Thursday, May 31, 2007

Microsoft Surface (or is it MSNBC Surface?)

Microsoft has announced a product that it calls a futher bridge between the physical and virtual world, Microsoft Surface. The name is amusing because it seems to be a takeoff of the NBC sci-fi series “Surface” aired in 2005-2006 about the “surfacing” of bio-engineered “dinosaurs” from the deep, one of whom befriends a teenage boy. The series was in turn considered derivative of James Cameron's late 80s epic film "The Abyss"!

The website is, prosaically enough, It offers some short "indie film" videos as demonstrations.

The product is presented as a table playing surface, that might contain a restaurant menu, casino playing chips, any board game or video game, or links to play video and music, or maybe even locations of hotels or entertainment for a traveler. It would probably use more specialized derivatives of XML to obtain information from other sources. Multiple people can interact on the same table. It was not immediately clear how the operating system relates to the well known Windows and Vista systems. But the device does not require a keyboard, mouse, or separate monitor, although it sounds logical that these could be networked. The device seems to be aimed to counter the notion that Apple is more interested in the so-called “average user.”

The device seems predicated on ordinary user entertainment and interaction, and does not yet seem particularly related to business processing or personal publishing (or mobile blogging) although networking to that (and to cell phones) could be down the road soon. However the device can handle some kinds of transactions, such as restaurant bills and tips (and probably withholding taxes!)

Monday, May 28, 2007

NBC Today covers employer concerns over personal blogs

It’s come up again. On Saturday, May 26, the NBC weekend Today show got into the troubling trend of employers to do “background checks” on applicants’ blogs and social networking profiles.

One report now claims that over half of all employers do this (out of what universe wasn’t said) but at least a spokesperson for indicated that some employers are wising up to the fact that informal Internet “investigations” of applicants or associates can dig up information or leave impressions that are just plain wrong, particularly when postings made by others are looked at.

One recent college graduate asked for feedback on her job search on her blog, and was surprised to find footprints that an her first-choice employer had been there. She didn’t hear from the employers again.

Again, all of this is a big unresolved social and business culture problem. You can’t say it’s really a legal issue (unless posting made by others about someone are falsely defamatory and therefore libelous).

Of course, it’s always been acceptable to consider what someone has published with a job application, but in the past “publications” were usually supervised either in academia or by the industry in which one had worked and were professional in nature. Today, the blogs and profiles (especially of younger people) tend to include a lot of “personal stuff” that sometimes doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Employers may reasonably fear that clients would be distracted if they found this “conversational” material through search engines, or they may fear liability if an applicant has a “problem” that comes out after the person goes to work and that the employer knew about before.

The trouble is, sometimes personal narratives or experiences can add substance to the presentation of an important public issue, way beyond what one finds in number-driven academic, government or corporate publications. They can be valuable two-way communications in the public debate, a point that Al Gore makes late in his book “The Assault on Reason.”

Again, it seems that the kind of work that one is going to do is an important factor. If it is someone’s job (for which he or she is well paid) to speak in public for some other party’s interest (as in public relations) then it would seem like bad faith to contradict that on a personal blog available to the public space.

Employers may also fear compromise of confidential information, but this is a more specific issue that can be well handled with personnel policies and employee training. Or they may fear that an applicant is not “serious” and wants to take a job for a short term to “expose” a problem with a certain business or industry. That sounds more like a double-edged sword. If an industry has something to “hide” or keep away from the public, why can’t it change it’s practices and be above board. Earlier postings (such as issues affecting with security companies) have already mentioned this problem. Some businesses and sometimes whole industries do deal with consumers in a deceptive way and should be exposed. Blogs could be putting more pressure on them.

Update: May 29

The Washington Post, Eli Saslow, has a story in the May 29 2007 page A1 that indicates that sometimes people suddenly get unwanted attention on the Internet, and it's obvious that this could be distracting to employers. The particular story concerns a female high school athlete whose image suddenly was circulated in "viral" fashion and who became the subject of fake profiles (that has also happened to school administrators). Females are sometimes more likely to be subjected to this. The story is called "Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record: California High Schooler, 18, Becomes a Victim Of Unwanted Attention After Photo Is Posted on a Sports Blog", and is available here (may require logon or subscription for full content).

A major earlier posting on this problem (students not hired because of comments made by others on the web) was made on March 7 2007, here.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

May 26, 1961 -- a high school red letter day (Science Honor Society field trip to Mt. Washington)

Friday, May 26, 1961, 46 years ago today, was one of my red letter days. I was about to graduate from high school (Washington-Lee in Arlington VA) in June valedictorian, and that weekend a bunch of us in the “Science Honor Society” went on Memorial Day weekend field trip to Mt. Washington, NH.

We packed into two cars, one driven by the physics teacher, the other by a parent who happened to own a cabin in Center Sandwich, NH, where we would stay. I remember the drizzle as we rode up the New Jersey Turnpike and played “ghost” in the car (I don’t remember the rules). We arrived in Boston about 10 PM that night and stayed on a motel on Commonwealth Ave. I remember my “roommate” and a discussion, at the end of a 21 hour day, then about how dating girls would open up a whole new world.

