Friday, July 31, 2009

Retail sites use tracking cookies to change actual content for users


Web sites are getting more personal, changing information displayed to visitors based on information from cookies. This is true of site content (for example, consumer ads such as electronics or cars displayed on retail sites) not just ads, according to a New York Times front page article today July 31. It’s titled “Online ads follow web users and get much more personal,” by Stephanie Clifford, link

I must admit, I had seen the Ford Focus that I bought Wednesday waved in front of me quickly by Koons Ford, and merely visiting the site and using the payment calculators (okay, maybe it did ask for email) resulted in emails. Companies are getting very good at tracking down potential customers, especially now, with the desire to push fuel-efficient cars and some kinds of electronics.

In my own knowledge base plans, I don’t expect to track users or alter what users see based on cookies and accumulated information. “Truth is truth” the tautology goes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tweet over apartment complaint leads to libel lawsuit (in Chicago)


A realty company in the Chicago area sued (on July 20) a former tenant for Tweet (posted in May 2009) that had arguably implied that her apartment (or neighbors’ apartments) had mold, when the realty company maintains that her apartment (and other apartments) had not. The statement as worded had some irony and the supposed assertion is implied. For example, the tweet, read literally, could have been construed as possibly referring to apartments in the building other than her own.

The company apparently had never complained about the Tweet while the person lived there. But, NBC Washington (mentioned below) mentioned that the tenant had complained to management in some way, and it’s possible that the suit could be viewed as a counter measure.

Much of the material from the news story comes from the Chicago Sun Times, in a July 28 article by Lisa Donavan, “Tweet about apartment mold draws lawsuit”, link here. The article contained a link to a PDF copy of the legal complaint, here.

The family-owned realty company was Horizon Group Management, and the spokesperson for the company is quoted by the Chicago Sun Times as saying “we’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of organization.” The spokesperson says that the realty company has a “reputation” to maintain, but such a bald statement could surely drive away prospective new tenants (at least “in my opinion”: the tone of the statement is rather shocking). If the tweets (as reasonably interpreted) are actually true, there is no defamation; truth is an absolute defense to libel in the United States.

To be fair, one should note that the spokesperson took a different tack when quoted in the Wall Street Journal law blog, “not so fast”, here.

The Twitter user id apparently resembled the owner’s name and the company was easily able to prove that the Twitter account belonged to the particular former tenant.
The company went to the trouble to say (in the complaint) that the account was made available to the public or the whole world, when it could have been private. But other media reports, such as on NBC Washington on July 29, suggested that the account had about seventeen followers, and that it is unlikely that many more people than that saw the post until the lawsuit and ensuing publicity occurred. Twitter is unlikely to have the practical effect on the reputation of a business entity that a book, movie, commercial broadcast, newspaper article or conspicuous blog entry would have. And as actor-producer Ashton Kutcher demonstrated on a Larry King Live appearance, some people write short tweets in great volumes, but they are normally “forgotten” quickly. In this case, it is unlikely that the “whole world” would have heard about this matter without the lawsuit and ensuring media coverage.

There have been some other cases of people being sued for tweets, which must be less than 140 characters in length. I see that I discussed this problem July 12 in conjunction with Courtney Love.

I have been critical of depending on property or auto related “umbrella coverage” for this sort of thing, but such coverage might work in a case like this one, where you have a commercial plaintiff who admits publicly that it sues, and with a defendant who generally doesn’t blog or write in large volumes (although that isn’t known here from the available media reports).

I’ve also mentioned that there is some evidence that a few landlords are becoming concerned that online actions by their tenants could hurt them publicly, as with a case in New York written up here Jan. 27.

Attribution link for p.d. picture of Chicago

So, jailbreaking or reverse engineering could (virtually) topple your nearest cell phone towers?


Apple is arguing that the nation’s cell phone infrastructure could endure catastrophic damage and outages from hackers if users are allowed to “jailbreak” their iPhones to receive unapproved software.

This might be viewed as both a copyright problem and possibly a “neutrality” problem, and an Internet safety issue.

The Wired story by David Kravets appeared here in his “Threat Level” column.

Apple filed comments last week with the Copyright office, with a PDF link here.

These arguments could mean that the Android phone on T-mobile is also a security peril.

Picture: Cell phone tower in the Florida Everglades, 2004 (my picture)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

WSJ tries experiment having job seekers blog


The Wall Street Journal today, on the Personal Journal page, D1, offers a story about blogging and job hunting. The Journal encouraged eight unemployed streeters to blog about their hunts in “Laid Off and Looking” (link). Contributors had to consider that they could be burning bridges by what they wrote in blogs. One wrote that he wasn’t cut out for investment banking, but got a job at Bloomberg, more in the business analysis area, for about 20% of what he had made as a trader. Another moved into people-oriented sales management in the Midwest. In all cases, they had to consider the impression their published writings made.

