Thursday, December 28, 2006

Some explanations of how email postage should work

Already, people have pointed out to me that most of us pay to send email. Well, in a sense, we do (although some ISPs are making everything free now for limited service). But what I am questioning here is the “unlimited mileage” idea that has been common for fifteen years. (Even in the car rental business the idea has been challenged.)

There was controversy early in 2006 when AOL and Yahoo! announced that they would charge a small fee to preferred and approved emailers to avoid their spam filters. There are various news stories, such as Saul Hansell "Postage Is Due for Companies Sending Email", The New York Times, Feb 5, 2005, here (may need NYT subscription). There has been a lot of criticism of charging for email, to the effect that it would put some business models out to pasture.

Vadim Makarov has an interesting essay softening the proposal to charge for email. ISPs would offer subscribers the option of receiving only postage-due email only. The proposal does comport with libertarian and free-market ideas. Escrow companies (to borrow from the mortgage industry) would keep track of mailers and bill them, and charges would be accounted for by passing tokens with the emails. From my memory of telecommunications courses at Northern Virginia Community College in the 90s, I sort of picture-in-mind, (computer textbook) James Martin style, how this might work. (Good essay question for a final exam!) Generally, ordinary people as ISP subscribers would have the option of receiving all email with customary spam filters, and the SMTP protocol could still be used. Still, this model would impact certain kinds of marketing businesses adversely. Presumably, a business running its own server without an ISP (or using a dedicated host rather than shared hosting) could negotiated with an escrow company on its own. A good question would be how network neutrality legislation could impact such a scheme.

Ultimately, cultural values will enter into the debate on what to do about this, and these values can lead to a new generation of telecommunications and intellectual property law. I do believe that the current situation threatens the ability of “smallfry” like me to have our own independent domains and become the target of spoofers (although escrow companies in the model above would have to be able to recognize spoofing, as would ISPs in some proposals for charging senders). The small business publishing model, with passive search engine “advertising” sends unwanted material to no one, but offends some people because it seems like an evasion of normal business (or even family) accountability. On the other hand, a business that bombards the public with ads offends a lot of people with the idea of unwanted hucksterism, let alone the bandwidth and nuisance costs. If you need to become a salesman, “always be closing.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Time to charge for sending email?

I'll start this post out by saying that this may indeed be high time to seriously consider charging for sending email. Perhaps a tenth of a penny (one mil) per mail, less with a listserver. But the idea is to take away a free resource that encourages spam, and worse, the viruses and worms that highjack computers, even at home, as zombies to send them. (I remember in the mid 1970s that terminal time in the workplace was a free resource, and the computer time by "compiling in demand" could be abused. What a parallel!)

The other major measure is to replace the SMTP mail protocol with a more sophisticated protocol that validates sender id's, to eliminate spoofing. I have long been concerned that spoofing could make "innocent" operations (particularly individuals or very small businesses) become perceived as nuisances that (like in zoning laws in the physical world) should be removed.

Several companues have explored mail security improvements. These companies include Earthlink, Yahoo!, and of course Microsoft and Apple. But they need to work together to come up with a solution. One remedy that is somewhat successful is a challenge-response mechanism used at least by Earthlink.

There has been quite a flow of media reports in the past two months. On Dec. 27, 2006 The Washington Post discussed reports that spam volumes had increased oved 70 percent during the last quarter of this year. The article is by Bryan Krebs, "Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble: With Spam Filters Working Overtime, Security Experts See No Letup in '07". The link is here.
(Visitors may need online subscription.)

CNN reported on this earlier in December, with Miles O'Brien himself advocating charging for email. One idea is that the revenue from the electronic postage would be used to fund better email security to stop the spam problem, as well as protect consumer privacy with better due diligence procedures from credit grantors.

Even earlier this monthm nn Dec 6, 2006, there had appeared major media reports about the increase of spam, especially from overseas where spammers are free from the strictures of the CanSpam Act.

Brad Stone has a report "Spam Doubles, Finding New Ways to Deliver Itself," in The New York Times, p A1, in which he eplains a ruse of spammers called "image spam" which outwits existing spam filter technology. Spammers also outflank attempts to prevent delivery of multiple copies of the same message. Many spam filters look for particular letters and patterns and do not have the contextual intelligence of a human to see everything. Teaching a system to recognize spam may be like writing a program to analyze an equal middle game position in chess.

Corporations are finding that spam hogs their bandwidth and causes them to have to spend a lot more money. The Seattle Mariners (major league baseball) switched from a system managed by Computer Associates to Barracuda Networks, with some success.

The Washington Times has an article by Kara Rowland, "Clever spammers stay 'one step ahead' of law: Federal act fails to stem the tide." The link is here. The article reviews the CanSpam provisions. It's good to review them here. (1) Senders must have legitimate headers, a non-misleading subject line, an opt-out method, and proper labeling of the message as an ad. (The idea of whitelisting and opt-in had been debated in 2004.)

Legitimate companies are harmed by the practice, as they are by phishing, which has become more aggressive (telling electronic banking customers that their electronic access will be terminated). Some spam schemes have promoted illegal "pump and dump" penny stock trading schemes, even without links to websites. There are suggestions that ISP's quarantine home users whose computers become infected with botnets, which are used by spammers to send spam from zombie machines.

I have noticed some increase in my own spam box on AOL, particularly recently with messages with multiple FWD's, almost certainly the product of a worm. Many of them have subject lines in unicode, Greek, or Russian, and are easy to spot. But some legitimate email is misidentified and I must always review it. My own spam folder has increase in the past two months, about three fold, to about four pages a day of junk.

In the physical world, where senders pay postage (but take advantage of bulk mail), I find myself cutting or shredding mail envelopes and the see-through letters. This is inexcusable. Why don't credit grantors have to practice more due diligence?

Update Jan 8, 2006 New York Times Story, by John Markoff: "Attack of the Zombie Computers Is a Growing Threat, Experts Say." The computers of one unnamed ISP were recruited to send over one billion spam messages in 24 hours in Dec. 2006. The article discusses the "botnet" and a particularly mophic one called "rustock" which right now is reportedly very difficult for security companies to detect. One woman in Denver with a older Windows 98 machine had her computer confiscated by sheriff's deputies in Sept 2006 when it was turned into a zombie to make purchases from Sears off a stolen credit card number, but she had disabled security protections provided by her ISP because they made the older machine too slow.

