Monday, March 30, 2009

"Because I said so!" -- the "Just for Authority" problem -- boyhood revisited


John Rosemond has an interesting syndicated column on parenting, reprinted on p A17 of the Sunday Read of The Washington Times, “’Because I said so’ wont’ stunt esteem.” The original column is here.

I remember, when growing up, my resentment of being expected to conform to certain micro standards (in how I did chores, for example), “just for authority.” A parent tells a child to perform task and will not explain why. But the idea spills out into the real world, in business, and especially in school with teachers. Rosemond says “Effective leaders act like they know what they are doing. “Because I said so” is simply part of the act—an important part, no less. It also keeps things simple for those being led. They do not have to know what the leader knows; they simply have to trust.”

He also goes on to say that “why?” is a “belligerent response” to parental decisions, not a debate.

But in the broader society, the question of leadership for its own sake becomes important. We want our society to be a lot more transparent than it used to be. We want to understand our leaders’ decisions, and because of free flow of information, that sounds a lot more realistic.

Yet, I’ve encountered some situations where “just for authority” matters. When I was substitute teaching, I had discipline problems that related to my not being perceived as a “male role model” for its own sake. How can you expect a sub who doesn’t know the students to be credible as a disciplinarian. The schools seem to think that “you just have it in you.”

One of Rosemond’s earlier columns, with a title that may sound cynical, “Bad economy may aid parenting”, reinforces his views (the Washington Times, March 15, 2009, link here). He writes “When I was a kid, nearly every child enjoyed a responsible role in his or her family, a role defined by chores. We were not on entitlement programs.” The family as a unit was created by the committed intimate marital experience of the parents, and, yes, it had an effect on shaping the lives of others, in a world filled with external hostilities and challenges outside the scope of individualism.

But, was we see, the “rules of engagement” keep changing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Facebook at 5: Zuckerberg and Cox shown in chess "5 minute" game -- for real?


Brad Stone has a major story “Is Facebook Growing Up too Fast” on the front Business Section page of the New York Times today, Sunday, March 29, 2009, here. The HTML title includes “Facebook at 5”.

What caught my eye is a big color photo (by Peter DaSilva) of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox playing a game of what appears to be 5-minute chess. But when I looked at the position, it made no sense. The White Queen is on d1 and is in double check from the Black Queen on d5 and Bishop on g4. I don’t think that position could have arisen legally.

The White Queen sometimes is on d1 in one variation of the Winawer French, but this is not that. If you’re going to do a big publicity photo, set up a controversial position (say from the Dragon Sicilian or Nadjorf, or Benko Gambit, or maybe even Ruy Lopez Marshall Gambit) and it will get a lot of attention, at least from the chess community. Or set up a tricky endgame with underpromotion or manipulation of the opposition.

The article, though, is thorough. It goes into the concept of homophily, the tendency of people of like minds to congregate socially (“preaching to the choir”). The Rand Corporation analyzed a related concept, “propinquity”, in trying to propose how to lift the ban on gays in the military. Facebook, like other social networking sites (and Facebook reached 100 million members in August 2008) breaks all the social boundaries. Yet, the article explains, it can bring families together.

The article does discuss the concern about employers finding unfavorable materials written by associates, but barely touches on the broader aspects of the “online reputation” issue which quickly became important in the human resources world when social networking sites were invented.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Rule sets" need to be averaged out over time


The concept of “RuleSet” has taken on an esoteric meaning in object-oriented programming, but in ethics and social policy, we have to take a long, “meta” view of the importance people give to rules (yes, those notorious “rules of engagement” in previous posts).

I like rules. Maybe that makes me a Pharisee. But I think many people like rules, too. Rules give meaning to things, but, it seems, only when they are followed exactly. Professional sports like baseball and football work so well because the way the rules are designed (and supposedly consistently enforced by umpires and referees) they enforce a certain balance. (I won’t go too far off track in mentioning that performance enhancing drugs can ruin everything quickly.) In baseball we give the “home team” a little flexibility, like with outfield dimensions and certain “ground rules”. But they are still rules, and they evolve over time. At one time pro football was different from college. But then pro football moved the goalposts back and adopted the two-point conversion opportunity. I even think that a one-point opportunity (a downed punt) ought to be considered. (In the 2009 Super Bowl, didn't we all love the precision with which those instant replays were examined for two critical Steeler touchdowns!) The point is that over time, people change the rules for things because of various circumstances, including technology and population or customer demographics.

So it is, it seems, with society. And particularly in generative and organizing elements like sexuality, marriage and family, particularly as these components relate to the way wealth is distributed. I’ve come to understand, in recent years, how it really was a half century ago. People married, had kids, raised the next generation and remained romantically involved (most of the time, with much better “slugging averages” than today) because the “rules” created meaning and a psychic reward for doing so. Some of this reward included not just general social approbation or tax treatment, but also the notion that they had created a socializing institution, “the family” that would provide identity for others who might not always “compete “well enough to do the same in their own personal lives. The rules of sexual morality (requiring that institutionalized marriage monopolize sexuality) seemed to be based on religion, but what they really did was give meaning to the permanence of a relationship that might not sustain itself long enough to take care of other generations. In these earlier times, a lot of moral significance was given to gender-related “performance,” which limited many people. The “meaning” made the continued relationship exciting, but it required the submission of others (even many adults) to the structure of the family. It was easy to abuse. But, within the family itself, it was possible to pretend that “nobody got out of things” and therefore a particular station in life could be “justified” morally, particularly when challenged by notions of dependency on “hidden sacrifices” or subsidies by others.

But the rules “changed,” starting with the tumultuous 1960s. Individualism grew, and marriage became “privatized”. Ironically, because of technology and the Internet, personal values, often expressed through “private choices” in sexual behavior (including homosexual) took on new public meaning, often of a disturbing existential nature. But the experience of sexuality (even from something as harmless as “dirty dancing” at the disco) also had meaning, relative to the values of an individualistic world. Welcome to the “culture wars.”

In fact, if there is a “moral” problem with homosexuality as it unfolded in me, it seems that it has something to do with, at least in an existential view, the notion that my “upward affiliation” is an attempt to “change the rules” after I couldn’t “compete” according to what society had laid out for my gender. As a mid teen, I set up softball games in my own backyard and neighbors, and manipulated the “rules” so that I sometimes “won.” Chess players do this by mastering opening theory and trying to get opponents to play “their game.” Sexuality, it seems, is different from everything else in our culture: attempts to "rationalize" it backfire because it's very purpose is transformative, beyond the individual's normal scope of control.

Today we face problems of sustainability, in terms of the environment and resources and financial structures (and even the way “reputation” relates to capital and resources), but also in terms of demographics. All of this could cause further modifications of the “Rule Set”. For example, family responsibility may no longer be perceived just as a function of a “choice” to procreate – because, given demographics, we can no longer “afford” such an arrangement forever. Some family responsibility of the ability to support others will be expected of everybody. There may well re-develop a policy of “pay your dues” but it probably will not nearly so gender-related as it was a half-century ago, because social mores in sexuality and perception of gender identity and personal identity have changed. Some people will want to continue the experience of group or family consciousness (including religious ideas of fellowship), but the rules will always have to be understood when translated in terms of individual “responsibilities” and expectations. Even so, we may wind up with a new notion that individual work is meaningless without corresponding social implementation.

Technology, it seems, when it comes to individualism, can both “giveth” and “taketh away”. It offered democratization of debate and fame without capital or the previous modes of competition and accountability. But it could also create new responsibilities and exposures. People could live longer than they used to, and people’s lives could be saved by various new determined treatments, not possible a decade earlier. But sometimes this could work only if other family members would make sacrifices outside of the individualistic ideas of “choice” and “personal responsibility”. Family emotion, soap opera style, even jealousy, started to become potentially virtuous again. That’s one reason why new family structures (including those headed by same-sex couples) become controversial, way beyond the usual focused hype on legal “benefits” or “privileges” and abstract notions of “equality.”

Problems can come about that require understanding how the rules changed between generations, and may change again. A mediator may have to think like a teacher weighing different tests and the final exam – a lot of different factors “count” in deciding what is just – and we can never make things perfectly fair, it seems. Sacrifice can be part of the reconciliation.