The story by Alina Dizik is called “Back to the 9-t0-5—finally” with link here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Time for the conservatives again: will individual "mandates" regulate innovation out of existence?


So, folks, they’re saying that part of the solution to a national crisis – paying for health care – is good citizenship from everyone. People who can afford to pay more taxes will do so to help provide coverage for those who can’t. (Yes, what about those who can’t…) But more important, everyone will be required or pressured to purchase insurance. Those who think they don’t need it won’t be allowed to cherry pick their way out. After all, even Clark Kent could get hit by a car when his powers or turned off, or get caught in the open with green kryptonite that he can’t remove.

We do this with auto insurance. In some states it’s formally mandatory, although when it is premiums tend to be higher. In others it’s mandatory de facto. And that’s true of homeowner’s – you can’t have a mortgage without it. For renters, it’s a good idea.

I wonder how far the “mandatory” or “quasi mandatory” insurance idea could go. Say, make it required of amateur bloggers or even users of social networking sites. That could destroy Internet business models as we know them, even if it would remove some troubling asymmetric “systemic risk.” Okay, there’s a difference between “publishing” and “networking” – but they obviously comingle. We obviously have a problem, to be solved at least by much more education (mandatory) of Internet users (even how to use security products), and by tort and SLAPP reform.

We can walk up the “mandatory regulation” curve for companies, and assess the new ways companies and financial institutions will be governed to reduce systemic risk. So it’s natural (especially for Democrats) to say that individuals should face the same regulatory pressures. People are like companies, right? Not exactly – what about families?

Think back where we were in 1969 when Man walked on the Moon. It was huge corporate and collaborative efforts, regulated by government, that seemed to drive our future. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. “Man in space” is stalled by enormous costs and bureaucracy (risk is relatively less an issue), whereas real revolution (like the Internet and the self-publication revolution) is driven by enterprising individuals, including those in dorm rooms not old enough to drink (legally). The dichotomy is worth pondering before we rush to so much mandatory this-and-that for individuals.

Picture: Mural by Britt Irick in Arlington VA (his blog).

Friday, July 24, 2009

EFF reports copyright fight over a few seconds of Geller video; "refutation" from "Rational Response"


Electronic Frontier Foundation has an interesting piece on Sapient v. Geller. Brent Sapient, of the “Rational Response Squad”, (link) had included eight seconds of video of one of Uri Geller’s “stunts” in a YouTube video, and was challenged by a DMCA take-down notice by Geller’s group Explorologist, LTD for copyright infringement.

Since the purpose of the excerpt was to provide comment, or even refutation, and since the excerpt was so small, it would sound like “fair use.”

Supposedly the dispute has been settled and Explorologist has agreed to put the material in Creative Commons, but there was a monetary settlement (maybe because of a counter-suit).

The link for the EFF story is here.

Nevertheless, the URL for the video shows that it was removed for a “terms of use” violation. One would expected to see it restored.

A copy of the original court paper is here.

I chuckled at the “Rational Response Squad” (which has a “network of sites”) and its tagline: “Believe in God? We can fix that?”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Facebook's future is the subject matter of speculation


Kurt Soller has a sobering article on Facebook in Newsweek, a “web exclusive”, on its 5th birthday. It seems that it is ready for kindergarten – will it actually turn a profit and be able to go public?

Soller talks about some problems with the whole paradigm of social networking – he terms it “context collapse” (I hope that’s not a synonym for “colony collapse disorder”) – what happens when everyone believes that all information about people that becomes available at one time is equally relevant. He envisions profitability of Facebook by becoming a “service center” rather than social or even publishing center.

The link is here.

Likewise, free content and publishing platforms will have to watch the financial viability of their models in the long run, as pressures mount on individuals to consolidate their online presence and as “amateurism” works less well with advertisers.

Update: July 25

There are stories that Facebook is allowing advertisers to key off of members' photos. Such a story appeared on WJLA Washington Feb 24.

Here is the story that I found on "Tech Shout".

And here is the post at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Physicians start to require patients to sign "gag orders"; could other professions follow suit?


The Washington Post Health Section today (Tuesday July 21 2009) runs an interesting story where some physicians, especially surgeons, are requiring patients to sign contracts that they will not comment about their physicians or treatment in public without permission. The story is by Sandra G. Boodman, and is titled “Doctors Orders: Want treatment: Just sign this no-complaint contract.” The HTML title for the article (here; may require free registration) is “Some patients require patients to sign ‘gag orders’”.

Some doctors say that this is a matter of survival, where reputation (including “online reputation”, as Michael Fertik, founder of the now well known service “Reputation Defender” calls it) means everything. It is simply too easy to post without supervision and without a realistic opportunity for the doctor to reply.