There is a new critical essay at one of my other sites on this matter, at this link.

Update: NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams will have a major story on the increase in spam on Monday, January 22, 2007 at 7 PM EST

Here is a posting about a spoofing scheme using MySpace to falsely imply that a MySpace user sent spam. It involves manipulation of the "friend request." It is on MSNBC, 12/25/2006 here.

Here is a recent story, 1/16.2007, about spam masquerading as a legitimate newsletter, at this link. I know someone in the legitimate newsletter business, and this would be a big problem.

(Picture: Quartz Mountains in Oklahoma)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

New version of blogger

I have created one blog with the new version of Blogger, which is much faster. It does not appear that the profiles are merged yet, so you can see what I have done there by going to this link. I make no guarantees that the Profiles match (they don't).

I've noticed one feature of new blogger that is relevant to some of my concerns. The new version makes it possible to restrict visitors to a "whitelist" -- a specified email list. I don't plan to do this now, but future employment situations could at some point make me do that in the future. The previous posting on this blog explains that point.

For now, all of my blogs in the older, slower format are essential, so I expect them to remain as they are for the time being.

There is a New Years Eve commentary on this on another blog, here.

Authorship and writing: is there a distinction without a difference?

On Christmas Day, I watched a saved broadcast from Turner Classic Movies of the 1948 RKO film “I Remember Mama”, directed by George Stevens, from the novel by Kathryn Forbes. In the film the narrator girl wants to become a writer, and has to struggle when a teacher says it is rude to write about family members. Later the teacher reverses herself and says she should write what she knows. She does, sells her first story, and launches a career. In the prologue, the TCM hosts discussed the previous broadcast of “Little Women” (Louisa May Alcott’s post Civil War novel) in which, if I heard right, a heroine give up writing because it is too “selfish.” I put the 1933 film in my Netflix queue immediately so I can check that comment out. We’ll have to watch what the film “Freedom Writers” from Paramount (by Richard LaGravenese) has to say about this in early 2007.

I was a member of the National Writers Union for a while, and I do understand the perspective of writing as a profession. There are all kinds of specialized forms of writing, including business writing, technical writing, grant writing, and professional journalism in all media, including the Web.

The concept that really concerns me goes beyond writing in that sense, to authorship. One concept critical to my books and websites and blogs is that any subject matter is fair game. That is because every issue can affect any other issue. And that is also because I do want to maintain some distance and some objectivity. Yes, to give the material credibility, I do need some of the “personal stuff” and the autobiographical narratives.

What is more common, of course, is for people to speak to only side of one issue at a time. The endpoint of that approach is professional lobbying. Many writing jobs (especially those connected to unions) come out of this paradigm. With my background, that would support a narrow view of promoting “equal rights for gays,” with stereotyped arguments about discrimination, equal protection and immutability. But I believe that the those politicized approaches overlook broader concerns about individualism, objectivism, socialization, self-concept, and the ability of many people to function in an increasingly competitive world—especially the enormous costs of child rearing and now eldercare. You could say that religion tries to touch on these issues (even more so with be basic Christmas message). I wind up with the idea that we really do need a database-style repository of all of the “dots” and organized link-objects to connect them.

I’ve also noted than in the past eighteen months or so, employers have become increasingly concerned about off-duty self-publishing by employees, most of all on social networking sites. I expected this kind of thing to happen and wrote about it as early as the spring of 2000 (and got email comments), but I was more concerned about the formal legal conflicts of interest that could occur, as with securities, or with my own situation involving my activism with respect to “don’t ask don’t tell” and gays in the military, when I was working, though as an individual contributor, for a company that did heavy selling to members of the military.

What is more disturbing, though, is this idea that some employers and other visitors want to look at blogs or profiles as a part of a person’s “appearance”. Why would I be concerned about such-and-such a topic? The potential motive for writing about something troubling will concern them. Does there have to be an obvious ulterior motive? I can see their liability concern. But we can’t say that any topic is just a third rail. Sure, someone could say, I don’t care if you blog if you limit yourself to, say, social security. (That was always the politician’s third rail.) But social security is connected to demographics, to eldercare, to procreation, and therefore to gay rights (by contraposition), and in some people’s minds, gay interests are connected to other inappropriate desires and temptations. It’s all connected.

That is why, in my own mind, there is no point in having the books, blogs, websites, or even movies later if they cannot be open to what needs to be said, if they just serve one side’s interest. Objectivity, as I have noted on earlier posts, was drummed into me in my own high school social studies education. Yet I do see that many people have needs (or are in families where other members who have needs) that seem to call for pinch-hitters. Share our burdens or compete like a man with our responsibilities, they say, before you speak out in public about things.

There are, of course, legitimate careers (most of them, perhaps, if you advance) where you are paid to advance one economic or cultural interest to the public, to the indirect expense of others. There are times when one is paid to write, is paid to be objective, but must accept some supervision in what one says on one’s own. Such is usually the case with professional journalists – newspaper reporters and news anchors. That can indeed be a legitimate career and a way for someone, in stages, to get to the truth. Within the software industry, particularly in connection with open source models and “open content”, where objectivity and neutrality are policy objectives, there can be similar opportunities.

In view of all of this, I have often written that people with certain kinds of jobs – getting paid to represent someone else’s interests in public (call it partisanship if you will) – should not blog or publish anything on their own (even the beloved family pictures) to the whole outside world through the “free entry” mechanism of the Internet without employer supervision. The underlying principle would be, that an person can have one portal to the public space, and that either belongs to the individual or to the employer, depending on the nature of the job. I think that this kind of idea could evolve rapidly in the near future. (The posting right after this, physically above, addresses this further.)

I don’t know where this leaves me, as I might have to move in this direction myself in semi-retirement as I get into 2007. I cannot say for sure what the future of these blogs or sites will be, whether they would have to be removed or restructured under some kind of supervision. Even given very low operational costs, it is not possible to go one forever without figuring out a way to make them more profitable, but that is what the marketplace is ultimately all about.