I can look over a few decades of life, look at some incidents, and say what I should have done and what others should have done in each one, out of moral intuition. But the "rules" that drive the sense of what is "the right thing" really have changed in moving from one circumstance to the next. There seems to be a new sense that if your work influences decisions that affect other people, then "you" should take some personal responsibility for them, too.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blogs and embedded vidoes: what are the "risks"?


The Citizen Media Law Project has an important discussion by Sam Bayard, dated July 10, 2007, on “Embedded Video and Copyright Infringement”, link here.

There are a couple things going on here. Many media sites, but not all, offer embed code to invite bloggers to embed their videos on amateur blogs. We know that there have been issues with “framed” deep links, those that do not make it clear that the displayed content did not come from the displaying author. But in these cases, media outlets are inviting the “framing” (of their “property”) because they have decided that there is a business advantage for allowing their content to be seen “free” (without the usual sponsors) elsewhere on the web, in that it is likely to draw viewers to their programs and improve ratings. NBC Saturday Night Live offers many clips for embedding. The Weather Channel has offered animations for blog embedding before hurricanes and tornado outbreaks.

There is an article (July 16, 2008) by Christopher Heng from “The Wizard”, “Is it Okay to post YouTube videos on my website?” that warns of one problem. Some amateur creators allow the embed option (in YouTube) to stay open but then say they didn’t want their videos embedded without permission. Heng says that such persons violated common sense, but it is completely clear what courts would do. (I think they would agree with Heng.) So one should use some discretion on embedding such videos, particularly if they seem very sensitive or controversial (as in a religious matter) in such a manner that the poster would resent it being on one’s site. “Mainstream” content videos would seem much less likely to raise such concerns.

The real controversy (getting back to the CMLP article) comes with the risk of embedding a link that is itself infringing. That risk could occur with YouTube. In a practical sense, the embed may just fail to work one day. But it is possible that bloggers could be liable for “contributory infringement” according to this article if they knew or suspected that the embedded item itself infringes. In a sense, an individual blogger could be more exposed to liability than a large company.

It is true that the courts (the Ninth Circuit, with PDF link to Perfect 10 v Google given in the article above) have ruled that embeds are still bibliographic links for purposes of copyright law, since they the referring blog doesn’t actually contain the images, just the links.

EFF suggests that bloggers only embed videos that they are reasonably sure don’t infringe (such as those from mainstream media sites that offer embedding code, or videos authored by the bloggers themselves, or YouTube videos where the circumstances strongly support legitimacy – an amateur video of a tornado in progress is likely to be legitimate), and take down any on complaint of infringement. Bloggers may be able (ironically) to use the DMCA safe harbor provision, but they have to “hire” agents and go through some notification of users and other complicated steps outlined in the article.

Visitors may want to peruse the idea of a watermark to identify copyright owners of video that can be embedded, here.

I have posted a few of my own simple videos on my blogs, and I may do work that is much more substantive in the future. And it will be mine.

There could be unknown risks with embedding other video content that is otherwise illegal (like obscenity or child pornography), or “infected” (a problem associated with “news spam” discussed on my Internet Safety blog Jan. 3, 2009.

Picture: from a bike trail near Sparta, WI; still from a video on a private DVD (not yet available publicly), but mine!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Will "Choruss" solve the P2P music sharing problems?


There is an interesting facility called Choruss, and independent non-profit that has been set up to help mediate the music licensing problem. ISP’s, universities, or other agents would pay fees to the recording industry in order to get licenses for more or less “free “ access for customers, who, however, would probably have fees passed on to them whether they used the music or not. Call it a kind of “communism.” Some people see community licensing as a kind of “duct tape” solution, but other legal groups, including EFF, have tended to support community and common licensing as a practical and fair way to aid the free flow of information and art and music, particularly from speakers who do not have deep pockets or a lot of capital. Remember, “ordinary employees” in the music and film industries do need to get paid; many of them (including actors) struggle like “everyone else.”

On December 8, 2008, Eliot Van Buskirk wrote on Wired that three major music labels had joined Choruss (link here). Only Universal among the major companies is holding out, according to the story. Warner seems to be leading the charge.

Techdirt has an article “Jim Griffin Explains Choruss; We're Still Left Wondering Why It's Needed,” link here.

A discussion forum on Slashdot called this a “bait and switch” scheme to disguise a “P2P music tax.” (Reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich!)

I checked choruss.com and found it “still under construction” by a company called Speakeasy.

Picture: Is this Ravel? On an building near the Minnesota Orchestra on Marquette St in Minneapolis, taken by me (on video) in 2003.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Senate bill would let troubled newspapers become 501c3's


Maryland Senator Ben Cardin has introduced legislation to allow troubled newspapers or newspaper holding companies (such as the Tribune) to operate as non-profits. They would be able to establish themselves as 501c3 organizations and obtain contributions. They would not be able to make political endorsements (which they do now), but could offer political coverage as usual.

The Wall Street Journal article is by Darrell Hughes, link here.

The bill is S. 673, here on Govtrack, titled “A bill to allow certain newspapers to be treated as described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of such Code”.

The short name of the bill is the Newspaper Revitalization Act, and Senator Cardin’s own discussion is here.



Update: April 12, 2009

The Washington Times Sunday Read has a good article by Andrew B. Davis, "Solutions: What's the future for newspapers" where he summarizes all the revenue "partial fractions" solutions, adding the idea that newspapers could sell Kindles and deliver subscriber content. The link is here. Davis points out very strongly that even "good bloggers" admit that they would not have stories without a professional news business first. Of course, "gonzo journalism" is getting more interesting these days.

Film about Hillary Clinton stirs campaign finance law controversy, before Supreme Court


On Tuesday March 23 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning a DVD film “Hillary, the Movie,” directed by Alan Petersen, produced by Citizens United. When the group used corporate money to advertise the film during the 2008 campaign, it ran into federal campaign finance restrictions.

There is a story from David G. Savage of the Washington Bureau of the Chicago Tribune, story titled ““Hillary: The Movie": Supreme Court hears film's challenge to campaign finance laws.”

I ordered it from Netflix and it has a “very long wait.”

I would be concerned about how this could apply to other films. If corporations had paid to advertise movies about “don’t ask don’t tell” like “Ask Not,” could campaign finance restrictions applied? How could this affect independent film of a political nature?

We’ve already settled a major controversy about bloggers and campaign finance reform in the past.

Picture: from a shoot on the Potomac River of the new show "Washington Field".

The market economy hasn't always defined "the rules of engagement"!


One of the features of a market economy is a tendency to drift toward market fundamentalism not only in financial matters but in how we perceive personal ethics.

Over the past few decades, we have gradually developed a moral value system based on personal autonomy or individual sovereignty, where the choice of the individual drives all moral outcomes, which generally are measured in monetary terms. And underlying concept is “freedom to contract” with the corresponding responsibility to honor contracts voluntarily made, as enforced by the legal system. In some quarters, such a line of thinking has been used to propose simplifying marriage laws (for any gender combination) to simple contract law.

When I was growing up, in the 1950s, I perceived an overlay built on a notion like “moral duty” or something like that. I was particularly challenged, in the grade school and middle school years, to prove that I could do the things “expected of a man.” I did poorly at these things and this was a source of a lot of negativity. It seemed that I was focusing “unfair” attention on myself (my studies and music) at the expense of some common “social responsibility.”

As I’ve noted, kids don’t have the autonomy to function in the monetary system. They live in a world which may be rich with wonders, but their privileges are controlled by others (as demonstrated in the childhood “Mother May I” game) and currency consists of popularity, fun, and recognition.

My parents and their generation did not perceive a stable world where the legal system can guarantee individual liberty the way ours did (particularly in the glory days of all those GLIL socials in the 90s). The world was an inherently dangerous place (look at the experience with wars and depression, and look at the past decade and past few months, for that matter) and loyalty to family and group was an intrinsic value. It was not the responsibility of the individual to determine right and wrong on a global context; that constituted the “knowledge of good and evil.” Instead, elders of a family or society negotiated that. Within families, men were expected to prove that they could compete to provide for and protect women and children, and women were expected to provide more babies and raise them. Gender conformity in those days was part of a “moral currency” which counted toward one’s station in life. One “earned” one’s keep relative to what others had by being able to “perform” according to the “rules of engagement.”