The article mentions a few physicians’ rating sites. Some are freely available to the public, and these include “Rate MD’s” which has the flippant headline “Give your Doctor a checkup!” That site had followed on “Rate My Professors” (both founded by John Swapceinski), and the issue of rating doctors is controversial in some similar and some different way from the issue of rating professors and even public school teachers. Other sites include “Dr. Score” and Vitals (“where doctors are examined”, as if by aliens on a UFO!), "Physician Reports", Health Grades (a $ charge), and “Angie’s List founded by Angie Hicks . RateMD’s does review comments for inappropriate, irrelevant or libelous content and allows doctors to respond.. Angie’s List insists that speakers identify themselves to the site and is open only to subscribers, although many other sites are public. Angie's is adding dentists and some home contractors and plumbers to the service.

There is a site called “Medical Justice” that (in the spirit of “Reputation Defender”) monitors doctors’ online reputations and offers sample “business privacy agreements”. Medical Justice promotes itself as protecting doctors from frivolous malpractice lawsuits.

It’s easy to see how the entrepreneurial spirit of the Web encourages the proliferation of these sites, whether supported by ad revenue, member subscription, or both. It’s also very easy to understand the sympathy for “average” consumers who feel that they have, in the Web, an equalizing weapon with which to hit back and unscrupulous professionals. But the proliferation of these sites can seriously hinder the delivery of important services to people in some kinds of situations, particularly as one expects the proliferation of lists to other areas (like day care centers, maybe even home health), and as other means are available for spreading comments, including blogs and social networking sites, already controversial under the rubric of “online reputation defense”.

That’s why, on May 30 2009, I posted on this blog my own practice, and suggested that many bloggers would need to develop their own “business privacy policies” to reassure people with whom they personally must do business (medical or otherwise) that they will respect confidentiality, privacy, and reputation properly. Otherwise, other professions are likely to develop self-protective "gag orders".

I personally do not comment on “professionals” or other specific parties on blogs or on any of these sites. I do comment on the underlying issues without identifying people (or, when caution is necessary, companies) and I do comment on personal experiences where common sense suggests that now there is no danger (such as with the unusual – and successful – surgery that I had at the University of Minnesota for my acetabular fracture experienced in a convenience store fall in 1998 – notice here I still don’t name the store!)

Reviews of consumer items (like software, computers and games) and of books, movies or plays would not pose the same kind of "risk" but even here a reviewer must be wary of personal comments about performers.

One can expect to see this problem move into other areas unless we can develop a common consensus on the ethical principles involved

Here is a YouTube video on the "Medical Justice" website, outlining the problem for physicians resulting from misuse of Section 230.

(That video is no longer available.  It gives a new link for this problem, to Emerit.   Here is a newer video, as of 2/28/2012:)




Consumers Union has a link on this problem, here. CU writes "We asked for your thoughts, and you said it was a bad idea. Our doctors here on staff agreed.." One particularly pointed concern is that a patient could be under duress to sign such an order because he or she needs treatment immediately, or even, worse, a relative (like an elderly parent, not just a child) needs treatment oe care immediately; such a contintengy does raise the bar on the ethics of such orders.

Are doctors allowed to do this with Medicare and Medicaid patients? I didn't find an immediate answer. Maybe Congress will take this up!

I suppose that there is a basic tug-of-war here: physicians or other established interests with enormous lifetime investments to get where they are need to protect themselves from "snipes" from people who may believe (perhaps incorrectly) that they have "nothing to lose" See my books blog review for the Scheff-Dozier book reviewed Aug. 27, 2009.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

More on whiffle ball; bring back all the PA Turnpike tunnels (It was once the "Tunnel Highway")



On a lighter note than usual, The Washington Post covered the ("field of dreams") Potomac Whiffleball League today, in a story (the last installment) by Less Carpenter. “Just Whiffle Ball? Not a chance,” web URL link here.

I find it amusing to see this story on a day when the baseball nationals completed losing a four game sweep at home to the Cubs in their first series under their interim manager. What, are they going to go 0-11 on this homestand?

You can look at the official whiffleball site, but the most interesting part is the diagram of the field, here. Center field is closer to the plate than the foul poles.

Today, I was in the Sideling Hill area of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in a stretch where two of the seven original tunnels on the “Tunnel Highway” were removed. The biggest problem was originally the Laurel Hill tunnel, which used to generate backups because it was two lanes. I miss the tunnels in the 1950s trips to Ohio, and I found a writeup on the web about their removal here. Is this a good way to spend public transportation money today? I hope not. Originally the tunnels were considered marvels of engineering. A waitress at Fort Littleton told me how you can hike down to the original Sideling Hill tunnel (the longest), but the Turnpike Commission doesn’t do anything to make the instructions public. Instead, you can drive over Sideling Hill on US 30 and, despite its mere 2200 feet (it’s part of the “Ridge and Valley Province), see spectacular views as you descent toward the East. (Sideling Hill is well known for the vanity cut on I-68 near Hancock, MD; I think that these blast projects to avoid tunnels are as obnoxious as “mountaintop removal” for coal.) You can also drive a nearby back road over Tuscarora Mountain.



