York politics, was subpoenaed and required to identify an anonymous blogger named “Republican Dissident.” The website’s own account of this is here. and the Grand Jury subpoena (from January 2008) (PDF) is here. There is some confusion about how the district attorney behaved and how much he knew. But the subpoena originally contained a requirement of secrecy, that its existence not be disclosed.

It’s true that sometimes legitimate law enforcement actions must take place in an atmosphere of confidentiality, as is well known from all the debate about FISA. However, if a blogger is forced to remain mum about an investigation that he or she somewhat inadvertently precipitates, that removes one of the blogger’s strongest weapons, asymmetry, the chance to go to the media and become a new “celebrity.” Whether this ought to be a “fundamental right” probably presents a good ethical controversy.

In this case, the DA withdrew the subpoena and gag order when the bloggers threatened litigation.

The New York Times
story leads off the Business Section today, July 15. The title is “An Uneasy Intersection of Bloggers and the Law” and the story is by Jonathan Glater, with the link here.

Glater points out that many cases like this are civil, rather than criminal, but the need for confidentiality often seems crucial to the complaining parties.

One major concerns is that websites like “Room 8” that encourage anonymous postings would disappear if they could not protect the anonymity of their contributors.

I allow anonymous comments on my own blogs (and will post anonymous emails about my content when appropriate) and I could not guarantee anyone that I could even identify the speaker if I had to.

Another related observation comes to my mind with respect to “reputation defender” problems. In the school situation that I described on this blog July 27, 2007, I could never get any facts from the school system or school. I pieced together what happened from evidence on server logs and from tangentially related news stories about a possibly related incident. There is a practical problem in employment-related incidents with bloggers that “due process” is not available and that the blogger will not be able to learn the details about the real complaints about his or her posting, unless there is a formal lawsuit with full discovery.

Online Education Database publishes major online guide index to Internet law topics


On Monday, July 14, the Online Education Database published “The Ultimate Guide to Internet Law: 100 Guides and Resources,” here.

The categories of links are put together in somewhat of an ad hoc manner, with emphasis on certain topics. For example, there is a link for a “Library of Law and Court Decisions” that itself offers a list of narrowly defined topics (copyright, for example). There is an “Internet Law and Regulation” link that offers news in reverse chronological sequence by several well known sources (like Pike & Fischer). There is a link for telecommunications law, and one for the 1997 Communications Decency Act, particularly to deal with the Supreme Court opinion that overturned the censorship portion. I did not see a separate link yet for COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), with which I have been involved as a sub-plaintiff under Electronic Frontier Foundation. There is a link for anti-spam laws.

There is a list of public interest groups like the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. There is a list of intellectual property law resources, such as the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse which can post cease and desist notices and sometimes DMCA takedowns, and other “triggers” . There is also a list of journals (including William and Mary, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard), and of professional legal and technical blogs, including one by Stanford law school professor Lawrence Lessig, as well as a trademark law blog by Martin Scwhimmer.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Second Class Citizen": that still means something


Saturday I was approaching the checkout line at a local Safeway with maybe 20 items, just a few too many for Express. There was a man in front with a baby stroller and “terrible two’s” toddler and a moderate volume of groceries to process, and I get in line.

Suddenly, his wife rolls her very full shopping cart over from some distance and butts in front of me. “Sorry” she says. No, she wasn’t there first. I notice that the cart include a box of huggies, but the kid looks too old not to have been potty trained.

I say nothing. Nevertheless, I wonder. Is that the meaning of marriage and parenthood? The automatic presumption of a right to move up in line, no questions asked? The checkout cashier, himself middle aged, indulged the toddler.

It probably took an extra 10 minutes to process her items. I wonder, why can’t you (the wife) be courteous and just have two tickets? Let your husband process, then me (I will take very little time with a small load), and then your large load. After all, I did get in line first. Okay, maybe there are some volume discounts that require that the loads be processed together. I still had the impression, though, that as an apparent singleton, I get in line behind families, or that this woman presumed that I must.

I recall an occasion about a dozen years ago, before my period in Minneapolis, in another checkout line in an Annandale supermarket. A woman, took twenty minutes to check out a quartermaster’s mess in a suburban grocery line, and then turned around and said to me, “you can tell who I am by the child seats in my van.” People with kids think they need their gas guzzlers, and maybe they do. And Dr. Laura Schlesinger used to start her radio talk shows with, “I am my kids’ mom.”