There’s an important distinction in how people thought, between two precepts. Yes, if you had children, you had to support them, and if you got married, you had to be faithful. But there was also “something else.” You had to prove that you could provide for others before you were on your own and partook of “riches” that you knew a lot of other people didn’t have.

This roughly tracked with “family values.” Because it perpetuated not just tribalism but outright racism (slavery and the segregation) on the idea that “you look out for your own family first”, no wonder progressives (especially the Left) attacked it. But new individualism would provide its own problems, as still people could get left behind. Attempts to make things “equal” or “just” could well invite new totalitarian experiments, as we know from Maoism on the one hand, and right wing fringe groups on the other.

So we are left with uncertainty, which we must have the courage to accept, and a mix of expectations and sometimes some uneven sacrifice and willingness to accept uncertainty. But there may be no alternative in a free society.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In a parallel universe, would I have done the "career switch" to teaching after all?


As I look back over the past several years, I do wonder if I would (or could) have done a “career switch” and become a math teacher shortly after moving back to Virginia from Minnesota in the late summer of 2003 after all.

In Minneapolis, after the 2001 layoff, I had indeed looked at the idea of substitute teaching, but in Minnesota subs had to be licensed. I looked online at the certification programs at universities in the Twin Cities and there were many (especially at the “U of M”) but they were expensive and time consuming. I did not think about checking out Virginia before moving back for family reasons.

In fact, I didn’t learn that Virginia would hire unlicensed subs until around March 2004 when I saw a “career switcher” paid spot ad on local television. (Yes, broadcast commercials sometimes really work.) I checked, and quickly found that it was relatively “easy” to get hired as a substitute teacher. I stood in front of my first class on April 30, 2004. I’ve covered what happened on this blog, particularly in July 2007.

I wonder, however, if the outcome would have been much “better” had I checked before I came back and started immediately in the fall of 2003 (perhaps before October 1). Why is this credible? For one thing, I could have had a full year of subbing before the fast-track career-switcher classes offered in June then by Old Dominion University. (Again, many schools offered programs, but some were much cheaper and more “efficient” in getting the “180 clock hours” of instruction than others.)

Another thing is that by starting sooner, with some pre-thought before moving back, I might have focused only on my “strengths” (academics in the high school grades only) and avoided all or most of the problems with middle schools and special education that contributed to what finally happened. In the mean time, I would have focused on reviewing my graduate school mathematics background (I have an MA from the University of Kansas) and passing the Praxis (which I took for math in September 2005 and got a good score on anyway). Perhaps I could have aimed toward a second career teaching calculus to promising high school seniors -- but there were dues to pay, it seemed. I admit that when I started late in the spring of 2004, I was in a hurry to get some money in and some classroom hours, and was not as careful about what I allowed on my profile as I should have been. (Within the substitute world, there was a kind of closed “reputation” to think about that now seems to mirror the Internet one.)

It is true that in some cases special education and “public health training assistant” jobs (dealing with severe disability) were offered even when not on one’s profile. And, looking back, it seems that there was a culture of “paying your dues” in dealing with this part of the school system’s needs. This was difficult for me because, as I have noted, I have not been a parent myself and being forced into pretending to be a “male role model” brings up the “existential trap” objections that I have already discussed.

Had I put my mind to this, then, could it have worked? I would have, at some point, had to invest several thousand dollars in certification, wondering if an opening and self-published gay man would really be hired, in a society whose federal government (and Congress) had thought nothing of codifying “don’t ask don’t tell” into federal law. Yes, I think a law like that designed for the military sets a malignant example for civilian life, because I think it suggests that “less competitive men” are not suitable role models. (I’ve covered on these blogs and in my books before past initiatives to try to ban gay teachers, such as Briggs in California in 1978, covered in the film “Milk”.; I have to call it as I see it. As I said in an earlier post, “reproduction rules,” at least sometimes. Legacy discrimination really persists, too. So, really, do I have much incentive to fork over my own money? Hard to say.

Had I “pulled this off,” however, I would be leading a very different life now. I would have had to take all my own Internet materials down. I would be keeping a low profile, earning a living, not “telling”, and, in another sense, “paying my dues” in a culture that, compared to fifteen years ago, may revert back to expecting people to prove they can take care of others (whether they “reproduced or not”) before they are listened to. That could be where we are heading, although it’s still murky. Possibly, after five years or so of teaching (indirectly “reproductive” activity) maybe I would be in a better position to “really” sell my story. I wonder. We’ve always accepted and promoted the idea of unmarried or never-married women as teachers. With men, it’s not so clear. Like it or not, gender still matters when role modeling for the next generation.

I do think that the teachers and administrators that I worked with from 2004 to 2007 (in 2006 I worked in grading binders, but not in the classroom after the 2005 incident discussed here on the July 27, 2007 entry) did learn from me. I brought to their attention many issues about free speech (especially specific areas like censorship, COPA, implicit content, “thought experiments”, and “online reputation defense”), discrimination, and the subtleties of our debates over gender. I did some things (especially regarding my web site) and handled certain situations (as with discipline, backing away from it) in a manner that may have seemed inexplicable to others at the time, although it made sense to me, given the “real world” of work that I had come from. Or, in fact, did my 30 years of urban social “segregation” provide enough “real world” experience for teaching in a reproductive world? I still don’t know. The "alternate universe" movies of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski certainly apply to me.

Why has USPS removed stamp machines from PO's; how about retail customer service, too?


Does anyone know why some United States Post Offices are no longer maintaining stamp machines, including the ability to buy stamps automatically with credit and debit cards? I was told by employees at one post office in Arlington VA that the machines will not be fixed or replaced, and that they were being removed from all post offices.

I do see that usps.com sells stamps online.

But why make postal customers, those just buying stamps, wait in line behind customers with complicated package transactions? The USPS is going backwards in efficiency.

I notice similar problems in convenience stores. Often there is only one clerk, and customers with simple transactions wait in line behind those buying lottery tickets, cigarettes, or using food stamps. Often enough management doesn’t notice and bother to send up a second clerk. This sort of behavior of retail chains is surprising in a recession. Really, making people with for the privilege of giving you money?

What’s happened to customer service in this economic downturn? It seems to be going down, too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In the Web 2.0 (and greater) world, "privacy" has a twist


Back in November 2008 I reviewed (on the books blog) GWU law professor Daniel Solove’s “Understanding Privacy” and something about web self-promotion really strikes me now.

When someone like me addresses controversial political or social issues and publishes such material on the Web, he or she often works alone and has the sensation of “privacy” (in terms of how biological brain chemistry works), even though he or she may choose to identify the self and not “hide” behind anonymity and therefore lose effect. In effect, when one “tells” one still has a sense of “privacy” nonetheless (imagine how this impacts the debate on “don’t ask don’t tell”).

What really happens then? People wonder why the speaker sticks his neck out. Many people don’t understand the value of abstraction, or of pointing out what one sees as the full scope of an issue. They certainly don’t understand the purpose of “thought experiments” where one acts out, on paper, an undesirable role to show possible consequences. Such people often assume a “personal” motive, with some visible social or financial gain.

Therefore they will expect things of speakers. In my case, I have found that people sometimes want me to drop what I’m doing and join their causes. Or they want me to become a role model for their purposes. Or they may behave like some characters in a particularly notorious soap opera and insist on being taken care of. Postings that seem abstract and principled and at worst "neutral" come to be perceived as hostile by people who see me, by their perspective, remaining so socially "aloof."

It’s all very interesting. But remember, because of my “sexual orientation”, a lived a life of neo-segregation, in sheltered urban exile, until the Internet and other external circumstances changed things starting in the 90s (and particularly after 9/11). I lived and worked in a world of hyper-individualism (information technology fit perfectly), where social relationships were always conditional, and were people “kept score”. I lost track of how much social deference the “real world” expects. Today, I think back to the early 1950s, when sometimes my parents used two teenage boys, brothers, seven to nine years older, as babysitters. Both became ministers, but what strikes me now was that in those days everyone learned the idea that they would function in a family-based setting before they did things in life. By the 1960s that had all started to change. And today we have a world where everybody perceives the same facts and same information so differently, both in the eyes of the beholder and trying to guess the motives of the speaker.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What's changing are the "Rules of Engagement"; My "Existential Trap" proves the point


Last week (Tuesday March 18) I discussed the pro-natalist views of Phillip Longman, and I had discussed them in response to a newspaper column on March 8 and 15, with the link to my discussion here.