My senior year in high school was the first year that I made a lot of friends, and I recall that about six weeks before, a Saturday late in April, I had gone on my first “hike” in Shenandoah, along a relatively obscure trail called Piney Ridge and Piney Branch. It had been a strange spring, after one of the coldest (pre-global warming concern) winters ever (1961 was the year of the famous Kennedy inauguration blizzard in Washington); a couple days before the hike, we actually had an inch of snow in late April, and then the day of the hike itself we had record heat. (It’s a good thing we didn’t try Cedar Run and Whiteoak Canyon, which are hard going up in heat.) For the first time, I stopped at the famous Frost Diner in Warrenton. Those were the days my friend.

Saturday we would go up to New Hampshire. In the morning, I had my first coffee ever. In those days, kids were not exposed to things as early in life as they are now (I think the 50s baby boomer generation was over-protective of city and suburban kids, because farm kids still learned to drive at 13 or 14 then, and smoking was socially acceptable, and chewing gum -- “your cud” -- in class as a detention-generation offense).

We got to the Sandwich cottage that night. Somehow we got the news that the “new Senators” had already beaten the Minnesota Twins (old senators) twice that weekend in Griffith Stadium’s last year of existence, or at least use. (The new Senators would actually beat Baltimore the night I graduated -- a feat – but would soon start their spiral for the 1961 season with a lost weekend in Boston, including a game where they would blow a 12-5 lead in the bottom of the Ninth at Fenway Park).

That evening we did a Nighthike (a favorite ritual in my screenplay attempts – as well as in a critical episode of The OC) on Rattlesnake Mountain, overlooking the New Hampshire lake country. Sunday, it was too cold and windy to climb any of Mt. Washington, so we trucked up to the summit to see the weather station. In those days, science kids in the DC area actually got summer jobs with the Weather Bureau (I didn’t, although I would soon have three summers at the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin). On Labor Day in 1976, I would ride the cograil up Mt. Washington again with gay friends in the rime ice.

Sunday afternoon was spent on Chochorua, in the lake country, and Monday (Memorial Day) on the way back we watched a parade in Tilton, NH. I remember being impressed by all of the oil refineries, trains and industry along the NJ Turnpike on the way back. We ventured into Deleware (the Blue Hen State) because there was no I-95 through Maryland yet. I think the Bay Bridge was one span then. (Until the mid 50s, the family had taken the ferry to even to Ocean City – nobody knew what Rehoboth would mean then.)

Earlier, in April 1961, I had made an overnight trip to William and Mary to take the chemistry placement test, and I seem to remember a science tour of a paper factory not too far from Richmond.

I have plenty of nostalgia for that year, when I turned 18. The “new Senators” would finish 61-100. The Redskins would win only one game, as I recall. I had not been away from home by then as much as I should have been (I passed up a trip to France in Ninth Grade, only to go finally in 1999.) The year would end in a social or political catastrophe that would change my life. It’s interesting to me that TheWB Smallville has an episode retrospect set in 1961, with a movie marquee for “Splendor in the Grass.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Interdependence v. Indepedence -- the biggest "moral" issue?

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” That mantra, from Karl Marx and his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) (Wiki reference) got acted out in the drafty eyebrowed barracks of Fort Eustis, Virginia in 1968-1969 by various “EM” (soldiers). We gave ourselves animal names like Lizard, Ostrich, Ocelot, and sometimes names of scientists (Rado Suhl) and most of all, Chicken Man (me), as pseudonyms as we acted out this “la grande comedie” to make fun of the collectivist ideas going around us. In 1968, we actually thought Nixon had a better chance of ending the war in Vietnam (so we would not wind up as cannon fodder) than Humphrey. He did end it, eventually, and indeed the draft, although we really had no idea what was coming, what is great history today.

Some of that banter followed on the heels of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, and word of it was leaking, even into the military establishment. Officially, no one would mention it, but under the tables everybody knew that “homosexuality in the United States Army” was rather common. How history has twisted into pretzels or a Mobius strip, with a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military today, and a mentality that it sets up that threatens to spread into other areas of our culture. Actually, they always been there.

The Culture War sounds like a perfect storm, a low pressure system created by the counterclockwise spin of conflicting moral aims. Al Gore, for example, has written a book “The Assault on Reason” (review: ) and writes about how the current neo-conservative administration has twisted rationality to get its way (with both the war in Iraq, and tax cuts), as if morality were a group problem. He does talk about the limitations of reason, however, as an individual moral precept: He writes, on p 13, "Moreover, the abstract nature of reason made some of the most zealous practices dangerously numb to human realities rooted in emotional attachments and shared feelings of responsibility for community, family, and nature."

His implicit message here is that morality is, in the final analysis, and individual matter, or individual values and conduct. It’s just that the way he presents all the big issues doesn’t quite support that. But let’s cut to the quick now.

The single biggest question of individual morality today is the tension between interdependence and independence. There is another was to put this: the tension between “adaptive” behavior and “psychological surplus.” The concept does relate to the way burdens are shared by individuals (especially within a family or particular community), not just by and among competing groups or classes. No matter how productive a particular introvert is, his or her output means nothing until others connect to it -- and preferably to the person, too. Modern individualism assumes that one can perfect oneself until one can have exactly the interpersonal relationships one wants, and that the flow of information among people should not depend upon committed hierarchal relationships. But this goal for personal freedom can lead to more conflicts with those following older communal values than supposed, and these can become intractable.