There are a number of specific issues that, in hidden fashion, increase the risk to self-publishers and others associated with them (including employers and maybe even families). I have proposed some solutions to some of these issues on other blogs and will summarize some of these solutions with a new posting soon. That may help clear the air.

Suggested blogging policy.

The picture is that of a quarry in West Virginia. Quarrying links to strip-mining, which in turn links to global warming and "inconvenient truths".

Friday, December 22, 2006

Corporate blogging supports Christmas retail and sometimes bumps press releases

Many companies to encourage their own managers to create “corporate blogs” rather than using just formal press releases in a conventional “professional” manner. Look at and . In 2004 there was a brief legal scuffle instigated by hp over Sun’s blog. The article is Amy Joyce, March 19, 2005 The Washington Post, “More PR Than No-Holds-Barred On Bosses’ Corporate Blogs; Most Corporate Bloggers Don’t Deviate from Company Line.”

Jen Haberkorn has an article in the Dec 21, 2006 Washington Times, "Retailers get personal with blogs from inside," here. Sometimes, as with Wal-Mart, these blogs have been written even by low-level employees. This has been particularly effective during the Christmas season, and in 2006 blogs have become important for the first time.

Because of possible conflicts, I would think that companies should not ask lower-level employees to user their own names when blogging in behalf of their employers. In some jobs, I believe that gradually employers will want to manager their associates' contact with the public space through the web, but this is appropriate mainly when associates use their own names or identities in a public manner in behalf of the company.

Nancy Flynn has a lot of discussion of the legal issues for corporate blogs in her 2006 AMA book, Blog Rules, review here.

The Washington Times tech-watch on April 24, 2006 encouraged job seekers to study blogs about companies that they apply to (especially Microsoft). A state employee in North Carolina started a blog about Wal-Mart's environmental violations, at this link.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

So, what is all of this for? Chicken Little knows.

People sometimes ask me about the blogs and the websites, why are you “doing it”? What gain come out of it? What good can it do for others?

Earlier postings, like my blurb about knowledge management, should give a clue. I think it is a good thing to have a repository through which the flow of ideas can be traced, and particularly the incidents associated with a particular idea or controversy can be quickly tracked. (Example: people fired for their off-duty blogs.) My doaskdotell site does this around the organization provided by the six chapters of the first book (many authors have tried to do this with a book: look at Richard Kieninger’s The Ultimate Frontier back in the 60s)).

Now of course I would like to convert this to a more professional format. Ideally, there could be some kind of object database, managed by a company, paid for by advertisers, with free visitation. These blogs are a beginning but it would have to be taken to a great deal of technical sophistication. The legal issues associated with such “free content” were well documented in the recent documentary film about open source and the Linux operating system, “Revolution OS.” Other ways to promote this concept would be a documentary commercial film (a kind of “An Inconvenient Truth 2” perhaps) or some kind of public event discussing the “burden sharing” (or “pay your dues”) concerns raised in other postings.

Some people are particularly put off by my autobiographical presentations (especially in the first book), where I present myself as having been a stereotyped “sissy boy” homosexual, and then even (with some gall) admit that my lack of “masculine performance” itself has a moral dimension. The school systems were particularly concerned when they found this while I was substitute teaching (and I hope that they find these blogs now). It’s one thing to be born or to evolve “different” (maybe even bordering on “disability” – like the piglet in “Charlotte’s Web” who can’t help being “born small”) but why turn about-face and present this as an indicator of my own (or any similarly situated person’s) individual moral worthiness? It would seem that there is some “explaining to do”, as in a sermon. In the first place, I grew up in the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove, conscription-conscious era where we knew that we could not take freedom and our way of life for granted. My parents (“The Greatest Generation” as Tom Brokaw calls them) lived through the Great Depression and World War Ii and knew this even more. (I may have decided against a music career myself because of these fears.) So the renewed discussions about sacrifice and national service in the post 9/11, post-Katrina world with melting icecaps seems very pertinent. But what is more important, is that many of the “macho man” social norms (and not just the Village People) that oppressed me were indeed a bit disingenuous and hypocritical when applied at the individual level. I think I point this out (as in the book, when I wonder why teenage boys deliberate skate or bike on the wrong side of the street and challenge cars). Of course I am pointing these inconsistencies out. But the problems of public reputation connected to this problem have already been noted in film. In Chicken Little, Little’s "acorn stunt" inspires a website, book and movie, to the great embarrassment of his father, who warns him to keep a low profile. Little is accused of drawing attention to himself, of self-promotion, when he is really just a sissy. So he spends the course of the comic movie redeeming himself and indirectly his family.

I want to make it clear that the material on this sites is intended to present and connect issues (with incidents, to be sure), but it is not intended to target individual people. We all know that bloggers have developed a reputation for outing or exposing individual people (especially politicians) or companies, sometimes with serious legal risks that are only now starting to be explored for their potential downstream consequences. (Look at what happened in the 2006 mid-term elections!) I do not report negative information about any party unless it is first reported in an established press source (which can be quoted or linked bibliographically), or have very solid proof myself about the incident. However, the overall intent and tone of the material (the “implicit content”) may make many people feel that they are being “exposed” to the disapproval of others, even though I intend the material to be perceived as "impersonal" and actually focused on issues and principles (and on the intricate new problems that they can lead to). Indeed, before the explosion of television and then the Internet, many older ideas about speech emphasized keeping quiet about certain matters so that ordinary individuals could function within the family unit without feeling that they would be “measured” as individuals by others. Of course, this meant loss of objectivity and the tendency to fragment public speech according to political hierarchies representing special interests. I recall the papers and essay exams in my eleventh grade Va. and U.S. History class (at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA, then one of the top public schools in the nation) around 1960, where the teacher insisted on answers that showed objectivity and completeness and that left out nothing. This proto-activist teacher did not tolerate the idea of political speech limited by political correctness (in a day when race and school segregation were volatile issues). The same would be true in government class a year later.