So someone wrote back to me this comment by email, and it stimulates some followup.”

I had written, at the end of the posting, "So, I guess I have to just say it. That means "people like me" must submit ourselves to the culture created by the marital sexual intercourse of others."

The reaction is, “Bill, every human in history has submitted themselves to the culture created by the marital sexual intercourse of others. That's because reproduction rules -- that's how lineage is created, and lineage goes forward, not 'us.' So living in a culture created by the people who reproduce hasn't changed. What's changing are the rules of engagement.”

First, there is what I’ve have called the Existential Trap in the gay male community, and what social conservative writer George Gilder called “upward affiliation” back in the 1980s, and what ex-gay “reparative therapist” (whom Dr. Phil featured in January, almost by mistake) Joseph Nicolosi called an irony – that gay men often admire the leanest and strongest (just imagine the last visit to the disco floor)--- the most “masculine” – in their ranks, supposedly attracted to their previous “oppressors”. I hate to have to make Nicolosi “credible” (I talked about his 2002 book on the books blog in January) but here he has a point. Putting all the threads of “logic” together, it seems that “gay male values” often reinforce the “right wing” notion that some men are potentially more “competitive” as potential ancestors and desirable providers than others. Okay, I say that in subjunctive mood. So supposed gay values actually derived from the “culture” created by reproduction. I can see that this argument on the surface makes some sense.

That leaves me to ponder “the rules of engagement” – what they are, and how they have changed. For most of history, marriage has been at least an economic arrangement, for dividing labor, creating biological lineage, and apportioning wealth. Children were viewed as “assets”. In the 1920s (as Peter Jennings documents in his coffee table book “The Century”) the notion of “companionate” marriage began to take hold, and gradually the “privatized” idea of marriage as chosen and expressive of love and commitment took hold, gradually leading to a concept more commensurate with the individualism that would start to develop in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal choice, self-expression, equality, and economic productivity for all became seen as virtues, and some aspects of family life, particularly the care of the elderly, were at least partially socialized with Medicare and other programs. Children, as Longman points out, came to be seen by the affluent potentially as “liabilities.” A “perfect storm” of tension among cultural values developed, what we know as the “culture wars”. Religious leaders, quite appropriately, warned that “personal responsibility” had been carried to dangerous extremes, denying the idea that people need each other (or God). At the same time, older notions of family morality had sometimes encouraged tribalism and patriarchal values. Many issues were seen as beyond the responsibility of the individual and to be resolved only collectively by families, groups or even states. In such a world, practices like slavery and segregation could be accepted for a long time.

I’ve noted in a previous posting that anti-gay laws (and sodomy laws) often used to be a lazy way to ensure that every person will invest some energy in intergenerational responsibility. They were part of the older “rules of engagement.” But “rationalization” of moral thinking with individualism led to a world where they violated individual rights of private choice and autonomy, which, with increasing technology, became seen as more important virtues than shared responsibility, which married couples used to experience as their prerogative to dole out to other (unmarried or not yet married) family members.

But now we face real questions about the sustainability of our way of life, and the Internet (again, with some irony), partly as a result of the easy self-promotion opportunities that it offers, has obscured our notions of “privacy”. It also leads us to question “individual sovereignty” as it has developed over the years. Multiple concerns crop up, having to do with our consumption of resources relative to other populations, and lengthening life spans with earlier retirements and fewer children in certain economic classes. We are “living beyond our means” as we rudely found out recently.

Radical individualism logically supported the idea that one’s responsibilities are derived from one’s choices – most notably, to have children; they weren’t doled out (especially to “non reproductive” people) by heads of families. Over a couple decades, our sense of “morality” shifted away from an emphasis on duty (with practices like military conscription and family obligations assigned by parents, all connected to “deservedness”) – ideas that I grew up with -- to personal choice and consequentialism – often expressed in monetary terms (or as “market fundamentalism”). In the late 20th Century, gay people (especially men), tended to live in “de facto segregation” in large cities away from families of origin, often rejected by them. But with the Internet came transparency and the public awareness of the enormous need to attend to attend to intergenerational responsibility – such as adopting children on the one hand, and to provide eldercare on the other, as people lived longer. The idea that “responsibility for others” was circumscribed by personal choice was beginning to look untenable or unsustainable. Some of the more communal family values of the past, where the unmarried took care of elders disproportionately might come back (as in the movie “One True Thing”). The “rules of engagement” could turn again. It's hard to say what that means for the institution of marriage, but it's even more testy than Morse or Gallagher write.

There’s one other piece of this “Existential Trap” that is very offputting to me. As I noted in a February 19 posting here, I came through the “tween” years believing I had lost the “contest” of “male competitiveness”. Because of rapidly growing individualism and personal freedom, I found another way to live, harmlessly and then quite productively, but with some urban segregation, and without full theoretical equality, which used to be a relatively meaningless concept during my “exile”. But karma comes full circle. Now reconciliation happens and duties are expected from others, especially as I have become public with books and websites. But it is very upsetting for me to be put on the spot and be asked to pretend to be a “male role model” or “protector”, such as for family or other people’s children, given my background (for an external party to circumscribe “the best that I can do” -- whence my "second class citizenship"). I used to simply plead neutrality—the “libertarian” (and recently morally acceptable – look at Lawrence v. Texas) position. But there is “the trap” and inherent moral contradiction – I admire the same masculinity that I cannot even pretend to imitate. Masculinity is an achievement after all (all (even if Warren Farrell says otherwise in his 1993 book “The Myth of Male Power”). But it cannot be just pretended. Perhaps a bigger character issue is a certain aspect of "courage": people accept uncertainty when starting a family, and a democracy has to deal with just how much of the responsibility they wind up with (partly because of genetics) should be strictly the parents' and how much should be doled out and share by others, including the childless -- again, part of the "rules". I can understand, that if I can be “required” to support some family, then I would need my own domain after all (wife and children) and slip myself into soap opera behavior. The roots of intolerance and even nihilism have become only too clear to me.

This leaves me back to the “polarities”. Some of us have psychological makeups that don’t exactly match our genders. It can put us in a difficult position. But it all depends on the rules of engagement. Hence I write these columns, hoping that the rules don’t go the wrong way.

The phrase “rules of engagement” is often a military term. How ironic that right now they still include “don’t ask don’t tell”.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Obama administration defends use of cell site locations related to calls before 3rd Circuit


The Obama administration is maintaining that the Fourth Amendment provision regarding search and seizure will not apply to cell-site information about cell phone calls placed by cell phone customers.

Privacy advocates have been concerned that even cell tower location information could be used to trackdown the coordinates of citizens without probable cause.

The administration’s position is explained in a brief to the 3rd Circuit in an order directing a telecommunications provider to disclose records to the government, link here.

The information does not include the contents of the call.

The Wired story, (link here) dated March 17, 2009, is by David Kravets and was also put in the headlines on Electronic Frontier Foundation’s news.

Even so, the telecommunications records could sometimes prove useful to individuals, such as to establish an alibi. Or it could help law enforcement track movements of terrorists in some cases.

Picture: cell phone tower in Everglades in south Florida, Nov. 2004

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pre-release music copyright violation may land California blogger in jail


A man, Kevin Cogill, faces prison time for (noncommercially) posting music on a a blog (the supporting website is called Antiquiet) before its official release by the publisher. The same offense could occur with file-sharing. At issue is the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005 (also related to the Artist’s Rights and Theft Protection Act of 2005 and Family Home Movie Act of 2005). The text of the law is available at the Library of Congress site here.

Tim Jones has a detailed legal analysis at the Electronic Frontier Foundation here. The music in question is from Guns N' Roses album “Chinese Democracy. EFF says that the blogger had been arrested at his home in Los Angeles at gunpoint in August 2008, and that much of the music (or perhaps all of it) had been available before. The recording industry says that pre-release leaks hurt opening sales (much as with the way some “popular” movie openings are handled, sometimes starting at one minute after midnight) but EFF contests this claim. Nevertheless, the government has written up draconian sentencing guidelines linked in the EFF story. He plead guilty and the government has asked for six months in prison. The maximum sentence could have been three years and a $250000 fine.