Social interdependence is a virtue that earlier generations could not afford to question. The main way that it was implemented was the biological and lineage-generating nuclear family, surrounded by the church (or comparable religious structure), immediate community (the “townspeople” effect) and ultimately political and workplace (and, yes, military – think about “unit cohesion”) authority structures. The nuclear family, of course, was built on a structure of public morality where sexuality – for everyone – was regulated for the benefit of marriage and child-rearing. Central to this was the concept of abstinence outside of marriage.

In that kind of world, “you” were expected to defer to the needs of other family members in setting your own goals. It’s true that, in this kind of world, the needs of more vulnerable and less competitive individuals could often be met locally. It’s also true such a system was very easy for the socially, politically or economically privileged to take advantage of. The whole Civil Rights movement of the 60s and the social activism of the 70s was predicated on notions of group justice, class struggle, and large scale oppression. Yet, the political Left often pointed out that privileged individuals had often never proven that they “deserved” what they had inherited from their more fortunate circumstances or parents. The extreme antidote to all of this was Marxism, with the ultimate purge being something like Chairman Mao ‘s “Cultural Revolution” in China in the 60s. The Cold War (even leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962) revolved around the ideological problem in circuitous fashion.

So liberation occurred with the promotion of individualism, and most of all by the idea that “you” could pursue your own personally expressive goals before making emotional (or political) commitments to others. By the 1990s, many people realized that gay rights and objectivism were logical bedfellows (look at the writings of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty).

One problem with this is that individualism leaves a lot of people out. Another problem is that it can leave a free society particularly unprepared to meet exogenous threats, at least depending on how those threats are met. One idea we often hear is that an avian influenza pandemic (which I still personally think is preventable) would force people into new patterns of interdependence and pseudo-mandatory “volunteerism” and might provide a moral purification. It’s easy to imagine similar arguments with respect to global warming and the possibility that oil can run out.

The other problem is that deferential loyalty to family members or other communities is perceived as owed. Everyone had to be raised, and everyone needed the emotional attention from others before reaching the capacity to reason for oneself. By that logic, everyone owes a karma-like debt to help raise the next generation, as well as to care for the previous one. This is becoming an increasing problem as people live longer and have fewer children.

We have, with the Internet especially, renewed focus on what used to be an old “reputation” or “family honor” issue: attention-getting or expressive behavior can undermine the well-being of others in one’s family, whether or not one has one’s own children. Family and community responsibility and interdependence doesn’t exist merely by having children. Responsibility can include an expectation to be responsive to (or to pamper) the "non rational" emotional needs of other family and community members, some of whom have lived with the expectation that the family and community will provide them with meaning, regardless of the "global" world outside. Sometimes having children (in marriage) can be seen as the best way to carry out what seems like a social debt to others. It can be looked at both ways. TheWB's series "Seventh Heaven" renders a pretty good picture of this.

Religious traditions tend to stress community well being and tend to accept the idea of political oppression, and that life should be made worth living (with salvation by Grace, in Christianity) despite external circumstances that make achieving one’s own personal goals impossible in some cases. Indeed the early Christians apparently had a totally communal lifestyle and set of values.

Homosexuality, especially in men, has been resisted precisely because it challenges the idea that one can count on procreation and lineage as personal aim when other circumstances beyond one’s control (or personal lack of ability) limit personal opportunity. Sexual orientation may have a biological or immutable basis, but the person who is “different” is put in the position of being perceived as creating a moral hazard for others, and that the person still owes something back for being raised. Society (with policies like the military gay ban and resistance to gay families) tries to isolate gays, and then in circular fashion (although cleverly questioning the negative existential potentiality of gay fantasies and values) complains that gays abdicate mandatory family responsibility, and is only too eager sometimes to pounce and make gays "pay their dues."

Most of the time, questions about personal values and conduct are properly presented as questions about harm to others. A common variation of this occurs on the NBC Dr. Phil show, were people who are overly possessive (or abusive) of their desired partners (and kids) are paraded in public. Another variation is inappropriate (erotic) interest in those who are not yet adults, a problem which seems to grow some older adults who have drifted away from real commitment to others—even when they are “married”.

Yet, the deeper problem seems to be how individuals will share the burdens of others. All faiths know that. But we don’t quite know how to bring that into public debate. Generally, coercion, collaring and channeling "different" people into supporting emotional and social stability for the majority, gets accompanied by corruption, although occasionally some relatively strict (if somewhat closed and circumscribed) societies, like Singapore (or even the Mormon Church), seem to function surprisingly well. It's all troubling.

Update: July 10, 2007

Interdependence here has to mean "local interdependence." Independence is curiously predicated on global interdependence, which is almost a contradiction. See the review of the film "Live Free and Die Hard," here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

More on progress, and on ad delivery

A couple of progress items. First, I have been working on the database concept for presenting political arguments, and the incidents and bibliographic information that supports these. Right now, they are on Microsoft Access files and the dynamic interface to them at does not work right, so I have placed static HTML copies of what they produce, along with a typical SQL inner join query, at this location.
starting with “args” and following.

I had at one time placed much of this material on another domain with a “Java starter” plan but dropped that when the small ISP did not properly support its java platform or respond to problem tickets. I will be looking into the idea of placing this on SQL Server with a Visual Studio application to access the items.

The recent "/Trends" link on Google does demonstrate a concept that I have been interested in developing: how to "keep the dots connected" on a day-by-day basis.

As I had discussed in an earlier posting, there are several business paradigms in the Internet advertising business, including Adsense, which feeds these pages. I also have a targeted ad from McAfee on this page. I am looking into other targeted ad services.