Back in the 1980s, when I worked in information technology for a credit reporting company, everyone had total responsibility for their own applications in production, and there was no rotating nightcall list. But in the 1990s, with an insurance company there was. A very few people sometimes did presume that I should do more of it because I was “single” and did take advantage of the situation.

I think you can see what the term “second class citizen” alive, especially in connection with the gay marriage debate.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Photography in museums (and discos): policies, and common sense


I thought I would make a note about my own photos on these blogs.

Some of the photos are taken in museums, parks, reservations, or various public facilities of scientific or historical significance, often with many exhibits, some of them having enclosed photographs or artwork and written documentation on various signs.

In general, it seems most museums and parks that are publicly owned permit indoor photography, even flash photography. Generally, when photography is permitted, I presume that it is all right to display personally taken photographs on the Internet.

Some photographs have an obvious connection to the text of a blog entry, and some have no connection and are just decoration. Care is taken not to display photographs that would suggest a negative association (with some entity mentioned in the blog text) that is misleading.

Some pictures show museum renditions of important historical events, sometimes tragic or horrific in nature. Occasionally these are shown on blog entries if appropriate for the subject matter, in order to convey to the regular visitor a sense of coverage of major historical events (including 9/11, OKC, etc).

Some museums do ban photography of many indoor areas, and some ban photography for visiting exhibits. Museums often ban flash photography where original art items are shown, to prevent distraction of visitors and possible long term damage to items. Generally, photography is banned in areas where films are shown, because the motion picture industry bans all photography in auditoriums because of anti-piracy concerns. This policy has sometimes been carried to absurd lengths. In Arlington VA, in 2007, a Regal theater had a patron arrested when she shot 20 seconds of “Transformers” on a Camcorder, and a theater employee noticed. Likewise, most indoor professional musical concerts and stage drama performances ban indoor photography. I always respect the ground rules of any venue as the property owner announces them.

I’ll interrupt my argument here for a moment to recall a spring 2001 visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Two floors had visits that consisted of mazes to negotiate. I suppose these could have made intriguing photos if allowed. The top floor had an art decco fashion exhibit. In May 2007 of my drama blog, I discussed my visit to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. One visiting exhibit on global warming did bar photography.

Bars, clubs and discos these days seem to allow cell phone photography. Any visitor should realize that he or she could, however inadvertently, wind up in an Internet photo.
Theoretically, some performers at discos and some celebrities who visit might be able to claim “right of publicity” for some dissemination of their photos on the Internet. My own practice is simply to practice “common sense”. I don’t “out” celebrities for visiting gay bars (they sometimes do).

I don’t publish photos or any other material that I can reasonably believe would actually drive away business from the establishment, unless there is some unusual problem that I need to “expose” and can prove factually. This does not happen often. In most cases, residents of other cities probably find the coverage, in words and pictures, or an establishment will give them a reason to be interesting in making a visit and providing the establishment some revenue.

Flickr has a page discussing photography restrictions in museums here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lawyers go after whiffleball "field of dreams" built by teens in Connecticut: "Give Me a Break!"


Here is a story for John Stossel’s “Give Me a Break.” Some teenagers build a whiffleball stadium on a city-owned lot that they cleared of weeds, in Greenwich Connecticut. And the neighbors are complaining – about whiffleball.

The story by is Peter Applebome, on the front page of today’s New York Times, in his “Our Towns” series, and has the enticing title, “Build a Whiffle Ball Field in Greenwich, and Lawyers Will Come”. Both the print and online versions have an attractive picture of the asymmetric field, with a Bostonian Fenway-style “Green Monster” wall, but in center field rather than left. The link is here.

Now this brings back all memories of backyard baseball when I was a boy (in the 1950s, when the Senators lost most of their games, particularly on road trips). We actually played softball in our backyards. They all had different ground rules. In some yards, over the fence was out, so home run areas were carved out. In my back yard, there was a mesh fence in front of the garden, with a tulip poplar knocking down many balls, so you learned place hitting. When we had one, two, or three people on a team, we had a force out at any base not reached. That is, with two individual players, the only way you scored was usually to place hit a “homer” or to get a run if the pitcher wild pitched over the other fence behind the plate (that happened a lot). Even though I was the “weakling” I won a lot of my “home games” because I mastered the place hitting. The scores were reasonable, typically about 5-8 runs total in a typical game. And there were some "walkoff" home team wins.