The Los Angeles Times had printed a detailed story by Michelle Quinn and Swati Pandey on August 29, 2009, “Blogger Kevin Cogill charged with felony in leak of Guns N' Roses songs,” link here.

The details of the LA Times are disturbing indeed. The music had supposedly been in development years. Cogill’s site crashed under network traffic when he loaded the streams in June, and he removed them after a few hours. Nevertheless, he soon received visits from the FBI, both at home and at work. He used a public defender for the case.

I am personally much more familiar with the development of classical music (and independent film). Artists may not want the public to see their work before it is ready and sometimes this is a sensitive issue, and usually premiers of classical music generate a lot of buzz within a community. But it seems that in all cases, that the supposed financial impact is overblown. Of course, in some areas of the entertainment world, profit margins, particularly at opening, are a sensitive business issue.

The picture comes from the 2004 National Mall July 4 Celebration in Washington DC, taken by me. When I review movies (on my movie review blog) and provide a decorative picture, I identify the picture as taken by me and where and when I took it, to preclude any possibility that someone could think that I snapped it illegally off the movie with a camcorder. For example, a film set in Washington DC could raise this issue, but I have many of my own aerial photos of the City taken by me from the Washington Monument.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Juror Internet use is leading to many mistrials


John Schwartz has a story on the front page of the Wednesday March 18, 2009 about another “side effect” of the Internet and particularly the Web: objectivity of jurors. The story title is “As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials Are Popping Up,” link here.

In one case in Florida, eight jurors admitted to doing “research” on a case – the defendants and even the attorneys, with web searches and visits to social networking sites. Jurors can potentially look up information on cell phones or blackberries, and can receive information from texting or even from Twitter. The potentiality is creating big problems for judges in instructing juries.

Obviously, particularly after convictions, defense attorneys will look for any irregularity they can find, including this.

It’s not so clear that there’s anything wrong with a juror’s blogging at night, as long as the blog has nothing to do with the trial or case. But in a world where “all dots can be connected” that’s becoming increasingly difficult to say.

Jury duty is a civic responsibility and normally required. In rare cases, trials can be long, and jurors could face denial of Internet access for a long time. Occasionally, judges in the past have denied sequestered jurors any access to conventional news through broadcast media.

I was called for jury duty four times in the 1980s in Dallas (because Texas has a “one day one trial” rule, whereas many jurisdictions have jury duty that lasts for a week or more). I was on one misdemeanor trial in 1982, a weapons charge, and served as foreman. We had very long deliberations but eventually reached a conviction. In those circumstances, the likelihood of receiving outside information was remote. I was working as a computer programmer at the time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dad: "To Obey Is Better than to Sacrifice!"


My father often wielded a certain self-composed proverb when I was growing up, and for a long time it sounded like a paradox. It was “To obey is better than to sacrifice.” It sounded like a riddle to me as a boy. Indeed, now for me, this saying has a bit of double entendre, but I want to walk though something.

I think people may wonder what all this online “talk” of mine is for. Why cover so many disparate topics? Why don’t I get more (financial) reward out of it? (I shouldn’t say how much it is, but it could not support a family, in my case; not even close.) Where is my self-interest, other than “drawing attention” or “fame”? Why even give credibility to opposing attitudes that may simply be bigoted, some ask. Underneath all these questions (about “purposelessness”) is a subtle but troubling implication: that in some circumstances, my “thought experiments,” sham “self-defamation” or “devil’s advocate” style speech could be taken as enticement, maybe even as a legal precept. This issue has already come up at least once in the public school system (again, my July 27, 2007 long posting).

I pose this question in a background of increasing concerns that the “asymmetry” of today’s world of “zero capital” or “free entry” amateur self-promotion does potentially invoke some subtle systemic risks down the road. Perhaps some day we may really have a world where people must have a “standing” (responsibility for supporting others, usually a family) if they are to keep their cyber soapbox. That’s the notorious “privilege of being listened to” controversy. We’re not there yet, thankfully, but I can imagine how it could happen. In June 2007 I reviewed, on my books blog, Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur", where such concerns were aired; some "authorities" question a technological culture so concerned with efficiency that creates the impression to many people that they establish themselves without undertaking social commitments or connections; maybe the Amish have a point!

One of my most important aims is to make sure people active in individual rights – whether libertarians, or gay rights activists as we normally understand the issue – grasp what people in past generations and in religious cultures today really want. During my young manhood, a lot was taken away (even if I was “bailed out” financially and wound up with no debt) in terms of social connection with others (as developed on my own terms), at a time (ages 18-22 or so) when it was so critical. Why? What did the College want? What did the other students want? What did my parents want? I think we need to really understand this. As my other postings show, my own situation links up, with some irony, to today’s debate over the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays, and that in turn links to other concentric issues, like national service or the draft, to “family values”, free speech, censorship (such as my involvement with the COPA litigation), and even “self promotion”. What I have, besides a networked presentation of “arguments” is a journal of history as it unfolds, very much from the “streets and roads” (of a famous grade school reader) rather than the halls of power, although very much a middle class street. And, I have pointed out before, that this sort of gonzo journalism, from one person or a small group, covering a wide range of interlocked issues, tends to make it much harder for established special interests and their lobbying "tactics" to remain credible, so the "democracy" element is very important to me. Yes, I hate those silly form email campaigns from constituencies of specific interests -- yet those "special interests" may imply responsibility for other people, and that's a rub. For "responsibility for others", for men, at least, implied an interest in manipulating others in a reciprocal social structure; I "simply" wanted to create works (music, literary) and publish them, and then find my own friends and connections based on that.

Over the past several decades, we have gradually become used to a libertarian-style view of individual rights. That is, we always start with a presumption that one is responsible for oneself, that the ultimate moral responsibility for someone rests solely with that person. In theory, mental illness or even deficiency would not change this final moral fiat. But it doesn’t take long to see how this fails. Cathy Young, in “Ayn Rand at 100,” Reason, March 2005, wrote “In its pure form, Rand’s philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own.” But the flaw goes further: we all are “dependent” on sacrifices made by others and we will never become aware of many of these sacrifices. (Getting warm on my father’s proverb already?)

Much of the “family values” or “culture wars” debate revolves around this “Heisenberg uncertainty.” Generally, societies have made the biological or nuclear family an intermediary for sharing uncertainty and risk (two slightly different concepts, remember). We all understand that when people have children they are responsible for those children (that, at least, comports with modern liberalism). We understand that marriage (usually, at least, heterosexual) is an important social instrument for raising the next generation. But we need to understand that we have actually given marriage much more power and responsibility in the past than perhaps we do now. A married couple, that maintains a faithful intimate commitment for a lifetime earns both the power and responsibility to socialize all those around them (including adults) who have not yet (or who never will) make the same commitment. That way, there is some protection, within the family, of “less competitive” members, who may always find that their parents direct their emotional "connections" and keep them committed. They will not always be judged just on their own actions. They will have some emotional identification with the family, always, as their “team”.

Recently, Phillip Longman and David Gray published a piece called “A Family-Based Social Contract” (link) in which they argue that we need to make it easier for families to have children earlier in life. They make the provocative statement that “childlessness breeds dependency” and argue that through our demographic changes. We all benefit from “other people’s children” (OPC) and should share in the uncertainties that parents must risk to raise them, presumably. The obvious question, which they aren’t quite willing to take head on, is, what is the moral position of the LGBT person or the single person who remains childless because of putting career first (that might apply more to women, to be sure)? What will be expected of “people like me”? I think it’s fair to ask. But as I look back over history, it seems clear that much of the prohibition on not just homosexuality but on all sexuality outside marriage was designed as a way to make everyone share in intergenerational responsibility and in supporting the “family” as an essential governing unit in shielding people from what necessarily is an uncertain and unstable outside world. The Vatican’s pronouncement on this issue, however they think rooted in scripture, seem to be designed around this concern. Heavily socialized cultures seem not to work as well if outliers (like me) are allowed to break free without “paying their dues.”