Recall that an automatic advertising feed assumes a “pluralistic” society, and bases the ad delivery both on the content of the blogs and of what is in the publisher’s profile. An ad module may deliver specific ads that some visitors do not like to see associated with particular material, but this is due to the “pluralism” and a computer module does not make social judgments. Some ads could be placed for services that some visitors do not approve of, but this is simply the nature of the beast.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bump keys: should journalists tell consumers everything?

Many professions, especially those having to do with issues like security, or with manipulation of customers’ money, have long had quasi-secret practices, informal in nature and not company specific and legally binding like trade secrets, that more or less stay within the “profession.” Reporters for established newspapers and television networks prides themselves on getting scoops to expose various dirty little secrets to the public.

With the Internet and the world of blogging and profiles, this paradigm slowly erodes, and implodes. Employers worry that associates will cross the line as they slowly come to the conclusion that they need blogging policies. But nevertheless, it’s useful to list a few of current media flaps over dirty little secrets recently.

For example, late in 2006 reporters started occasionally to provide stories about bump keys. (The story apparently originated in The Netherlands.) These are purported to be like “master keys” that can open almost any conventional lock cylinder with a slight amount of force. There are even some videos on the Internet on how to make them. The Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA) issued a press release (PDF) that implied that self-promoting or attention-getting journalists were endangering ordinary residential security by “exposing” something that has been known semi-privately for at least a half century. A good response to this turf-protective and parochial "reasoning" ("security through public ignorance"), by Marc Weber Tobias, is here.

Of course, if there is such a “secret hidden in plain sight” then consumers are entitled to expect a solution. Bump-resistant cylinders exist and are not that expensive. Sure, locksmiths want do do more business, but get it right the first time! Home builders should install them, as should apartment landlords, without quibbling. Beyond that, homes should be built and designed to be more secure (which they are in some high-end gated communities). This means avoiding sliding glass doors or windows hidden by shrubs, using solid core doors, good deadbolts, and high security cylinders. In many cases, security systems are a good idea, and they can now be installed with synergy, sometimes, for example, for parents who need to watch children or working adults who need to watch especially disabled or very elderly people. (These kinds of home monitoring systems, appealing to people who have elderly loved ones but who travel or live in other states, started getting more publicity around 2004 or 2005.)

I lived in New York City in the late 1970s, and everyone took additional precautions then. You put bars or gates near fire escapes, insisted on solid core doors and Medeco pick-resistant cylinders (everybody knew about picking), with deadbolts and plates.

Of course, all of this is related to sociological change. In the 50s, families and communities were more cohesive, and different classes of people were only beginning to understand the inequities on a grander scale. Today, society is necessarily more mixed, and there are plenty of people with axes to grind. In an individualist world where immediate ties are not a secure, individuals simply have to be more careful.

Of course, the same idea applies to the whole idea of Internet security, the particular problems of which has been discussed in many earlier postings on these blogs. The more individual consumers know, the better they can protect themselves.

But we find this kind of idea of “plain sight secrets” breaking down in other areas. Private detectives and debt collectors have their tricks that don’t get out too much – such as “skip tracing” web services. On an episode of CW’s Supernatural, the character Dean (Jensen Ackles), who plays a cop, breaks into a car with a coathanger and says “I know a few tricks,” whereas his law-student brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) struggles with the conscience and ethics of what the brothers are doing to root out evil.

Or, take banking. Not just all the warnings about phishing. Banks make money off of the short-sightedness of “average” middle class customers, with huge penalties and fees for breaking the “rules” of the credit world. I would hate to be an executive responsible for the “bottom line” of making money this way. Good thing that consumers are told.

On journalistic "openness", Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN) presented a serious conundrum on Tuesday May 22, about the rogue website which lists "snitches" or "rats" who inform or "flip" in order to get plea deals. Law enforcement maintains that the existence of such sites can hurt investigations of serious crimes. The Justice Department maintains that it does not have the authority to shut down such a site, because of First Amendment concerns. Lawyer Jeffrey Toobin maintained on the 360 program that the First Amendment cannot distinguish between Internet (immediately accessible) and printed (not so accessible) speech, as courts have repeatedly maintained (as in COPA).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Amazon to offer music without DRM; new search engine capabilities

A story by Brad Stone and Jeff Leeds in the Business Day section, p. C1, of The New York Times on May 17, 2007, “Amazon to Sell Music Without Copy Protection: Duplicated Songs Can Be Put on Any Device, Including iPods”, indicates that a good part of the music industry is conceding a need to move away from DRM (Digital Rights Management) copy protection technology, a move predicted and promoted in the past by libertarian columnists (noted already in this blog) who feel that copyright is just over used, even in the context of full respect for property rights.

Amazon’s service will apply to one major label. EMI (which incorporates the classical music label Angel records), and about 12000 independent labels. It is expected that other major music companies will feel pressured to join later. Apple already had a similar arrangement for the iPod and Apple chairman Steven P. Jobs has once suggested companies stop using DRM. Users will have the same ability to copy (for their own private use) that they often have with purchased CDs.

There are additional questions whether free music services supported by advertising could be profitable.

Both the music and motion picture industries have to deal with rapid technology that quickly poses unprecedented challenges to any business model, while embracing technology that allows new artists to enter much more cheaply.