We also tried whiffle ball, and even stocking ball.

In Ohio in the summer, we played whiffle ball, with farm house porch screens often forming a “wall” in one field. One kid, actually in foster care given by my aunt, designed a field of dreams for real baseball, with a left field wood fence about 300 feet from home plate. No one ever hit the ball over. (The “mistake by the lake” in Cleveland was 30 miles away – and I visited that arena enough times.)

At a garden apartment near Princeton NJ, some of us young working adults played a whiffleball game one Saturday afternoon. The dimensions of the courtyward were just about right. I pitched, and won "on the road" 3-2. With whiffleball, it pays to experiment with various grips relative to the air slots, and the ball really does break.

In the Army, we played in an enclosed softball field across the street from the eyebrow barracks at Fort Eustis. I was in my best shape ever, and reached the center field fence on the fly (about 300 feet), to everyone’s surprise, and a roommate, himself a 140 pound “weakling” who called himself “Rado Suhl” roped a ball out of the park down the line exactly the regulation 250 feet. On a church retreat in 1969, I actually hit a legitimate home run, out of the park, on the first pitch of the game, because I was in good shape. But back in May 1959, in 10th Grade, I was the talk of high school the day that I hit a home run (a ground ball on an unenclosed field, albeit) and “pitched” a 4-0 shutout “road” win in softball in PE class.

Remember, Washington is on its third major league team "reincarnation". And this year the Nats are so decimated by injuries that they field a minor league lineup than can win a third of its games.



On Friday, July 11, The Washington Post ran a story by Daniel LeDuc and David Nakamura, p B1, Metro, "Nationals Withhold Rent on Ballpark: Hundreds of Items are Incomplete, Team Owners Say", link here. This story refers to the new "field of dreams" for the Nationals on the Anacostia River. Many businesses and residents were displaced for this economic real estate development.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Sustainability 301: no, it's not organic chemistry


In the past few entries, I’ve talked about the pressure that the current crisis in energy and global warming can put on the free choices of individuals. This pressure can come from the free market, or it can come from government, or from labyrinthine combinations of these with social and familial forces.

It’s well to remember that most totalitarian political ideologies make a lot of defining “morality” for the individual, in terms of expected “sacrifices” and socialization. And in various ways, sometimes authoritarian systems are able to achieve the illusion of stability and even sustainability among the masses for a long time. The Soviet Union maintained the appearance of stability for much of its masses for decades, and even did this with some decentralization. At the same time, however, it inevitably maintained its elite class (Communist Party membership) and did many horrible things, resulting in much pollution and destruction of the environment, not to mention awful things done to citizens. (Stalin killed more people than did Hitler.)

Authoritarian societies also vary considerably on whether procreation is a moral obligation, but they often take a strong position one way or the other. China is interesting in its one child policy. But looking back to the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 60s, we saw one of the most oppressive examples of moralism put down on to citizens in history, as intellectuals were forced to become peasants and many did not survive. Yet, in the leftist 70s (in some urban areas at least) it was hip for some people to point to the Chinese system as an example of virtue. So today surviving baby boomers can take in regular media broadcast stories about daily life in North Korea and Myanmar (let alone much of the world dominated by radical Islam).

I recently watched the two indie directed by Canadian Gregory Greene, “The End of Suburbia” and “Escape from Suburbia”. (These were reviewed July 4 on my movies blog; check Profile.) Both films take the concept of “peak oil” more seriously than global warming, but tell the viewers to resign themselves to lower standards of living as cheap energy get tapped out. “Power down” your lives, they say. There’s talk of living a lot more locally, and going back to more labor intensive lives, especially producing food and goods locally. Some of this could be done in place, but a number of people were moving out to the countryside (familiar?) to live out their purifications.

Local self-sufficiency has occasionally gotten attention as a juicy moral topic ever since the Arab oil shocks of the 1970s (and even in scenarios of what could follow a nuclear war, which gets into frank survivalism of the Stephen King “The Stand” variety), and this time around the talk carries more sting, because we have global warming considerably complicating the task of generating enough sustainable energy from alternate sources to maintain a “globalized” civilization.

It’s a little hard to imagine the dismantling of global, hi-tech and wired culture, and the separation of people into communes after requisite news fasts. Maybe a transition to a lower energy culture will be traumatic no matter what we do. Of course this sounds like the denial the filmmakers talk about, but I am hardly resigned to the idea that innovation cannot go a long way to solving our environmental and energy problems.