Attribution link for Wikimedia picture of the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel, Pennsyvlania Turnpike, west entrance.

You know how Pennsylvania trademarks itself (not just "Keystone state"): "America starts here."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

40 years after Man first walks on the Moon


“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We’re getting ready for the fortieth anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon.

I’ve always though it interesting that man’s first steps on an extraterrestrial planet, on Sunday July 20, 1969, with Apollo 11, occurred about four weeks after the Stonewall riots. Both events stressed that man had a tendency to change his own psychological goals because of technological advance: while family matters, the individual’s own path in life, now aided by technology, matters too.

I remember those days. I was stationed at Fort Eustis, VA, tucked away safe from combat in Vietnam. The “new” Washington Senators did well that year (finishing 86-76) although they would skip town two years later.

And although there were a few more moonwalks, in time the manned journeys died, and we are no where near going anywhere else (Mars) with a manned journey. The MGM film "2001: A Space Odyssey" (which I saw right after Basic at the Uptown in Washington) imagined commercial space travel and chain hotels (Howard Johnson's?) on Luna by the year that 9/11 would happen. Instead, our revolution would be one of instantaneous communication, which could mean instant self-publication, self-promotion, and networking. Our world would change suddenly and have to acclimate to new forms of asymmetry.

Perhaps the kids in AP courses in high school, or in college, or recently graduated from college will, with their own wits, create another revolution, not yet quite imagined, and get us into space again. Perhaps we will somehow tap into theories floating in the 1970s that information could travel instantaneously even if normal energy and matter can’t. Perhaps we will invent a “Smallville” device that can manipulate space time to transmit information. Maybe that will replace today’s email and chat with telepathy – and perhaps our world will take on the character of the Harry Potter movies. We will then have to be very careful with our thoughts. Brain waves will change bits on a computer hard drive and perhaps enable fraud. Ordinary security will be a thing of the past. Maybe we will approach childhood’s end and take on a group mind. That sounds like the biggest danger.

Embedded video from CNN Video


Attribution link for NASA public domain picture of Buzz Aldrin.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In Tinseltown, at least, blogs are starting to overtake print


The New York Times on Friday July 17 has a couple of articles on the “power” of blogs and the Web.

On the front page, David Carr has a story “A Hollywood Blogger Feared Not by Starlets, but Executives,” about Nikki Fente, with link URL here. The story talks about her history in print journalism, where deadlines, precision and rigorous fact checking prevail, and where the loosening of these online work to her advantage. Whether things will always remain that way, as I’ve covered here before, is a good question. Her blog is “Deadline Hollywood Daily” and you can check out here. She is said to be easier on some studios than others.

I make offhand comments about the studios, and especially the indie distribution companies on my own movies blog. I’ve been critical of Time-Warner’s dropping Picturehouse and WIP, and I’ll have to hunt around to see if she’s covered that.

She has a enough “notability” to have a Wikipedia page (check). Does it help if you have a major company buy your site?

There’s another story about corporations investing in blogs, again by David Carr, on the “Business Day” page, “Seasoned Celebrity-Watcher Turns from Print to Web” (link)

Would the celebrities and executives “dread” the amateur bloggers too? Maybe judging from legal stories recently with MBA, maybe yes.

One area where amateurs hold some sway seems to be in blogging about software bugs or unusual security holes, or even unusual experiences with new computers. At least that’s my experience looking at my own stats. Blog about a specific controversial executable (say one on AOL that gets flagged by McAfee for a while), it will attract page requests.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

FTC seeks comments on bloggers' promotion of products received as free samples from vendors


The Federal Trade Commission is seeking public comment concerning its Guides for the User of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, with its pdf reference here. As noted here before, “amateur” bloggers have become increasingly effective in reaching an audience with views on consumer products (this has been noted since about 2002) and some companies do give bloggers free samples of products or services for review. I have sometimes received such requests by email. In one case, I got a ‘free” DVD of an educational film from an oil company and did review it on my movies blog (but I did explain how I got the copy).

The New York Times has an article July 12 by Pradnya Joshi “Approval by a blogger may please a sponsor” here. Gradually, companies are finding that informal blogs could be a major source of support for their products, a long step from network television of a few decades ago (when I worked for NBC myself in the 1970s), but very much with the times. But should consumers be told that a product or service was supplied free for review? It’s beginning to sound reasonable that they should.



Update: Aug. 16, 2009

James P. Othmer has a Washington Post Outlook story today (Aug. 16) “Skip Past the ads: you’re still being sold” (link here.) The story refers to the practice of the pharmaceutical industry to hire "ghostwriters" and says that the FTC guidelines have been updated.