The Supreme Court, in MGM v. Grokster, had ruled in 2005 that companies that offer illegal copying and predicate their business models on illegal copying can incur downstream liability. Students have often been pursued individually, often by sudden phone calls demanding settlements, for illegal downloads. It was noted that pirated copies of the third “Spider Man” movie were available from China before theatrical release.

Some libertarian columnists have also feared that aggressive copyright enforcement (with downstream liability) could be aimed at keeping out competition from new artists, but new artists could also find that fear of copyright infringement could prevent them from finding investor money.

In another story by Miguel Helft, “Google’s One-Stop Search To Yield Text and Images,” p. C3, it is reported that the search engine (as will probably others) will soon return text and video clips and images back in single searches. (Already text in various formats, like html, pdf, and asp can come back in one search.) As I have noted in previous posts in this blog, the next logical step would be able to combine incidents and supporting bibliographic documentation related to a political problem in a search, in a formatted hierarchal fashion, simulating what professional users expect with commercial databanks and libraries. .

Update: May 21

The Netflix movie viewer updates a DRM flag with Microsoft. I'm not sure of the legal significance of this yet, other than to prove that the customer has been given the right to view the movie. More on this later on my movies blog.

Other major links today:

"One Laptop Per Child" initiative, here.

McAfee SiteAdvisor discussion, here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reason article on Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia -- information and freedom

Katherine Mangu-Ward has a new article about Jimmy Wales, “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision” in the June 2007 Reason, p. 18. She traces the intellectual origins of Wales’s ideas back to F. A. Hayek and describes his low key lifestyle om St. Petersburg. FL, on the libertarian side of Republicanism, attracted to the idea of homeschooling for his own family, but rather disinterested in accumulating possessions and power for its own sake. Nevertheless, as she writes, “he is well aware that he is a strangely powerful man. He has utterly changed the way people extract information from the chaos of the World Wide Web, and he is the master of a huge, robust online community of writers, editors, and users.” And despite more recent controversy over the “credentials” of (often anonymous) contributors and validation of information on his online encyclopedia, and overwhelming majority of the entries do live up to his visions of neutrality, objectivity and accuracy. The occasional incidents of vandalism and controversy are indeed outliers.

Of course, this is all going somewhere. Wales has a vision of creating offshoots to make his business profitable, with Wikia. And competitors, like the Citizens’ Compendium (already discussed in this blog) are attempting to bring back more formal requirements of editing and verification of authorship, ideas tried before and which, when enforced, greatly slowed the appearance of material.

As for Wales’s “power”, he would certainly deny that he owns “the knowledge of good and evil.” (I recall a sermon by pastor David Day at the Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas back in the 1980s and about this as the worst of sins – for anyone to say he doesn’t need God – and I’ll come back to that soon.) Instead, Wales has simply conducted the libertarian notion of “spontaneous order” – that a large community of users will self-enforce ethical publication as part of a natural order.

With my own sites, I have so far been the “master,” and yes, I would like to collaborate or turn all this around – by adding one more dimension to the whole concept – a way of structuring the information so that more visitors (the so-called “average person” in constitutional law cases) get a really complete understanding of the huge issues that we face today. I would like to see if become credible for school systems – if you could get around the politics or approval of curricula (as on LGBT and religious matters) – and I don’t mean that you can do away with the need for others to do independent research (any more that, in my high school days, the existence of printed encyclopedias or even “Knowledge in Depth” volumes could cover the requirements of term papers).. Rather, I would like to see a relationally organized repository or research so we can really track the big picture on these things like global warming, oil supplies, pandemics, terror, civil liberties, privacy, and even the bugaboo “family values”. That means tying together the thought patterns – arguments – with factual history if incidents, and with bibliographic sources documenting the incidents.

I come back to the “original sin” question. In a practical world, people have to take care of one another – most of all in families, but also in community, social and corporate contexts. That means that power matters, and that sometimes hierarchy needs deference and respect in order to have the credibility to take care of people. (One particularly disturbing variation of this occurs when someone says or implies, "You need God more than I do, so Obey Me!") At one end of this, there are the recent arguments about the institution of marriage – that without social deference men will not find it worth while to get and stay “actively” married and raise families. In terms of personal responsibility (as conservatives and libertarians see it) that kind of argument works both ways. Without “power” (and often without a lineage) it is harder to do the big things that help other people. Responsibility goes way beyond a “choice” to have or not have children.

The open flow of information, further structured as I have been describing in these posts, somewhat goes against the grain of social and familial hierarchy as many people see it. They may find it threatening, or undermining, as I noted in the previous post. Others, however, may find it liberating, giving them the opportunities to raise their families according to their own beliefs. All of this counters a long-term historical perspective that accepted the idea that information is slowly passed down through a localized hierarchy, and where group-centric propaganda has always been an important component of political science (as I was taught in high school civics). It's fresh in my mind, too, all those history lessons about how sensitive politicians, even in a democracy, can be to dissent (consider the sedition laws of the past, and Woodrow Wilson's paranoia in defending the WWI draft). (Interesting: final Jeopardy on the final round on May 17 was about the two major sedition acts in American History!!)

As noted before, I receive some pressure from people to compete according to their “rules” of hierarchy, and even take advantage of other organized “power structures” to protect me and others around me from “discrimination,” rather than speak for myself so visibly and undermine efforts for collective relief. Elements in power need loyalty in order to remain effective.