But one aspect of decentralization might be limiting the number of people any one individual has access to with his own talents. It rather sounds like the Age of Exploration in reverse. It implies that everyone will have to learn to “love” others regardless of personal choices for commitments. Proponents of these ideas have utopian ideas about how smaller communities would govern themselves, but my own experience is that every community, even small ones in circumscribed neighborhoods, tends to generate its own internal political struggles, with some people “in” and some people “out.” That’s why I personally welcome globalization. Apart from the challenges of energy and climate change, globalization gives me both physical mobility (travel) and communication (self-published expression, rapidly reaching many people globally). I have expected that the opportunities thereby offered would outweigh the economic instability caused by globalization to old-style paternalistic jobs. Until 9/11, certainly, that had proved true for me personally. But my own life paradigm, which means broadcast expression and extreme selectivity in persons that I will choose to be close to, depends on a stable political and technological infrastructure. This had actually worked until the 9/11 period and had given me some of the interpersonal world that I wanted. And the freedom of this meant I didn’t have to experience jealousy or give into the games of the “soap opera” world.

Some sustainability challenges have certainly made me question the “morality” of my own approach. For one thing, you can’t increase life-spans of older people in such a way that they need constant personal attention (because of frailty, dementia, or other such permanent medical issues) while at the same time indirectly encouraging people to have fewer children (which is what our society has done) without exposing many people a new “family responsibility” shock with eldercare. It gets beyond the eldercare issue as the need for more adoptive parents and for childcare grows so much that people even in my situation are expected to be receptive to taking other family responsibilities that a decade or so before they would never have imagined being faced with. This sort of thing would really become an issue in smaller communities. Of course, as I’ve analyzed before in my blogs, this all gets back to the real point of “public morality” and “family values” including the older objections (especially of the Catholic Church and of most evangelical Christianity) to homosexuality, regardless of claims about immutability. That is, certain modes of intimacy, connectivity and family responsibility need to be shared by everyone.

In a decentralized world, libertarian theory would mean that each autonomous group could set its own mores, as long as people were free to move to other groups. What a decentralized, low-tech world would do in practice is confront me with a “be here now” kind of life with relatively little choice of expressive intimacy, and the forced acceptance of other people on their terms. It would not be a welcome outcome.

Again, we need to get to work.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sustainability 202: The Internet, free entry, the law, and the market


It’s gotten to be fun to say “I told you so” on the Internet, it seems. Bloggers and e-magazine writers have been playing devil’s advocate with the “sustainability” of our free entry and free speech on the Internet for a number of years now. About four years ago, I recall seeing a piece titled something like “The Coming Crackdown on Blogging” with respect to campaign finance reform. That blew over eventually, once the FEC could get its act together. Recently, there have surfaced a number of seemingly alarming concerns about future ISP downstream liability for copyright, about trademark with ad selection and placement (relative to search results) . The media has also reported, routinely now, about the alarm employers show about “online reputation” of their applicants and hires, and particularly their objection to employee "self-parody" or "irony" (even "playing devil's advocate") in public spaces easily found by stakeholders. Some issues have been partially resolved (like Grokster in 2005), but what seems to be emerging now is a philosophical problem, about the “sustainability” of the legal and economic issues associated with Internet businesses built around user-generated content.

Some observers, with some pessimism, predict a coming legal trend to favor existing corporate copyright holders in convoluted cases involving potential downstream liability for aiding infringement. There is talk, for example, that sites like YouTube could eventually be forced to review videos before publishing them, changing their model to something more like old time Hollywood or television. There seems to be some increasing concern, particularly in tougher economic times, that newbie UGC can destabilize the employment and income of industry professionals who have “paid their dues.” I personally question the practical likelihood of these fears, that amateur blogging could actually cause eventual newsroom (or motion picture studio) layoffs. But this does overlap other issues, like “free content” subsidized by advertising,

Another concern occurs more with the “reputation defense” problem. Content that might be perceived as perfectly legitimate when it comes from a commercial source (like a movie) might be seen as “enticement” when presented by an “amateur” (as with a screenplay on a website). Generally the courts have treated intellectual property in an origin-neutral way in the past, particularly in applying the First Amendment. The trend with commentary in some of the other cases (like above) suggests that this may not always be the case as social problems accumulate.