Along those lines, or according to lines of thought like Longman’s, then, couples simply won’t be able or willing to make and keep marital commitments and have and raise children if they do not some social approbation and benefit, and that would change their perception of “personal responsibility” as libertarian-leading people perceive it. They will need for others to honor and even revere them for their families. In some cases this leads to bad things, like jealousy, patriarchal behavior, hyperemotionalism, or the “soap opera syndrome”. This last item includes attempts by some people to throw themselves upon “self-righteous” people with no apparent responsibilities and demand to be supported. That, remember, is what happens to the Gatsby-like and virtuous character Nick Fallon in “Days of our Lives.” Longman's line of thinking would eventually challenge the normal adult "fundamental right" to refuse intimacy when it is not on one's own terms -- indeed, such a proclivity is seen as "narcissistic".

Indeed, we could well face a crossroads in how we view “family responsibility” vs. marriage. Not all family responsibility comes about as a result of sexual intercourse. In fact, marital sex seems to be about bringing others under it’s control until they can make the same commitments themselves. We do need to debate this, and such a debate, going way beyond the parameters of the gay marriage debate today with its microscopic focus on legal benefits, really could have a profound effect on marriage in 21st Century society.

All of this, remember, comes back, in my mind, at least, to the notion of “justice”? Why do we need some social structures (like the family and political unit) in a world that values individual freedom? Partly it is because of hidden justice concerns, and partly because there are some things that go beyond the scope of self-definition as we usually see it. Yes, we don’t like to see people “get out of things” even when they haven’t made the same choices (as with sexual behavior) as others. Indeed, we seem to want to see everyone share the risk and uncertainty. That observation leads to many other lines of old-fashioned argument that we’ve rehearsed here before.

That leads me also back, full circle, to my father’s irritating proverb. It seems to me that much of the undertone of the “family values” debate, particularly when it comes from the religious right or from the Vatican, has to do with “justice” at a very personal level. We want everyone to share in the “sacrifice” and risks. But we have to be very careful about becoming carried away with “justice”. Doing so can, over time, invite authoritarian or totalitarian political structures back in. The far Left, as I’ve said, could become “so moralistic”, to the point that in the 1960s Chairman Mao hauled intellectuals into the countryside to reeducate them and make them “pay their dues.” (New Age books in the 70s claimed that Mao just wanted to enforce “perfect justice” at the most personal level.) The far Right can simply decide that people have to prove they can “perform” before the “deserve” to live – that’s what Nazi Germany did (although there was more to this, as with the anti-Semitism and nationalism); but Gentiles living in Germany in the 1930s probably had “rationalized” this view even with Christianity. (First Baptist Church of Washington DC pastor Edward Pruden used to preach about this in the 1950s – when I was growing up and attended there -- and wrote about it in his 1951 book “Interpreters Needed”, explaining how Christians let this happen.)

In recent years, I have sometimes been pressured to function in a more intimate matter with others than I would choose. For example, serving as a “male role model” or “pseudo husband” is particularly daunting for someone who did not “compete” well in these areas himself as a child or teen. I cannot with integrity accept such “intimacy” when I did not make the same choices as others, unless I have more sovereignty and there are certain other political changes. Yet, family responsibility flows freely, and it must. People are confronted with the needs of others (especially in the family) all the time, as with movies about people suddenly raising their siblings’ children. Acceptance of uncertainty and imbalance and complementarity of sorts is essential to freedom.

Inevitably, in a free society, there will occur “sacrifice” and some “justice” will never become transparent. (Yes, I used to resent it when I took workplace nightcall’s of people with “families” and they didn’t seem to understand that someone had covered the work they had been paid for. Longman would say that’s inevitable.) To eliminate the hidden “sacrifice” can ultimately invite authoritarianism and destroy freedom. So, my father has his proverb, although maybe he should have twisted it around. “Sacrifice, or you may have to obey more.” After all, isn’t that what so much of the New Testament, particularly, seems to be about. It isn’t always about “you” (or “me”). That sounds like Rick Warren, doesn’t it. Sometimes I am my brother’s keeper. Faith, and the concept of Grace, really do relate to uncertainty and to the real world perils that go beyond our control. Even so, most of our problems – like our current financial crisis – we do to ourselves. We have some changing focus on virtues – awareness, stamina and courage – and particularly “deadly sins” – ignorance, laziness (sloth) and cowardice. Some people, it seems, especially those in high places in business, just don’t know right from wrong.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My blogs now are in "Layout" mode; can show subject-matter labels


On Thursday (March 12), I converted my blogs from Template to Layout format. For the blogger, this means no more adding or positioning of elements of HTML code (which is fine for me, actually, since I spend thirty-plus years in I.T. and might well go out – say, to help with the “bailouts”); rather it’s cutting and pasting of big block elements and gadgets.

My main motivation for doing so was to be able to show all the categories (or labels) on the blog, in Wordpress-like fashion. These will appear on the left frame. I encourage visitors to peruse the labels, where they will find blog postings related by subject matter, often following some particular controversy over time.

I’ve place video links on the TV and movies blogs. I’ve placed news headline links on this and on the Issues blog. I’ve experimented with some other gadgets at the bottom of this blog. I particularly like the "Blogger Play" slide show. I’ve noticed that many user-defined gadgets have errors, and Blogger will not let me add them.

I’m having trouble getting the basic Google search block to come up in the gadgets; I’ve only gotten it added on one blog, the TV reviews. I’ll have to look into this. I do have the HTML code from the old format and could try using that, I guess.



Update: April 12, 2009

I found that, for Google Analytics (connecting to Urchin) to continue working, I had to go into each layout and put back in the tracking codes for each blog (which has its own number), as custom HTML, as a "gadget". The tracking started working again as soon as I did this.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

NBC Today cover online reputation and "netiquette"


On Thursday, March 12, 2009, the NBC Today show covered the subject of online reputation and “net etiquette” in a gentle piece written up here by Vidya Rao, “Social netiquette: when poking isn’t polite: online, as in life, it’s good to smile, not be creepy and not talk about poop”, link here.

The thrust of the piece was that the degree of candor and “carefree” nature of Internet posts partly results from the sensation of anonymity (even when using one’s name) and the lack of in-person presence of other people. But the results of carelessness in Internet postings can be serious, especially in the area of online reputation and sometimes legal risks (libel).

Courtesy is a particular area. People sometimes expect to become “friends” on social networking sites when they wouldn’t in person, and this results in some misunderstanding and feelings of rejection.

The speaker suggested that every heavy Internet user consider branding himself or herself. Although some sites (like Linked In) are more appropriate for professional networking (Facebook is intermediate, and Myspace really is only social) the totality of your presence becomes evident to others, including employers, clients, schools, and sometimes other family. Because of the pluralistic notion of the moral and social views held by people in our society (and even within individual families), thus is much more sensitive than many people realize. Someone still in college or high school has, with some maturity, the opportunity to consider how he or she wants to be “known.” But once you have a “reputation” (in the broadest sense of the word) there will be “jobs” out there that are no longer appropriate because they contradict the values that you connect to yourself with your online presence. For example, I could not work for Focus on the Family (which is laying off anyway). I probably couldn’t go out and “peddle” things just based on generating leads or pretending to be a “role model” for someone else’s purpose.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The debate over the "sanctity of marriage": the one fundamental right that it reverses


When reviewing all the recent debates about marriage, a certain observation strikes me, and that takes me down a path of thinking that has some disquieting results.

When people take the vows (“in sickness and in health”, “till death do us part”, etc) they are renouncing what normally is a fundamental right – to refuse unwanted intimacy. They are promising to remain an “interest” in the partner for a lifetime. They are renouncing some access to fantasy and some use of their own normal ability to notice differences (“discriminate”) for expressive purposes. People usually can’t give up such a major part of themselves for nothing forever, even if they sense a real romantic attachment to the partner, without getting something for it. So, normally, they get the “social supports” – the social reverence, and the “preferences” which unmarried adults sometimes must sacrifice for.

When people are married and have children, they generally believe that they have the “right” to structure the emotional lives of their kids around blood relations – that they manage. They can expect their oldest children to learn to take care of the younger. Sometimes these expectations continue on into the adulthood of the children, who may feel that their emotional priorities are subject to the authority of others until they marry and have children themselves. They expect their adult children to remain a measure of preferential loyalty to the family, an arrangement which tends to encourage division of labor and protection of less “competitive” family members. They also expect their marital commitment to be “revered”, even after passing.