Important: No one pays me to discuss and products or services on any of my web posts (that would apply to everything, including film and book reviews.

See also Aug. 20 on this blog.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sotomayor and fidelity to the law: how would this have played out with DADT, COPA?


Well, the last couple of days we have heard a lot about fidelity to the law, from Sonia Sotomayor and from her inquisition. Yes, we all say that judges don’t make law. But the process of going through a review of the law against all of our constitutional and legal bases does, in fact, invoke a lot of questions about how deep-seated policy questions might be resolved.

At least, that’s how I saw things during my own writing of my first “do ask do tell” book. In Chapter 4 of that book, most of which I wrote and edited in the 1995 to 1997 period, I went through all the intellectual perambulations of what a constitutional challenge to “don’t ask don’t tell” would cause if it got to the court. Since the challenges always lost at the appellate level, there was never a “winning” case to get the Court to take it, but even at the appellate level, questions about policy and “fundamental rights” could be debated.

Why? One reason is that ultimately the capacity for military service ties back to the notion of a “social contract” – that a person ought to be able to share certain common uncertainties and responsibilities to be a fully equal individual. The military ban could affect civilians – a point of my own writings, and my own life shows it. Ultimately, there are policy considerations and philosophical values.

The same could have been said in the past about “sodomy laws” – as the dissent tried to argue in Lawrence v. Texas, and the necessity to “share” the responsibility to protect minors certainly sounds like a policy question underneath an issue like COPA, the Child Online Protection Act. Nevertheless, we must follow “The Law” must we now!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cats do control humans; National baseball team resorts to panacea: fire the manager!


On a lighter note, AOL news is reporting a study from Current Biology, “Cats Do Control Humans.”

Cats in small households learn to get the attention of humans when hungry with an unusual sound combining a purr with a cry. The AOL story is here.

I was “adopted” by a stray unaltered male while living in a Dallas garden apartment in 1979. The cat, Timmy, learned the sound of my car (a Chevette then) and would run to the right apartment and reach for the door knob. Sometimes he would bring birds to the apartment as “offerings.” Inside the apartment, he would hide objects like house keys. At night, if he wanted to go out for biological purposes, he would knead the pillow underneath my head after running into the room. He knew how to communicate and get what he wanted. He would actually play with dogs in the neighborhood.

Despite the debate in the differences between dog and cat intelligence, any mammal that hunts prey for a living has a lot of problem solving ability and can learn to associate with humans. All carnivores are capable of “social cognition” and recognizing that other “mammals” like humans are both similar and different from them but capable both of being a threat or a friend (or, more rarely, a meal). In the South African film “Duma”, a baby male cheetah is raised as a member of the family and actually eats dinner with the family and learns to manipulate a remote TV control. He only recognizes his true nature when taken into the wild and introduced to a female cheetah.

In other "unimportant news", the Washington Nationals fired manager Manny Acta today. The old Senators in the 1950s never had a record after 87 games as bad as this (26-61); I think one year they were 25-55 on July 4. At this rate, they will win only 48 games this year. Their fielding average is the worst in the majors, and their ERA the worst in the National League. Remember, though, the 1962 Mets won only 40 games but won the World Series in 1969, and the Detroit Tigers went from 43 wins in 2003 to finishing in the playoffs in 2006. The Nationals do have individual talent (like Zimmerman and Dunn). But something is terribly wrong with the management, and with some of the other players.

As I recall, around 1957 or so, the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians actually traded managers. You have to fire the leadership; you can't fire the troops, no matter how badly they perform.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Major financial columnist covers media perils insurance for bloggers


Eileen Amrbose has a regular column on personal finance in the Baltimore Sun, and I see that on June 16 she weighed in on the subject of liability insurance for bloggers.

She refers to a case of a libel lawsuit against Courtney Love for unfavorable (to say the least) comments that Love made about a clothing designer on tweets and blogs. In Ohio, a blogger was assessed a judgment of over $100000 for calling a property haunted. (It's hard to determine when "the Opinion Rule" prevails-- but think about it, a blogger could really harm someone financially with a disparaging comment about that party's mortgaged real estate.) Some cases have occurred with people with much less celebrity.

The article, dated June 16 in The Baltimore Sun, is titled “Instant comment brings risk of instant lawsuits”, with link here. The story refers to the lack of editorial supervision over most blogs. Here's another story, from the Huffington Post in March 2009, about the Courtney Love case, link.

The article then goes into the subject of insurance, and does suggest that umbrella insurance will work for some people. For semi-professional bloggers, she suggests a general liability policy of $500 to $1000 a year. The overall concern is that insurance companies could find these policies very hard to underwrite and price, with more controversial blogs (like dealing with gay rights) being perceived as more risky. (Some property or auto companies will not cover someone under an umbrella policy when that person is an "entertainer" -- but in the asymmetric world of blogs, profiles and tweets, anyone can become an "entertainer" overnight -- and "entertainment" is a very subjective concept anyway.) The National Writers Union encountered this problem back in 2001.