The increasing availability of information has gradually allowed more people to become somewhat self-sufficient. This idea may go back to the Enlightenment, but it really took hold with the civil rights movement and with advances for women as economic equals, and somewhat tangentially then for LGBT people. The idea depends on a globalized, technological society which can be undercut by external forces. The Taliban would provide one extreme patriarchal example of how some men feel that their effectiveness in the world in performing what they see as religiously driven obligations is undermined by the freedom and independence of others, and of the free flow of information.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Who Am I to Say These Things?

Once in a while, I do receive negative comments from readers, essentially about the apparently unsympathetic tone of some of my material.

I actually collected a couple of these comments here. One comment thought I was “gay bashing” and blaming the poor for their own plight, and willing to surrender the freedom of others (by seeming to support the war in Iraq, however obliquely) for my own safety. A couple of comments thought that a couple of my movie reviews made socially inappropriate analogies among characters or were unsympathetic to people with AIDS. Another was offended by the political interpretation I gave to the plight of the fishermen in Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm (book and movie). Another (apparently from Australia) was offended by the idea that (in his interpretation) I implied that some people were not “smart enough” to understand what is going on. (That comment was in response to a 2005 piece "The Privilege of Being Listened To".) There is no nice way to say this. (I can recall a horrible workplace incident over ten years ago where a particular associate overheard, in soap opera fashion, coworkers calling him a “loser” apparently behind his back). And over a year ago a school district was unnerved when I (while working as a substitute teacher) portrayed myself in a fictitious or “role playing thought experiment” setting in which I looked vulnerable to certain kinds of wrongdoing.

Context is everything on the Internet, and when people find materials through search engines, they often quickly assess (often mistakenly) the writer’s motives, and compare what they find to their own experience, especially in the area of the importance that they give to their own social and personal relationships.

There is some content on these blogs and sites that could explain some of these observations. I’ve often suggested that the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy would create complications if a draft were ever reinstated, but of course that implies accepting the idea that resuming the draft or having some kind of nearly mandatory national service could be a credible idea. That must seem like an about-face from libertarian origins. As much as I have “exploited” the “free entry” of the Internet, blogs, social networking sites and search engines, I have written that this capacity for instant personal “astral projection” should not be taken for granted, and that it can create security and legal issues that are only now starting to become apparent in the general media.

I’ve also noted that, until the Internet came along, people accepted a certain paradigm in the way they make their needs known in a democracy. They join organizations and let these entities represent their specific needs to the government and elected officials. They engage in collective boycotts, petitions, or even strikes, and make political contributions that support professional lobbyists. They accept, as a basic virtue, loyalty to blood family, community, party, and union. The Internet has opened up the idea that people can become activists on their own, with unknown political, personal and perhaps legal conflicts. The Internet, along with the “wiki” phenomenon, pressures people to become more objective in how they perceive their needs and how those needs should be met in comparison with others.

The “smart enough” problem has to do with the way people naturally resist being prodded into thinking in new ways. In schools, students from some kinds of backgrounds have trouble with abstract thinking (as when they take algebra) and from getting away from activity that advances their immediate social self-interest in the physical world. In the real workplace world, that is often true. I wrote about that here. Yet, in understanding fully how solving some set of problems (say global warming, oil dependency, pandemics) can affect oneself personally, one must learn to think this way.

The essential nature of family life, however, has to do with psychological complementarity: the idea that some people with specialized skills, which can be intellectual or physical skills, support others who do not have the same level of these same skills or capacities. The expectation that complementarity (or
“roles”) is necessary has lessened in a modern technological society, which seems to give individuals much more independence, although this can become a dangerous illusion if there is a real externally caused crisis. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how moral values based on faith and family have often degenerated into adversarial tribalism and sectarian conflict when there is not enough respect for individual freedom. Look at our own history with slavery and segregation. Rationalism and objectivism become controversial in their own right.

No, to answer one reader, education is not supposed to oppress other people. There is a historical context where it sometimes looks that way -- ranging from student draft deferments during the Vietnam War to the "cultural revolution" in Maoist China in the 1960s (I recall, when dabbling with the Peoples Party of New Jersey in 1972 that it wanted to limit individual income to $50000 a year, not enough today to rent an apartment in some cities), to the apparent anti-intellectualism of some more fundamentalist religious faiths. However, informational "self-sufficiency," an idea encouraged by the modern world (and very important in my own writings) will, while accepting personal candor, tend to undermine the reliance on older ideas of solidarity and group conformity to get needs met.

I am left with simply the question of karma. I know that I have issues with responsiveness and deference to people in situations where they believe that they are entitled to it. I am aloof and yet vulnerable, too, and some would see that I could benefit from accepting the goals of others (especially in family or in groups) as if they were my own. This was a particularly apparent issue with some substitute teaching assignments, where, because I have never married and fathered children myself, I was not credible as a “male role model” who would “protect” others from exogenous problems. There is no simple answer to these questions, although it is clear that the way these subtle responsibilities are shared is an issue that has escaped the radar in today’s public debate. We used to call it “public morality.”

Important related posts: Blankenhorn on the institution of marriage, here.

Blogging confidentiality policy, here.