Social conservatives see this whole arrangement as connected to a sense of duty and some self-sacrifice needed for social order (however phrased in religious terms). Social liberals see this arrangement as an excuse for racism, sexism or classism. Libertarians just see this as “irrational” fleet from personal responsibility and autonomy. Social conservatives come back and tell their “flower children” that they owe their freedom to the marital commitments of their elders; otherwise they could be living in poverty themselves. So, one wonders, why should I care about the marital stability of others (most of all in the Ladies Home Journal). Well, you say, it’s because you depend on their stability. It’s a matter of karma.

People who, for reasons of ability or temperament, don’t want to participate in this arrangement might have every reason to want to “expose” or exploit the individual failings of people who depend on this marital system, which they see as coming at their expense. And the “other side” says, without the marital system, you wouldn’t exist at all. Don’t bite the hand that fed you.

But, in fact, the old system of lifetime patriarchal marriage began to fall apart in the 60s, first because the racial and economic injustices became so apparent, and then because technology started to encourage the values of individualism and personal sovereignty.

The practical result of all of this is still that “family responsibility” is a lot more than just providing for the children you “choose” to have. Some of the responsibility was created for you by the family itself, because you owe your existence and life to it. That too could eventually affect what, in a sustainable world with finite resources, people get to do and have. It’s this dual nature of family responsibility, that we used to accept for granted because there was no alternative, that needs to be debated again.

Some people, it seem, are only willing to make a “commitment” when it gives them control over the sentiments of others who didn’t make such a commitment (call it power). You see it in soap operas. Others seem to live the flip side: they need to use their sensitivity (or sensibility) to publicize the differences among others and make them apparent, but they don’t want any “power.” It’s the whole polarity thing again.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Craigslist and "Chicago!": Can it depend on Section 230?


Now, now, a popular site, very much the Web 2.0 world that we take for granted, Craigslist, gets sued by the Cook County IL sheriff, demanding a federal injunction to close down its “oldest profession” ads. The company’s own Wordpress blog post today (“now Comes Thomas Dart”) is here.

Goeffrey A. Fowler has a March 6 story in The Wall Street Journal blog, “Craiglist’s ‘Erotic Services’ Issue Bubbles Up Again,” here.

The key point, it seems to me, seems to be Section 230 again. Craigslist is not liable for what its user’s post as long as it doesn’t create or edit the content.

Even so, in my own operations, I take Section 230 with a grain of caution. I don’t approve comments that are simply obviously libelous or infringement on someone’s rights (although almost all of what I reject is just spam).

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Job fairs seem to encourage people to go into sales


Today, CNN showed a brief clip of a job fair in Atlanta, and tried to make the point that “not all good jobs require experience” or something like that. They mentioned “Atlantis Health Care” whose spokeswoman said that applicants didn’t need sales experience or health insurance experience; they were just looking for “friendly” people to sell health insurance policies.

I couldn’t tell much about the company from the web, but it always raises a red flag with me to hire people just because they have the sociability to “sell” anything. Not that sales is “bad” – my own father was successful at sales to department stores for four decades because he turned sales into real customer service. But thus sounds like getting people to swallow pride because they have to support families, somehow.

I got a lot of these calls for odd sales opportunities over several years, and in reptrospect, we know from the financial crisis, that many of them were based on pyramids.

Private health insurance, of course, is in the middle of the health care debate. I have no idea how good this particular company is, but many private companies have been criticized for their handling of pre-existing conditions, for example.

A related kind of job would be to sell long term care insurance, which would start with home visits to assess and screen and then interest appropriate future customers. But it’s easy to imagine the ethical quandaries.

On the other hand, I stumbled across Mass Mutual’s recruiting page for new agents (link), with a talking icon, general agent Phil Costello. I have to admit he makes a compelling presentation. He says you have to “survive” when you start but if you do you “thrive.” He talks about working with specific niche communities, including LGBT, women, and special needs. That sounds good.

But in 2005 I talked to New York Life about the idea of becoming an agent. There seemed to be similar specific outreaches. But to be successful a new agent needs to be able to generate leads very quickly, and it’s hard to imagine how someone does that without social fluency in the general world of middle class families. I’ve also met agents who were trying to make me one of the “leads” and seen how the process works in advance.

My own sense of self is “analysis”: I would rather have someone come to me and help them solve a problem, rather than just go out and find people to manipulate into buying things. I’m an analyst (and journalist) but not a Manipulator.

But, in a recession, it’s easier to generate commission-based jobs than anything else, I fear. Business seems to think, we have to get people to buy what we have already produced before we produce anything more. But that won't get us clean or sustainable energy, for example.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Accounting Systems, "Better" Regulation, and social karma


Okay, let’s get a grip on things. Why is it that policymakers can’t get a handle on how much public investment it will take to stabilize the economy?

I think there are two big factors. One is that it doesn’t seem that the government and all the different rating agencies have the systems in place to really calculate what is going on. What I’m referring to is those old bread and butter mainframe batch systems in financial companies that were so good at getting everything “right” every day. I spent the last 18 years of my career on systems like this. But it doesn’t seem that policy makers have definitive system outputs as reference points from which to tell the public, particularly investors, the “truth.”

At age 65 and with all these decades of experience in old fashioned financial systems technology, yes, I can emerge from premature retirement and help them. I can even pretend that doing so would be patriotic. I will root around and see what the agencies (especially treasury) and various contractor companies are going to do. There’s no question that policy makers need better systems in order to estimate risk. I think I could help them.

Of course, the individual banks and hedge funds all had their models, which were supposedly written by whiz kids, but it sounds like they are scattered about and were predicated on speculative assumptions. Around 1989 or so, I worked (at a company now known as Lewin) on a predictive model for Medicare operating margins, and learned how a slight change in a crucial formula (based on a particular public policy assumption) can cause enormous changes in the mathematical results.

That brings us to another point, about valuations. In my twelve years in the life insurance business, I learned that actuarial was perhaps the trickiest part of the cycle, even though innovative scheme for making the calculations in computer cycles have been around since the early 1960s. But, of course, the models used by financial institutions (often “methods” as we call them now in OOP language) were based on questionable assumptions about how people behave.

The problem, is we don’t how much something is worth until someone really pays for it. (The controversy over the “mark to market” accounting rules and even default swap insurance reflects that social reality.) We can only guess on “comps” (so well known in real estate appraisals) and modeling from past behavior, but human behavior changes very quickly based on the perception of what is going on around. Exuberance jumps back to fear very quickly. As George Soros writes, reflexivity tends to make all our models diverge.

We’ve gotten used to measuring everything in a monetized system and economy, but real human systems are more complicated. We used to expect that people prove that they can support others before they move out into the world (that is, even before they have children). We used to assume that output or work on has value when others want it and interact it. In the “narcissistic” world of today’s self-promotion, that accounting of “social karma” (outside the monetary system) no longer seems to be required. Yet does that create another systemic risk that is going to crash down on us?

This is no small concern now. Individualism works because we have a market economy where “values” are associated with a certain confidence that others will want to use the work or output someone has created. But the inability of government and our business infrastructure to do the proper accounting of what is going on (the “Book of Numbers” problem) puts the whole value system justifying individualism at work. Are we really sure that the FDIC can always guarantee our “insured” bank deposits or that the PBGC can always guarantee our pensions in the wake of the current demographic strains, or that social security will always be paid? The end result is that we could be thrown back into social interdependence on others that breaks the whole assumption that unwanted intimacy can be turned away. Power structures (in families, tribes, communities, governments) do mean something after all.

Even so, we must start by having much better regulatory systems

Thursday, March 05, 2009

EFF publishes online "Surveillance Self-Defense" guide


The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a subsite called “Surveillance Self-Defense” which is very useful to most home and small business users. The basic link is here and there is a news story (“EFF creates anti-snooping site; Nibble: all you need to be invisible”) by Mark Farrell about the new facility in The Inquirer, March 4, 2009, here.

The EFF guide should be studied in the same spirit as another recent publication, the Bloggers’ Legal Guide.

It focuses on three main areas: corporate (or personal) hard drive data, Internet (wireless, dialup or broadband) activity, and information held by third parties.