The Media Bloggers Association seems to be finding that completing of a course and passing a test on intellectual property legal concepts could help insurance companies price the products. That is all the more reason to start covering online law in public schools, where the expertise to teach it is sorely missing right now.

Another development that would help with this issue would be tort reform – loser pays – and national anti-SLAPP legislation. Frivolous suits could become a serious problem in the future.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Va-WVa "Ridge and Valley Province": byways of the past, some of it troubled


Today, I visited a “haunt” from my past, the Shrine Mont retreat in Orkney Springs, VA, in the Ridge and Valley country between the Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Front or Eastern Continental Divide. I had trouble finding the town at first, as it was obscured by a page crease in my Road Atlas, and you have to take exactly the right country road to reach it. The paved roads over the mountains into West Virginia there (like through Wolf Gap) really do go into the boonies. It’s easy to find the wrong one.

I say haunt, because this was the site of church retreats, usually in June. The property has numerous white buildings and lodges that serve as dorms; it looks like a camper’s version of the Greenbrier. Behind the dorms is the softball field where I hit a legitimate home run in 1969, after Army Basic and some service, then at age 25, in the best shape of my life. But it was the 1962 retreat that I recall, after I had started going to George Washington University and living at home after my William and Mary expulsion, already detailed in these blogs. A few weeks after this retreat I would find myself a “voluntary” patient at the National Institutes of Health, in a “program” for “disturbed” college students. This was the post-Sputnik era, remember, and not everyone realized who Alan Turing had been (or how he had helped win World War II). At the 1962 retreat, I remember that Saturday night the men did a skit about one of the “dorms” called “Peterkins.” At another retreat, around 1966, I remember debates about the morality of the draft and student deferments.

I like to visit the physical locations of various episodes of my life (good, bad, and merely contemplative, rather like this one), only because for me they make a narrative, rather like a movie. The pictures help illustrate an argument, nuanced and perhaps existential, but ultimately necessary. Tomorrow is my 66th birthday, and even though you’re not supposed to give away your DOB online, I don’t think I’m that easy to impersonate or fake. No, I can’t become Benjamin Button and have a 25 year old body again, with the advantage of four more decades of “wisdom”.

Nearby, on the other side of the ridge, is Lost River State Park (but hard to get to from the shrine because the mountain roads don’t go through) in West Virginia, site of a 1990 “Adventuring” retreat on a relatively mild December weekend. That is a happier memory, and I managed to touch base there, too. Also, the town of Wardensville, for lunch; then I drove past various towns and country stores, a few of which I remember from the 1990 trip. Part of W Va Route 259, crossing the Lost River Canyon with some spectacular views, has been widened since the 1990 trip (with at least one "Sideling Hill"-type cut through a mountain). South of the Lost River area, near a town called Broadway, Virginia, there is a miniature Seneca Rocks, standing like a pulled tooth, amazingly only a few feet thick.

Any time you visit your old haunts, you find new wonders. Such is the pleasure of staking out locations for a movie.

Don't worry, the mountaintop removal of strip mining is still about 60 miles away. The coal measures don't start until you cross the Eastern Continental Divide.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Is whistleblowing in private industry protected by law?


The Metro section of the July 7 Washington Post, in a story by Josh White, reports that a young funeral home worker was first put on administrative leave and then fired for talking to the media and appearing in a newspaper in a company van.

The company involved was National Funeral Home, a unit of Service Corporation International, and the employee was Robert Ranghelli. The story is by Josh White, is titled “Worker fired for describing conditions at funeral home,” and the link is here.

It was not immediately clear if a whistleblower lawsuit would work against a private firm as opposed to government. The Transportation Security Agency has attracted complaints for its handling of whistleblowers and has recently extended protection to whistleblowers, as in this Government Executive story (Feb 2008).

In the past, people have been fired for discussing their employers in personal blogs, sometimes for disclosing confidential information or for including photographs of company premises. Heather Armstrong’s “dooce” case from 2002 case is now famous. Here is an interesting account of a firing at Microsoft in 2003 from a blog called “eclecticism”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Review "The Privilege of Being Listened To"


“Drawing attention to yourself” is perceived by a lot of people as “dangerous” or anti-social. There’s often a lot of pressure to “keep a low profile” and “fit in with the crowd” for the sake of safety until you’ve “paid your dues.” Sound familiar?