I know that there are personal credibility issues here. I seem to put myself, and maybe others around me by social connection or implication, on the hot seat when we could all have been quiet and comfortable. I seem to be drawn to ideas (and a manifesto) and not to people. I would modify that by saying, only then to people. There is a certain irony in that all of these existential questions about my own direct participation in democratic processes refer back to the debates in the 1990s about the military gay ban and "don't ask don't tell" with the ("rebuttable presumption") idea that speech in certain situations compromises group effectiveness ("unit cohesion" is the euphemism and maybe a canard) and leads to automatic questions about the penultimate purpose ("propensity") of the speech. But the idea that someone who is "different" must "shut up and sing" (keep a low profile and stay out of sight) or risk putting others on the spot and bringing everybody down (or bringing out the individual "moral hazard" of others) is one of the most disturbing notions in the whole culture war. But, then again, that's the "Chicken Little Problem." If we want a world in which tribal hierachies and families have less control over individual people, then sometimes individuals might have to pay their dues to be heard from. At least that sounds like the direction we could be heading.

Picture: Swanson Middle School, Arlington VA, where I attended 7th-9th grades 1955-1957, when it was called “junior high school”.

Links: speech and family values (Time Mag. Dobson piece)

Libertarian philosophy and me

Knowledge management 1

Knowledge management 2

My own day of infamy

Another student's music career

Movie reviews

Book reviews

Do Ask Do Tell Introduction

Tom Blankley of The Washington Times has an apt editorial related to all of this, "Losing Our Grip on Reality," Dec. 20, 2006, here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

California Supreme Court on web publishing immunity; media perils

Before starting, note that the Dec 25 2006 Christmas Day issue of Time Magazine named its person of the year as the "Us" or "Me", the Internet user and publisher. It's upbeat, and yet we have to watch the legal and social storm fronts and clouds, as in the rest of this posting.

Nov 21, 2006, Bloomberg, “Protection for Web Publishers”, reprinted in The New York Times: The California Supreme Court ruled “in a unanimous decision, those claiming defamation could sue only the original source of the comments, not publishers or distributors, even if the distributor was an individual. Internet users are protected by the same 1996 Communications Decency Act provision (less known than what was struck down)that grants immunity against defamation claims to publishers in most circumstances.” Link is this. However, critics have claimed that, if amateurs want to be regarded as legitimate journalists, they have to behave and be held accountable like journalists. The California ruling suggests that plaintiffs will not be able to state-shop to end-around federal law (the "good" provision of the otherwise infamous CDA). The ruling also maintains a "safe harbor" concept for ISPs and chat hosting comapnies that the do not necessarily have to maintain logs of every posting (although there are new rules for employers keeping track of employee emails, so that could bemuse the issue).

All of this brings up the subject of the liability risks of bloggers and website operators. There have been some lawsuits, both regarding corporate blogs and sometimes individual blogs. For example, Target filed as suit regarding compromise of its confidentiality policy, story here:

Nancy Flynn discusses the liability issues in her AMA book “Blog Rules”. The greatest risk could occur when blogs target individual people or companies with false defamatory statements, or invade their privacy in a legally relevant way. This discussion occurs in the context of people being fired for material in their personal blogs. Of course, in comparison to the number of blogs and personal sites, the number of litigation incidents is very low. But it does raise the question of media perils (or media risk) insurance for amateur or non-established writers.

I was a member of the National Writers Union for several years, mainly when I lived in Minneapolis, and in 2000 NWU was able to offer a six-month media perils policy for its members for reasonable cost. In the spring of 2001 it was not able to renew, and another company refused to cover many of its members. The application form did ask about third party oversight, but it seemed (at least in my case), that the main problem was material of “controversial nature”. At least, so said a bald-faced email from the company’s underwriter to me. For a long time, NWU could not offer a group media risks policy that was acceptable to most of its members. But it appears that in 2006 it did offer a publishing liability policy, in combination with group health insurance; link here.

There is a good disussion of media perils (media risks) insurance as more commonly acquired by larger publishing entities, here.

It is common for property and casualty insurance companies to offer umbrella policies, and a few of them have said that they will cover liability for personal blogs when they have been allowed to review the blogs. Conventional umbrella policies generally are not available for “professional entertainers” and it is not clear what this would mean with respect to a blogger who is visible to the public but is still an “amateur” and not able to earn a living from the blog. I think, however, that the increased automobile liability coverage often available with umbrella policies ought to be available separately from the “umbrella” concept, to avoid complicating it with intellectual property issues that a really totally unrelated.

The concern over "controversial" speech offended me. Amateur speech needs to be "controversial" to be worth uttering. Otherwise, we are left only with covering "professional" writing usually to communicate the messages of others.

The problem for liability insurance companies with amateur blogs and websites is rather obvious: they have no reasonable way (based on experience) to make an actuarial calculation of the risk and appropriate premium. There are too many issues that are subtle and unpredictable. We simply have not had global “free entry” self-publishing long enough to have a reliable handle on the risks, although it seems low in comparison to the exposure of established media companies and professional journalists, who have measurable track records, trained personnel, and lawyers to look at accountability. Amateurs do not have deep pockets to make attractive targets, and they may still have the reach, growing audience, and ability to influence events (especially political outcomes, like the 2006 mid term Congressional elections) out of proportion to their “means.” Insurance companies seem to look more comfortable with customers already having deep pockets, but, moreover, a social or business heirarchy to enforce accountability, at the expense of spontaneity.

What seems at stake, as with other issues (like COPA) is the richness of our social and political debates. Unpaid bloggers can point out things that advocacy or lobbying groups, paid to represent specific constituencies, cannot be allowed to say. In good high school or college social studies courses, we are supposed to learn to understand controversial events objectively. Yet, the way, before the Internet, that we conducted our debates was anything but objective. We paid people to represent our interests, and were forced to stay in the same boats as other groups, in political coalitions. Policy became a matter of political expediency, not understanding. The Internet can change that. But a lot of turf can be threatened, too.

Liability insurance companies would certainly go along with the idea that school systems should start providing teenagers education in concepts like copyright and libel, given the explosion of social networking sites and the inexperience of new speakers. Such concepts ought to become part of "standards of learning" testing in English. (The concepts are taught in high school journalism classes, often in conjunction with yearbook preparation.)