Some of the “sustainability” problems on the Net have been met by innovation, and some could be. The great cyberattack meltdown has not occurred, because as a whole the Internet security industry has stayed ahead of the risks for acceptable cost. Spam filters (and voluntary feedbacks as tried by Earthlink) are reasonably effective, but the ISP industry ought to be promoting mechanisms like Sender-ID and considering micro-postage for email. “Free” blogging services could consider, in addition to requiring that captchas be filled out, implement micro storage charges per entry to get around illegitimate posting problems. Libertarian reporter John Stossel always says we should look to the market to solve problems. The market still offers problems to Internet sustainability that have not yet been tried.

I do have a review of Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur" on the June 2007 books blog (see my Profile and navigate).



Addendum: First Amendment doesn't stop service providers from "censorship"

After completing this post, I saw this AP story on Yahoo! by Anick Jesdanun, about censorship by private service providers. The link is here. The story makes it clear that First Amendment protections from censorship limit what The United States, state and local governments can do, not what private corporations can do. Typically ISP's don't pre-censor material (and, as noted above, one of the concerns is that the courts could some day make them do so) but do have policies against some kinds of legal content, such as showing children smoking. They have sometimes removed objectionable material and not been able to understand "context." Typically their policies relate to protecting their "brands"; the problem is usually much more prevalent overseas (such as in China) than in the United States, because of requirements from overseas governments. Sometimes companies overreach in interpreting US laws (like the DMCA) and often personnel at companies do not know how to apply subtle policies or laws.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sustainability 201: Historical parallels, where they could head; Can we "produce" our way out of this? It's personal!


A particularly stark conclusion comes from all the recent news about the escalation of oil prices. The planet seems to have a finite amount of space and finite amount of easily extracted energy. Now, the peoples of several developing countries (most notably India and China) are competing to consume these quasi-finite resources. People in the West, especially the auto-driving North American west of the US and Canada, will have to make do with less to share this with others. They (that is, “we”) may have to adjust ways of life. This sounds like a profound moral problem. We’ve heard this before, from radical Islam, crying that Western consumers are exploiting their oil resources, but that rung hollow, as the sheiks got rich. Now it’s different.

Yesterday, I watched the DVD of “The End of Suburbia”, made four years ago, and noted that the film seemed more concerned with the changes in our social values that must accompany depleting oil and fossil fuel reserves than with getting serious about replacing the energy with more reliable and renewable sources, the prospects for which it is pessimistic. (For the review, navigate to the movies blog on my Profile.)

But, in fact, a change in the way we live – and the prospect that a lot of preachers and politicians will tell us how to live – is what we face unless we figure out, relatively quickly, how to produce more of our own energy. We’ve seen this before, with the oil shocks of the 70s. And we were able to respond by “threatening” to produce more, getting other producing countries to increase production and lower prices (Reagan’s strategy). This time the supply problem seems more fundamental, and, furthermore, we have to figure out how to produce the energy without adding more carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, global warming is serious, folks. And the “moral” problem is that warming will likely affect developing parts of the world first.

The need to improve production of oil (or preferably of other fuels) is what the runnup in oil prices is telling us. But there is a lesson in the way the markets have behaved, with the suddenness of the spike without any specific incident, yet now inviting complication from a terrorist attack or natural disaster. A lot of this has to do with speculators (yes!) buying futures on margin, with only a little money down, and much has to do with “securitization”, which tends to remove the sense of risk from the trader. This is the way that many of our markets in a lot of things work. But one result is to exaggerate trends that approach tipping points with wild swings in price, by factors related to the inadequate margin and “real world consequences” requirements.

We often hear a lot about Wall Street’s preoccupation with short term profits, and public companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize these for public companies. Pretty quickly, we see the problems. Short term gains and “securitization” had a lot to do with the subprime mess. From the consumer’s point of view, the subprime loans represented a chance to “get something for nothing.” We know what happened. And we now ponder the consequences: builders taking funny money, protected by Wall Street’s “vampire securitization” for overbuilding monster homes that families could not afford (and could not afford the power for), when the system should have been encouraging the same homeowners (and probably condo and apartment buildings, too) to invest in individual solar panels on smaller-scaled properties, thereby gaining some self-sufficiency and decentralizing our source of electric power while making it more renewable.