In Internet has turned this social paradigm on its side, and somewhat derailed it: because of free entry, anyone can become a celebrity. Because a lot of people “misuse the privilege” and create harm for others (as in the reputation area), there are bound to occur a lot of calls to restrain this sort of thing. Some of this kind of thinking comes from a logical impasse: you can’t prove a negative. If I have the privilege of climbing on the Web, I can’t prove in advance that I won’t harm someone else’s safety or reputation. But the same is true about getting behind the wheel of a car. No one can stop me from imbibing some Shots first. The only thing we can go on is my past driving record (which is good); if I abuse it, the license could be taken away and I could even go to jail. I guess we could come to see it that way with the Internet. Yet, telling people you blog publicly could sometimes be interpreted as enticing or as "anti-selective."

There is developing, I think, a notion of “a privilege of being listened to”. The Internet makes it easy for anyone to enter the debate on anything and make a name of himself, but “free entry” isn’t the only issue: in the past, one could have drawn a lot of attention with a sufficiently controversial letter to an editor published in print with conventional supervision. Although – in many people’s minds – the lack of supervision over what gets posted today does add to the “risk”.

Socially, we think someone deserves to be listened to when he or she has real responsibilities for others -- and can "compete" according to the "rules of engagement" of familial, social and political hierarchy in order to become a superior provider of others. We think of responsibility for others as something that occurs by choice – getting married and having babies (hopefully in the “right order”) – but in a real world, it doesn’t always happen that way. Our individualistic culture has somewhat demonized the risk of starting a family, and created some real sustainability problems, running up against the demographics of aging as well as all the other legacy social injustices that commentators like Bill Moyers broadcast shows about.

One of the emerging issues is that “family responsibility” isn’t just a matter of choice. The childless will do more of their share of eldercare – especially as the demographic demand outstrips the ability to outsource it – and helping raise OPC (other people’s children). Once one is “responsible for others”, it seems to get harder to remain objective about the issues, and it gets more tempting to support pols or lobbyists who will get your family its way.

As others have pointed out to me, “reproduction rules” – and the mere fact of being a blood relative of someone often leads to unearned benefits, so it isn’t necessarily wrong to expect involuntary but “elected” responsibilities for others, in the extended family setup. After all, that is part of what a "community" must expect, is it not, to guarantee taking care of everyone to some extent? What is wrong, is how a lot of us were “exiled” for a few decades, and defined as second class citizens in the law – told, for example, that we aren’t fit to share the risk of defending our country and our freedom if we open our mouths – even on the Internet. (I’m referring, of course, to “don’t ask don’t tell” – a malignant mentality). All the sudden, “you” want intimacy from us on your terms, which includes serving as pretend male role models when you need them. Yes – the shortage of people to teach disadvantaged youth and serve as the first line of identity and support for the disabled and needy is getting serious.

And, when “elected”, I sometimes resist. I want my own separate public identity first, I say. And you think that means I want to keep my mental “grade book”, ready to use it to call upon the “medical Gestapo.” I want to use my freedom to nurture a fantasy of perfect meritocracy. I want to see the final standings published.

I can understand how some people could believe that, as I can sometimes seem unempathetic. But what I do demand is that people understand what did happened, how things have evolved for the past forty years. There are reasons that I was sent into “exile” – they have a lot to do with what our society thought it needed to demand of young men a few decades ago to survive – and the existential problem non-conformity presented. Actually, we lived with it at times – despite the pretense of exclusion and of McCarthyism, gays often served in the military, somewhat openly, during WWII and in other “greatest generation struggles” with distinction. Now, demanding conformity, and pressuring someone like me into embracing your life and agenda and demonstrating the personal habit that would go along with your goals, is a way of making someone like me show that I could step up and raise a family if I had to. Tables have turned, and the wild pendulum is swinging back. I do get it. I understand the sustainability issue. I understand that there may be limits on the individualism with which I lived and rather prospered for a few decades. But I want “you” to really understand how things got to be this way. Therefore, I must retain “the privilege of being listened to.” I will not "hold my nose", overlook the past, and pretend to become a huckster of someone else's agenda (the "we give you the words" situation) and pretend that doing so solves the moral problems.

The original 2005 essay “The Privilege of Being Listened To” and responses is at an older site, here.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Anonymous defamatory comments in forums can draw subpoenas; the rights of "amateur" vs. "establishment" journalists; Post's "Salon" canceled


Toni Bowers, of Tech Republic, an online journal mainly aimed at the I.T. professional audience, has written about the perplexities and uncertainties of the law as they apply to speech on the Internet. This morning, she had a column “Woman sues to have name of anonymous web poster revealed”, in an article here.

The incident occurred in a Kentucky shopping mall, where the poster accused the woman of a crime that most people consider extremely objectionable. So this sounds like defamation. The article goes on to discuss cases where the government has required identification of people who have posted information regarding ongoing criminal investigations in a few communities.

There are several problems going on here. One is shielding hosts of forums and blogs from immunity for what visitors say. That’s related to Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. A lot of people don’t like this, but the shield makes the “free entry” system for self-publishing and social networking on the Internet as we know it today possible. (So does the much maligned “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA.)

Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) reference on Section 230 (part of its Legal Guide for Bloggers) is here. The provision reads “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” However, EFF says “It does not apply to federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and electronic communications privacy law.”

EFF also provides a reference on your rights when blogging anonymously, here. It is possible to be subpoenaed if, when blogging “anonymously”, you defame someone.

EFF also has a page on the reporter’s privilege, and as to whether an “amateur blogger” can qualify to invoke it, here. Many states have shield laws; The First Amendment Center is another source.

This is a world of asymmetry indeed. Presumably, police departments and investigative agencies know how to peruse Facebook, Myspace, forums, YouTube and the like for evidence of crimes – and have procedures for getting technical help from those companies in doing so. Sometimes an individual blogger or journalist will discover clues online (or in the physical world) that have missed investigators. It’s important for a blogger in that position to behave prudently. It’s not always appropriate to post what you find, and it may or may not be appropriate to contact authorities if what you found is truly unusual. I have, since 9/11, contacted authorities about unusual contacts made to me, and at least two of them seem to have been significant.

The tone of the Tech Republic article certainly invokes the notion of an “existential threat” to bloggers, but the material needs to be parsed.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider the egg that a “professional” journalistic organization got on its face this week when it proposed a “salon” for the powerful and privileged to meet each other and interact with Washington Post journalists. The true-confessional story (Friday, July 3) by Howard Kurtz is “Post Co. Cancels Corporate Dinners: Journalistic Boundaries Brought Into Question,” link here. This time, the story speaks for itself. But one quote, from the flier that promotes the dinner to be held at Katharine Weymouth's home, is particularly galling: the dinner "health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post . . . an exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done." Note: "select few"-- for the rest of us, go away.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Web industry will self-regulate its way of tracking web surfers; how does this affect individual publishers?


Stephanie Clifford has an important story under the New York Times “Media & Advertising” series in the Business section, p B4, of the paper Thursday, July 2, 2009, “Industry Tightens Its Standards for Tracking Web Surfers.” The link is here.

She refers to an industry consortium's whitepaper “Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising” published in February 2009 and available (PDF) at the FTC website here.

There are some changes. One is that data collection procedures be made apparent in plain sight on a website or in an ad rather than buried in an obscure privacy policy, which almost any commercial website today must have. That has even been a controversy for bloggers, as to how they should display such a policy. I have chosen to leave them “in plain sight” at the bottom of the blog web page as a widget (look below if you like). I also think that “business privacy” (having to do with the theoretical risks of doing business who blogs at all – the “you can’t prove a negative” problem) , which I explained here in a blog posting May 25, becomes an issue potentially as controversial as data collection would be. Beyond all this, there is the idea that web surfers ought to be able to see what data is being collected on them. In theory, this is like saying consumers need to be able to see their credit reports, or, even taking this further, how their “insurance scores” are calculated – a way to go at the moment.

Google has its own take on this on its “pubic policy blog” here.

It’s fair to say that the future health of individualized speech on the Web has a big stake in industry and publisher self-regulation.

Update: July 9, 2009

Mediapost has an interesting article by Wendy Davis, "New BT Principles May Not Go Far Enough To Stop Regulation", link here. Note the reference to a comment by Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien, arguing that "self-regulatory programs will not adequately protect privacy because consumers currently have no way of knowing their privacy has been compromised, much less complaining about it to an enforcement body."

Update: July 13, 2009

Ian Paul has a (July 10, 2009) PCWorld article "Does Google Know Too Much About You?" here. Again, I don't bite feeding hands, but I recommend reading the article and keeping an open mind. True, a future hostile government could expropriate information intended to be used "benevolently." But the younger generation doesn't look at privacy the way its parents did.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Government (Homeland Security, at least) to try social media for fibbie employees; what about "online reputation"?


Kim Hart, in her column “The Download”, offered a piece on June 29 in The Washington Post, “Biotech start-ups show dedication, line up for tax credits”, link here.

But it wasn’t the innovations of biotech (maybe even stem cell research) that caught my eye; it was a discussion that starts after her section tag “Brave New World”: the assertion that the federal government is seriously looking at whether and how federal employees should engage social media: social networking sites, and now Twitter (perhaps Blogger and Wordpress to boot).

The Department of Homeland Security (“Ready”) even had a two day symposium at the Washington Court Hotel near Capitol Hill. They didn’t bother to notice what was going on last week in suburbia at Tysons (the Metro doesn’t go there yet), with the Digital Media conference that I attended and reviewed last week. And we learn that Facebook actually hires lobbyists (that’s so partisan).

Government will have to deal with the thorny question of just whose views are represented when something controversial (say home preparedness for catastrophe) is discussed on a department blog with someone’s name and “identity” on it. When somebody (an official, that is) blogs from home and people know who he is, there really can be a problem. The fibbies will learn quickly about the world of “online reputation.”