Eventually, as we uncover more risks associated with the Web (as we know from the anxious behavior or employers who feel that they need to peek at and maybe evaluate social networking sites and blogs of applicants as if these pieces of writing and pictures were “clothing”), discussions about insurance and maybe even bonding are likely to increase, despite the favorable California ruling above. Many writers do not know that conventional publishers usually require the them (the writers) to idemnify publishers against claims, and, similarly, ISP's often have clauses in their AUP's requiring customer indemnification. For obvious business reasons, these clauses seem to be rarely enforced, but the fact that they exist at all is troubling. (ISP's do have "safe harbor" under well-documented (and "controversial") take-down provisions for copyright claims, under the DMCA). Of course, this idea occurs in other area of life, even for apartment and car renters.

Related posting: COPA: The right to publish

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Could I pursue teacher licensure?

From the spring of 2004 to the end of 2005 I worked as a substitute teacher for two school districts in northern Virginia. I worked around 200 assignments, mostly high school but some middle school, with a wide range of subjects and class ability ranges. It was rewarding. I felt it necessary to resign at the end of 2005 for reasons I will develop here. I might or might not consider full time teaching, but I will lay out the issues here. In September 2005, did take the ETS Praxis II exam in mathematics and passed with a reasonable score. So academically I would be very much in the running in mt “post retirement” life. I “retired” from an I.T. career at the end of 2001 (forced out by a downsizing – next entry) and I am 63 now.

I won’t give details that would violate anyone’s confidentiality, but there has to be some personal candor in this discussion.

One issue on top is how long one should substitute without a license, or without committing to earning one. I discuss that at this link. There is a tendency in some situations to look at subbing as “easy money” when the alternative might be retail or a graveyard shift somewhere. If that’s the reason, one should not be a sub.

Many of the classes were great. Maybe one fifth were honors, AP or IB. These students could take the assigned work for the day and progress with little supervision. There was an honors chemistry (even though I am a math person) for seven days in the spring of 2005. Students often used the Internet in class to research assignments, without ever abusing the rules for computer use. I am told they did well on the SOL’s (Virginia Standards of Learning) and on the final exams, with the notorious multiple choice questions that require explanations for the choice for credit.

Since I took nine years of piano as a boy, I included music in the profile. Many of the music classes had student conductors, and were for groups that performed publicly (like orchestra, modern jazz, or madrigals) and the talent was impressive. The drama and theater was impressive. In AP English classes, students often had themes to write for the class, and they often looked interesting when turned in. In math, often there were chapter tests.

Most of the assignments were high school. I did try middle school in one district. Early in the experience, I mistakenly had two elementary schools on the profile, and then removed these, as I found I could not be effective. I did do some extended day shifts at elementary and middle schools for a couple of weeks, however.

There was, however, a downside. About a third of the substitute jobs offered (they were short-term, with 10 days the longest allowed) involved special education. Some special ed students are mainstreamed into regular classes, and sometimes they are team-taught, with one special education teacher in the room. The substitute was allowed to fill in for either teacher. More interesting were the assistant positions, in which the substitute might work in with or two specific students in a class. Some students tended to demand parental attention or would try to manipulate staff before they would do their work. This was particularly troubling to me; with my social background, I have no dependent-protective “fathering” skills.

Furthermore, I had three assignments in special education settings where the students were severely handicapped. The school districts did not inform the substitute teachers about the nature of these assignments in orientation, at least when I was working. In these, it could have been necessary to do custodial care. In one instance, a regular teacher asked if I could “help in the locker room” and man (at age 60) the deep end of a swimming pool on a field trip. In another, I was one-on-one with a student whom I was supposed to “make respond” to the lesson materials. I can’t “make” people do anything.

In time, I would accumulate a record of some occasional discipline problems, either in middle school settings or, in one case, with low income high school students who did not want to be in school. Guidelines for substitutes assume that many students need attention, and emphasis ideas like maintaining eye contact, and greeting students upon entering a classroom. The guidelines have to be general enough for all environments, but obviously for more mature classes these practices would be gratuitous, awkward and unwelcome. In one case, I had taken a music class in a middle school, and found three of the classes terrific (with student conductors, and able to perform), and two others unruly. Even though I can share knowledge of music from an ear and memory perspective, I have no idea how to conduct students who do not know how to work together in an ensemble. I had taken what was really an inappropriate assignment for my background, and was removed in two days. In another middle school assignment there were after-the-fact discipline complaints after the assignment most of which had gone well, but I had not noticed some inappropriate behavior by very few students in the back of the room.

But the other problem occurred because of my web activity. I sometimes gave teachers (especially government or history) post-class notes (in handwritten comments) from my site to look up on topics that I thought would be of interest, especially COPA before the Supreme Court. This seemed to go over all right, but one day I spoke to a teacher about a newspaper editorial about blogging and the Federal Election Commission controversy, and pointed her to some files on mine that would back up the editorial. A day later I got a called from an assistant principal complaining that she had been “offended” by the site. Some gumshoeing (looking at server logs with IP addresses of searches) eventually showed that someone at the school had already seen a different file on my site that they believed, in their frame of reference, to be “self-incriminating.” This was a prototype short film screenplay (by me) in which a character obviously similar to me is “framed” and convicted of a disturbing crime, and actually dies in prison (with a plot twist). The setting is obviously fictitious, but I understand (while I personally disagree with) the legal argument that it could be viewed as self-defamatory. It is important, however, to understand that search engines can return files with any combination of phrases or words and Boolean logic, and the mere appearance of a file with a person’s name in a “derogatory search” is not itself derogatory. The fact pattern is actually a bit complicated, with some side turns and other possible interpretations. The particular file has been removed.

I resigned in December, and gave some hyperbolic reasons. One was never having raised a family considering the age that I had reached (62), and the other was the bigger one, concerns about free speech. I did work a short term assignment grading SOL mathematics binders in the Spring.