But what happens when we translate these concepts to norms of personal behavior, which the “Suburbia” film starts to do? Look at what happened with the subprime mess. Buyers thought they were acting in self-interest. But most of them did not have the “moral” foresight to imagine what would happen if too many people took out contracts with essentially five-year “expiration dates” – balloon requirements or interest rate hikes. That’s an example of the concept of “sustainability” (as a personal moral virtue) mentioned a few postings ago. That used to be built into our notions of “public morality”. But about four decades ago we started narrowing our concept of morality to “personal responsibility” for the visible consequences of one’s acts. That’s pretty much the notion that winds up on Court TV like Judge Judy. It’s a “Newtonian” concept that seems to work most of the time. It’s good for handling issues like teen pregnancy, drug abuse, DUI’s, while recognizing the concept that adults have personally sovereign rights to direct the courses of their own lives. But with something like subprime and energy, it gets murkier. People are used to expecting institutions (large companies like banks, and government regulation) to providing this oversight for them, and that’s where you run into contradictions over libertarian ideas about freedom when these institutions attempt to do so.

So, home prices stay in free fall for months on end, and the benchmark price for crude oil doubles in six months. Maybe every six months? What does that sound like? Remember back in the mid 1980s the number of cases of AIDS reported by the CDC doubled every six months for a while? Societies cannot tolerate perils that explode by geometric progressions. That’s just something that comes from any Algebra II test. Remember, the epidemic had exploded from a singularity within a circumscribed population experiencing some new found freedom based on ideas of liberty largely predicated on short term notions of harmlessness. Nobody in the mid 1970s could see the “sustainability” aspect, that a diabolical disease could get amplified by the chain letters that would result. Yet, the lesson continues. Medicine developed moderately effective treatments, but still has no vaccine; nevertheless, AIDS has become a chronic, manageable disease (no longer exploding in Western countries, though decimating areas of Africa), sometimes related to lifestyle habits but in a way that bears moral comparison, perhaps, to Type II Diabetes or lung cancer.

Another “sustainability” or “quickening” lesson comes from today’s demographics. In western middle and upper class families, there are fewer children, but the elderly are living much longer, but often in frail situation. In a world grown used to Dr. Phil’s approaches to “personal responsibility” in avoiding unwanted pregnancy, we have indeed an ironic moral problem. Suddenly, people who never “chose” to have children and take on the risk and responsibility have to take care of their parents. There is every likelihood that budget-strapped states will start enforcing their filial responsibility laws on adult children, who could become a new kind of “deadbeat” just like walkoff dads. Family responsibility is no longer a matter of choice or immediate consequences of behavior. Actually, lower income families have known that for years, as do families in developing worlds, like in Africa where teenagers, losing parents to AIDS, raise younger siblings. In fact, Hollywood has made several films on this theme, where unmarried adults without children suddenly “inherit” a deceased relative’s children.

Externally induced economic hardships do tend to lead to political and social oppression, especially against those who are “different” and who make convenient scapegoats. History certainly has taught us this. So, is it an invitation for gay bashing? It could be. But there is a twist. One problem at issue is emotional receptivity. We have created a culture that encourages teens and young adults to build their own worlds before attempting to start families, and we’ve simultaneously entertained the idea that “new kinds of families” could be started by those wired differently. So far, so good perhaps. But what we see in all the talk about energy crisis, tap-outs, global warming, pandemics and other disasters is the idea that people will have to learn to accept interdependence in new ways and accept goals other than those they would have crafted for themselves. At the heart of this is the emotional importance given to the nuclear and extended family, and the question of “loyalty to blood.” Moralists will make an old but novel-sounding argument: if one short-circuits the "normal" requirements of socialization through the family with short-term "freedoms", unsustainable conditions develop.

Some visitors know about my early 1960s debacle at William and Mary and then my “hospitalization” at NIH in 1962 (elsewhere on by blogs and sites). At one point, I saw a diagnosis sheet that mentioned “schizoid personality.” Look it up on Wikipedia and you’ll see mention of “symptoms” like “emotional coldness” and, curiously, “introverted narcissistic self-sufficiency.” Many of the traits discussed sound benign, and within the limits of legitimate human personality diversity (introversion, or perhaps the "unbalanced" personality discussed elsewhere on these sites in conjunction with psychological polarities). The problem is what society believes it needs to expect of everyone, and in a world with the kinds of problems we have now, traits like these get elevated to being viewed as pathological and needing treatment. In the past, the pathology was associated with a view of public morality that was designed to socialize people to share the burdens and risks of family like and of sustaining civilization equitably. The old prohibitionistic view of homosexuality was really a device to get “waverers” to share family responsibility, especially in the emotional areas, and to reproduce and procreate themselves. It was a moral concept based on a religious notion of sustainability, that goes way beyond the shorter-term notions of “personal responsibility” accepted today. It’s an evasive, “non-rational” “moral trick” that the mainstream West doesn’t want anymore, yet it has to somehow come to terms with what to expect of everyone to reduce the polarization of the cultural wars.