Note: There is an important update today to a story on military blogging, here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kansas: Lawrence and Smallville cannot create utopias

I attended the University of Kansas from Spring 1966 through Fall 1967-68 (just before getting “drafted” into the Army) where I earned an MA in Mathematics. All four semesters I lived in McCollum Hall, room 907, where I had a window view of Iowa Street in Lawrence KS (aka "Smallville"), which then led to open prairie. The other side of the building, on a 200 foot ridge called “Mount Oread” looked out over the campus and down to the town, with downtown (now funky) Massachusetts street about a mile away. There have been changes since then: married student housing built on the slopes of the “mount” (it was there when I visited in 1982), and private residence halls like Naismith. Lawrence today looks like a bastion of progressivism in an otherwise conservative area. I did not have a car then, but sometimes I rode with friends into KCMO (Kansas City, aka Metropolis). Those were the days, of Vietnam war resistance and Ayn Rand discussion groups.

Thunderstorms were common, even in the fall, where they could go on for hours at night. So were tornado watches, and students would sometimes go out and look for funnel clouds as “recreation.”

Nothing like the Greensburg KS catastrophe happened then. Greensburg was caused by what meteorologists call a “wedge tornado” which is a super wide funnel low to the ground, as wide as two miles. And this one was an F5 on Fujita Scale (there is also Beaufort). The only other such event that I remember was the Wichita Falls, TX tornado in 1979 when I was living in Dallas. There was a similar tornado in Oklahoma in 1999. In 1998, when I was living in Minneapolis, there was a supercell that formed in southwestern Minnesota on March 30 (while there was sleet in Minneapolis, just behind the cold front) and wiped out two small towns, each smaller than Greensburg, which was home to 1500 people.

As if this were not enough, there will be extensive flooding in the Midwest, as the low pressure system stalls, although it probably will not match the 1993 floods.

All in all, if I still lived in Dallas and if I still had my Pleasant Grove condo, and if a disaster on such a scale happened in the south central states (and this would certainly apply to Hurricane Katrina in 2005) I can imagine the pressure from my own social world to take in people who were displaced. This is something I have done only once (in 1980, for three months), and I am a private (yet now public, with the blogs and websites) person who likes to go my own direction.

The hype about global warming and the super storms it can cause, and all of the other huge external challenges we face, does raise the question of social interdependence, a topic already mentioned on some earlier blog posts. In fact, the prevalence of individualized life styles, apart from family, arguably increases waste and inefficiency and environmental damage (although singles tend to live in high density areas and may drive less). Huge catastrophes like 9/11, Katrina and Greensburg (as would perhaps a global avian influenza pandemic) remind us that, no matter how “responsibly” we try to live as individuals, we can be forced to depend on each other, sometimes not on our own terms.

I see people making demands of family loyalty and manipulation that seem to me like intrusions on privacy and in other situations that sound like class bigotry or prejudice. Others see it as necessary blood and community loyalty and solidarity. Individualism provides an answer to class and race prejudice, but then it invites its own set of problems. Many people of earlier generations are heavy socialized and accept modes of interaction and commerce (such as door to door selling) and commercial manipulation that seem abusive, invasive or at least inappropriate according to more modern customs of individualism. Companies and employers struggle with this as they make hiring decisions, and are not always up on what more modern customers expect.

We have a new kind of tension: between a sense of “morality” shaped by the needs of family and community (even gay communities and churches sometimes form what they call “family groups” that demand internal loyalty), and by the standards of individual performance as viewed by an open society. On a global scale, there is no such thing as moral utopia. Some concept always has to give a bit. Consider our goals: elimination of discrimination for almost anything, equality, family values, an optimal environment for having and raising children, taking care of the elderly, giving the largest possible opportunities for the disabled – and, last, a renewed sense that personal freedom cannot be taken for granted, and that burdens and sacrifices need to be shared by individuals in some equitable way. These sometimes clash in particularly painful ways with LGBT i

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Digg user-submitted news website in controversy over DMCA

Brad Stone has an important story about enforcement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) in The New York Times today, May 3, 2007, on p. 1. “In Web Uproarm Antipiracy Code Spreads Wildly.” The link is here. (Content may require subscription or purchase once archived.)

The story concerns posting of a 32-digit code used in copy protection for Blu-ray and HD DVD digital video discs of movies. Apparently this got posted on a number of sites, whose owners received cease-and-desist notices. (Their ISP’s could perhaps have done take-downs under the safe-harbor provision.) One such example of a cease-and-desist was posted on Chilling Effects, here., a site that provides news links provided by users, also took down one or more links around May 1 after legal pressure. Caroline McCarty has a CNET story “Digg in Tough Spot with DMCA Debacle”, link here. Both Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson, from the company, posted brief explanations of the actions on the Digg corporate blogs. (Links: 1 and 2) What is disturbing is that linking to a site with infringement could be illegal, because generally that has not been considered infringement in itself. However, Digg has other terms of service provisions that prohibit links to various other kinds of illegal content.

As far as I know, I have not myself linked to any file providing an illegal hacking code, but there is no way for me to know for sure; I can only have “good faith.”

I have discussed the DMCA previously on this blog and on my other sites.

Since I have screenplays and movie treatments that I want to sell, I certainly understand the need for the motion picture industry to protect its copyrights, as its ability to do so affects jobs and funding for new projects. On the other hand, I would not want possible downstream liability concerns to interfere with artists offering their content for free or greatly raising manufacturing costs for video devices or, particularly, interfering with innovations that could help novice and low-$$$ filmmakers.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Non allegro. Are moral values about harm, or duty?

Do no harm. That sounds like the most pristine formulation of libertarian notions of personal morality. Perform no aggression on anyone. Live up to contracts or promises entered into voluntarily. The general name we give this idea is “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy.”