Is it possible that I would go back? I have examined some of the licensure programs in the area. The more comprehensive (and convenient to attend) programs are much more expensive, and require more credit hours but license the individual in MD, DC and VA.
As I explained in the link below, I think that there is a maximum time that may sub ethically without committing to licensure.

Let me cover the two points in the resignation letter. As for the free speech, I do think that, in the age of the Internet, search engines, and social networking sites, school systems need to design much more specific human resources policies for teachers. Substitute teachers, assuming that they do not contribute significantly to the grading of students, may have more freedom than permanent teachers, because the practical risk of a “conflict of interest” or legitimate complaint from parents is much less (whatever happened with me). Were I to become a permanent teacher, or even to accept a long-term substitute assignment (to the point of giving grades) all of my own self-published materials including these blogs would have to be taken down. In this regard, an English teacher in Fairfax county had her students do a “blogging” project last year, to the chagrin of school administrators, who couldn’t wait for it to be over with (given her own stories in DC Examiner).

The parenting issue is a tough one for me. I am not comfortable being expect to “role play” as a male father figure. Philosophically, I do see my "forced" participation in something like this (including special education) as part of the “It takes a village” debate (over raising kids) that I have discussed in other blogs entries and websites. For me to enter the teaching market, there would have to be enough demand at the higher end in mathematics.

Becoming a permanent teacher as a second career would, for me, become a kind of enlistment. It would be a form of national service, where I would be in the same boat as a lot of people and give up a lot of intellectual and didactic independence, to speak for myself. The public school teaching community does seem insular, and overwhelmed by the demands on it, which lead to a certain insistence on solidarity that to me is offputting. Yet, at times the teaching community seems to need the input from the outside, real world, where problems are much more subtle than what can be communicated easily in classrooms.

Link 1: Is there a "don't ask don't tell" policy for teachers?

Link 2: Substitute teacher shortages

Link 3: My detailed substitute teacher discussion

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My second day of "infamy", Dec. 13, 2001

Day of “Infamy”

Thursday, December 13, 2001, was a gray cold day in Minneapolis with snow grains. I arrived in the office about 8 AM and saw the HR head enter the boss’s office. She greeted me.

At exactly 9 AM, I was logged on to the network and to a GUI application, talking to a user to resolve a problem. The Intranet interrupted me with a warning box, saying “Your account has been disabled. Please log off.” At first, I even thought it was a usual disk space warning. I kept talking about three minutes and stayed in the Powerbuilder application. After I logged off, I did try to log back on, and found that I could not. I called the corporate help desk and reported the problem.

Actually, a similar thing had happened about 5:30 PM the day before, Dec 12, and security had fixed it. I just thought it was a glitch. That night, I had watched Nightline talk about the Enron debacle. In the morning, I had Windows ME (that is what I had then) crash my Sony PC with the blue screen of death. That often happened in AOL.

Around 9:10, a manager was in my cubicle, and he said, “Bill, we have a meeting.”

We went to a corner office. I had already figured out the severance, and I was right on the money. I was relieved to have eight months plus severance and to be able to start retirement pension payments immediately. Given the economy and situation, then, I was a lot better off than a lot of people. In fact, I looked forward to the “vacation.”

I went up to the cafeteria for the company Christmas dinner. People said “is it OK?” Fourteen people got axed that day on our floor. But no one expected access to be cut off immediately, without warning. Usually, people had been given a couple months notice that they would be severed, and be given targets to meet to get severance. Not this time.

That afternoon, some coworkers helped wheel some of my books down the Skyway to my apartment in the Churchill. That night, I went to a favorite spot on Lake Street for supper. But before leaving, I had to watch Osama bin Laden boast about his glee in watching the towers fall on September 11, way beyond his expectations. Even the news commentators talked about his gloating.

My job lasted exactly 92 calendar days after 9/11. From the time my IT career started on Feb 16, 1970, I had never been unemployed due to involuntary termination. I was now 58 years old.

I have not had a full corporate logon with full network and mainframe access since. A lot has happened from home, with interim jobs, and with my web domains and blogs. But on that day, it was “as the world turns.” Or maybe “Days of our Lives.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blogs and FTC rule on word-of-mouth selling

Annys Shin has an article in the December 12 2006 Washington Post, "FTC Moves to Unmaks Word-of-Mouth Marketing: Endorser Must Disclose Link to Seller", at this link.

There is a concern that this could affect personal blogs when they endorse a product or service through "word of mouth." It would not appear to affect syndicated advertising, since that is clear to the viewer.

This brings back earlier concerns about political endorsements of candidates by bloggers, in connection with campaign finance reform, which was clarified by FEC rules in early 2006 after much concern following a court opinion. (See The Washington Times editorial Oct 12, 2005 on that.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Press reports about increasing problems with spam; bonded sender programs; Ironport, Truste

On Dec 6, 2006, there were major press reports about the resurgence of spam, especially from outside of the US where spammers are driven by the CanSpam Act. Brad Stone has a report "Spam Doubles, Finding New Ways to Deliver Itself," in The New York Times, p A1, in which he discusses a new "technique" of spammers called "image spam" which outwits existing filter technology. These criminals also outwit attempts to prevent delivery of multiple copies of the same message. Corporations are spending more do deal with spam, and the Seattle Mariners (major league baseball) switched from a system managed by Computer Associates to Barracuda Networks, with some success. The Washington Times has an article by Kara Rowland, "Clever spammers stay 'one step ahead' of law: Federal act fails to stem the tide." The link is here. The article reviews and lists in table format the CanSpam provisions: requiring (1) legitimate headers (2) a non-misleading subject line (3) an opt-out method, and (4) proper labeling of the message as an ad. Legitimate vendors are harmed by the practice, as they are by phishing, which has become more aggressive (telling Bank of America customers that their electronic access will be terminated). Some schemes have promoted illegal "pump and dump" penny stock trading schemes, even without links to websites. There are suggestions that ISP's quarantine home users whose computers become infected with botnets, which are used by spammers to send spam from zombie machines.