The document points out that the Patriot Act has increased government power to “grab” items including computer data in some cases, sometimes without specific warrants, with limited and perhaps compromised judicial supervision (such as FISA). The document suggests that users consider “complete erasure” of data by using disk scrubbing software as well as mere deletion.

The risks for many home users are probably largely theoretical. But sometimes accidental combination threats or hazards of illegitimate prosecution of home or small business users occur. In a few cases, people seem to have been accused of possessing child pornography (a 2006 case in Arizona) that may have been planted by viruses, or have been falsely accused of somehow compromising the safety of minors in their care (such as an infamous case with a substitute teacher in Connecticut). It seems that in many jurisdictions that laws and criminal and civil procedures are insufficient (or simply too vague) to completely protect home or small business users from accusations created by malware. In some cases, possession of various items or even private diaries, while legal by themselves, could be used by government to add on to a false prosecution. So “questionable” but technically not illegal items that are believed to be privately stored on a hard drive and not posted on the Internet could still pose a hazard, particularly if others such as hackers could find them, or if government could seize it without proper judicial supervision.

The third party information issue not only incorporates the identity theft problem, but also “reputation defense”, where inaccurate or misleading (or sometimes even libelous) information held and posted or published by others remains detrimental to someone.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

WVa case before Supreme Court tests whether government can regulate political speech as part of campaign finance reform


Bradley A. Smith and Jeff Patch have an important op-ed on p A13 of the Tuesday March 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal, “Can Congress Regulate All Political Speech?” The case is Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co, and the arguments were heard before the US Supreme Court today; the WSJ story ("Can Congress Regulate All Political Speech?: The ultimate stakes could not be higher")is here.

Apparently Massey Co.’s CEO Don Blankenship spent a lot of money against incumbent West Virginia state supreme court justice Warren McGraw, who was defeated by Brent Benjamin. Caperton had won a judgment against Massey, but the case went through the state system with the appeal eventually heard by Benjamin. The case before the Supreme Court maintains that Benjamin should have recused himself.

The US Supreme Court cert document is here. The West Virginia documentation is here.

The implications of the question have to do with the difference between “campaign contributions” and “independent spending” which is so critical to campaign finance law. Between 2002 and 2006, recall, there was considerable controversy over whether blogger’s coverage of political candidates represented indirect “contributions” that needed to be regulated by campaign finance law. There had been a court decision saying, maybe, and the FEC eventually decided that blogs like this one did not amount to “campaign contributions” even if they happened to accidentally become somewhat partisan. That controversy became intertwined with a major incident in my life with my own speech when I was teaching, because of a newspaper editorial (see July 27, 2007 on this blog).

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Vietnam era Army PCPT: it still teaches a lesson


As I’ve note before, I came of age in a world that had become hypersensitive to the idea that some people advance only when others make unseen sacrifices for them. This got played out particularly in the area of the Vietnam era draft and student deferments, which, however one objected to the war itself, needled us with moral dilemmas. The worst thing a young man could be, in some circles, was a malingerer or even a coward.

I entered the Army at age 24, having taken the draft physical three times, going from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A. As I finished graduate school, I got my orders to report for induction Feb. 21, 1968, but for some reason I decided to “volunteer” for two years and report Feb. 7. I remember playing chess with a friend the last night before taking the bus to Richmond, and that the last classical music that I played was Haydn’s 104th (last) symphony. I still remember the soft landing: they put me up in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond (long before its renovation), and I actually went to see “Valley of the Dolls” on my last night of freedom. Then after we were sworn in Thursday afternoon, we used meal tickets at the Greyhound Post house and still had a long bus ride, as civilians, to Fort Jackson. I recall our arrival at around 2 AM, our in processing, our being served mess, and actually getting to bed at about 5 AM.

I look back on these Army days to remember the lesson it talked about physical fitness and the implied connection to “common obligations” that were so much a part of the moral thinking of the day. Somewhere I still have my PCPT (Physical Combat Proficiency Test) card, and I’ll take a blog picture of it when I find it, but I remember it very well. In 1968 there were five events: the low crawl, the horizontal ladder, the man carry (just a little forced intimacy there!), the run-dodge-and-jump (replacing the grenade throw), and the mile run. I made a 190 out of 500 on the first test (300 was passing), and wound up in special training company for three weeks and getting recycled after a bout of flu (they called it “URI”). In the beginning (pun!), I couldn’t get all the way across one sequence of 14 horizontal rungs even holding onto each rung with both hands. I called them the "friggin' bars" and in February (even in S.C.) they had been cold.

By the end of Basic (it turned out to be a 14 week experience) I could do the ladders, orangutan fashion, and perhaps do 40 rungs, almost average, although not great. On my final PCPT I scored 357, and ran the mile, in combat boots, in 7:18. That’s a far cry from tenth grade when most of us almost puked after running the 440 for the first time. My legs felt strong all the time at the end of Basic, and that was a nice feeling. Then, about a year later, I guess I was still fit. In a church retreat softball came, I hit a real home run, actually over an outfield fence. At Fort Eustis, in workup softball, I was able to reach the fence on the fly a couple times. That is the best condition I was ever in.

There’s a lesson in all this about physical fitness. We hear about it a lot today, as the media writes about obesity in teens. I was underweight and understrength, and had a different set of problems, which I’ll return to in a moment. The obesity seems to be community-related; people with native backgrounds, when exposed to western diets, are more likely to become obese. That’s part of it. When I was substitute teaching, what I saw was a very mixed bag. Some students were very fit. One AP student I believe could have swam with Michael Phelps in the Olympics; instead he is on a pre-med path now.

But, in my world, fitness had a bearing on my ability to “pay my dues”, outside of what is monetized, for the freedoms and opportunities that I had. I don’t know exactly why I fell behind physically, but I grew up in a world where “moral” significance was attached to it. Perhaps, as I had musical ability, my brain prematurely “pruned” out coordination skills that are more commonly “expected” of my “gender” (or at least were so expected in this world). What my own bout with Army boot camp, however oppressive the idea sounds to some people today, proved is that physical conditioning, even later (I was 24) does work to some extent, and can bring physical performance almost to “normal” levels even in cases where a subtle medical explanation is likely.

I can fast forward to present day and ponder some other startling observations. From the 1960s to well into the 1990s, we developed an enriched view of personal privacy and personal choice (or “individual sovereignty”), with particular emphasis on the idea that intimacy among adults always comes with consent which, however, once given may entail certain lifelong responsibilities (such as happen when one has children). (The end of the draft, which I just talked about, comports with this trend.) Since the 1990s, a somewhat flipside view has been growing back. Because of the Internet (and particularly social networking), lives are much more “transparent” and “apparent” publicly than they used to be. The generally more flexible attitude toward gender and sexual orientation certainly softens the “blow” somewhat as privacy is in some sense otherwise compromised. (Daniel Solove covered this process in his book “Understanding Privacy” (reviewed on my books blog Nov. 5, 2008). But what we are also finding is the return of a more nuanced view of family responsibility, partly associated with demographics -- longer life spans and retirements and fewer children. Once people (like me) put themselves out publicly as having some effect with what they say or with their “work” (and one could say this about composers and musicians or even actors as well as writers), there is, it seems now, some expectation that they ought to be accountable to others. That gets to be a bit complex. It means some openness to intimacy and “change” in oneself (responsiveness with a less critical attitude surrounding a particular personal interaction) as necessary responsibility of being part of a civilization or community. Some might include willingness to identify oneself with the community or greater good. Society has an interest, not only in people keeping their promises, but in people’s being willing to make the promises in the first place – to remain intimate even when times get tough for other people (marital partners or different significant others). In my own case, it seems that, if I take advantage of "free entry" to make public criticism of "things", certain others expect certain kinds of attention as the alternative cost of my entry. (You really see this in the soap operas, as with the good old "Gatsby/Nick Fallon Problem".) Some of the bizarre calls I got for manipulative sales or "role modeling" jobs (and some of them turned out to be connected to the financial collapse) seemed motivated by the desire of others to see me help them feel better about themselves. Without that willingness to accept some socialization on others' terms, personal commitment backslides under any pressure and becomes vulnerable to totalitarianism, particularly dangerous in this age of asymmetry.

Picture: Jefferson Hotel in Richmond VA: my last night of “freedom” on Feb. 7, 1968.