Today, Parade Magazine has a counterpoint from Barack Obama and John McCain on the question “What is Patriotism?”: The two pieces are called “Sacrifice for the Common Good” v. “A Cause Greater than Self-Interest.” It’s transparent where this is headed. People have to get out of themselves and become interested in the real needs of others. People have to expect and even embrace interpersonal challenges that in the recent past would have been viewed as disruptions or burdens. That is part of “sustainability.” You can be sure to hear a lot more discussion about national service and even sporadic calls to resume the draft. (But maybe that will ax “don’t ask don’t tell,” which we cannot afford.)

The Internet also falls into discussions about sustainability, particularly in the way it has embraced user-generated content, with all the potential perhaps unanticipated legal complications and business model issues discussed in previous postings. But one of the surprise developments is the public reaction to the tendency towards irony and self-parody by many Internet speakers, especially on social networking sites. It seems that, as a moral matter, this sort of behavior is becoming unacceptable in view of community problems that don’t appreciate resources being spent on self-deprecation. This point was made intrusively in the “Suburbia” film, which says we can no longer “afford” this kind of “irony”. In some right-wing or religious subcultural areas, open homosexuality (especially with men) is seen as an admission of “unworthiness” to reproduce, a statement that takes one out of competition for “deserving” scarce resources.

What then is to be expected of the “new” morally sustainable individual? Some of the concepts, which do overlap, might include accountability, reputation, sustainability, sacrifice, burden and risk sharing, and proper restraint in self-expression. One might postulate that everyone should prove that he or she can support someone else (emotionally as well as financially) besides the self. It sounds “logical” that if everyone lived up to this, some of the polarized tensions in the cultural war could be reduced. Another way to put this might be that self-expression should always be matched by concrete value in meeting the real needs of other people.

These ideas for moral standards turn the tables a bit from the “playing in the sandbox” situations that come up on Judge Judy or Dr. Phil, and it least gives the usual moral span a "reverse side". “Personal responsibility” incorporates a community sustainability that can look decades ahead. These standards imagine the evolution of law in a direction where the individual has less granularity than she does today, and where the family as an active unit has more say. This would not be a welcome development for those who are different (me) and might get religious notions and the state mixed together in ways seen as unacceptable in the mainstream now. It could even change the constitutional notion of "state interest."

Back in 1998, I wrote my second book, "Our Fundamental Rights," a short argument that enumerated our basic rights and who we could support and reclaim them in view of social pressures that I even then thought would inevitably grow. What will be hard is to maintain a focus on individual rights as we see them given the ambiguous nature of the long term combined consequences of peoples' motives.

But if we want to keep our freedoms as they as we have grown accustomed to them, without other people (maybe from the other side of the globe) telling us how to live, we need to get to work, quickly. We need to produce!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Judge orders YouTube to turn over user access database; downstream concerns articulated


I had written about the YoutTube-Viacom case on this blog on May 28. Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Louis L. Stanton ruled that Viacom could have access to YouTube’s 12 terabyte logging database.

The purpose of Viacom’s request is to determine whether a significant percentage of visits involve looking at pirated videos. Viacom insists that it will not try to identify individual visitors in order to sue them (reminding one of the RIAA lawsuits against individual downloaders of copyrighted music, which happened in a P2P environment and that is technically very different).

Defendants (as long as Electronic Frontier Foundation) raised questions of privacy and perhaps identity protection. It is all to easy to track down almost anyone given the intention, even if the mass database did not immediately identify them. CNET news has a Podcast audio by Caroline McCarthy and Leslie Katz, “Should YouTube users worry about privacy?” link here.

The Washington Post story is by Ellen Nakashima, and is titled “YouTube Ordered to Release User Data: Viacom Had Sought Access to Database in Copyright Battle” link here.

I personally view YouTube moderately, and I do not look for infringing materials. I look for innovative films like amateur tornado chasers, or engineers (such as a teenager’s reverse engineering a cell phone). Infringement materials are often of poor quality. I do wonder about the legality of clips from broadcast news, and these are often important (such as clips about online “reputation defense”). One risk, from Viacon’s viewpoint, may be that a visitor will feel satisfied by viewing a particularly graphic passage from a film and then not be interested in buying a ticket or DVD. On the other hand, studios carefully engineer what visitors can see in previews and trailers that they release.