I have been very concerned (as noted above) by email sender spoofing, which email protocols (SMTP) still do not detect, and have suggested that charging for email could be a solution. It is true that the law mentioned above makes spoofing a crime, but I don't think that the law has yet become an effective deterrent. I am concerned about possible downstream liability concerns to spoofing targets if they are perceived as "attractive nuisances." Such concerns, I believe, could eventually lead to requiring domain owners to post potential liability bonds. This one reason why I have supported the idea of a small microcharge for each email sent (not a problem for most users with reasonable use), with the revenue use to develop a more secure "spoof-proof" email protocal (rather than the old SMTP).

One problem is that most ISP's offer a large number of email addresses with shared hosting accounts, and many owners will not use them or even monitor them. ISP's also offer "devlnull" delete mechanisms to delete return mail from spoofed spam automatically. That means that an owner may not know that he/she has been spoofed unless there are direct complaints. But there is a possibility that recent rules (announced Dec 1) about retentionr requirements (as a pre-litigation prevention measure) could mean that such deletions would become illegal, and the spoofing problem could suddenly get much bigger. There is more about this problem at this link on my COPA blog.

Even two years ago (during the CanSpam debates), Electronic Frontier Foundation was become very concerned about the effect of anti-spam measures on non-commercial email lists.[32] EFF discusses the concepted of the bonded sender program, which some ISPs (IronPort and TrustE) have offered, which seems like an ominous move in the direction of someday requiring web self-publishers to be bonded because of the potential downstream liability issues. EFF provides best practices for users and ISPs but it seems to me that unusued email facilities with many domains could present potential targets for hackers to break into a domain and send spam from it.

EFF's bibliographic reference is an article by Cindy Cohn and Annalee Newitz: “Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam,” Nov. 2004, at this link.

My own experience at home with AOL is much more comforable now that it was in 2002 and 2003. Most illegitimate messages are blocked, but a few (especially Nigerian scams) get through. A few legitimate emails, like bank deposit notifications, do get mistakenly blocked, and I have to check the spam folder every day for these. AOL, as do other ISPs, gives the ability to label unwanted incoming email and report it as spam. On Dec 6, 2006, AOL conducted a survey, and 92% of users reported receiving more spam recently.

McAfee offers a spam filter in a variety of combinations. On my newer laptop, it was included free by Dell; however, since I use AOL for all my email rather than Microsoft Outlook or similar program, I don't really use it.

The spoofing problem (above) needs to be understood in comparison to "reputation defense", discussed earlier in this blog, here.

(Picture: unrelated, from the Poconos in PA).

Monday, December 04, 2006

Blogging as an intelligence tool

On December 3, 2006. Clive Thompson provided a long article in The New York Times Magazine, p. 54, “Open-Source Spying: … Will blogs and wikis really help spies uncover terrorist plots?” This piece traces the inefficient information sharing and searching among intelligence agencies, whose search tools in 1995 would be dwarfed by search engines today. The intelligence industry has always been very formal, with cumbersome fail-safe procedures for passing around information, as well as for clearing people to have it. The new film from Universal, "The Good Shepherd," with Robert De Niro, will document these points (Hollywood style). The early days had a somewhat oppressive culture of conformity.

An important intelligence sharing system is Intelink. The Mr. Thompson the idea that spies and agents could blog (or make open-source wiki entries as in Wikipedia) to stir up chatter and attract tips. One obvious side-effect is that amateur bloggers (like me) sometimes could attract important tips. (This has happened with me.) Obviously this development challenges Cold War, even McCarthy era paradigms about top secret security clearances, and views openness as a possible asset. Another possibility for bloggers is conflict of interest. As one can see from other references on this site, blogging by agency employees or contractors would have to be supervised or approve of in some systematic (and bureaucratic) way, and that itself could create a problem.

This NYT Mag story could be compared to The Washington Post, Dafna Linzer, "Seeking Iran Intelligence, U.S. Tries Google: Internet Search Yields Names Cited in U.N. Draft Resolution," Dec 11, 2006. The report concerns Project 1-11. There is still a question of "justifying" intelligence gathered this way, but in the "new world" of cyberspace, amateurs and unconventional sources can stumble onto things. Story is at this link.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Public Morality comes full circle

The two biggest buzzwords in the red v. blue cultural wars seem to be “abortion” and “gay marriage.” Perhaps a Antarctic broken iceberg provides a trite metaphor, but there these issues, as well as a few others like teen pregnancy, skim over what is the real moral issue. That has to be, how do we, as individuals, share common burdens more equitably?

Social justice problems like discrimination and poverty have typically been debated in the past thirty years in terms of broad public policy changes and government programs, sometimes excessive regulation, sometimes outright redistribution of wealth (“confiscation”). Conservatives and libertarians (with different slants) are right in redirecting the focus for these issues back upon the behaviors of individuals.

Two particular topics in our recent debates highlight what may be coming. One is national service. The calls by Charles Rangel and Charles Moskos to resume military conscription (the draft) probably won’t go anywhere (never mind that we have an “unfair” back door draft anyway -- and CNN now reports that enlisted “volunteer” soldiers are going AWOL in Canada to stay out of Iraq), but the universal national service idea may well get some traction in the Congress convening in January 2007. If there are no sticks, at least there can develop some very strong carrots. And you can even suggest that national service should be an intermittent, lifelong activity and not just a duty and rite of passage for the young. Calls for mandatory service were frequent after the 9/11 attacks, and yet we often hear that that there has been very little sharing of sacrifice, compared to World War II. (Vietnam, with the draft deferments, also makes a good comparison.) Any call for national service would have to address the gay “don’t ask don’t tell” problem, and I hope that DADT would finally go to its demise.

The other big problem is the growing elderly population, with longer life spans and lower birth rates in middle class populations. The issue is not only paying for the care but even sometimes physically providing it. The legal issue that is likely to evolve is filial responsibility laws (and there already has been a tightening of the lookback provisions in asset dispensation before qualifying for Medicaid). Eldercare invokes our concern about the basic human right to life, and sometimes it does require sacrifice.