Actually, in many ways our legal culture has moved toward this paradigm. We defend our individual freedoms, but mercilessly pounce on people when they cross sometimes invisible legal lines.

Maybe half of the adult population in the United States goes along with this. Objections come about from various sectors, ranging from religious concerns to abandonment of the poor. Generally lower income people and many religious people have a sense of morality that is more collective and corresponds to what we call “public morality.” It doesn’t get articulated in a “logical” or “rational” matter very often, but a half century ago it was understood as part of an unwritten code of morality transmitted to children through families.

What is this code? It seems to go something like this. Accept the world as a hostile place with unpredictable hazards (from both nature and other people) and place primary loyalty to knowing God (according to some religious practice) and to your own family and community. Don’t expect to make your own choices in life or succeed in a public manner until you meet the needs of others in your community and until, as an adult, you marry (heterosexually) and have a family of your own, carrying on your own genes and family forward in lineage. Don’t express yourself in public outside of the approval of your family and community, and don’t expect to have access to sexuality outside of legally and community approved marriage. Most important: if you are among the less powerful, less attractive or less fortunate financially – let’s say, among the less competitive -- you will be taken care of by your own family, church and community. But always think locally.

This does sound like social authoritarianism, and it is. At the center is an unstated assumption that procreation is a moral duty to life. Obviously, it gratifies the interest of the prevailing power structure of the community. What is shocking is how well these kinds of systems work, at least in some well known cases. Authoritarianism usually grows out of a religious ideology (there are many examples) or out of nationalism (such as with fascism) or an intellectual ideology that becomes preoccupied with rationalizing otherwise unequal distribution of wealth (communism). Authoritarian systems often do take care of weaker or less competitive members of their own societies, stressing religious devotion or ongoing connectedness among family members. Such measures go beyond “necessities” support to providing a collective meaning for people who would have a hard time functioning as individuals on their own in a more open society. Marriage is connected to institutional collective meaning in a way that appears to protect the more marginal individual and encourage him or her to participate so as not to undermine the whole system for others. Of course, however, authoritarian societies have, in the past, supported tribal conflicts and wars with the “not us,” developed racist policies, or sometimes turned on certain of their own members (as would happen in polygamist cultures).

PBS, in early May, presented a Frontline of “The Mormons” (review on blogger) and showed how well a closed subculture (once assimilated into American law) like this can work, with a particular focus on how quickly LDS could respond to Hurricane Katrina with its own welfare program.

Religious subcultures often have the practical effect of restricting the freedom of those who do not want to participate. Of course, this gets back to the church and state debate. If one’s faith is valid, then it must become omnipresent and valid for everyone. Families who belong to such subsystems often pressure other members who do not want to belong. The more “vulnerable” people who are well cared for by such system wind up in the center of the debate.

When people want to live more independently and expressively, what is their moral obligation to their parents and to the cultures that produced them? In a modern technological culture (which can, however, be undermined by external events), many people can live very well without having children or even marrying despite the social pressures, and find other expressive outlets. These are seen as a threat to the integrity of the lives of others.

What seems clear is that “not having children” does not mean that one will not have to provide for others, are share deferential family responsibility even as an adult. Is that the moral point? There are several examples that can show this point. We have an increasing population of elderly living longer and fewer children and fewer working people to provide for them. Political pressure to strengthen filial responsibility laws or enforce existing ones can certainly grow in the future. Sometimes (as demonstrated in a couple of recent films and television series), unmarried adults do get invited to care for the children of siblings or relatives after family tragedies. Furthermore, the job market in the past ten years or so has migrated in the direction of people skills, where skills in working with children, the disabled, dealing with personal care issues, and the like (forced intimacy) are relevant – the shortages of teachers and nurses providing obvious examples. Adults, especially men, may find themselves called upon to prove themselves "role models" and the best way to get at this may be to have been married with children, even if divorce and a "freer" single life followed. In the long run, the basic rights of adults to lead and design their own lives can come into question.

Single and childless people sometimes are not respected (as well as LGBT people) and others may presume that their "freedom" potentially disrupts or cheats those with kids, and that such "unattached" people's lives do not need respect and are available for sacrifices. The pundit will ask, if you want me to respect you, why did not not like yourself enough to want to have children yourself? The notion of "second class citizen" instantiates itself. The existentialism can get brutal.

Back in the early 70s (when I was starting my "working" life and exploring political activism on my own), the "Left" was quite vocal about a slighlty different spin on this idea, that social burdens were not shared equitably. We hear these concerns in debates about resuming the draft (in my Vietnam era, student deferments has provided a big moral dilemma) or national service (and all of that provides a moral edge to "don't ask don't tell"), as well as about sharing the problems that may be coming with energy and global warming -- like watching personal carbon footprints.

As for family values, a few years ago the mainstream was accepting the idea that marriage and family and children come out of a private, personal choice that one takes personal responsibility for, without making demands on others. Since 9-11 or so, this seems to have changed, and family values are again coming to be seen as part of the responsibility of everyone. Closed sub-societies, for all their shortcomings in intellectual freedom and emphasis on hierarchy (and on implementing "public morality", almost an oxymoron), make this much easier to deal with, and it is much harder for some people to meet their obligations to others (and give others meaning) in an open society -- without feeling tugged on.

What is needed is a forum to articulate all of this in an open public debate.

Original essay from 1996.