I have not yet posted any of my own videos on YouTube, preferring to use the photo directory on my own site doaskdotell.com

Some sites offer specialty films, especially shorts, for Internet viewing for free legally. Logoonline offers gay and lesbian shorts, even some films from major directors with established distributors (such as Carter Smith’s horror short ‘Bugcrush” from Strand). In these cases copyright owners have granted permission for promotional reasons. The videos, as they play on the Internet, may have less definition and

Business Week has a July 3 article by Catherine Colahan, “Viacom v. YouTube: Beyond Privacy: As Viacom is granted access to YouTube records, a bigger threat to user-generated sites emerges: The law increasingly sides with rights owners,” link here. The article predicts that web hosts could have to proactively screen out submissions that could infringe, pretty much shutting down the “free entry” into self-publication and self-promotion that we have become accustomed to. The article mentions some litigation in France (and the rest of Europe) that is not binding on US courts but that could set a psychological tone, as Ebay lost a case for listing counterfeit handbags. The article suggests that courts in the US may become less sympathetic to “newbies” as the Internet industry expires, and may not be willing to shield targets of even wrongful takedowns for people who have not yet “paid their dues.” We're seeing that concern with the recent action by the Associated Press against Drudge Retort and the reaction of media bloggers (the June 22 posting here). Colahan even sees the willingness of the Judge to allow access to user’s records as a predictive symptom of this legal trend.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Study shows that kids don't make married couples happier: another symptom of "hyperindividualism"?


This morning, the NBC Today show discussed a recent study showing that most American couples without children are happier than those with children. That sounds ironic in that NBC has just started its hit reality show “The Baby Borrowers.”

This finding apparently surprised a lot of people. “Happiness” (and, in the story, “interest”) seemed to go down some time after the birth of the first child, given all the pressures that couples face because of the extreme demands of a child. The show mentioned the pressures of "the family bed" and "attachment parenting" that some couples experience or try. Happiness improves, according to the report, when the oldest child can leave home successfully, to go to college or work. There is no question that having “successful” kids can eventually make a marriage happier.

The report indicated that people marry five years later now than they did twenty years ago, and often delay having children longer.

The NBC story also indicated that American society is individually very competitive and not particularly family-friendly. This observation seems to relate to "radical individualism" and an emphasis on personal sovereignty associated with the "me generation." Workplace culture with respect to family may contrast to practices in western Europe, where there is usually paid parental leave available. Even so, as noted often lately, the United States has higher birth rates than does Europe, where a slowing native population is becoming perceived as a serious demographic problem. Those who talk about the family friendly workplace should read Elinor Burkett’s 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family Friendly America Cheats the Childless”. But another problem is that modern technological society offers young adults other ways to build identities of their own apart from family activity.

The Today show also reported this morning that many grade school children lose much of their math skills over the summer vacation and have to be retaught. It’s unclear whether computer savvy kids will hold onto their skills better; older children probably would, but younger children may never gave the foundation in how math actually “works” until they do a lot of it by hand. Sylvan Learning Center was mentioned as offering a lot of games that help retain math skills.

That recalls what I used to do with a couple of friends at around age 11 or 12 or so in Ohio (in the days that the Cleveland Indians were contenders every year and played in that old notorious stadium on Lake Erie, and the Senators were hapless losers in the clapboard old Griffith Stadium). We used to build board-game stadiums out of cardboard, and then lay them out in farm fields (one boy actually build a fence to enclose a farm “field of dreams”). I suppose that’s pretty good for learning geometry skills. For example, kids could ponder why baseball outfields are almost never in the shape of squares. Sports problems provide plenty of good “word problems” for math and physics.

A favorite quote of mine is this: “A certain scientist, Galileo’s contemporary, was no more stupid than Galileo. He knew that the earth revolves, but he had a family. And when he got into a carriage with his wife, after accomplishing his betrayal, he reckoned he was advancing his career, but in fact he’d wrecked it.” That comes from the Russian poet Yevtushenko, “A Career,” translated text for last movement of Shostakovich Symphony #13, London CD 417261, performed by Dallas Turtle Creek Chorale with Dallas Symphony in April, 1987.