All of this brings us to the table with the notion that responsibility for others or accountability to others, even as an adult, may exist even when one does not procreate his or her own children. This is somewhat a flip of what we tell young people (who find this proscription increasingly hard to follow): Get out on your own, pay your own bills, and before you have children, get and stay married (whether same-sex is accepted or not). For a couple decades, we have accepted the idea that having a family is a morally neutral but personal "private choice" that, once carried out responsibily, does not affect one's standing or reputation with others. In this privatized idea of moral choices, love and marriage are seen as enhanced by personal freedom and undermined when carried out just to win social approbation and support (with old-fashioned class-driven ideas like "pedigree" -- Days of our Lives!). This "private choice" notion of the family is, given external pressures, coming to be seen as glib or naive again. Yet, this reversal seems to be the moral point that no politician wants to say too bluntly. We will see more discussion of individual shared "sacrifice" as other issues, like global warming ("An Inconvenient Truth") develops. But for perhaps a majority of people, the biological family (heterosexual marriage with children) is the most straightforward way to remaining connected to sharing obligations with others -- unless it is carried too far and made into domain or possession for its own sake.

Religious people, particularly, make a lot of the importance of the family. One important goal is to socialize everyone through the family, with the return benefit of taking care of everyone that way. There is a good deal of self-righteousness and a need to validate meritocracy driving this demand. Of course, this process can become corrupted and lead to the gross inequities often pointed out by the political Left. But religious literature tries to take moral precepts and practices (like abstinence and marriage) and put them into simple terms, claiming scripture rather than intellectual introspection as authority. And scripture often accepts a degree of political and group social inequality and instead emphasizes fellowship (and the communal socialization that goes with it) as a way to help the faithful achieve salvation. Sometimes (as with the Mormon family website) it stresses that one cannot choose the family one is born into; God chooses that.

So then we come to freedom itself. For many people, freedom has to do with legitimate ways to “compete” to provide for a biological family. But for many other people (but a smaller number), it has to do with expressing a “psychological surplus.” The risk is that someone like me will not “pay my dues” and leave others stranded, or indirectly cause public attention or policy changes that adversely affect those who do not live as independently.

There is a lot written these days about discovering one’s own natural gifts, and nurturing early in life (when the teenage brain is growing, as in the most recent issue of Canadian magazine Walrus). My gift was surely music. I ventured away, under Cold War pressures, into computers, where I could make a good living as an individual contributor, in an individualistic world of absolute perfection with little need to manipulate other people socially, in order to fit in or to provide for others. Of course, if one makes the best use of his own gifts when young, one is more likely to be able to provide for other family members with compromising one’s own personal expression.

Modern civilization offers opportunities that can fill one’s life with expressions far removed from conventional family dynamics. Those are important to those who are “different” more than to those who conform. Moral battles come out of this. When I was a boy, I resisted being forced to compete “like a man” and I resented being tested with chores or manual tareas that probably were objectively unnecessary but which proved that I could “pay my dues.” (In the same way many students wonder why they have to pass algebra!) Of course, my father, particularly, feared that the world could go south, and that exogenous events could force someone like me to remain satisfied with family and nothing else. Many people have known things to be like this. They came from a world where physical cowardice was the worst possible sin. They also came from a culture that did not offer the opportunity to explore surplus, and offered only life through the family. That is the way it had always been for most people.

If we come back to the "on your own" idea, many people in the modern world believe it is important to "discover yourself" and express yourself before committing yourself to a relationship. It sounds healthy, but you wonder if we can afford that. An intermediate area to look at is socialization and empathy with others (which has to be distinguished from both artistic feeling, and from intellectual understanding). This is connected to what the Army called "social graces" when I was in Basic Training, to the idea of seeing "people as people." Religious moralists (along the abstinence route) see this as equivalent to complementarity and healthy heterosexuality (with a paradigm of "sexual socialism" as defined here), but that is far from clear.

There have sometimes been problems that some persons will not respect my freedom unless I can meet certain needs of others as they see them. In a few instances, I have been challenged to demonstrate an ability to act as a “role model” as a man, and compete for the agendas of others, taking advantage of discrimination laws or public sentiments the way “normal people” would. This I have resisted. But then there are existential (and argumentative) questions that would pull me down past the Schwarzchild Radius. Some other people would feel much more comfortable if I would set the "example" that they would like to see to make it easier for themselves. I wouldn't go much further down this train than do say that neither religious faith nor knowledge of rationalizations of the failures of others removes the idea that one is accountable for one's own performance in life.

The debates over gays in the military, gay marriage and gay parenting have a lot to do with the idea of carrying one’s weight in an open society. (Even the persistent "ban" of "gay" male blood donors over undetectable HIV infection relates to this problem.) That’s one reason why “equality” or the HRC “=” matters. (It may seem a bit amazing, in retrospect, that we can make this point today; twenty years ago the political battles surrounded "privacy," rather than openness, in view of the AIDS and HIV crisis that was just emerging.) If one does not, one can sometimes be forced to sacrifice for the needs of others, inequitably, in circumstances far from one’s choosing. The libertarian notion of never using force against another to have one’s needs met comes into question. But also so do public policies and laws deliberately circular in logic. If you send someone away to an urban adult “ghetto” for three decades, don’t be surprised if it is hard for him to fit in when you really need him as external circumstances change. After 'retirement' I looked into the Peace Corps, and found that, given my career, I never had enough "volunteer" experience to put in a meaningful application.

Rosie O’Donnell underscored this point in a recent episode of ABC's The View, where she presented the need for foster care and adoption, and present at least two sets of gay parents. Proportionally, more jobs than before can involve child care, and the need for child placement appears to be reaching an international crisis, to the point that many states welcome singles as foster and adoptive parents. Are gays to be “drafted” or to be “banned”?

We did have a perception, a half century ago, of public morality as involving socialization and duty to others. That was always corrupt, and the individuality imposes its own kind of morality, which sometimes can lower the boom on those who stumble. Professor Elizabeth Price Foley, in her book Liberty for All, talks about the law in terms of the harm principle and individual sovereignty (or personal autonomy), and about our move away from public morality. Yet we find ourselves going in reverse, getting pulled back. We are wondering when one has to become his brother's keeper. Is it right to ask one individual to give up his life goals to meet the needs of someone else? We need how to articulate the problem and find the balance.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A company that defends digital reputations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Always Be Closing: Sales Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Feb. 12, 2008

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